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Home > Human Rights > Bangladesh 1971: A genocide and refugees - Ripples in the pond

Bangladesh 1971: A genocide and refugees - Ripples in the pond

by Bina D’Costa, 26 March 2012

print version of this article print version, March 26, 2012

on 18 June 1971, the Sunday Times published a long piece of reportage

Ever since the 1971 war, Pakistan has officially denied the accusation of genocide that is at the centre of Bangladesh’s historiography. Pakistani scholars, politicians and columnists often describe the 1971 killings as a ‘disaster’ (Abdul Sattar, 2007), a ‘debacle’ (Hasan-Askari Rizvi, 1987; M. B. Naqvi, 2000; Ahmad Faruqui, 2003), an ‘incident’ or ‘catharsis’ (Ikram Sehgal, 2000) and, at most, ‘excesses’ (in the words of former President Pervez Musharraf) or ‘summer madness’ (M. A Khan, 1982). Some exceptions in scholarship and in the media on labelling the atrocities as genocide include the well-known reports filed by Anthony Mascarenhas for the Sunday Times, Feroz Ahmed’s analysis of the break-up of Pakistan (1972), Aijaz Ahmed’s review of Zulfikar Bhutto’s The Great Tragedy (1972), and Rubina Saigol’s analysis of the silences of the genocidal conflict in Pakistani textbooks (2005).

Mascarenhas’s report of 2 May 1971 in the Sunday Times also highlighted Bengalis killing a large number of Biharis. It is interesting to note that this attracted criticism over his credibility by Pakistani scholars such as Feroz Ahmed, who stated that Mascarenhas’s claim of 20,000-100,000 non-Bengalis having been killed was an exaggeration (Pakistan Forum, 1971). Mascarenhas himself was a senior Pakistani journalist invited by the Pakistani government in mid-April 1971 to tour Bangladesh, on the idea that he would confirm the official assessment that the situation had returned to normal. He was also the Pakistani correspondent of the London Sunday Times. He fled to London soon after his visit and published one of the most explosive reports on the crackdown, ‘Why the Refugees Fled’. The Sunday Times editorial, which introduced the piece, was called simply, ‘Genocide’.

The recent publication of Sarmila Bose’s controversial book has generated debates that many in Bangladesh are still not prepared to confront; one of them being how many exactly died. While various responses to the book (for example see, Naeem Mohaiemen, EPW, 2011) rightly indicate the weaknesses of Bose’s arguments, the book is a reminder about the urgency of a systematic and quantitative investigation of lives lost during 1971. Those of us who specialises in quantitative analyses must step up to this task.

The timing of the release of Rubaiyat Hossain’s Meherjaan was rather unfortunate, since the heated debates about Bose’s book were in full swing. Bangladeshi critics found it unacceptable that one of their very own would attempt to unlock concealed narratives, which many perceived as untruthful. Hossain’s film reminds us that beyond the hegemonic narratives of the heroic tales and sacrifices of a war there always exist multiple truths. Many wrongly pigeonholed Bose’s book and Hossain’s film in the same category. The personal and deeply gendered attack that continued for months in print and the social media (for details see, Afsan Chowdhury’s “Meherjaan controversy: It’s not about the film, but about us and our history”) demonstrates how deeply sacrosanct 1971 remains in the Bangladeshi psyche.

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The Pakistani state was neither worried during the war about the massive violence nor showed any genuine regret about the genocide that took place. Rather, it was the loss of territory, due to India’s intervention, that proved far more traumatic for the official Pakistani psyche.

Indeed the Indian sanctuary and assistance played a key role in the creation of Bangladesh. Had India not joined forces with the Muktibahini, it would have taken Bangladesh much longer to emerge as a sovereign nation-state. Nonetheless, India’s military intervention also robbed the Bengalis of their exclusive role in their own nationalist struggle.

Richard Sisson and Leo Rose in their book War and Secession analyse the war mainly as an India-Pakistan war. For years, Pakistani scholars have also deliberately overlooked the rights based populist movements and activism that continued during the war and Muktibahini offensives against the Pakistani security forces (for example, Ahmad Faruqui). Once again, in the Pakistani state psyche it was the oppressor Hindu state that was challenging the unity of Pakistan. Yet these analyses underestimates the emotive aspects of national movements, which touched East Pakistanis, Bengalis and indigenous groups alike during the 1970s, and which was at the core of the conflict to give it moral legitimacy. The massive flooding of 1970, followed by the cyclone that hit Bhola on 12 November of that year, killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions. The Pakistani regime’s response to assist the flood-affected communities was viewed as half-hearted, and only increased resentment in East Pakistan.

