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The Genocide of 1971 in Bangladesh: Lessons from History

By Srimanti Sarkar

“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” — George Santayana[1] 

What is the lesson that a history of genocide teaches us? A simplistic avowal may be that, it teaches us one of the most punitive lessons for practicing intolerance, towards other fellow beings, in a meanest possible way. It thereby underscores the absolute need for tolerance (social, political, ideological, religious or cultural) as quintessential for the prevention of the generic destruction of the human society. But, reiterating what has been stated above, one may ask: If “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” (Charny: lvii) — what will it amount to recollect a past which is differentially ‘constructed’? That is, if forgoing a bleak history of genocide is susceptible to repeated misdemeanour, then reminiscing about a ‘constructed’ history of genocide is perhaps more likely to account for a similar or even a graver kind of transgression. A cautious de-construction and subsequent re-construction of the widely professed historiography, given every risk of fallacious elucidation, is thus imperative to draw a pragmatic lesson from a history of genocide.

An act of genocide is perhaps the most terrible crime that humankind can commit. However,  drawing a definite lesson out of a marked history of genocide is nothing short of a perplexing affair, as any attempt to study genocides, has to deal with the endless definitional contestations and subjective relativities that it brings along. As a clear tension with regard to the conceptual purity and totality of genocide do remain; only contextual analyses, wherein one can move backward and forward between the various opposing positions, may prove to be helpful to surmise a reasonable lesson out of it. Accordingly, this paper attempts to put forth the case of Bangladesh – a South Asian nation which has witnessed one of the worst kinds of genocides in the late twentieth century – to highlight some of the immanent challenges that prevent one to draw an encompassing lesson from a history of genocide. Considering a ‘reasonable’ lesson as more inclusive and effectual, the Bangladeshi experience is expected to highlight some of the nuanced aspects of the blasé historiography of genocide that unfolds in this part of the world.

Recollecting the History of Genocide in Bangladesh

History of Bangladesh is essentially one of her Liberation War of Independence which recounts incessantly the perilous violence and bloodshed that accompanied it. The nascent state of Bangladesh emerged from the remnants of the carnage that was carried out by the West Pakistani armed forces on East Pakistan as the latter demanded secession and rose against the systematic subjugation by its western counterpart. The nation struggled for nine months (March 26, 1971-December 16, 1971) during the course of which around 3 million of the population were literally annihilated.[2] It speckled the history of Pakistan forever – then united as West and East Pakistan, and now divided as present Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively – the brunt of which neither of the two states could sufficiently expunge. For Pakistan, recollection of 1971 has always been an arduous episode of genocide denial; whereas for Bangladesh, till date, the recollection of the Genocide of 1971 is as much a celebration of her struggle for independence as it is an anguished rumination of her national devastation. However, this recollection of the much eulogised nationalist history, impregnated with barbaric violence, is rather problematic. The problem does not lay in the commemoration of the much warranted independence, that was achieved with great toil but in the recollection of a history which arguably got ‘constructed’ over the period of time. It hints at a lurking danger upon the prospective future of the country calling for a critical appraisal of the same.

Three illustrative examples will help explain better the way the dominant historiography of Bangladesh taking constant recourse to the Genocide of 1971 got ‘constructed’ with evident gender, ethnic and political biases: (1) If one carefully charts the way memories of the Liberation War of 1971 are being recollected especially by the women victims of the genocide – a perceptible gender bias can be seen at work; (2) If one attempts to gauge the rationale behind the struggles of the hill people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) in post-independence Bangladesh – an associated ethnic bias, rooted into the country’s much professed nationalism, can be perceived; and (3) In light of the recent furore with regard to the trial of the war criminals of 1971 that culminated into a mass movement, namely the Shahbag Movement in 2013 – a definite political bias can be noticed.

[1] Constructed History of Bangladesh with Gender Bias

Gender-based violence, more specifically sexual violence, during civil unrest and ethnic conflicts is a pervasive reality in most post-colonial states across South Asia. The genocide of 1971 in Bangladesh is a blueprint of this case of ethnic cleansing showcasing how rape was used as a systematic and strategic weapon of war. The west-Pakistani army and the security forces carried out organised rape and sexual violence on women along with burning down houses and murdering of civilians to instil fear and terror in the minds of the people.[3] This atrocity also bears testimony of the fact how the female body is objectified and constructed as the anatomical replica of the nation and the community, and whose violation and dis-honour is capable of deflating one’s national and communal image. Being stricken by such extreme forms of socio-cultural violence the newly independent state of Bangladesh took recourse to adopt measures for social amendments.

