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Outraged and Ostracized: The Bangladesh Genocide Retold

By Nabanita Mitra

Although the Liberation War of 1971 still holds a deeply sacrosanct place in the Bangladeshi psyche, yet, 46 years after its independence, the issue of wartime rape still remains debated. West Pakistan’s punitive retaliation against its eastern ‘other,’ took the form of genocidal rape, that was intended to quash the latter’s burgeoning nationalism.1 The present Awami League Government is in fact seeking to redress these injustices through its war crimes tribunal, where the figure of the birangona (i.e., ‘war-heroine’), has been invoked anew, especially through the recent protest movement at Shahbag.

War crimes and crimes against humanity (specifically genocide) are among the gravest crimes in international law. Coined in 1943 by the Holocaust victim, Raphael Lemkin, the term ‘genocide’ was in fact used to denote “the deliberate attempt to destroy national, ethnic, racial or religious groups,”2 something that held true for the mass butchery that took place in East Pakistan. While comparing gender atrocities to the gang-lynchings of African-Americans by white men, Susan Brownmiller, defined rape as “a conscious process of intimidation by which men kept women in a state of fear,” and that it was “a crime borne not of lust, but of violence and power.”3

Women and nation have often been viewed as related concepts. Thus, when the West Pakistani militia, together with Bihari and Bengali Razaker militias from the Jamaat-e-Islami group, failed to break the backbone of the East Pakistani nation, it sought to clamp down on the best alternative it had – that of launching diabolical pogroms on its womenfolk. In fact, they raped between two and four hundred thousand Bangladeshi women in a bid to browbeat the recalcitrant nation into submission. Islamic clerics too issued a fatwa declaring that, since the Bengali ‘freedom fighters’ were mostly Hindus, their women could be ‘taken’ as ‘war booty.’4

This paper thus seeks to historicise the physical harm and psychological trauma caused by wartime rape in Bangladesh, and also tries to explore the moral dilemma, stemming from post-independent ostracism and alienation, which the survivors had to negotiate.

The newly independent Bangladeshi Government publicly designated all raped women as birangona, with Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the Father of the Nation, fondly referring to them as his own ‘daughters,’ even as he tried to reintegrate them into mainstream society. Although such a bold, public effort remains internationally unprecedented, yet, ironically enough, the epithet soon underwent an ignominious connotation and has thenceforth come to signify ‘fallen’ and ‘disgraced’ women.5

Women in conflict zones are often victimised not by the enemy alone but also by the community which they supposedly represent. In this case too, there existed a kind of cognitive dissonance between what the new Bangladeshi state was doing to protect those violated, and the subsequent rejection the latter had to endure from their own kinsmen. Entrenched patriarchy at home thus ensured that familial comfort, assurance and empathy would forever elude those whose lives already lay ravaged, traumatised, despondent and isolated.6

Yet, in a bid to ameliorate the victims’ suffering, the independent government of Bangladesh did set up rehabilitation centres, which undertook abortions, put their children up for international adoption, arranged their marriages, trained them in vocational skills, while ensuring them government jobs. Nonetheless, their compensation remained meagre, while their suffering did not terminate with the nation’s liberation. Besides, their revered Bangabandhu, though genuinely empathetic towards their suffering, was however unduly harsh towards the babies they bore. In fact, he even denied them the right to decide the future of their own biological offspring, often forcing them to terminate their pregnancies or give up their babies for adoption, much against their own wishes.7

The omission of testimonial accounts of the birangonas and their subsequent ordeals, from the prevalent discourse of the war, perhaps relegated reportage on wartime rape to temporary oblivion. Following the participation of 3 birangonas in a civil society movement, demanding the trial of collaborators, in the 1990s that the Bangladeshi press began reporting on wartime rapes again. Visual testimonies of how the wronged women of 1971 were still seeking justice, thus, became an important marker of empowerment and agency in the women’s movement. Several Bangladeshi feminists and human rights organisations set about documenting testimonial oral-history accounts of these victims, so as to provide supporting evidence to enable the trial of collaborators.

The re-emergence of the narratives of women’s wartime rape arose in the context of numerous developments, such as the reinstatement of collaborators; the absence of trials of Razakars; rise of fatwas; international reference to Muktijuddho as a civil war in the international legal jargon of human rights; the need for the history of the war to be transmitted to the projonmo (younger generations), and hence the lack of acknowledgement of its genocidal birth.8

Driven by shame and fear, although narrating their trauma proved daunting enough for the victims, yet as war-survivor, Aleya Begum, recounts, “the Khans tied our hands, burnt our faces and bodies with cigarettes. There were thousands of women like me. They gangraped us many times a day. My body was swollen, I could barely move. They still did not leave us alone. They never fed us rice, just gave us dry bread once a day and sometimes a few vegetable scraps. Even the Biharis, who supported the Pakistani army, tortured us. We tried to escape but always failed. When the girls were of little use they killed them.”

Sexual violence thus came to be used as a tool of genocidal war. Women and girls, varying between 8 to 75 years, were abducted and held in Pakistani military barracks, where they were subjected to mass rape, often followed by mass murder. In fact, they would often be “strapped to trees and repeatedly gangraped. A few weeks later, they would be strapped to the same trees and hacked to death.”

