Marshaling colonial legacies, the post-colonial state seeks to consolidate the nation as a new form of empire, demanding hyper-masculine militarization and territorial and extra-territorial control. This requires the manufacture of internal and external enemies to constitute a national identity, constructed in opposition to the anti-national and non-native enemies of the nation.
Angana P. Chatterji, “The Militarized Zone,” Kashmir– The Case for Freedom
After all, there is little wiggle room in the binaries inscribed onto nationalism or colonialism by current historiography: one resists or perishes; one is either a hero or a traitor.
Sepoy, “The Middle Man”
My uncle’s sister moved from Indore, India to Dhaka when she got married to a man who had migrated to Dhaka during the 1947 partition of India. That would make her and her husband, in Bangladeshi parlance, Biharis, a catch-all pejorative term for those that migrated to East Pakistan during the Partition from various regions in India. Her husband, Shafiq Bhai (pseudonym), built a successful business in Dhaka and was a wealthy man. One evening during the war of 1971, they were visited by Pakistani soldiers. Rumors spread that Shafiq Bhai was collaborating with the Pakistani army. My uncle’s family maintains that accusation to be untrue. In any event, armed men came for Shafiq Bhai and took him and his two adult sons with them. They shot dead all three of them. Then their house was firebombed, killing one of their younger sons and injuring two daughters. From then on, a Bengali friend of Shafiq Bhai’s murdered son guarded the rest of the family, and helped them migrate to India. After they emigrated, their home was looted. After the end of war they came back and married their daughter to the Bengali man who had helped them.
Responding to a question about the pardoning of the collaborators, Bangladeshi journalist Syed Ashfaqul Haque, says that “if the war criminals were tried a third of the population would be eliminated.” Of course, he’s only referring to the Bengalis who collaborated with the Pakistan army as war criminals, and not the Biharis who were not pardoned but were killed, hounded out, or herded into camps where they have stayed in abysmal conditions for four decades as stateless persons, and whose attackers are not counted among war criminals but among war heroes.
Yasmin Saikia, in her book, Women, War, and the making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971, argues that the Bangladeshi nation-state has a vested interest in preserving a certain memory of the past in order to continue to legitimize itself. As is the case with Pakistan, forgetting the episodes and stories that complicate the official history is a part of the process by which the state creates and sustains collective memory to keep its raison d’être fresh. The official Bangladeshi narrative rests upon a singular focus on Bengali victimhood and Pakistani oppression: The Bangladeshis are the oppressed, who fought valiantly and ultimately triumphed in liberating their nation from the Pakistani colonial boot. The dead consist of only victims of the Pakistan Army and its death squads. Collaborators include only opportunists and monsters but not political actors acting out a legitimate political viewpoint. In Saikia’s words, “the Bengalis claim 1971 and the trauma of violence as an exclusive experience. Public memory is replete with stories of the suffering of Bengali people, but there is no space to remember the experience of other groups.”
Biharis, as Eqbal Ahmad explains, “had to move two or three times since 1946 to escape massacres in India, and had finally found haven in Pakistan to which they remained loyal.” They were murdered by Bengalis in East Pakistan by the thousands, for being Urdu-speaking migrants, supporters of a united Pakistan, and being favored by West Pakistan. While the Pakistan military did nothing to stop the massacres of Biharis as they unfolded, it later on highlighted these massacres, inflated the number of dead, and used them as war propaganda to legitimate its own military assault (something that Sarmila Bose makes no mention of in her book). Such massacres occurred just before the Pakistan military’s assault on East Pakistan when the Awami League briefly held some level of control over East Pakistan. During the Pakistan military’s counter-insurgency and war of attrition too, there were massacres of Biharis and also revenge massacres by Biharis against Bengalis. The third round of bloody massacres of Biharis occurred in 1972 when Bangladesh had come into being!
