An Oral History of the Bangladesh War of Independence, 1971 (continued)

Written by Carissa Chew

 

Editorial note: The first part of this article appeared in our printed edition named ‘Individuals and Communities’ (Issue No. 21) and is available through the journal archive on this website. Unfortunately we were unable to publish the rest of the article in the printed journal and it slipped through the cracks in being published online. The author published the full article on her blog (https://carissachew.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/an-oral-history-of-the-bangladesh-war-of-independence-1971/) after the printed edition went out so that it would be available online. We are now happy to publish the rest of this article on our website to bring things full circle.

 

Wider Historical Issues

The history of the Bangladesh War has been fiercely contested, and it remains a controversial topic of discussion, partly because the horrors of 1971 remain in living memory and the profound impacts it had on individual families are still discernible today. One of the main points of contention is the scale of the tragedy. There is an absence of any substantial record of the names and numbers of those who died, and therefore the death toll figure of three million has come under scrutiny. Historians are asking the vital questions: where did this figure come from? And is there any evidence to substantiate it? The general consensus is that three million – a figure apparently plucked from thin air by politicians – is too high, yet the figure of 26,000 produced from ground-level studies is implausibly low. It must be accepted that the extent of the casualties will never be accurately gauged, let alone the proportion of those who were massacred to those who died as a result of famine and disease. Moreover, individual accounts of the events continue to disagree: rumour and exaggeration have played a large role in people’s reports of the war, and their versions of events have often become even more distorted with time. For these reasons, Salil Tripathi suggests that it is impossible to characterise exactly what happened in Bangladesh in 1971.

In terms of the historiography of the Bangladesh War, Sarmila Bose – an Indian author and Senior Research Fellow in Politics at the University of Oxford – is a highly controversial figure. Bose writes a revisionist account of the civil war in which she reassesses the ‘traditional’ narrative that the ‘evil’ Pakistani military were single-handedly responsible for the death of millions of innocent Bengalis, resulting in the ‘1971 Bangladesh genocide’. Bose argues that the violence was not one-sided, points out that the death toll has been exaggerated, and challenges the use of the term ‘genocide.’ Bose’s book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (2011) sparked widespread backlash, with criticism ranging from statements that her sympathy for the Pakistani army is a betrayal of Bengalis, to attempts to damage her reputation based on allegations that her great-uncle Subhas Chandra Bose had supported Hitler in the Second World War. At a popular level, Bose’s work has been misinterpreted, and she herself unjustly slandered: her great-uncle’s political views are, of course, irrelevant to her reputation. These popular criticisms of Bose’s work remain prevalent today, and is difficult to read about the 1971 war online without encountering these biases. Furthermore, because Bose’s research is the preferred version of events among many Pakistanis (often those who have an anti-Bengali sentiment), this has heightened the perception that Bose is pro-Pakistani. Many academics have given weight to this perception by suggesting that Bose’s use of source material portrays a selective bias in favour of the Pakistani Army.

Having read Bose’s work however, her argument is very convincing, insightful and provides a much-needed challenge to traditional assumptions. She raises important points about the complexity of the events of 1971, and just because she demonstrates that it was not simply a case of the Pakistani army having committed ‘genocide’ against innocent Bengalis, it certainly does not underplay the suffering that was experienced during the war to point this out. Just because it was not a ‘genocide’ – meaning the violence was sporadic and so the victims were not killed on solely the basis of their nationality, ethnicity or race – and just because less than three million lives were lost, does not mean that the war was any less horrific. Bose’s intention is to dispel the myths of the war, not to undermine Bengali suffering. Whether her methodology is questionable or not, Bose rightly argues that the story of 1971 has been ‘dominated by the narrative of the victorious side.’ There were Pakistanis who sympathised with Bengali liberation, and there were Bengalis who collaborated with the West. If we look more closely, the targets of the violence committed by Pakistanis and Bengalis are multiple, and there is great variation in the motives of those committing these atrocities. Among the Pakistani military’s victims were not just Hindu and Muslim Bengalis, but non-Bengali Biharis too. It is also important to note that there is a false conception that the army targeted only unarmed civilians, when many of these Bengali casualties in Dhaka University had weapons and were training to fight. Moreover, the Pakistani army relied on Bengali collaborators, the razakar, who killed other Bengalis. In fact, it was the razakar, not Pakistanis, who carried out the 14 December massacre. Bengali-collaborators and Pakistanis were also attacked by pro-Bangladesh Bengalis during and after the war. The Biharis and Hindus were another a target for Bengali violence, and the rape of women was used as a weapon by all sides. Women were not simply victims, however, as Bengali women were also involved in the armed training at Dhaka University. Moreover, many attacks were motivated by personal, material and non-political reasons. Thus to term 1971 a ‘genocide’ would overlook these complexities, and we should instead recognise that various different groups committed crimes against humanity. It is not pro-Pakistani for Bose to suggest that all nationalities should be tried for their war crimes.

