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.

Southasia - - 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.

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