Amitava Kumar in his essay, “A collaborator in Kashmir,” illustrates how an occupation turns people into collaborators by reflecting on Tabassum Guru’s 1994 statement A Wife’s Appeal for Justice: “you must understand the situation in Kashmir, every man, woman and child has some information on the movement even if they are not involved. By making people into informers they turn brother against brother, wife against husband and children against parents.” Both positions – one that considers collaborators to be necessarily loyalists and the other that considers those perceived to be loyalists as necessarily collaborators with the Pakistan army– overstate the agency of the individual and downplay the power dynamics. There were those that informed on fellow Bengalis; those that actively provided aid to Pakistan military; those that were recruited into its militias; those that worked for Pakistani forces; those that gave them rations; and those that were opportunists and performed all or some of the above to make hay while the Pakistani sun, it needs to be kept in mind, was scorching everything that stood in its path.
Those that collaborated or were perceived as collaborators were and still are marked as the enemy. For West Pakistani civilians living in East Pakistan at the time, their being from West Pakistan was reason enough for Mukti Bahini and pre-liberation Bengalis to target them. Then there were Bengali collaborators who have largely not been held to account in post liberation Bangladesh for the violence they unleashed, while the violence unleashed by pro-liberation Bengalis on those that were, or were suspected to be, collaborators is unacknowledged and continues through camp life and discrimination, as in the case of Biharis who are always already deemed the collaborators. Saikia highlights the important point that “The rajakar Other is not an easily identifiable category but generally pro-Pakistan Bengalis and ordinary Urdu-speaking people, who are commonly referred to as Bihari due to their affinity with Urdu-speaking Pakistanis, are, by and large, deemed rajakars.”
The Pakistan Army, barricaded and well-armed as it was, was a tougher target for Bangladeshi nationalist violence, consequently making Biharis a more convenient and likely target. Biharis, being Urdu speakers, had enjoyed an edge over Bengalis in terms of employment (in either Pakistani administration or private businesses) and patronage. This accounted for Bengali socio-economic resentments for Biharis. Being immigrants, Biharis were not landed people and mostly worked in the business sector, resulting in their being clustered in urban spaces with ghetto-like conditions. Having suffered through migration and relocation to Bengal at the time of Partition, many of them had sympathies for the idea of Pakistan, as opposed to ethno-linguistic Bengali nationalism which by the time of the war had little room to accommodate them within its fold. Differences in language and economic conditions, and Biharis’ perceived natural loyalty to Pakistan, transformed Biharis into an outcast community that the Bangladeshi nationalists targeted for violence and pogroms, most often in towns where Bengalis and Biharis often lived together as neighbors. After the war, many Biharis became “stateless refugees,” some of whom were repatriated to West Pakistan, but most were not and stayed in camps abandoned by the West Pakistan and kept, in Saikia’s words, “in a state of exception, and by controlling their lives and deaths the state of Bangladesh has transformed them into bodies for killing and destruction.”
The lack of recognition of Biharis’ misery in Bangladeshi society and the abundant anti-Bihari rhetoric legitimizes the continuance of systemic and routine violence against them. In his review of Sarmila Bose’s book, Mohaiemen shortchanges the Biharis by saying that the “[t]he issue of repatriation for the ‘Biharis’ or ‘Stranded Pakistanis’ is also largely settled through their relative assimilation over 40 years, and the court verdict (shamefully late) which gave them full voting rights ahead of the 2008 elections. What remains unsettled is war crimes trials for the Bengalis who were involved in death squads, with the support of the Pakistan army.” Indeed, his discussion of the domestic politics involved in prosecuting Bangladeshi collaborators is illuminating and the granting of voting rights to stateless Biharis is a big step in the right direction, but the former is hardly the only issue that remains unsettled and the latter “largely settled.” This, again, is a silencing of Biharis. In June 2008, the children of Biharis born after 1971 were granted citizenship rights, but their parents and elders still fester in the state of statelessness. Four decades of camp-life, and living as socio-economic and political pariahs stripped of rights does not go away with a stroke of the pen. Neither should the issue be considered “largely settled” without recognition, apology, and reparations for the crimes done against them – the absence of which, in itself, is continual violence.
- See Sarmila Bose, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, 2011 [↩]