The Untold Stories of the Independence War in Bangladesh
Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan 50 years ago after a war that involved terrible atrocities against the civilian population. Selective nationalist mythologies still obscure the human stories of victims and perpetrators, and the lasting scars of the conflict.
On March 23, 1971, ethnic violence broke out across East Pakistan among the Bengalis and the Urdu-speaking population known as Biharis. The latter were refugees of India’s Partition in 1947, and Pakistan was the dream they were willing to kill and die for. The Bengalis, on the other hand, sought liberation from Pakistan. The railway town of Saidpur populated by Bengalis and Biharis became a hot spot of ethnic violence.
Nayatullah Ara, an elderly Bengali woman, recalled her loss:
My two children disappeared in an instant when we were trying to reach a shelter. I never found them. I still have their toys and clothes, but not my daughter and son. It is an unquenched fire in my heart.
Not far from Nayatullah’s home, in Saidpur, twelve-year-old Abdul lost his family on March 23. They were killed for baking biscuits in the shape of the Bangladeshi flag. Abdul’s father and brother were thrown into a sewage tank and died of suffocation; his grandmother and mother were bayoneted; his one-year-old sister was thrown against the wall and smashed to death; and his older sister bled to death after being raped multiple times.
In the same town, that night, Kamla Prasad, a Hindu Marwari businessman, was dragged out of his home and shot several times by Pakistani soldiers. He survived, but when he returned home after several days, his family disowned him because they had pronounced him dead and performed his funeral rites. Ismat Jahan, the wife of a doctor and the mother of six children, was raped in her home by several Pakistani soldiers. Hundreds more suffered rape, torture, and death in Saidpur that night.
Fifteen miles away, in Dinajpur, an entire colony of Bihari families was butchered by Bengali liberation militia. The Bihari men were killed, their homes were looted and ransacked, and old and young women were raped and left to die. Women like Hafiza, Shahzadi, Khadezah, and Kulsum who escaped were transformed into “stranded Pakistanis” and still live in a “Bihari refugee” camp in Saidpur.
Far away, in eastern Bangladesh, in the port city of Chittagong, on March 23, Hasan, a young Bengali man who had joined the local Bengali militia, decided with five other boys to teach the Biharis a lesson and raped his friend’s sister. Saleha Begum, a Bengali schoolteacher, lost two sons and one daughter that night. Hundreds of Biharis and Bengalis were slaughtered. “Blood flowed like a river,” Saleha recalled.
Memories and Narratives
These vignettes of personal memory affirm the intensity of the violence in the war of 1971 between East and West Pakistan. Officially, the Liberation War of Bangladesh started on March 25, 1971, after a blitz campaign by Pakistani government forces called Operation Searchlight. The Pakistan army failed to destroy the Bengali freedom struggle and had to deal with the outbreak of many small wars — an ethnic war between the Bengalis and the Biharis; a war of East Pakistani militias against the West Pakistani army; and, finally, the devastating war with India.
On December 16, 1971, the Pakistan Army surrendered to the Indian Armed Forces. Bangladesh was born in the blood and tears of Bengalis, Biharis, Jainatias, Chakmas, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, old and young. Who is to blame for the suffering wrecked in these wars?
Commentators have tried to distinguish between victims, martyrs, liberators, victimizers, and survivors, but there is no unbiased telling. The Bangladeshi nationalist narrative calls the war a “genocide,” seeking an apology from the Pakistani state that has not been forthcoming. India, Bangladesh’s ally, packages its own transgressions as a response to a “humanitarian crisis” and skillfully structures the story of Pakistani atrocities. Skepticism, disbelief, shame, and an unwillingness to scrutinize the state’s armed violence against civilians discourage Pakistan from examining the history of 1971; to this day, its discussion is stifled.
To counter the nationalistic justifications, one must hear the stories of people who suffered the violence, although it is difficult to follow the trail of personal memories, piece together the sequences of events, and identify the perpetrators, who came in many different guises, as victims know. There is also the question of time. To outsiders, the war lasted a “mere” nine months. For victims, the time of violence is unending, frozen, disconnected from before and after.
Another significant problem is silence. Out of the thousands of victims and perpetrators — women and men — only a few are willing to share their experiences. Fear, shame, trauma, loss of honor, and a host of personal and social reasons give rise to a sparse narrative. Even those who tell have difficulty in recalling the extreme suffering; they want to forget and move on with their lives. Their memories hover in the ambiguous space of remembering and forgetting.
The voices of both victims and perpetrators are spread across Bangladesh and Pakistan. These voices of survivors challenge battlefield narratives. In their experience, the war was shockingly intimate, penetrating the home front. The suffering is immense.