As Bose’s argument demonstrates, therefore, the war witnessed heightened tensions between different communities; but in many ways, these communities were not homogenous. Given the sporadic nature of the violence and the different motives involved, it can be problematic to speak of the war in terms of interactions between different groups: Pakistanis, Bengalis, Indians, Biharis, Muslims, Hindus, Mukhti Bahini and rakazar. Generalisations about the roles and experiences of these communities can therefore be misleading, and in this sense individual accounts of the conflict are an important source in revealing these complexities – and the Mondal family’s account is no exception. The Mondals and their extended family were threatened by the violence of the Pakistani military, the razakar and the anti-razakar Bengalis. Momtaz expresses her awareness that both the Pakistani military and the Mukhti Bahini were raping women. Furthermore, in the Mondal case study there are various examples of both united and divided communities. For instance, the generous Bengali community at Jalkuri fed everyone for free, whereas Momtaz was not accepted into the Bengali women’s community at Nawabganj and was isolated because of her class-identity. Therefore, there was little affinity between Bengali Muslim communities in certain instances, and the Mondals’ loyalties were not limited to a single religious-ethnic group. We see that Sattar befriended his Hindu assistant, and also in an aside he told me that one of his colleagues, ‘a very good man’ was a West Pakistani. Also, when Marium was targeted by men in her village for her husband’s association with the razakar, Momtaz’s relations (relatives of Hasina) jumped to her defence regardless of the razakar having killed Hasina’s husband. Therefore, it is in some ways reductionist to talk about the Bangladesh War in terms of distinct ‘communities’ because in reality people were riddled with various different familial, political, ethnic, religious, regional, class and national allegiances.

Whilst individual accounts are incredibly informative, they can also be problematic due to rumour, bias and exaggeration. Bose highlights that ‘those who were present, took part, who saw, and who survived in East Pakistan in 1971 all seem to have somewhat different stories to tell of the same events’, and thus it is difficult to determine fact from fiction. For instance, in popular versions of the events of 25 March it is often recounted that the female students at Rokeya Hall were raped, tortured and kidnapped, but in reality there is no evidence to support this. Instead there exists a witnesses’ statement that there were only 7 female students still living there in March and all 7 were unharmed. Bose expresses her frustration at the Bengali tendency to distort the event when ‘what actually happened was ghastly enough.’ The impact of rumour is also evident in Momtaz’ account, as when she told me about the 14 December killings she said that all the bodies were found with their eyes gouged out. Bose explains that this was in fact a popular rumour of the time and in reality, the majority of bodies were found blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs, eyeballs untouched. But we cannot expect ordinary Bengalis to have known truth from rumour, particularly considering that this sort of detail is very plausible in the violent context. Other than the fact that the Mondal account was collected 46 years after the event and therefore time may have slightly distorted the accuracy of the family’s memories, there is no reason to seriously doubt the authenticity of Momtaz and Sattar’s tale of survival. Ultimately, their account of the war is a useful and reliable source that provides an informative description of the social impacts of the war, and in particular, Momtaz’s perspective offers a valuable gendered account of the experience.

In many ways, however, Sattar and Momtaz’s story is unique and in some ways non-reflective of other civilian experiences. In particular, the Mondal family’s experience is set apart from the average Bengali in that they were from a privileged background. On the one hand, this meant that they did not share in the hardship, famine and disease that many less prosperous citizens faced. On the other hand, the high-ranking statuses of Sattar, Kashim, Abdul and Foyazuddin – an academic, a doctor, a politician and a businessman – also meant that they were prime targets of Pakistani military violence. Sattar and Momtaz were also in heightened danger because of the constant military presence in Dhaka. On the other hand, their Bengali Muslim identity and lack of political involvement (with the exception of Abdul) reduced the likelihood of their deaths. On the whole, however, their experience of 1971 is one that they shared with a much larger, national Bengali community who likewise witnessed the horrors of 1971. To a great extent, a sense of Bengali nationhood would be founded on the notion of people’s collective suffering – the same notion that became misleading simplified as the collective suffering of ‘innocent Bengalis’ in the face of the ‘evil’ Pakistani military’s violence.

Bibliography

‘1971 Dhaka University Massacre’, Revolvy, https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=1971%20Dhaka%20University%20massacre&item_type=topic ; accessed 08 October 2017.

Bates, Crispin, Subalterns and Raj: South Asia since 1600 (London 2007).

Bose, Sarmila, ‘The question of genocide and the quest for justice in the 1971 war’, Journal of Genocide Research 13 (2011), pp. 393-419.

Bose, Sarmila, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (London 2011).

Tripathi, Salil, ‘Blood in the Water: The contested history of one of Bangladesh’ worst wartime massacres’ (2014), The Caravan, http://www.caravanmagazine.in/essay/blood-water ; accessed 10 November 2017.

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