The Khan Sena’s diabolical mission of impregnating East Pakistani women was primarily to breed ‘a pure Pakistan’ and ‘true Mussalmans,’ who would be loyal to their nation and religion alike, unlike the unpatriotic Bengalis, who were equated to monkeys and chickens, if not scum and vermin. Wartime rape thus came to be used as an assured means to produce children fathered by West Pakistani armymen, who were determined to purge all elements of Hinduness off the Bengali psyche altogether.9

Systematic rape also came to be used to terrorise the populace, to extract information about the insurgency, to boost the morale of Pakistani soldiers and to crush ascendant Bengali nationalism. In addition, the Razakars and Al Badr used rape as a ploy to gain access to the land and property of the Hindu populace. Women were therefore hunted down, segregated according to their physical beauty and violated en masse. Their vulnerability was further exacerbated once cities and towns became bereft of menfolk, who were either forced to flee for their own safety or who fell victims to indiscriminate killings.10

The lot of the Urdu-speaking, Bihari Muslim women and child refugees too was far from enviable. Huddled in squalid camps, they were equally violated, this time by Indian soldiers and Bengali nationalists, bent on retaliatory vengeance, something which even the Hamdoodur Rahman Commission (2000) corroborates. War victim turned acclaimed sculptor, Ferdousy Priyobhasini, likewise admitted the complicity of the Pakistani army and the Bengalis alike in perpetrating such assaults. Several counter-narratives to the prevalent Bangladeshi nationalist discourse on the war has in fact recently come up for renewed research. Rubaiyat Hossain’s film Meherjaan for one is a crude reminder that beyond the hegemonic narratives of the heroic tales and sacrifices of a war, there always exists multiple truths.11

Ever since the 1971 war, Pakistan has officially denied any accusation of genocide and mass rape. Neither has it expressed any remorse about the insensate violence it unleashed. Instead, it has deliberately overlooked the populist fervour that underlay the Muktibahini offensive. Sharmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning is in fact a recent revisionist scholarship on the war, that absolves Pakistan from allegations of genocide, refers to the ‘civil-war’-like violence inflicted by the Pakistani army and the East Pakistani guerillas alike, and even attests to the absence of wartime rape. Bose was also keen on proving that it was the local Bengali collaborators, rather than the Pakistani army, that was behind the elitocide, even while she contended that the latter ‘almost always’ targeted adult males while sparing women and children. Despite Bose’s downplaying the brutality of rape, circumstantial evidence from survivors, medical practitioners and activists have all proved beyond doubt the Pakistani army’s direct and deliberate complicity in committing gender atrocities.12

This has perhaps led Dr. Nusrat Rabbee to contend that “there is an erasure of the 1971 history of genocide committed by Pakistan in the world holocaust archives. It is important to record that this is one of the world’s earliest and most heinous genocides, where perhaps the largest number of women were targeted through systematic rape, torture, and subsequent execution.” Listed as one of the top five genocides of the 20th century, the Bangladesh Holocaust is in fact said to have been far more lethal than that of the Soviet Union, Communist China, or even wartime Japan combined.13

Women being seen as the honour of a society in a patriarchal set up, rape became a means to wound the pride of the men and the community. Internationally the declaration of rape as a war crime in the Beijing session in 1995, the apology by the Japanese government to ‘comfort women’ in China, the wartime rapes in Bosnia and Rwanda and the setting up of the International War Crimes Tribunal in 2009, spoke profoundly to the Bangladesh situation. Yet the 1971 War was hardly the last time rape was used as a wartime tool for inflicting terror and brutality upon the enemy. Even today women continue to remain as the most vulnerable targets of wartime attack. Nanjing, Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia have all portrayed how women have borne the brunt of wartime conflicts the most. In recent times, similar such techniques of assault are being implemented by the Islamic State in the Middle East and by the Burmese army upon the Rohingyas.

As of 2015, 41 birangonas have so far received official recognition as freedom fighters by the Awami League administration. Yet, the verdicts and procedures of Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal has been questioned by the international community, which still has trouble placing Pakistani atrocities at par with that of Rwanda’s, Bosnia’s or even that of the Armenian Genocide.14

Thus despite assumptions of near silence for the last four decades there now exists assertions of a public memory of wartime rape, thereby ensuring that the birangona endures as an iconic figure. In fact, the statistical anonymity of these birangonas have now become passe as they have turned out in increasing numbers to make public their life’s trauma. The five real brave-hearts who do break the silence in the theatre production, Birangona: Women of War, however reveal that they are still taunted for losing their honour, that their children are stigmatised, even while they worry that no one will attend to their last rites when they die. Thus not only do they bear the indelible scars of the past, but the continual pain of rejection and ghettoisation in their everyday lives as well, saddled as they are, with their lifelong baggage of ignominy.15

