Issue Editor’s Note: The Bangladesh Genocide of 1971: Remembrance versus Denial
By Navras J. Aafreedi
Just 413 kilometres from Kolkata, where I live, a genocide took place in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971, seven years before I was born. Exactly after one year of its commencement, it gave birth to a new country, Bangladesh. However, after just four years of its birth the new nation lost its father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, when he was assassinated, much like the other two nation-states that emerged out of former British India, Pakistan and India, who lost their fathers roughly within a year of their coming into existence. While India’s Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was assassinated by a bullet, Pakistan’s Mohammad Ali Jinnah was killed by tuberculosis.
I grew up hearing little about the Bangladesh genocide of 1971. It would not be possible for me to pinpoint the stage in my life when I became aware of it because it was part of the history syllabus neither at the secondary level nor at the tertiary level of education when I studied medieval and modern history of India and the West for my Bachelor’s at the University of Lucknow. However, what I do know is that it was fairly early, when I was still a child, as my deep interest in mass violence studies was triggered when I experienced curfew for the first time in my life during the post Babri Mosque demolition riots in 1992-93. Those riots made me acutely conscious of my communal and ethnic identity and my vulnerability on account of it. Growing up in Lucknow even from the little that I heard about the events in Bangladesh in 1971 I was sensitive enough to be able to discern that the sympathies of the Urdu speaking Muslims of Lucknow largely lay with the perpetrator rather than the victim. This observation combined later with the realization that the Pakistan army that perpetrated that genocide was made up primarily of Jats and Pathans/Pashtuns/Pakhtuns, the two sides of my parentage, emerged as a source of anguish to me. Pakistani army is estimated to have killed 3 million (30 lakh) people, raped 200,000 (2 lakh) women, and displaced 40 million (4 crore) people, 10 million (1 crore) of whom took refuge in India – all in a span of just eight months. While my mother is a Jat, my late father was a Pathan/Pashtun/Pakhtun. Bangladeshi Political Scientist Rounaq Jahan points out that the genocide had elements of racism, as the above-mentioned Jats and Pathans/Pashtuns/Pakhtuns had considered the Bengalis (my wife is a Bengali) as racially inferior – “a non-martial physically weak race, not interested in serving or unable to serve in the army” (Jahan 1997). It is interesting given the fact that the only Indian nationalist leader to raise an army with the intention of liberating India from the British rule was a Bengali – Subhas Chandra Bose [an alumnus of Presidency University, Kolkata (then a college) that I serve] and that Bangladesh has the largest contingent in the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces.
The tendency among the Urdu-speaking diasporic Pathans of India (perhaps also among the rest of the Urdu speaking Muslims in India) is still to deny or minimize the Bangladesh genocide because of their sympathies with Pakistan, where Urdu was declared the national language, though it eventually led to it being perceived in India as the language of the enemy. Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on her Bengali citizens in what is now Bangladesh. One of the greatest modern Urdu poets (an ethnic Jat) Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s response to the tragedy in Bangladesh was ambiguous, so well explained by Mosarrap Khan in his article “Faiz Ahmad Faiz and the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971).” Another Urdu poet Naseer Turabi was moved by the fall of Dhaka to write a poem on it but not enough by the genocide perpetrated by his country’s soldiers in East Bengal. That poem of his became extremely popular when it was later adopted to be the theme song of the Urdu drama series Humsafar, broadcast on Pakistani television from September 2011 to March 2012. A significant section of the Urdu press in India depicted the crisis in East Bengal as a rebellion against a Muslim government and therefore reprehensible according to their interpretation of Islam. This acquires great importance if we take into account New Delhi based writer and filmmaker Arshad Amanullah’s observation that “the Urdu journalism, in its essence, is ‘views oriented’, as its role in moulding Muslim public opinion is simply incomparable to the other vernacular press.” A prominent example of the response of the Indian Urdu press to the crisis in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) is the editorial Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi published in Sidq-i-Jadid (Lucknow) on June 11, 1971, that “the Islamism of Pakistan deserves little comment, yet the government there was after all a Muslim government, rebellion against which cannot be forgiven.” His stance remained unchanged even after the details of the genocide in Bangladesh came out. “Pakistan is after all a Muslim state,” he wrote, “like Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Those who rebel against it are to be condemned as are all those who rebel against a Muslim state. This is a shar’i fact which cannot be glossed over by using such labels as ‘Mukti Fauj’ and ‘Freedom Fighters’” (Sidq-i-Jadid; 2 July 1972).
