Of Zafar Sobhan and ‘Off with His Head’: Of Truth and Accountability

অতিথি লেখক's picture
Submitted by guest_writer on Mon, 22/09/2014 - 5:53am

Disclaimer: As international journalistic integrity and practice dictates, this rebuttal to Mr. Zafar Sobhan’s (editor of the Dhaka Tribune) writing was first sent to the Dhaka Tribune for publication. Mr. Sobhan held onto it for almost a week and then informed upon inquiry that they had no intention of publishing it. It was then sent to BDNews24. They felt “awkward” publishing it as it is about the editor of another newspaper. Such practices reflect something about the state of our journalistic practices in Bangladesh. I would leave the “what” to the readers.

Of Zafar Sobhan and ‘Off with His Head’: Of Truth and Accountability

Mr. Zafar Sobhan, the editor of Dhaka Tribune, has written an op-ed titled “Off with his head” that was published in his newspaper on September 12, 2014. In this piece, he raised the issue of whether Bangabandhu’s historic March 7 speech ended with him saying “Joy Bangla,” “Joy Pakistan,” or “Joy Bangla, Joy Pakistan.” This controversy (and I use this word skeptically) has been recently highlighted in Deputy Air Vice Marshal (Retd.) A. K. Khandker’s (Bir Uttom) memoir 1971: Bhetore Baire.

Mr. Khandker wrote in his memoir that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman ended his milestone speech with “Joy Pakistan!” and not “Joy Bangla!” In the hastily revised second edition of this book, Mr. Khandker then wrote a preface and corrected himself by saying that Bangabandhu actually ended the speech with “Joy Bangla! Joy Pakistan!” Mr. Zafar Sobhan asked this simple question in his commentary: Does it really matter whether Sheikh Mujib said ‘Joy Pakistan’ at the conclusion of the March 7 speech? As a regular citizen of Bangladesh, I want to share my views on this op-ed.

Mr. Sobhan obviously feels strongly about this issue, as reflected in his writing. He seems passionate when he says that such “brouhaha” about Mr. Khandker’s writing is a sign of “silencing conversation and stifling debate.” I am confused as to how criticizing a published book, that has the potential of becoming a key element for the written history of our motherland, could be construed as silencing conversation.

This is especially confusing to me, given that the criticisms of Mr. Khandker’s memoir is in fact coming from the young generation of our country who are providing references refuting the claims made by Mr. Khandker. As a person with wide exposure, I am sure Mr. Sobhan will appreciate the need for credible references when making a claim or a counter claim about an issue. In this case, the issue is, how did Bangabandhu actually end his speech? Was it Joy Bangla? Joy Pakistan? Or both?

It is intriguing for me that Mr. Khandker actually did not cite any sources about the claim(s) he has made about this March 7, 1971 speech. He is a respected member of our Liberation War, serving as the deputy chief of staff of our Liberation Forces right after General M. A. G. Osmani. For a man of his stature in Bangladesh’s history, he has surprisingly provided zero references to substantiate his claims.

There are a few published sources that initially claimed what Mr. Khandker has written in his memoir, but they have unambiguously apologized and retracted their initial claims from the future iterations of their works. Notable among these sources are Poet Shamsur Rahman and Justice Md. Habibur Rahman. They have corrected themselves following further research that Bangabandhu did not end his speech with Joy Pakistan. Another source often cited is writer/novelist Humayun Ahmed’s work – “Jochona o Jononir Golpo.” This is another distortion because a closer read of Mr. Ahmed’s book though reveals that he has never made any such claim. On the contrary, Mr. Ahmed has said he has not found any such evidence anywhere and hopes that such a lie should not be propagated for the authenticity of our history. (A wonderfully detailed review and analysis of all such claims can be found in Mr. Nazrul Islam’s recent article that can be accessed here on the World Wide Web: HERE.

In his article, Mr. Islam has taken a detailed approach with all claims regarding the Joy Pakistan issue, and has methodologically debunked those claims. In cases where relevant, Mr. Islam has provided updated versions of the original claims as well. It is thus concluded that there is no credible evidence making such a claim.

On the other hand, there are numerous sources that point to Bangabandhu ending his speech by saying only Joy Bangla! The audio and video recordings of the speech are quite easily available. The Department of Films and Publications (DFP) under the Ministry of Information, Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, still has a video copy of the speech that shows Bangabandhu arriving in the podium till the finishing of the speech. Anyone can access that on the Internet as well from YouTube.

Additionally, the most researched script of the speech can be also found on the U.S. based non-profit organization Center for Bangladesh Genocide Research’s (CBGR) website at cbgr1971.org. The chief researcher of CBGR is Mr. Md. Mahbubur Rahman Jalal, who needs little introduction regarding his research on all things 1971. His research has invalidated the inaccurate claims of Mr. Khandker. It could be mentioned here that Mr. Jalal’s works and references have been widely used in the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Bangladesh in recent years.

All of these credible sources have concluded that Bangabandhu ended his speech with “Joy Bangla”! Most importantly, thousands of people are still alive who were there at Racecourse Maidan to witness Bangabandhu’s speech on March 7, 1971. These are people from all walks of life. Several of our current ministers, MPs, other party leaders, and cultural activists are also living witnesses. When no one has heard anything like Joy Pakistan in that speech, why then should a lie be propagated like this?

