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The Vicious Cycle of Violence: Bangladesh and its Internal Strife since its Genesis

By Shourjya Das


Benedict Anderson opines that a nation is formed not by determinant socio-political factors like language, ethnicity or religion but has been imagined into existence. National space may be constituted of competing dispositions of human association where communities uphold differing values and seek to attain diverse ideological goals, as Homi Bhabha aptly said. Anderson would suggest that the discourse of nationalism that attempts at uniting a community could do so by establishing the discourse of an imagined community (Hossain 2006).

The Muslims who formed the bulk of the population of Bengal have long faced the dilemma of cultural identity. On the one hand, they have been drawn by religious bond with the Islamic world for centuries and on the other they retained their indigenous cultural belongingness which tied them closely to the local Hindu populace. In fact, the characteristic feature of the Bengali Muslims has been their cultural isolation (Salahuddin 1987).

The initial unrest started when on December 17, 1947, a press note clarified that the Karachi Education conference had unanimously decided to adopt Urdu as the lingua franca of Pakistan. Bengalis felt the same way Muslims of India had felt not so long ago, threatened that their cultural individuality was at stake. Moreover, Urdu during that time had attained the heights of an esoteric, elitist and exalted language, the knowledge of which would surely earn a governmental job and be a marker of social prestige. The inherent popularity of Urdu would only be sheltered if the skills are never forwarded or shared with any other regional contender. A monolingual Urdu speaking elite was pitted against an equally monolingual vernacular aspirant group that of Bangla (Bengali) speakers, contesting power with surging urgency. It was advocated in the vesture of maintaining monolithic Islamic unification but actually implemented to complete a cultural domination and hegemony. Both these languages suffer coarsening due to this friction and has a profound impact on the discursive structure of nationalism. Though Pakistan was heteroglossic, it never allowed thriving of diglossic nationalism for this politically rational but quintessentially narrow stance adopted by the West Pakistani nomenklatura.

Contestations of Myriad Identities

The imposition of Urdu and the banning of Tagore songs irked the students. When they marched in demonstration to protest against it, the West Pakistani forces open fired at them killing six people. This was the beginning of a bloody trail from which was to ensue the struggle for independence.

Many Indian newspapers printed cartoons, caricaturing their decisions and detailed with scathing sarcasm, imparting humour, exemplifying the radical jingoist attitude undertaken on the part of the Pakistan government and its utmost efforts to maintain unity through centralized bureaucracy.

In a bid to levy forceful coercion, West Pakistan launched its infamous Operation Searchlight on March 25th, 1971, under the auspices of which mass murders were committed on an unprecedented scale in and around Dhaka. Students and teachers of the Dhaka University alongwith  journalists, doctors, were burnt alive, women were raped and  concentration camps were established exclusively for them to meet the carnal desires of West Pakistani troops, kept in inhuman circumstances, the horrors of which have been narrated by a birangana herself, Firdausi Priyabhasini, in interviews. The main mechanism of rape was to hybridise the future population who would derive their genesis from both the roots and mainly infuse the colonially internalized notion of the emasculated, feeble Bengalis with physical strength and martial prowess and valour, cementing Islamic brotherhood over regional identities.

Bengali nationalism was not as explicitly homogenous as Sheikh Mujib claimed it to be. The various underlying voices of the Urdu Speaking Biharis, the innate CHT tribesmen were all overlooked quite intentionally to exalt the unity epitomized by Bengali nationalism. Nationalism promised political coherence for polyglot states, only if they could transcend traditional group loyalties in favour of an abstract sense of community called the nation (Fazal 1999).

