War as history, humanity in violence: Women, men, and memories of 1971, east Pakistan/Bangladesh

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One of my brothers was politically involved in the liberation struggle. This enraged our Bengali and Bihari neighbors. One afternoon, five men stormed into our house. They were Montu, Jewel, and Ghyas Babu from our neighborhood, and two others from outside our colony.1 Several Pakistani soldiers were also with them. They shot and killed my elderly grandfather and attacked my brothers. They also beat my sister and grandmother. My mother and I were together, but they dragged me away from her." With this vivid, though painful, opening statement, Khuku Rani began to recount her memory of rape and brutalization during the war of Bangladesh in 1971.2 Khuku's experience is a shared story of suffering of many in East Pakistan (after 1971 known as Bangladesh).3 Until the outbreak of civil unrest that was provoked by the military crackdown of Dhaka on March 25, 1971, Khuku's family, which consisted of her grandparents, parents, four brothers, and two sisters, lived in harmony in a neighborhood populated by Muslim and Hindu Bengalis and "Biharis."4 As a result of the violence, neighbors became enemies and fought against each other, motivated by the explicit purpose to destroy the other.5 The established boundaries of human respect broke down and women, in particular, were targeted for sexual attack. It was in this context that Khuku Rani was made to "pay" for her brother's political activities. She was forcibly taken from her home to a school compound where she was brutally raped, which she characterized as "torture." Recalling the "torture," she said, "I can't walk and my hand is paralyzed. I can't hold anything with it; they had broken my wrist with a rifle when I resisted the torture on my body. There were other girls in the room, but I was tortured the most." Khuku's misery did not end with rape and torture of her body. After the liberation of Bangladesh, women like Khuku were neglected and forgotten by the state and society, transformed into a category called birangonas, 6 which in her admission is her "greatest sorrow." "In the last thirty years nobody asked me how I am doing and what do I want from my life. . . . I don't have a normal human life and cannot fulfill my most basic needs," she said emotionally and broke down into tears. Khuku Rani's narrative unmasks several hidden stories and secrets of the war. We learn immediately from her testimony that there was no distinct and decipherable zone of conflict; violence was all around. The "normal" world made up of neighbors and friends disappeared, and multiple violent spaces controlled by enemies were established. At the heart of the horror was the combination of state-sanctioned violence and personal vendetta; men exploited the situation to abuse women. To this was added the established gender predispositions in a patriarchal society that played a catalyzing role in transforming social moods into actual behavioral manifestations. In the process, women's humanity was transgressed and destroyed, which Khuku Rani in her concluding statement makes poignantly clear to us. Juxtaposed to the victim's narrative is a perpetrator's voice that interrogates the war and its purpose. Rahim Ali recalled that he was sent with eleven men to "clean out a rebel Bengali village." At the end of the day, Rahim saw that "the place was littered with decapitated bodies, dismembered arms and legs were strewn all over. Dogs and vultures were fighting over the body parts. When I looked at the dogs, I saw they had no hair on them. They were vicious, man-eating animals. They were eating human beings, like me." The similarity that he saw between himself and his victim made him "a prisoner [of his conscience]." But his lowly status as a soldier in the Pakistan Army combined with the sense of service for nation compelled Rahim Ali to continue to "obey orders" and perform "duty" without asking questions. Thus, despite a struggle with his conscience, Rahim fought and killed in the hope of "saving Pakistan." Contrary to the expectation of men like Rahim Ali, at the end of nine months of violence Pakistan was dismembered. East Pakistan became a free country called Bangladesh on December 16, 1971. The surrendered Pakistani army soldiers were made prisoners of war (POWs) in India (the Indian Army had fought on behalf of the Bengalis).7 In the POW camp Rahim and his cellmates gradually started talking about the violence they had committed during the war. These conversations and the recognition of his victims' humanity enabled Rahim to "find [his] insaniyat [humaneness/humanity]" and it made him "free, an insan [a human]." Upon returning to Pakistan after two and half years of captivity, Rahim resigned from the army because he said "[he] had found [his] insaniyat."8 The term insaniyat to which Rahim Ali refers to requires a short explanation. Insaniyat is a concept and a term that is widely used in the Indian subcontinent. Its roots are in the Perso-Urdu culture of Sufi Islam that is popular in the region. With an esoteric Sufi explanation, insaniyat is 'love' within a human being that transcends ego, enabling one to recognize the shared human condition, which promotes a relationship to the Divine. Applied to the secular sphere, insaniyat has several possible explanations- humanity, humaneness, and humanism. In recent times, Islamic humanism or insaniyat has become a subject for understanding the Muslim world beyond the rhetoric of terror, militancy, and religious fundamentalism.9 Although the term and concept of insaniyat is widely invoked in Pakistan, research shows that insaniyat is not a textbook lesson learned in school. The sources of insaniyat for common people are in lived experiences, and their interpretations are derived from an understanding of a shared condition that our interlocutor Rahim Ali so clearly articulates in his testimony. The two testimonies recounted above expose, in the words of Veena Das, the "disturbing remains" of an unprocessed and unresolved history of violence that put into sharp focus the need for developing a new narrative based on insaniyat of survivors.10 Nearly four decades later the memories of victims and perpetrators are not integrated into the national stories in South Asia, but hover outside public language in silence. Survivors' silence serves as a witnessing of people's trauma and becomes a form of testimony toward developing a human language of understanding.11 To achieve this purpose, we must listen to both victims and perpetrators, and must probe the process of violence-in other words, the dehumanization of people during war. In this chapter, I examine the connections between nationalism, gender violence, and postcolonial nation building in South Asia, using the method of oral history. It is important to note at the outset that the method of oral history is not without problems; questions concerning believability and authenticity as well as use of memory to fit presenters' agendas are useful considerations to bear in mind. Methodologically, however, oral history is unique, because it provides a voice to the silenced and suppressed.13 As well, it creates conditions for human interaction that permeate the research project,14 requiring oral historians to contextualize the research method for answering larger questions that democratize history and memory.15 The methodology of first-person narrative, I suggest, is a way to overcome the division between experience and analysis, and to gain "imaginative access"16 to "catastrophic tales" for bearing witness to a history that is suppressed and submerged within national history with the aim to forget. The chapter is divided into four sections. In the first section I describe the events of 1971 and their violent history, paying particular attention to the identity-based politics of constructing Muslim and Hindu since the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947. Swimming against the tide of national "official" histories that blame "others" for violence, I engage in the next two sections the voices of survivors, both men and women, who tell their memories of the war. This leads to the final section on the possibility of writing a history after violence that focuses on humanity/insaniyat of survivors. This section engages the writings of Mevlana Jalauddin Rumi and Emmanuel Levinas, who suggest a search for a face-to-face encounter with "others" for humanizing history and privileging us with an epistemological tool to question received identities, such as nation, state, religion, and gender.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSexual Violence in conflict zones
Subtitle of host publicationFrom the ancient world to the era of Human Rights
PublisherUniversity of Pennsylvania Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9780812243185
StatePublished - Dec 1 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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