However, the eventual progression of the feminist scholarship effectively reflects the way the nascent State failed to capture some of the vital aspects of victimhood, tilting the history prominently against the women. Accounts by Susan Brownmiller, Meghna Guhathakurta, Amena Mohsin and Nayanika Mookherjee among others bring out the way State-led rehabilitation measures towards the rape victims of the Genocide of 1971 proved to be faulty, futile and even draconic to a large extent with minimum of moral sanctions.[4] The State not only failed to abate social victimisation of the rape victims of the War, but its promiscuous policies (more ill-fitted than ill-intentioned with patriarchal premonitions) – such as that of naming them as ‘Biranganas’ symbolizing ‘war heroines’ or ‘national heroines’ added further to their plights by ‘marking’ their fates and ‘silencing’ their voices. The fact, that “women can only be seen as survivors, when the community in which they exist collectively takes responsibility for acknowledging that women are used as collateral damage in conflict and that any ‘honour’ is not destroyed inside a violated body, but in the violation of the dignity of the life of women”[5] – was clearly a missed conception at that point of history, as it still continues to be so even today. The feminist accounts thus testified the agonies of those women, who were almost doubly persecuted, to provide the much-required cue to trace the inherent ‘gender biases’ in the glorification of the history of the Liberation War and the Genocide of 1971. The bias makes the recollection of the war memories not only problematic but also symptomatic: ‘problematic’ because it reminds back the horror of the genocide as well as highlights the associated discrimination which the State conjointly inflicted upon its women victims; and ‘symptomatic’ since it constructed the history in its own gendered way, thereby silencing or abating the women’s question away from the public discourse.

[2] Constructed History of Bangladesh with Ethnic Bias

The story of the hill dwellers of the Chittagong Hill Tracks (CHT) in Bangladesh may also be cited to highlight at the ethnic bias that works within the dominant historiography of Bangladesh. The CHT being the homeland of people belonging to varied and multi-lingual nationalities called for a special entity status to protect their separate communal identity after independence. However, such demands were not only rejected by the State, on grounds that it would threaten the national unity and oneness of the newly independent state of Bangladesh, instead a policy of systemic repression was adopted by the State with respect to the hill dwellers of the CHT. Social, economic and political vulnerability ultimately turned the region into a battleground where the seeds of Jumma nationalism (an identity that was claimed by the hill people) were sown as against the version of Bengali nationalism that was championed by the State. Escalating insurgency ultimately led to the militarisation of the CHT and in the name of counter-insurgency massive human rights violations were committed by the military itself. Although the CHT Peace Accord signed on December 2, 1997 could only put a formal end to the armed insurgency in the region, it failed to establish peace, equity or justice to the ethnic minority communities living in this embattled region.

This besetting history of ethnic determination or ‘ethnicity’[6] in Bangladesh can be linked to the history of the Liberation War and that of the Genocide of 1971 which has allowed an eulogised concept of ‘nationalism’ – more ‘exclusive’ rather than ‘inclusive’ in nature – to foster. This version of nationalism is essentially a ‘construction’ of the State’s hegemonic power and control which has allowed the pre-domination of one ethnic group (the majority Bengalis) over the numerous ethnic ‘others’ (the non-Bengali populace which includes the indigenous populace of the CHT). Therefore, if the Genocide of 1971 was predicated upon the non-tolerant and ethno-religious brand of nationalism or ‘Semitism’ (as one may term it) professed by West Pakistan, then the whole host of repression and systemic excesses committed by the State towards its indigenous population, amounting to nothing short of an ‘ethnocide’, can be blamed upon the post-independence state of Bangladesh which had adopted an equally non-assimilationist brand of nationalism.

[3] Constructed History of Bangladesh with Political Bias

Lastly, the issue of the trial of the war criminals of 1971 that culminated into a striking popular movement may be considered as an appropriate exemplar to highlight the vicious political predilection in Bangladesh. Surrounding the issue of the trial of the war criminals of 1971, the nation reached an unanticipated low of utmost societal disarray during 2013-14. The popular movement at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square, namely the Shahbag Uprising, that had started from February 5, 2013 was one of the most significant developments that marked the country’s socio-political scenario over the last few years. The movement tried to revive the demands for the trial of the war criminals, which ever since 1971 had been an advertently avoided by the subsequent regimes. However, what started as a peaceful, a-political and popular movement (Shahbag Movement) – could not save itself from getting dragged into the vicious politics of polarisation, religious intolerance and deadlock which in turn led to escalation of violence. Accordingly, Bangladesh experienced reprehensible social and political violence during the year 2013-14 wherein, around 506 people were killed and some 24,176 people were injured in 2013; and an estimated 190 people were killed, 9429 injured, and 1321 arrested in 2014 as per the Annual Human Rights Reports of Odhikar. The nation also saw some of the most gruesome murders of bloggers, secular activists, religious associates and foreign nationals taking place with concomitant rise in the activities of religious fundamentalists. [7] Thus, the Shahbag Movement –which arguably was a significant flashpoint event in the history of democracy and social movements in Bangladesh – through both its successes and failures reflect the vicious political practice in Bangladesh. The unscrupulous political history of Bangladesh thereby explains what prevents the polity from realizing some of its most cherished ideals.