But in the name of nation, a phantasmagoria was created wherein nation connoted to the cultural ethos of the dominant community and other external marginal people only could make their voices felt by rigorous ethnification (Fazal 1999). Because of the contra distinct identity, these differently speaking minority voices could in no way be accommodated and so had to be excluded from the imagined community of Bengalis.  Problems started cropping up from the very onset, during the Partition of British India when the CHT was annexed to Pakistan despite the unwillingness of its aboriginal people. The CHT has been inhabited for centuries mostly by the tribal or indigenous people with a generous dusting of people from the adjacent bustling plains. The tribal people consisted of the Chakmas, Marmas and Tripura along with other marginal groups- the Mru, Bawm, Tanchainghya, Chak, Lusai, Mizo and others. These ethnic identities all comprised together to form the Pahari or Hill peoples of CHT. Their religious adherence also differed from the rest of Bengal; they were Buddhist, Christians, Hindus, animists or nature worshippers but were hardly Muslims. The Government intentionally recognised these divergent ethnic people as just non specified tribal groups rather than assigning them their own identity. The Paharis were treated as de facto second-class citizens by the government and agencies of the state (Adnan 2008). In the wake of asserting their hegemonic nationalist identity, they adopted the same policy of discrimination and chauvinist intolerance and suffocated all other voices as aggressively as done erstwhile by their West Pakistani brothers. Indeed, there was little sympathy in the Bangladeshi government for the Hill peoples’ plea for recognition and protection, which was viewed as being secessionist and subversive (Adnan 2008).

The Hill peoples were essentially passive spectators to contestations between rival nationalisms espoused by dominant groups (Adnan 2008) and between the battles of these two titans they were increasingly marginalised and subordinated. In the hilly and forested fringes of south-eastern Bangladesh, the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) have been struggling with threats to their material and cultural conditions integral to retaining their own ethnic identity (Adnan 2008). According to an article published in The Times of India on March 14th, 1971, The Buddhist Chakmas, inhabiting the north-eastern fringe of East Pakistan’s Chittagong hill tract, have been ousted by the Pakistani authorities presumably to keep the secret of planned military installation in the wooded area, according to authoritative sources. The sources said about 1,000 Chakmas, a peaceful tribe, crossed over to the Indian side recently through Demagiri, Assam’s Mizo Hills district bordering the Chittagong Hills from across the Karnafulli River. The land cultivated by the Chakmas was grabbed by the authorities and they were forced to leave the place (The Times of India 1971).

For the Urdu speaking Biharis, who migrated to Bangladesh as a mark of solidarity, always had identified themselves with the Pakistani state- they supported the implementation of Urdu during the language controversy as they struggled to assimilate with the larger population either culturally or linguistically. Now their inability or rather refusal to get infused in the dominant Bengali nationalistic stance, practically left them derelict.  A spokesman of the stranded Pakistanis expressed this tension while speaking about their plight: “The plight of Pakistanis stranded in Bangladesh for more than 23 years presents a very strange situation …We are refugees in Bangladesh and eat our heart out for our country which is Pakistan” (Fazal 1999). Their plight became all the more dire after liberation of Bangladesh as due to their erstwhile support of Pakistan, they were exclusively targeted both by Bengali populace and at times even by the armed forces or keepers of law. Apart from being forced to accept Bangla as their mother tongue, their settlements were often looted, rampaged upon, their women raped and impregnated so that they would bear the future generation internalized within the Bengali culture. East Pakistan became Bangladesh but the horrors of mass killing haunted every group of people, either earlier or later.

Horrors of a Dissension 

Estimated 30,000 Bengali women who were raped by Pakistani soldiers, purportedly in their mission to improve the genes of the Bengali people and thus populate Bangladesh with pure Muslims (Kabeer 1991). This pure Muslim rhetoric stereotypically avows to the argument of West Pakistanis, that with a vigorous physique they were the unchallenged martial race whose progeny would express their undeterred loyalty to the state of Pakistan and not uphold some half-Hindu frenzied notion of linguistic nationalism. Thus, the systematic policy of rape was justified on the grounds of morally correcting the Bengali populace. It is true that numerous Bengali women were raped and impregnated but the picture would be incomplete if we ignore the plight of Urdu supporting Bihari women who were raped in turn by Bengali men. Thus, women irrespective of their stance in the national controversy were tortured and repressed as markers of political oppression or just to pacify carnal attributes by opportunists.

