Towards 1971 IV: The Enemy Within

[Part 4 of 6]

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.”

"Captured Biharis, who had allegedly collaborated with the occupying forces of West Pakistan in Bangladesh, are executed. " Source: 1971, Horst Faas & Michel Laurent

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!

The Pakistan Army recruited East Pakistanis as civilian militias, popularly referred to as razakars/rajakars that had two wings, al-Badr and al-Shams. The former included college and madrassa-educated youth and carried out special operations, and the latter were charged with protection of bridges and roads.1 They also worked as death squads. Yasmin Saikia notes that “During the war, the West Pakistani government had called upon men to subjugate the rebels in the east, and in turn, these men attacked the vulnerable to display power. Violence spawned and the nationalist Bengalis heeding to the call of their leaders turned against their supposed enemy – Pakistanis and Biharis – in their midst.” Sarmila Bose, however, takes it for granted that the “Razakar forces were recruited from among loyalist Bengali.” Indeed there were those that took the pro-united-Pakistan stance and fought for it. General Abu Lais, a Bengali man who now lives in Pakistan, is one such man that Saikia mentions in her book. Lais’ father, who had once fought for the creation of Pakistan, did not approve of its break-up and was tortured and killed by Mukti Bahini, the pro-liberation militia, for his political position as well as for information regarding his son’s whereabouts which he did not divulge. Lais’ father himself was neither a pro-Pakistan militant, nor aiding the Pakistan Military. He simply refused to aid the Bangladeshi liberation fighters. However, all those who actively helped the Pakistan army, or as in the case of Lais’ father, did not aid the Bengali liberation cause, seem to be collapsed into one enemy category, that of ‘collaborators.’

 

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.”

"Overcrowding - Geneva Camp" Source: Shafiur Rahman's photostream

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.

Previously: I, II, III


 

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  1. See Sarmila Bose, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, 2011 []

14 thoughts on “Towards 1971 IV: The Enemy Within”

  1. Why dont the Biharis go back to Bihar? After all, only a minority of Bihari Muslims ever migrated to Pakistan. The Biharis are not the responsibility of the people of Bangladesh/East Pakistan/ East Bengal. They were not invited there. The rights of the sons and daughters of the soil cannot be ignored. That is why our Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has given their children citizenship. We know what is the meaning of accomodating ideologically driven outsiders – just look at Sindh. They are now 2nd class citizen in their own ancestral land. If most Biharis and UP Muslims could co-exist with their neighbours from another religion in India, then may be stranded Biharis should give application to go to Bihar. Also, the issue of settling the Bihar issue lies with Pakistan, if with anyone at all. It is not the job of Bangladeshis to be excited about unwelcome guests, hostile to the very liberation of our land.

  2. The tragedy that has befallen three generations of Biharis was once summed up by a Bihari barber whom I met in Karachi, as: “Jo kuch dada nay kamaya, woh Hinduon nay loota; jo kuch baap nay kamaya woh Bengalion nay loot lia; aur jo kuch mein nay kamaya woh yahan walay loot rahay hain.”

  3. Re: “Why dont the Biharis go back to Bihar?”

    Um, Mozammel, the last time I checked The Government of India wasn’t exactly keen on accepting people back from Pakistan/Bangladesh. As such, I’ll chalk yours up in the category of lame rhetorical questions.

  4. PS — to the extent the point is that if GoI doesn’t want them and neither does Pakistan, why should they be Bangladesh’s problem, that is precisely the sort of situation where the “state of exception” arises (even the Nazis, let us not forget, believed the Final Solution justified at least in part because no-one else “wanted” the Jews) — the space where, in Agamben’s haunting words, one may be killed without crime. Stated differently, your comment helps sketch the space where the ethical question is presented in its most urgent form — it is by no means an answer.