As a protest against the unsympathetic attitude of Indian Muslims, the 350 members of the Bangladesh mission in Calcutta abstained from joining the local congregation to offer their Eid ul-Fitr prayers in November 1971 and instead offered their prayers by themselves. The Urdu journal Jamiat Times of Delhi responded to it in its editorial of December 3, 1971 in the following words:
We wrote earlier, and we do not fear to write again, that whether it be the present tension between India and Pakistan or the massacre of Bengalis and non-Bengalis in East Pakistan or the influx of lakhs of homeless refugees, the responsibility for everything lies squarely with the leaders of East Pakistan. One man can set fire in a moment to an entire garden. We curse all traitors, be they in India or in Pakistan. A man should concern himself with the welfare of the country where he lives, otherwise he should leave it and go some other place. (Naim 1975)
Conspiracy theories have never been rare in the Urdu press. So it was only natural that in no time there emerged such theories about the crisis in East Bengal. An example is how Nida-i-Millat of Lucknow in its issue of January 16, 1972, reprinted a news story of Akhbar al-Alam al-Islami, the official journal of the Rabita al-Alam al-Islami (Muslim World League) published from Mecca. It alleged that Israel had sent 300 Zionist agents to Bangladesh to foment trouble and train the Bengali rebels in response to prominent economist and Bangladeshi radical Rahman Sobhan’s visit preceded by his meeting in Paris with Daniel Cohn Bendit (“a Jew”). According to the report, from Israel Sobhan went straight to India to coordinate plans with the communists there. Most interestingly the editor of Nida-i-Millat added a note to the report: “We are abstaining from commenting on this article because only the future will tell what the facts were and what actually caused the secession of East Pakistan. We only desire our country to be aware of the delicate (nazuk) sentiments and feelings of the Muslim world, especially of the Arabs.” It only goes to illustrate just how confused and desperate the Urdu speaking Muslims of India were at that time. They were reluctant to accept the facts as evident from what Shahid Siddiqui, the editor of Urdu newsmagazine Nai Duniya, tells us: “I went to Bangladesh at that time… I wrote the truth which was not acceptable to Muslims, because for them the creation of Bangladesh was a turning point, because [it was] the destruction of the idea of Pakistan, the two nation theory” (Jeffrey 2009: 230). The very next year he founded Nai Duniyā and benefited from a similar opportunity, the Arab-Israeli War of 1973. The rise in circulation to thirty thousand in just a few months’ time set its course of anti-Israel, anti-Zionist and antisemitic rhetoric. This anti-Zionist or antisemitic rhetoric is actually a characteristic of the Urdu press.
The lack of sympathy for Bengali Muslims has not been peculiar to Indian Muslims. Out of the 50 Muslim majority countries in the world, only three (Libya, Syria and Jordan) have released statements on the Bangladesh genocide of 1971. As Saleem Samad pointed out in article originally published in the Dhaka Tribune and later reprinted in Scroll on April 12, 2021, most of the Arab nations were on the wrong side of history during Bangladesh’s freedom struggle, as they were carried away by the conspiracy theory that India, a ‘Hindu nation’ (as they perceived it), had hatched plans to bifurcate the world’s largest Muslim nation, Pakistan (Samad 2021).
I had my first interface with people indirectly affected by the Bangladesh genocide of 1971 when I found them among my students after joining Presidency University in Kolkata in 2016. They were either from families who had their ancestral roots in Bangladesh but the genocide there compelled them to move to West Bengal or those who had people uprooted from Bangladesh in their social circle. I launched a postgraduate course in Genocide Studies at the Presidency University, Kolkata. Over the years several of my students have written essays on Bangladesh genocide as part of their course requirements. I present here some of those essays in this special issue of Café Dissensus commemorating the Bangladesh Genocide Remembrance Day, observed on March 25. All essays in this issue were written for my postgraduate course in Genocide Studies, except Titas Mitra’s essay, which was written for another course I taught, “South Asian Cultures in the Age of Nationalism” a general education undergraduate course offered to students from other departments. I hope this issue is able to contribute to a certain degree to our efforts aimed at getting wider recognition for the Bangladesh genocide.
Jeffrey, Robin (2009). “Urdu Newspapers in India: Waiting for Citizen Kane?”, in Ather Farouqui, ed., Muslims and Media Images: News versus Views, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.
Naim, C. M. (1975). “Muslim Press in India and the Bangladesh Crisis”, Quest (Bombay), #94 (March-April). Accessed on March 19, 2023 at http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00litlinks/naim/ambiguities/14muslimpress.html
Samad, Saleem (2021). “Arab nations were on the wrong side of the history during Bangladesh’s freedom struggle”, Scroll.in, April 12, 2021. Accessed on March 24, 2023 at https://scroll.in/article/991876/arab-nations-were-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-history-during-bangladeshs-freedom-struggle
Dr. Navras J. Aafreedi is an Assistant Professor in the department of History, Presidency University, Kolkata; Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism & Policy, New York; and a Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar under its Holocaust Education & Genocide Prevention Program and its Asia Peace Innovators Forum. His numerous publications include a co-edited volume Conceptualizing Mass Violence: Representations, Recollections, and Reinterpretations (London and New York: Routledge, 2021) and a monograph Jews, Judaizing Movements and the Traditions of Israelite Descent in South Asia (New Delhi: Pragati Publications, 2016). He teaches a postgraduate course in Genocide Studies among many other. He earned the degrees of BA, MA and PhD from the University of Lucknow and has held postdoctoral fellowships at the universities of Tel Aviv and Sydney and at the Woolf Institute, Cambridge, UK. He has also been a Scholar-in-Residence at John’s College, Oxford for an ISGAP summer institute.
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