So on one hand we can see how Mr. Khandker has written something that is inaccurate and on the other hand we can see what the truth is and how readily it is available. In this backdrop, I find it mind-boggling that a person like Mr. Sobhan could write something like this:

I have no idea whether Khandaker’s assertion is correct or not. I was not there and I am no historian, but from what I have read, there appears to be reasonably persuasive evidence both in support of and against his contention, and thus far no definitive proof has been proffered by either side that I am aware of.

When an enlightened person like Mr. Sobhan writes he has no idea about Mr. Khandker’s claims as he (Mr. Sobhan) was not there and as he is not a historian, I feel completely lost. One can easily use logic like this to deny anything, say, no such thing as the Pearl Harbor ever occurred.

One of the most basic things any academician or student is taught in higher education is the need for finding credible sources, or the lack thereof, while validating something. Mr. Sobhan says there seems to be “reasonably persuasive evidence” for both sides of the issue.

Would you then, Mr. Sobhan, be kind enough to show the reasonable evidence you have found that supports the “Joy Pakistan” claims please? I am sure that would be an eye opener for many people like me who are passionate about 1971 and feel bound by historical facts rather than concoctions of someone’s imagination. It is a lazy way out by saying you are not aware of any definitive proof regarding this issue. Frankly, we expect much better from the youngest editor of a national daily.

Mr Sobhan, I hope you realize the gravity of your writing and how it reflects on your credibility.

You go on to say how it is of little interest to you whether Bangabandhu uttered those words or not and even if he did so what. You further add that even if Bangabandhu did say Joy Pakistan, that would not make him any less of a national leader for us. The common masses rely on newspapers for a multitude of reasons and as such expect more respect toward the truth and accountability to the truth of a matter from an editor of a newspaper. It really does not matter what the issue is on hand – readers feel the fundamental responsibility of a journalist/editor should be to share the truth with the readers. We have examples of world’s leading newspapers in front of us. It would be wonderful to be able to hold our national newspapers in equal esteem. And for that, we need more accountability and respect for the truth from our newspapers.

You can talk as much as you would like about the sorry state of our MPs -- whether of the government or the opposition -- or the leaders of the war criminals’ party and its supporters. I am as much tired as you are (or more) about the nature of some of their sycophancies, and I am sure their hollow hate speeches about Mr. Khandker are perhaps more to please their own party leaders than motivated by the need to correct the truth. But sidelining the truth, or not feeling the least bit of responsibility towards the truth, are very disturbing qualities in anyone, especially a newspaper editor. We expect more from budding newspapers like the Dhaka Tribune and its editorial board.

Mr. Sobhan, you then digress from the topic of your writing and go on about why you did not use the term Bangabandhu for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. You talk about how your family is a loyal supporter of Bangabandhu. I really could not care less about those justifications as we often see similar tactics from other politically-motivated actors.. In the online world of the social media, proponents of groups like Basherkella, or Bakhtiar-er Ghora, always say my father or uncle (or someone in the immediate family) was a freedom fighter but then they go on about how bad or evil Bangabandhu was or Awami League is or how wrong it was for us to have freedom from Pakistan. Sometimes it seems these family qualifications are made to justify inaccurate claims. Your justifications (I use the word skeptically) on not using the word Bangabandhu sound very shallow and superficial. Let us not forget the whole world says “Mahatma” Gandhi when they talk about him.

In the end, I would reiterate my request to you: Please be more respectful and be more accountable to the truth. Yes, some issues are not black and white, and some are greyer than others. But the issue of Bangabandhu saying Joy Bangla to wrap up his speech on March 7, 1971 is not one of those grey issues. There are still audio and video evidences, and there are still thousands of living witnesses on that issue. It is your responsibility as an editor to seek the truth instead of sitting on the fence. There are vested groups who would benefit from trying to ruin Bangabandhu’s name and image. I hope you are not one of them.

Joy Bangla!


Raihan Jamil, Ph.D.


হিমু's picture

Let's engage in a thought experiment. Say, if someone writes a book about Zafar Sobhan and claims he had two horns and a sweeping thorny tail when he was born, will that become a part of "conversation" and "debate"? Will Mr. Sobhan engage in such conversation and debate himself? Will opposing such bovine droppings be labelled as an act of "silencing" or "stifling" anything, at all?

Or will Mr. Sobhan calmly concede to the opinion in any op-ed from any Tom, Dick or Harry saying that, well, Tom is no historian and he wasn't there when Mr. Sobhan was born, but from what Tom has read, there appears to be reasonably persuasive evidence both in support of and against the contention regarding Mr. Sobhan's post-natal horns and tail, and thus far no definitive proof has been proffered by either side that Tom is aware of?

অতিথি লেখক's picture

হো হো হো

- ইয়ামেন

অতিথি লেখক's picture

Shame, Zafar Sobhan (editor of Dhaka Tribune). If you will write a highly contentious piece of trashy journalism disguised as an op-ed, when someone writes a response to it, you should have the courage to publish that as well, otherwise the whole point of discourse is lost. What you did, by sitting on it for days, and then refusing to publish it, exposes you for the cowardly 'খবিস' that you are.
Kudos to Dr. Raihan Jamil for his perseverance in getting this piece out, even if it was by the means of a post in Sachalayatan.com. Cowards like Zafar Sobhan need to be exposed.

- ইয়ামেন

অতিথি লেখক's picture

Aree with Himu above and Yamen. When I read Mr. Sobhan'r op-ed, I was furious! Imagine his line: "there appears to be reasonably persuasive evidence both in support of and against his contention" !#@$#%$^&

শেহাব's picture

I accuse Zafar Sobhan of lying when he says - "but from what I have read, there appears to be reasonably persuasive evidence both in support of and against his contention".

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