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The conflict was also understood as one that was devised by Indian conspiracy and Hindu aggression, and which underestimated the resentment felt by various interest groups and ordinary people that united under the banner of Bangladesh. While the conflict offered strategic opportunities to India, this view does not take into account how the deeply embedded prejudices of the Pakistani elite had alienated the people from the eastern wing. The grievances of ordinary people were only perceived to be manipulated by the political elite of East Pakistan and the rising middle class. However, if the war had not ended within the nine months that it did, the support by ordinary people for the national movement would have continued, and guerrilla insurgency would have undoubtedly taken on a more violent form, eliciting a compromising stand from Pakistan. The territorial distance would have proved too cost-effective to continue a neo-colonial relationship with its eastern wing, when Pakistan itself was only new in its nation building.

For the New Delhi government, the initial rhetorical condemnation of the Pakistan Army’s efforts to crush the autonomy movement changed to active support after refugees began pouring into Indian territory. The absorption of an additional 10 million people also made it hard for India to ignore the crisis as an internal issue within Pakistan. Soon, Indira Gandhi’s regime became East Pakistan/Bangladesh’s most important ally, perceiving the Bangladeshi national movement as a political opportunity in the context of the India-Pakistan rivalry. India provided arms and ammunition, training and logistical support to the Muktibahini, while Indian public opinion provided strong moral support for the country’s military actions.

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A huge number of people became displaced due to the violence that erupted in March. It is puzzling that there is almost no detailed writing about the refugees of 1971. An exception is Shaheen Akhter’s Smriti O Kotha 1971: Anjali Lahiri (1999), which provides insights about the terrible sufferings of refugees in the camps in India. The dominant justice discourse assumes ‘trickle down’ benefits/justice for communities who remain disenfranchised and displaced even after the conflict ended. It has so far only succeeded in making ambiguous links between justice, war crimes and forced displacement.

Estimates of the number of dislocated and displaced refugees also vary. While the Pakistani government at the time cited a figure of two million, the Indian figure was far higher, at 10 million. Subsequent estimates by the United Nations and the World Bank supported the Indian figure (New York Times, 17 October 1971). Either way, estimates of the number of refugees in the aftermath of the conflict were far more accurate than the number of killed, due to the fact that displaced persons were issued ration cards or placed in camps in India, and between 10 and 20 per cent of East Pakistan’s estimated 75 million people were ultimately displaced during the crisis.

A high proportion of the displaced were women and children who lived in horrid camps, slums and other constricted spaces either within the conflict zone as the internally displaced or were on the move as refugees, primarily in India. Gender-based violations of rights of the displaced communities, especially in the highly militarised, violent and chaotic environments, received almost no attention from justice advocacy groups in Bangladesh. Also, due to fear of persecution, anxiety, high level of stress, trauma and other forms of insecurity, domestic violence in displaced communities, especially in the refugee camps in India, the Bihari camps and the slums in Bangladesh were very high in the aftermath of the conflict.

In May 2008, the High Court of Bangladesh passed a landmark judgement to grant citizenship to the Biharis. However, is it enough just to be allowed to become citizens? The citizenship dilemma created due to the fluidity of boundaries and borders will remain a challenge for meaningful inclusion of the Biharis within the Bangladeshi society for decades to come. Various patterns of discrimination could be identified in Bangladesh’s nation building practices that resulted into the vulnerability of the Biharis. The retaliations and revenge attacks against the Biharis during and in the aftermath of the 1971 war, the ‘ghettoization’ in camps and economic exploitation have constructed a deeply traumatised Bihari community.

Many members of the community are extremely poor, have been denied access to education and livelihood, and crime rates inside the settlements remain high. Bihari activists are also requesting the government to recognise them as a linguistic minority. Their uncertain future and everyday existence must be understood and resolved as a human rights issue that emphasises humane interests, dignity and basic freedom.

In March this year, like every year, we will remember those who lost lives. I hope we would also take a minute to remember those who were forced to flee their homes, leave their livelihoods and generations of associations with their lands; who crossed border and became refugees; who were stripped off citizenship and became stateless; and those who were internally displaced. For these displaced people, seeking and advocating for justice is indeed a much more complex process.


Bina D’Costa, author of Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia and a member of Drishtipat Writiers’ Collective.


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