Muslims of Bengal, language-centric Bengali nationalism remained the dominant trend vis-à-vis the religious nationalism espoused by the Pakistani state. Post-liberation, religion has reappeared to define the nationhood of the populace. Flexibility in conceiving nation receives validity from theoretical formulations where the subjective will of the political actors remains the only viable attribute of nation (Muhith 2008). One of the strongest players of this struggle was pathological politics wherein individuals not only preferred people belonging from their own ethnic stock and culture but also portrayed an anathema towards the other culture irrespective of mutual coexistence. The enemy, the other became this faceless enigma, a discriminating lump of individuals from another ethnic stock, who had to be targeted, and if need be obliterated, in the name of preventive riposte, to justify punitive and pre-emptive action. Genocide, rape and arson were carried out in the name of cathartic ethnic cleansing- ethnocide effacing all humane traits.

The Mru have been discredited most widely mainly because of their nakedness which appealed to intellectual psyche as primitive and exotic, a tribe so overwhelmingly distinct and distant from the Muslim population, their nudity was treated with circumspection, primitivity was revamped, explored and romanticized with superstition and obscenity – their state of ‘unclothedness’ being synonymous to being uncivilised, beastly beings. Most shocking being the nudity of the Mru womenfolk who were branded as shameless and their nudity contesting to be despicable and uncivilised but sexually titillating as well – to the Mru it was matters of everyday life which never crossed their minds but to the outside world it was connected to cultural underpinnings of shame and honour and latently provocative. As Bengali influence grew more, Mru women faced various repercussions as their custom was labelled as sexually provocative, themselves getting promoted as sex objects that they started covering themselves up after receiving lewd gestures and insensitivities from their Bengali fellow countrymen. The notion of nakedness as a sign of primitivity and indecency invaded the world of the Mru and how they attempted to adapt to an imposed decency by covering themselves while retaining a style of their own (Schendel 2002).

Against the Chakma, a systematic and skilfully planned displacement was commenced by the army in search of people affiliated to the Shanti Bahini, a militant group of sophisticated educated people, lased with arms and ammunitions, who voiced their dissent against the unilinear imposition of Bengali, the forced infiltration of Bengali Muslim populace in their pristine traditional hill tracts and at certain point of time, the forceful conversion of their people and the realization of fundamental rights of the hill men. To mitigate this tribal upheavals, public torture ‘sessions’ are carried on along with random arrests, most commonly, the Bangladesh military or paramilitary personnel enter indigenous Jumma villages in the early hours of the morning and take away a small number of able-bodied young men of the village or occasionally the village headman, to their camps. The arrests are undertaken without using any legal procedure such as the presentation of arrest warrants or bringing the arrested person before a magistrate within 24 hours, as the Criminal Procedure Code specifies for arrests by police officers. Chittagong Hill Tracts had never been officially declared a “disturbed area” so that the provisions of the Disturbed Areas (Special Powers) Ordinance, 1962 – the 1980 Disturbed Areas Bill never had been enacted – had not been invoked. As a result, no legal procedures were in force specifically providing for civilians to be arrested by military or paramilitary forces. As known from victims, they were tortured in concentration camps, a potent marker of army induced terror and also restricting their movement in prosaic life. The Bangladesh military divides CHT region into three zones, each represented by white, red and yellow- with red representing the most interior of CHT, white denoting the area within a two-mile radius under strict military supervision and yellow, the area where indigenous Muslim populace have already infiltrated and settled in. Imposition of prohibitions is the most stringent in the red zone, though, unsurprisingly, not on Muslim settlers. The Chakmas have been issued an identification card, which they have to produce every time they make a transaction to procure the bare necessities of life. The Chakmas, on a daily basis face harassment by Saudi funded group Al Rabita, which follows the policy of influencing them to join the fold of Islam, by the regular desecration of sacred sites, violating the premises of peaceful Buddhist temples by slaughtering the kine and then brazing the whole institution to ashes, prevention of worship and the forceful conversion to Islam, frenzied by hatred towards other religions. Extensive killings and torture of Jumma people have taken place in Mohalchari, Khagrachari, Hajachara, Hobachari to name a few.

