I quickly found out that perpetrators appeared in many forms and under many guises – Pakistani, Bengali, Bihari, and Indian.
Southasia talks to Yasmin Saikia, author of the recent book ‘Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh,’ in this exclusive interview.
Yasmin Saikia is a distinguished scholar of international history, with a focus on
the Muslim experience in South Asia. She is the first person to hold the Hardt-nickachos Chair in Peace Studies at the Center for the Study of Religion
and Conflict at Arizona State University. Your recent book presents accounts of women who brutally suffered through the 1971 war. As national narratives remain divided, how important was it to present human stories?
The genre of historical writing obliterates people’s experiences and presents a superficial account of what really happens during war and violence. In the case of the 1971 war, the national narratives of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have each presented accounts to suit the state’s version of the event recreating sites of power where the memories of people and what they experienced in the war are lost. The external, national narratives cannot enable us to understand what really happened and why.
By engaging human voices, I understood the 1971 war not in the language of theoreticians and war history commentators, but in the experiences of the people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. When we privilege military history as official history, we privilege male voices, men’s experiences, and masculine violence. We need to find alternative voices for an inclusive, human understanding of who we are. Without searching for the human story, we will never learn the power of violence and its impact on our lives and what we are capable of doing to one another. I saw the task of writing a book on 1971 focusing on people’s memories as an effort to dignify the human person and his/her experiences in the war.
Why did you decide to embark on this project? Was there a specific moment or a certain story that inspired you?
In 1999, on assuming the task to teach South Asian History at the University of North Carolina-chapel Hill I realized that I had to first learn about it. What better way to learn about the people of South Asia than by traveling and listening to them tell their history from their very experiences, I thought. In 2001, I went to Bangladesh. Once in Dhaka, I decided to visit Dhaka University, but instead of going to the university I ended up in a place called ‘Camp Geneva’ where the “stranded, stateless Biharis” live. In Camp Geneva I had my first encounter with a horrific and troublesome story of history told to me by two middle-aged women.
They were young children in 1971 who had witnessed the brutal murder of their families by local Bengali freedom fighters. One of the women’s sons shared with me his chilling opinion. He said, “my parents will go to
their graves without anyone knowing their story. Why must we suffer for the crimes of another generation?” The question stunned me and made me deeply aware of the negative power of history in people’s lives. This chance encounter motivated me to find and write a history of South Asia focusing on 1971 from the perspective of peoples’ experiences because they, the people, I realized, are the teachers and heroes of this history having lived and endured its impact. Bangladesh has seen strong female politicians and women increasingly entering public fields. How important is the place of women in Bangladesh today?
An obvious, but curious, issue in South Asia is that women from powerful families play very important roles and even serve as the head of government. This is not unique to Bangladesh. India and Pakistan both have had their share of women in power. Does this reflect women’s empowerment in these countries? How representative is the success of a few women politicians for society as a whole? In Bangladesh, the vast majority of women living in rural areas are poor, uneducated, and are controlled and dominated by powerful male members. Their lack of knowledge of the rights endowed to them by Islam, makes them even more vulnerable and, in turn, Islam is used against them to deny them basic rights.
In Bangladesh, micro-credit borrowing without teaching any skills or investing in education, as well as various other social and economic factors, are pushing women further into the background and denying them power, even within their own families. I am presenting a very negative picture here, but we need to be vigilant of the reality on the ground in both Bangladesh and Pakistan. Without empowering women in these countries, society can never move forward to achieve its
true potentials. What will it take to erase the scars of the 1971 war?
The survivors of 1971 are traumatized not because of what they suffered but due to the lack of justice after the national violence. They are still waiting for justice to be delivered. Justice here does not mean punishment of a few individuals who are identified as perpetrators. Victims of the war in Bangladesh want acknowledgement of their sacrifices. They want governments to address the wrongs of the past and through concrete gestures enable people to enjoy their liberation. They want the wrongdoers within their own society to take responsibility and acknowledge their crimes leading to true repentance.
This is a heavy demand, but it is possible. If the three governments – Pakistan, Bangladesh and India agree to discuss the violence they committed and offer redress to the survivors, we can move beyond the present impasse. At least, we can begin by educating ourselves. We can listen to what survivors are saying and building awareness at the public level will be the first step forward. The responsible publics in the Indo-pak subcontinent can then encourage their national governments to revisit the violence in the war and accept accountability. What were some of the challenges you faced when writing this book?
Working on violence is not an easy task. It is emotionally demanding, intellectually difficult to make sense of, and spiritually disorienting. It makes you frightened of your human self, the immense destructive power that is within us and our capacity to abuse it. Beyond this existential challenge for me, epistemologically, I found that in South Asia, although people talk and discuss many personal matters quite easily, some topics remain taboo. Rape and gender violence are intimate and troublesome issues that people hesitate to talk about. It is fundamentally connected with the issue of honor and shame; thus, rape stories are hidden rather than discussed in personal and public conversations. One of the most challenging aspects of this research was to move beyond the silence preserved in the national sites and find survivors who could tell me a human story of the experiences in the war. Few women feel comfortable talking about rape and you are one of the first authors to delve deep into researching this tragedy during the war. How is the topic treated today in Bangladesh?