Fifty years later, the voices of the survivors, although they have been sidelined in the respective national narratives, enable a story from the “inside,” telling us about what died in the war — humanity. This is not a history of the war that Pakistan, Bangladesh, or India record. It is a reclaimed human story as told by survivors.
Women and the War
The rape of women in the 1971 war is poorly documented, but in Bangladesh only Pakistanis are blamed for the crime. This allows the Bengali men who violated Bengali and Bihari women to hide their atrocities. And, of course, Pakistan itself continues to deny any rape took place. Although Bangladesh has produced an undocumented number of two hundred thousand rape victims, the victims themselves are invisible, in order to hide their “shame,” and maintain family honor and men’s pride.
The testimonies I have collected in Bangladesh and Pakistan establish that the women’s victimizers were various — Pakistani soldiers; Biharis and Bengali Jamaat-e-Islami supporters; Muslim Leaguers; and Bengali neighbors and “friends.” The enemy was all around and inside East Pakistan, the women recall. Sakeena Begum, a seventy-six-year-old Bihari woman, astutely summed it up:
Men raped women. What does it matter what was their ethnic, religious, or linguistic background? Insāniyat [humanity] had died. Is this something to talk about?
Rape is replaced by words like “abduction” and “marriage.” Women describe it as a state of “unconsciousness.” They blame the ideology of nationalism, the institutions of the state — army, militia, political parties — and constructs of the community and family for failing to protect them.
Below are the stories of Arjuman, a Bihari woman, and Halima, a Bengali woman. Arjuman earns her living as a seamstress and, since 1971, has lived in “Geneva Camp” in Dhaka, one of the sixty-three camps created by the Red Cross International for the “stateless” Biharis in Bangladesh. Halima works in a tuberculosis hospital and lives in Jessore, in southern Bangladesh.
In 1971, Arjuman was a teenager. Two days before the war ended, on December 14, “several Muktis [Liberation Army soldiers] stormed into our home and killed my family,” she recounted. She and her sister hid in a closet but were discovered. “I tried to run away, but the men caught us and told us we had to marry them. I refused,” she said — and then she became silent.
After several minutes, she asked me, “You understand what I mean by marriage? … The Red Cross brought me to the camp … not a safe place for women. We want to have our own home. Do you think we will achieve it?” For women, like Arjuman, normal and abnormal times have collapsed into one. Her son articulated the sad reality of their lives: “We will end up in the kabarstan [grave], but neither Bangladesh nor Pakistan will accept us, not even our bodies for a decent burial.”
Halima Parveen was sixteen years old in 1971. Enthused by the political fervor for liberation, along with two friends, Rukiya and Fatima, Halima secretly joined a militia and received guerrilla training. She was apprehended during an ambush by Bengali men from a neighboring village. They took her to the local police station where they raped her before handing her over to the Pakistani soldiers. In army custody, she was raped, brutalized, and humiliated for five months.
After liberation, neither Halima nor her friends were acknowledged by the Bangladesh state as mukti joudhas or freedom fighters. Rather, they were stigmatized, driven out of their villages, and erased from the collective memory of family and community. In a defiant, though sad, voice, Halima recollected:
We fought with our body and blood. Women emerged from the war as birangana [a newly coined term for the sexually assaulted], not mukti joudha [war hero]. That honor was reserved for men. In Bengali, however, there is another word: barangana, which means prostitutes. The men who brutalized and raped us are “important” people now. They treat us like prostitutes and pretend they are honorable.
Halima related the experiences of other women in captivity with hers. However, when I asked about her worst memory, she said, “The Pakistanis never gave me hair oil or rice to eat … I have never looked like my previous self. I look unhealthy, disheveled, and dirty.” Halima’s equation of everyday things like hair oil and rice with extraordinary sexual violence shows the impact of this war on women; it was physical and ontological. The violence is graspable and absurdly unrelatable at the same time.
Families endured helplessness, as did individuals. Laila tells a poignant story of this uneasy relationship:
On April 14, 1971, local men and Pakistani soldiers ransacked and looted our neighborhood … my family forced me to hide in a bush because they were afraid that I would be raped and they would be killed. I hid with sixteen other girls. The next morning, I found that my father was killed. His body was lying outside, muddy and uncovered, but my brothers and mother pretended they were not his family.
War destroyed the humanity of individuals; each family member selfishly looked out only for themselves, willingly dehumanizing another. Disclaiming association with the vulnerable bodies of women and deceased family members was a way to stay alive. Perpetrator and victim become blurred in such situations.
Zaibunisa, an elderly Bihari woman who now lives in Karachi, provides the most poignant narrative of the dehumanized human. In 1971, her husband was killed by Bengali neighbors, and she became destitute with her four daughters. She lived in a prison for several months waiting for repatriation to Pakistan. This became official after India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistan’s prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto signed the Shimla Agreement in April 1972, agreeing to the Line of Control in Kashmir and the transfer of stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh.
