The following is a scheme of work that explores the brutalities and controversies of 1971 through different lenses. It seeks to understand the experiences of the Genocide and war with a ‘history from below’ approach – using oral histories to uncover the stories that have been remembered by state narratives as well as the stories that haven’t.

Inspired by Anam Zakaria in her brilliant book 1971, students are encouraged to examine the state narratives offered – by both Pakistan and Bangladesh – of the lead up to the events of 1971 and its aftermath – comparing them with the narratives offered by those who experienced it first hand.

Ultimately students are being asked to do the following things :

  • appreciate the value (and limitations) of Oral History – as a counterpoint to state narratives.
  • examine the similarity and differences (diversity) of experiences of 1971 – its lead up and aftermath.
  • analyse and evaluate the competing ‘official’ interpretations of 1971 and how personal histories challenge and are in turn are challenged by them.

Given both the historic presence of our country in this part of the world and the makeup of our country today, this is unequivocally British history. But more than this enquiry provides a fantastic opportunity to engage KS3 pupils in higher-order historical thinking. In particular pupils will consider the role states can play in constructing and disseminating interpretations of the past and the value of oral histories in offering competing accounts.

This is, as with all enquiries, a work in progress and I by no means claim to be an expert on the period. Please do get in contact if you are interested in introducing this enquiry at your school and ensure you have engaged in some of the brilliant literature out there on the topic. I have shared some here.

I wrote about the enquiry – along with contributions from Anam Zakaria and Taslima Rakib – for Teaching History 188. The article can be accessed for free here – or if you have Historical Association access – on their site here.

Lesson One

What are the official stories of 1971?

Lesson one sets out the basic outline of the events that led up to and included the genocide and then Independence of Bangladesh. This therefore includes a brief description of partition in 1947, its period as East Pakistan, and the events that led to its independence in 1971-2. Following on from this students begin to analyse aspects of two different, official state narratives of these events told in parts of modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh.

NB: Please read the teacher notes carefully and avoid drawing an uncomplicated moral equivalence between the violence of the Pakistani state and the Bangladeshi mukti bahini in 1971

Lesson Two

Why have Meghna, Ferdousi and Shafiqul’s stories of 1971 been so difficult to hear?

Having recapped the events and opposing state narratives analysed in the previous lesson, students are invited to learn about individual stories of people who lived through the events before, during and after 1971. In framing the question as why their stories have been difficult to hear, students are invited to appreciate the value of oral history as well as its difficulty in being heard. For different reasons, all three individuals have stories that have been difficult to hear for some. Note: whilst all stories involve distressing content, the story of Ferdousi is particularly difficult to hear as it involves repeated instances of sexual violence.

Lesson Three

Why have Ahmad, Tariq and Khalid’s stories been so difficult to hear in Pakistan? 

Having recapped the opposing state narratives analysed in lesson one, and considered in lesson two, students are now invited to learn about three more individual stories of people who lived through the events. Ahmad – a West Pakistani communist who supported East Pakistani independence efforts disturbs ‘official stories’ – told in Pakistan of a West Pakistani public that were wholly against Bangladeshi independence. In similar ways Khalid – a West Pakistani businessman in East Pakistan who is sympathetic to their plight – disrupts official stories told in both countries. The case of Tariq is even more complicated – a member of the West Pakistani army who stayed as a member during the war and afterwards but was heavily critical of his country’s actions. Lesson three therefore brings up not only the conflict between oral histories and state narratives, but questions of culpability and guilt during the war and genocide.

Lesson Four

Why have ‘Ansar’ and Jinnah’s stories been told selectively?

The stories of ‘Ansar’ and Jinnah bring out even more complex picture. As part of the ethnic group referred to as Biharis in the country – Ansar was an urdu speaking Bangladeshi who faced violence and lost loved ones during the conflict at the hands of Bangladeshi nationalist forces. His story – alongside that of Jinnah – is regularly told in Pakistan as reputed evidence of the immorality of the Bangladeshi militias but rarely spoken of  in Bangladesh.

Download additional Lesson Four account – Junior Officer during Operation Searchlight – Siddiq Salik

Lesson Five

Why have some stories of 1971 been so difficult to tell?

Bringing the enquiry together, students are invited to recall the official state narratives of 1971 told in Bangladesh and Pakistan and to recall the individual oral histories they have encountered in the previous three lessons. In asking why stories of 1971 have been so difficult to tell, students are asked to consider, as a minimum, these three factors (see below). As an outcome tasks, students could be asked to write an analysis of why some stories are easier to tell than others – depending upon their context.

Alternatively, students could be encouraged to engage in doing oral history themselves – conducting interviews with either those who experienced the events of 1971 or whose family have stories to tell.

NB : conducting oral histories must be done with great planning and care for interviewees and students as well as training for the students involved.

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