Almost all the women activists I met in Dhaka discouraged me and told me “victims would not speak.” They particularly discouraged me from meeting Bihari women. Slowly, through personal introductions, I met survivors and my research took shape but it took a long time. Women explained their suffering in a variety of ways. Some emphasized the loss of home and families as the cruelest experience of the war. Others talked about their fear, hunger, alienation or the indignity of living in refugee camps in India.
The personal losses that women suffered due to sexual violence are the most horrific memory for most women. It is important to note here that the word ‘rape’ rarely surfaced during our conversations. Rather, both Bangla and Urdu speakers used euphemistic terms such as abduction, marriage, torture or visit to convey the forced sexual interactions. Most women talked about the pain of neglect they suffer in society today. The violence women experienced must be understood for its physical impact and beyond. It was an attack on their personhood, their dignity, their worth as human beings. Women of all groups - rich and poor, Bengali, Bihari, Jayan-
tia, Chakma, Muslim, Hindu and Christian suffered sexual violence in the war, as I found out. There was no exception. You met with and interviewed rape victims, volunteers in Mukti Bahini and Pakistani army personnel. Why such a broad spectrum and did you reach some common ground?
In November 2011, when I had finished my research, I met a man in Chittagong who told me of a young Bihari girl whom he had molested and tried to rape. He made me responsible to search the hidden story of men’s memories of the war. I decided to start with Pakistani soldiers, who were identified as the obvious perpetrators in the national history books of 1971. But once I entered that field of research, I quickly found out that perpetrators appeared in many forms and under many guises – Pakistani, Bengali, Bihari, and Indian. There was just a common element they shared. Driven by the spirit of nationalism, these men committed horrific crimes that haunt them even today. Pakistani soldiers and their Bihari supporters raped and killed to save a nation; Bengali and Indian men killed and violated the vulnerable in the hope of making a new nation, which they did. Who is guilty?
I realized that we cannot absolve the perpetrators, but simultaneously I was convinced that we cannot play the blame game either. We need to move beyond the individual and investigate larger institutions such as the state and the ideology of nationalism that drove the war and used it to aggrandize power by raping, killing or brutalizing the vulnerable.
I decided to listen to perpetrators in all three countries – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh because in their stories is the evidence of what happened in 1971. It led me to search and analyze the construction of a state ideology of masculine power, the cultivation of ethnic and religious hatred used systematically by different groups, and the power of nationalism that transformed ordinary men into rapists and killers.
In discussing these memories, many perpetrators invoked a common language of the loss of humanity; Urdu speakers called it insaniyat and Bangla speakers referred to it as manabikata. Men allowed me to see the distancing they had to develop to make sense of their own heinous actions. I decided to give voice to the memories of perpetrators not in order to exonerate or befriend them, but examine their stories to learn something about ourselves, as human beings. Biharis are normally absent from the discourse. Can you shed some light on their plight, as you state in your book?
The word ‘Bihari’ includes multiple groups of people, basically Urduspeaking, who originally migrated to East Pakistan from India during and after 1947. The native Bangla speakers viewed them as anti-liberation and by extension pro-pakistani. This is a problematic assumption because a vast number of Biharis in East Pakistan had nothing to do with politics. During the war, they were identified as “enemies,” and were attacked and violated by Mukti Bahini freedom fighters. The so-called Biharis, in turn, committed their share of violence against the nationalist Bengalis and vulnerable women. In general, they sided with the Pakistan Army and through violence tried to undermine the Bengali liberation struggle. Since the war the biharis who did not leave Bangladesh, ended up in internment camps that were set up by the Red Cross International for the “stranded” communities. Today, these camps have become “forbidden” spaces, marginalized and isolated from mainstream Bangladeshi society. There are 63 of them and more than 250,000 Biharis are stuck in them.
In Camp Geneva, one of the largest and worst camps of all, the inhabitants live in sustained violence. Small, shanty containers make up their homes. Women, in particular, face a lot of violence in the camps. The Bihari men abuse them and the outside society treats them like pariahs. Among men, drug abuse and crimes are common. The camp leaders keep promising that someday they will repatriate them to Pakistan, but they do not try to resolve their present problems in the camps. Bangladeshi society, in turn, claims that the camps are havens for criminals. When we exclude people from society and do not accord them basic human respect we cannot expect them to respond to us humanely. Bangladesh is progressing rapidly in technology and development. Is it on the road to success or is this just a temporary surge?
The success we see in Bangladesh, like in Pakistan and in India, is confined to a select few who have the right education, connections and access to the halls of power. They are the ones who benefit the most and have made great strides in their overall improvement. Having said this, I would like to add that the ripple effect of economic growth is also affecting the people at the bottom of the scale in Bangladesh. We see more women in the workforce in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. A vast majority of them are working in the lower-end of the service and production industries, but the fact that they are in the workforce gives them some leverage and economic worth. Women have some financial independence and are able to make some important decisions about their personal lives. The economic well-being of a country cannot happen without the input of society at large. Bangladesh is doing better in that sector as financial empowerment is cutting through gender lines.