However, before her repatriation, Zaibunisa learned that two of her daughters had died of hunger. Unable to pay for their funeral, she allowed the jail authorities to throw away their bodies. In a quiet voice, she said: “They were human but were thrown away like garbage.”
Such testimony is a devastating indictment of nation-building. Bangladesh was born at an immense cost of human loss, but today neither Bangladesh, Pakistan, nor India will acknowledge their collective madness in the war. Rather, the impersonal states, by making the victims anonymous, have freed themselves of responsibility and human relations.
Immediately after Operation Searchlight, the Pakistan Army penetrated East Pakistan’s hinterland where it met with Bengali resistance. The West Pakistani soldiers, brainwashed into believing they were “killing Hindus,” forgot that these people were their fellow citizens.
Today, many are afraid to remember their war experiences, using the common rhetoric of Islam and nationalism to justify their actions in East Pakistan. They sanitize the events by explaining that “not too many people were killed, perhaps fifty or sixty thousand.” Frequently, they recall killing as “duty” and rarely address the issue of rape.
To understand how and why ordinary men became rapists and killers during the war, we need to listen to them. Except for a small minority, almost everyone in Pakistan denies the violence. The few who divulge their actions tell chilling tales of their personal degradation.
Hamid was an ordinary soldier in 1971 and is currently employed as a security guard. Lt Colonel Nadir Ali (his real name) was a major and took early retirement in 1972.
Hamid claimed that he obeyed the commands of his officer and performed his duty without asking questions. He admitted to looting and plundering Bengali homes and villages, and even “[standing] guard when officers raped the women.” However, he did not indulge in similar activities because “my zameer [conscience] would not let me commit such a crime.”
While Hamid’s ability to distinguish between good and bad may be laudable, he acknowledges that he “did not do anything to stop the crime of others.” Even today, there is no space in Pakistan for men like Hamid to speak and “come to terms” with what they had experienced and lost. Like their victims, some perpetrators live in silence, repulsed and tormented by their brutal memories.
Colonel Ali was perhaps the most outspoken voice of the war. His account shows how the state can transform a human being:
Before the war, the West Pakistanis treated East Pakistan as their colony or a holiday resort, where everything was permissible to them. We brought with us the same arrogance when we went to fight the Bengalis … most people in the war had no idea of what they were fighting against … we were blind … on July 15, I carried out a guerrilla operation across the Indian border. The BBC reported that fifty-six people were killed in this operation. I felt very proud, and everyone congratulated me … a few weeks later, I slipped into madness … war is madness … I was recommended for an award [for heroism]. You have to be a SOB to get an award for killing ordinary people … when I was inside the machine called the army, I was a part of it … now I know better. But I don’t talk about it. The biggest problem to deal with it is emptiness. How can killing fellow soldiers and civilians be a matter of celebration?
Colonel Ali has reclaimed a place above the abstract state rationalization. His voice illuminates, however obliquely, a truth that state, nation, and territory had replaced the human person in the war.
Likewise, Kader Siddiqui, the Bengali fighter known as Bongo Bir (hero of the Bengalis), provides a human sensibility. On December 19, 1971, in full public view, he shot and killed several Bihari rajakars (collaborators) in Dhaka. His Bengali spectators reveled in the killings. Years later, when we met, Siddiqui expressed deep remorse for his actions because, as he said, “the Bangladesh state is more corrupt and our leaders far more dangerous than the supporters of Pakistan ever were.”
As a form of atonement, he adopted an abandoned baby: “I don’t know whether she is a Bihari or Bengali, Muslim or Hindu child.” In responding to her cry for help, Siddiqui was able to put the ghosts of the past to rest.
Colonel Ali and Kader Siddiqui’s call to understand the humanity of the other is complex. In the dark place of human loss, they learned a responsibility transcending the confines of ethnicity and nationalism. Theirs is the story that national history cannot speak. Investigating the war of 1971 by privileging the experiences of survivors raises troubling questions about the historical and moral frame of the postcolonial states of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
In 1947, the outgoing British colonial rulers partitioned and created India and Pakistan on the basis of religion. Pakistan, a Muslim homeland, had two wings — East and West. The poison of religious politics became a weapon of choice in postcolonial India and Pakistan. Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan transformed their citizens into enemies of one another. The military gained power, and rhetoric about the enemy threat became a political tool.