One woman, whose identity has not been disclosed for security, recounted her tragic experience while shopping for clothes in the market,

I went to the market and bought some clothes. All of a sudden a policeman came from behind and caught me. The police asked: ‘Why did you buy the clothes?’ I said: ‘To wear.’ Then he took me to jail and started beating me and giving me electric shocks. They kept me one and a half days, tying my hands. Then they transferred me to Khagrachari army camp. They tortured me at the army camp. The army soldiers assaulted me by touching my breasts etc. After five days I was released on the condition that I report there every month. The charge was that I bought clothes for the Shanti Bahini. (The Daily Star 2017)

It is not only women but men as well who are equally sexually harassed and even violated by the forces. A villager from the interior village of Dewan Chera, also voiced instances of torture,

Since the beginning of this year the army and police had been visiting the villages in our area asking people to prepare to shift to a new cluster village. They said it was necessary for us to shift for our development and national security. But we all said no, because these cluster villages are like concentration camps where we have to remain constantly under the eye of the soldiers and where our women are not safe. In February, large-scale operations commenced in our region and on the fifth of the month a group of soldiers raided our village. The Officer-in-charge abused us and the soldiers who were firing in the air to scare us started to beat us up indiscriminately. After a while they took out about 15 of us and marched us to the Buddha Vihar (Temple). There we were tortured very badly for a long time. They poured hot water into our mouths and nostrils and burned some of us with cigarette butts. They even circumcised and raped some young boys, then bayoneting them to death. We were let off later in the evening when we promised to shift to the new village. (The Irrawady 2015)

The intermittent eruption of violence in the CHT is the direct result of the policy of deliberate political Bengali settlement which is now structurally ingrained. Unless this structural root of violence is addressed it is unlikely that durable peace will return to the CHT (Chakma 2010).


The struggle of these silent or silenced voices tends to be subsumed within the larger context and struggle of identity and nationalist politics thus receiving scant attention.  On both sides of the engaging people the silencing of trauma, women and thought to be external ethnic tribes were marginalised. Bengalis were successful in officially making Bengali a state language and in achieving independence, but did it really dissolve all ensuing disparities and emerge as a truly independent and free state, independent of intolerance and free of xenophobic prejudices and presumed racial purity?

Regarding the horrors of genocide, I would like to conclude with the hopeful words of Maya Angelou:

History, despite its wrenching pain,

Cannot be unlived, but if faced

With courage, need never be lived again.


Hossain, Ishtiaq (2006). “The Rift Within an Imagined Community: Understanding Nationalism(s) in Bangladesh,” Asian Journal of Social Science 34: 324-345. doi: 23654423.

Salahuddin, Ahmed A.F. (1987). Bangladesh Tradition and Transformation Dhaka: Bangladesh University Press.

Fazal, Tanveer (1999). “Religion and Language in the Formation of Nationhood in Pakistan and Bangladesh”, in Sociological Bulletin 48:156-183. doi: 23619935.

Adnan, Shapan (2008). “Contestations regarding identity, Nationalism and Citizenship During the Struggles of the Indigenous Peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh,” International Review of Modern Sociology 34: 26-54. doi: 41421656.

Kabeer, Naila (1991). “The Quest for National Identity: Women, Islam and the State in Bangladesh” Feminist Review 42: 46-57. doi: 1395470.

Muhith, A.M.A. (2008) State Language Movement in East Bengal 1947-1956, Dhaka: The University Press Limited.

Bhumitra Chakma (2010) “Structural Roots of Violence in the Chittagong Hill Tracts”, Economic and Political Weekly 45: 10-21. doi: 25664264.

Schendel, van Willem (2002) “A Politics of Nudity: Photographs of the Naked ‘Mru’ of Bangladesh”, Modern Asian Studies 36: 341-375. doi: 3876659.

The Daily Star, published from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The Irrawaddy, published from Yangon, Myanmar.

The Times of India, published from New Delhi, India.

Shourjya Das
earned her Masters’ degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata. She is currently pursuing her non-academic studies independently and aspiring for various competitive examinations. She takes a keen interest in international relations – particularly the Global South, myriad sui generis ethnic communities, transnational migration and their patterns.


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

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