- Fragments of Memories: Researching Violence in the 1971 Bangladesh War
There is a saying in Bengali – kencho khurte saap berono – which means, you dig for an earthworm and a snake comes out. The implication is not only that what you discover is different from what you thought you would find, but also that what emerges is considerably worse – dangerous, in fact – compared to what you expected.
I started digging – that is, researching incidents of violence during the 1971 Bangladesh war – several years ago, originally intending to write a series of articles in the Indian media. I had a longstanding interest in the 1971 war due to my own childhood memories from Calcutta. After many years I was based in India again and writing for a large newspaper group. There was likely to be an interest among the general public in well-documented illustrative stories from 1971. I had the language skills and the locational advantage, in addition to my academic background and journalistic experience, to make a real contribution.
The Story of 1971
I thought I knew the ‘big story’ of 1971. It was a narrative I had grown up with in Calcutta. This story comprised a massive repressive action by the military regime in Pakistan against their Bengali citizens in East Pakistan, who, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League, wished to form an independent country of Bangladesh; the Pakistani army was said to have killed three million Bengali civilians in the process and raped hundreds of thousands of women; millions of refugees had fled into India, which eventually intervened on the side of the Bangladeshi freedom fighters (muktijoddhas) in a humanitarian cause. The story was traumatic, but had a happy ending – the forces of good won and Bangladesh became free.
The purpose of my research into particular incidents of violence during the war was to document incidents within this familiar narrative. The trauma of the war had been so great that the very mention of the year ‘1971’ had come to symbolize unspeakable human misery. Yet the suffering of the people of East Pakistan/Bangladesh seemed to be long forgotten, marginalized in the narrative in India, where 1971 overwhelmingly meant only one thing: the humiliating surrender of the Pakistan army in Dhaka.1 [End Page 285] Humiliation seemed to be the enduring motif for Pakistan as well. Accused of atrocities, defeated by arch-enemy India and dismembered, Pakistan seemed to be in a long-term sulk, looking for someone to blame. Even Bangladeshis seemed discontented; they had achieved the independence they sought, yet chafed that the world had moved on and forgotten their trauma, while the perpetrators of such immense violence had got off scot-free.
I was sympathetic to the Bangladeshi complaint, but thought that there was little point blaming the rest of the world for forgetting about the war if Bangladeshis themselves had not made available well-documented histories of the conflict. The world was also far more likely to remember, I reasoned, if people could see the conflict in human terms, through the experience of people at the ground level rather than faceless statistics. I wanted to write in-depth accounts of particular incidents of violence in East Pakistan, about real people caught up in the war, which would touch the hearts of readers.
Describing her experiences of researching gender violence in the same war, Yasmin Saikia wrote in this journal: ‘My role has changed during the course of the research from that of a chronicler to an advocate. I now see myself as a storyteller with a mission.’2 My journey has been in the opposite direction. I started out as a ‘storyteller with a mission’: I wanted to give voice to the victims of the war, by depicting them as human beings with names, traits and a back story wherever possible. And once I had done that, I wanted to confront the ‘perpetrators’ – all in (West) Pakistan according to the official narrative – with what they had done, and ask ‘why’.
My initial approach – the plan to write a series of media articles and to do so with a strong component of ‘advocacy’ – was premised on the narrative of...