In 1948 and 1965, India and Pakistan fought two wars over Kashmir. In 1971, India enabled the founding of Bangladesh. Today, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are divided enemy nations, and the people are strangers to one another. The roles of four powerful actors — Yahya Khan, Zulfikar Bhutto, Mujibur Rahman, and Indira Gandhi — must be investigated to understand how national agendas and personal ambitions destroyed the shared historical past of the subcontinent.
Mujibur Rahman became a national leader in East Pakistan after the devastating India–Pakistan war in 1965. Taking advantage of the Pakistan Army’s embarrassment, he put forward a six-point program demanding equitable power-sharing with East Pakistan. The military dictator Ayub Khan jailed Rahman and accused him of the so-called Agartala Conspiracy, conspiring with India to break up Pakistan.
The rise of student activism in East Pakistan, the urban middle-class opposition to Khan’s military dictatorship, and the unrest of the Indian immigrants in West Pakistan bolstered Rahman’s political stature. During the same period, Bhutto created the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967 as a progressive West Pakistani party that promised to undo the humiliating defeat of 1965.
In 1969, Yahya Khan became president and military administrator of Pakistan after deposing Ayub Khan. He held elections in November 1970 based on the principle of “one man, one vote” for a single-chamber national assembly. The election, however, did not go as Yahya Khan expected. Rahman’s Awami League (AL) swept the board in East Pakistan, with 160 of the 162 seats, while Bhutto’s PPP won 81 of the 138 seats in West Pakistan.
During the election campaign of November 1970, Zulfikar Bhutto’s fiery speeches created huge expectations with his talk of both religion and socialism. Bhutto was then instrumental in inciting state violence from West Pakistan in 1971. He convinced the West Pakistanis that the East Pakistani Bengalis were disloyal to their state.
Bhutto was unwilling to let Mujibur Rahman became the prime minister of Pakistan and polarized the people into two camps, Pakistanis versus Bengalis, and harangued his supporters into believing that war would save the country. Mujibur Rahman also introduced the dangerous political rhetoric of region and ethnicity into the public domain. In a speech on March 22, 1971, he urged his supporters to make Bengali “homes into … arsenal[s].”
Unable to convince the two leaders to share power, Yayha Khan decided to undertake military action against East Pakistan. Student leaders and political activists in East Pakistan, however, refused to concede and demanded independence. Yayha Khan responded by arresting Mujibur Rahman and deployed the Pakistan Army to “put down the rebellion in the East.”
India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi supported the East Pakistani rebels with intelligence. Her government trained and armed the Bengali guerrilla fighters, encouraged millions to migrate and create a “humanitarian crisis,” and, finally, attacked the western front of Pakistan on November 26, 1971. Within twelve days, the western front fell, and the eastern command, too, capitulated on December 16. The Indian government accomplished its mission of breaking up the Pakistani state, and Yahya Khan conceded. But even after the war was lost, Bhutto continued to claim that he had saved Pakistan.
After nine months of violence, the independent state of Bangladesh was now established with Mujibur Rahman as its prime minister. However, Bangladeshi officers assassinated Rahman in 1975, and military dictators went on to rule the country for nearly fifteen years. Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is the current prime minister of Bangladesh. Her government has carried out sentences of capital punishment for many figures suspected of supporting the Pakistani side in 1971.
Who do we blame — the men who committed the violence, or the leaders who legitimized violence as a national duty? How can Bangladesh call itself liberated when the victims, particularly women, continue to be oppressed?
Even today, politicians in Pakistan and Bangladesh find cause for revenge in the bitter effects of 1971. At a recent commemorative event organized by the Bangladesh High Commission in London, I was verbally attacked for not taking sides with Bangladeshi nationalism and upholding a humanist perspective. In Pakistan, opposition forced the cancellation of an academic discussion on 1971 that was scheduled for March 23–25 this year. In India, the refugees of 1971 are religiously divided, providing an excuse for the authorities to declare all Bengali Muslims in Assam to be “illegal immigrants,” amend citizenship rules, and threaten them with expulsion as “Bangladeshis.”
However, survivors — men and women, those who committed the violence and those who suffered it — have developed a different personal language of understanding. They call it insāniyat, or humanity, and search for its loss in the debris of ruined experiences. Gul, a Pakistani perpetrator from Gilgit, summed it up as follows:
We look like human beings, but we don’t behave like humans … our countries spend a lot of money building their military; we need a military for protection, not for violence. India and Pakistan have made each other into an enemy … [Indians] are human beings, and we are human beings, too. Did our grandfathers fight among themselves? No … the first thing that should matter to all of us is insāniyat. One needs to be educated to think like a human being … we have a long way to go.
The will to respond to this appeal is the work that lies ahead. Given the rise of extreme nationalism in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, this is perhaps the most difficult problem that the people of these countries have to address and work on together so that they can live as neighbors.