Hope however still lives in the form of Aleya Begum’s 15-year-old daughter, Asma Akter Eka, who apart from boldly asserting that even though society stands shamed by the barbaric atrocities, she is extremely proud of the likes of her mother. While patriarchal strictures and societal prejudices have kept the voices of the birangonas stifled for long, their hearts yearn for due recognition, if not genuine empathy for the enormous sacrifices they made, with their lives and honour alike, trying to wrest their nation’s independence. Thus, instead of relegating these extraordinary sheroes to oblivion, one needs to take due pride and draw inspiration from their enormous sacrifice.16 

Notes

  1. D’Costa, Bina, Bangladesh 1971: A genocide and refugees – Ripples in the pond, 26 March, 2012, (http://www.sacw.net/article2603.html) (Accessed on 15.02.2017).
  2. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocide (Accessed on 10.02.2017).
  3. Brownmiller, Susan, (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, London: Secker & Warburg, 1975, pp. 78-86. (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Against_Our_Will) (Accessed on 17.02.2017).
  4. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_during_the_Bangladesh_Liberation_War (Accessed on 23.02.2017).
  5. Mookherjee, Nayanika, (9 November, 2015), History and the Birangona, The ethics of representing narratives of sexual violence of the 1971 Bangladesh War (http://m.himalmag.com/history-and-the-birangona-bangladesh) (Accessed on 20.02.2017).
  6. ————-, Skewing the history of rape in 1971: A prescription for reconciliation, (https://www.google.co.in/amp/www.thedailystar.net/skewing-the-history-of-rape-in-1971-a-prescription-for-reconciliation-53365%3Famp (Accessed on 21.02.2017).
  7. Roychowdhury, Adrija, (December 19, 2016) Birth of Bangladesh: When raped women and war babies paid the price of a new nation (http://indianexpress.com/article/research/birth-of-bangladesh-when-raped-women-and-war-babies-paid-the-price-of-a-new-nation-victory-day-4430420/) (Accessed on 03.02.2017).
  8. Mookherjee, Nayanika, (9 November, 2015), History and the Birangona, The ethics of representing narratives of sexual violence of the 1971 Bangladesh War (http://m.himalmag.com/history-and-the-birangona-bangladesh) (Accessed on 20.02.2017).
  9. http://dw.com/en/rape-victims-or-war-heroes-war-women-in-bangladesh/a-6556207 (Accessed on 01.02.2017).
  10. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_during_the_Bangladesh_Liberation_War (Accessed on 23.02.2017).
  11. Mookherjee, Nayanika, (9 November, 2015), History and the Birangona, The ethics of representing narratives of sexual violence of the 1971 Bangladesh War (http://m.himalmag.com/history-and-the-birangona-bangladesh) (Accessed on 20.02.2017).
  12. Bose, Sarmila, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, C. Hurst & Co, 2011 (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Reckoning_Memories_of_the_1971_Bangladesh_War), (Accessed on 17.02.2017); “Bangladesh War of 1971: A Prescription for Reconciliation?” EPW, Vol. 41, No 36, (September 9 – 15, 2006), pp. 3901-3903; “Anatomy of Violence: Analysis of Civil War in East Pakistan in 1971,” EPW, Vol.40, Issue No. 41, October 8, 2005 (http://epw.in/journal/2005/41/special-articles/anatomy-violence.html) (Accessed on 20.02.2017).
  13. Hossain, Anushay, Why is the mass sexualized violence of Bangladesh’s Liberation War being ignored? (https://www.google.co.in/amp/nytlive.nytimes.com/womenintheworld/2016/03/25/why-is-the-mass-sexualized-violence-of-bangladeshs-liberation-war-being-ignored/amp) (Accessed on 12.02.2017).
  14. Roychowdhury, Adrija, (December 19, 2016) Birth of Bangladesh: When raped women and war babies paid the price of a new nation (http://indianexpress.com/article/research/birth-of-bangladesh-when-raped-women-and-war-babies-paid-the-price-of-a-new-nation-victory-day-4430420/) (Accessed on 03.02.2017).
  15. https://www.google.co.in/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/stage/2014/apr/15/silence-bangladesh-birangona-women-of-war-play (Accessed on 14.02.2017).
  16. http://m.dw.com/en/rape-victims-or-war-heroes-war-women-in-bangladesh/a-6556207 (Accessed on 01.02.2017). 

Bibliography 

Ibrahim, Nilima, Ami Birangona Bolchi (This is the “War-Heroine” Speaking), 2 Volumes.         Dhaka: Jagriti. 1994-5.

Malik, Amita, The Year of the Vulture, New Delhi, Orient Longman, 1972.

Mascarenhas, Anthony, The Rape of Bangladesh, Delhi, Vikas Publications, 1971.

Imam, Jahanara, Ekattorer Dinguli, Dhaka, Sandhanee Prakashanee, 1986.

Jahan, Rounaq (ed)., Bangladesh: Promise and Performance, London, Zed, 2000. 

Bio:
Dr. Nabanita Mitra, Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Women’s Christian College, Kolkata, has been teaching there since 2001. She has been working on the history of Indian broadcasting, especially the Calcutta Radio Station, for quite some time. Her research interests include gender history and cultural studies. She has published articles on the IPTA Movement and Post-independent Indian Radio, while some of her forthcoming articles are on Dalit women, Subaltern Voices and Radio Free Europe.

***

For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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