Lessons from a ‘re-constructed’ history of Genocide

These cases help show the way the dominant and widely professed historiography of Bangladesh stemming from the history of its Liberation War of Independence and the Genocide of 1971 is a ‘constructed’ one and precursory to escalating violence. Violence in this case appears in its covert form as in the case of the ‘silenced’ rape victims of the genocide; as ethnocide upon the marginalized hill people of the CHT; as psychological violence upon the war victims and their family members who are denied social justice through the much encumbered trials of the war criminals; and in its overt corporal form upon the common masses who are more than often victims of mere ‘street-violence’ caused due to the socio-political viscosity of the indignant polity. It is, therefore, imperative to carefully de-construct and subsequently re-construct such a history with such inherent biases – gender, ethnic and political biases (as it has been in the case of Bangladesh).

Nevertheless, since such an attempt is not devoid of immanent challenges, one may choose to hint at a fundamental dilemma: While any re-construction of history is presumably set to challenge the dominant construction of history – will it be prudent to render the very base of the perceptible history unstable by challenging it? May be ‘Yes’ or may be ‘No’. It is perhaps best to leave this question un-answered, for further speculation among scholars of History and Genocide Studies, who should best determine the most plausible ways to ‘re-construct’ history keeping the factual accuracies and societal conventions in mind.


[1] These haunting words are inscribed above the museum entrance at Dachau, which is the site of the former Nazi concentration camp. Charny, Israel W, ed. Encyclopedia of Genocide, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Inc, 1999. Vol. 1. p.lvii.

[2] According to New York Times (March 28, 1971) 10,000 people were killed; New York Times (March 29, 1971) 5,000-7,000 people were killed in Dhaka; The Sydney Morning Herald (March 29, 1971) 10,000 – 100,000 was killed; New York Times (April 1, 1971) 35,000 was killed in Dhaka during the Operation Searchlight. (accessed on July 10, 2017)

[3] Out of the 3 million people who were killed, nearly 3 million were women who were victimised under the ‘Operation Searchlight’ conducted by the West Pakistani armed forces upon its Eastern counterpart.

[4] See Amena Mohsin, “Gendered Nation, Gendered Peace: A Study of Bangladesh.” Peace Process and Peace Accords. Ed. Samir Kumar Das. New Delhi: Sage Publications Ltd., South Asian Peace Studies: Vol. 2, 2005. 223-225; Nayanika Mookherjee. “Remembering to Forget: Public Secrecy and Memory of Sexual Violence in the Bangladesh War of 1971.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 12: 2 (2006). 433-450; Susan Brownmiller, In Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Bantam Books, 1975. 1-541; Claudia Card, “Genocide and Social Death.” Hypatia. 18:1, Feminist Philosophy and the Problem of Evil (Winter, 2003). 63-79.

[5] Deeplina Banerjee, ‘Rohingya Womanhood: Why were so many women sexually abused and assaulted when they were driven out of Rakhine? (accessed on January 27, 2019).

[6] Ethnicity is one of the most elusive and mysterious concepts that defines a social structure. It may be simplistically defined as a state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. But again, for a ‘social group’ to be termed as an ‘ethnic group’ permits no simple answer. It is rather a complex and overlapping category including various racial, religious, linguistic or other such groupings. Furthermore, it is a kind of consciousness which may give rise to a conflict situation, which in turn, can depend entirely upon the context in which people form their consciousness, and particularly, regarding the other ethnic group which they recognise as existing at that very context.

[7] Cops link major killings of blogger-activists [like Ahmed Rajiv Haider (February 15, 2013), Avijit Roy (February 26, 2015), Oyasiqur Rhaman (March 30, 2015), Ananta Bijoy Das (May 12, 2015), Niloy Neel (August 7, 2015), and Faisal Arefin Dipan (October 31, 2015)]; foreign nationals [like Italian national, Cesare Tavella (September 28, 2015) and Japanese national, Hoshi Kunio (October 3, 2015)]; religious associates (like PDB ex-chairman Muhammad Khizir Khan (October 5, 2015), ASI Ibrahim Mollah (October 22, 2015, Hindu-priest Jogeshwar Dasadhikary (February 21, 2016), Abdur Razzak (March 14, 2016), Christian-convert Hussain Ali (March 22, 2016)]; secular activists [Nizamudiin Samad (April 6, 2016), Prof. AFM Rezaul Karim Siddiquee (April 23, 2016)] and others [like police constable, Mukul Hossain (November 4, 2015)] to the hanging of the war criminals as the national consensus alarmingly got divided between the secularists and the fundamentalists. “Cops link major killings to hanging of war criminals”. The Daily Star. May 16, 2016.

Srimanti Sarkar
is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at West Bengal State University. Previously she has been a researcher at the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIAS), an autonomous institute under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. Her research interests are theoretical postulates of democracy in South Asia with particular focus on India and Bangladesh. She has co-edited a book, titled The Political Future of Afghanistan: Issues and Perspectives (New Delhi: Knowledge World Publication, 2016) and has written several articles and book chapters. She can be reached at:


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

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