    Aside: on the (brutal) absurdity of borders, in case folks here haven’t seen this photo essay, I cannot recommend it enough: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/PhotoEssay/23/A-Great-Divide.html

  5. Mozammel,

    With all sympathy with your point of view, I want to point out to the real fault line ( as I see)

    You need to go deeper in history (or should one say histories!). What is Bangladesh today, is a part of truncated Bengal of Raj days, which in turn was a part of an earlier ‘Bengal’ which consisted of areas called Bihar, Odisha, Assam etc. today. The wider issue in question that comes out of this excellent series, to me is – how fragile is the claim of nationhood based on exclusivity of religion that could not accomodate the cultural and ‘local’ differences. That this modern (western) concept of statehood and democracy suffers from internal contradictions and faulty logic, that became all apparent when they were on test in multi-cultural, multi-religious, and ‘multi-‘name-you-what’ setting like India (or Indian sub-continent, if you prefer).
    BTW this new republic of India is surviving not due to democracy or Nehru-Gandhi etc., it is sustained, despite of these, by the civilization’s value of accommodation and mutual acceptance. But then there are no mutually exclusive claims as to ‘truths’ in Dharmic traditions.
    Again accepting the right of son of signs it militates against the ‘transnational/multinational/nomadic’ religions. This means that the fault line is somewhere else.
    Going by such ideas, don’t you see the illogicality here. For Example – Why would India take back these Biharees who left their ‘mother/father’ land in search of ‘Ummah’? And what if they could coexist with people of other religions in UP and Bihar, won’t those people of other religions feel the same way about these Momeens the way Sindhees as you say, are are feeling?
    Friend, the real devil lies in the little notion of exclusivity. But then these all are defined by the forces of history/histories and no one knows the outcomes or even the rightness, in long-long elliptical trajectory of existence it is difficult to know the veracity of a position.

  6. Mozammel,

    Brilliant question, if you have time machine maybe you can go and ask these to Muslim league leaders of minority provinces (especially U.P./Bihar which in united India meant provinces where Muslims were in minority) . What were they smokin’ ?

    It’s just a co-incidence that I read Mr Naim’s essay (should be a mandatory reading for anyone on modern Indian history yes I discovered it late) “Iqbal, Jinnah, and Pakistan:
    The Vision and the Reality” and one cannot avoid the feeling of watching a train wreck in slow motion for last 70 years.

  7. A minor grammatical point:

    “My uncle’s sister moved from Indore, India to Dhaka…”

    Doesn’t that simply make her “your aunt”?

  8. Depending on what “My uncle” means, I’d say, not necessarily. Unless you mean in a general sense, then yes.

  9. Re: “Depending on what “My uncle” means…”

    Definitely not as semantically sexy as the Clinton contortions, but another sign that the age of relativism and moral decay survived 9/11!!!

  10. However one must ask a question “What if a party that won all the seats in Punjab, wants to usurp the national government”?

    Would other provinces allow that?

    It is a myth that Mujib wanted democracy. Far from it. If he was a true democrat he would have tried to win significant seats in the Western half as well.

    Ethnic parties bring fascism and not democracy.

    This is why I make a point that Punjab being the largest province should not allow a Punjab only party to form the government.

    There are a lot of other myths surrounding the sad period of 1971. Here are some of them.

    1. India only responded after Pak army made a mess in E Pakistan. WRONG!
    —- Read and watch interviews of Gen. Manekshaw. He admitted that Indians planned for invasion in Feb-March (or even earlier). Then they trained and pushed 60,000 Indian army guerillas in E. Pakistan. This is not a Pakistani saying this. It was Manekshaw i.e. from the horse’s mouth.

    2. 100s of 1000s of people were killed.
    — If you please see the Hamud Ur Rehman report. The TOTAL number casualties including Pak army jawans, the Bengalis and non-Bengalis were in the tune of 28,000. This by the way included Total ethnic cleansing of Urdu-Speaking like what happened in Bosnia and Croatia at the hands of Serbs.

    3. Mujib was persecuted in Pakistan
    — Mujib was a leader in Pak sometimes incarcerated but still a leader. What happened to him when Bengalis found out about his lies? They killed him, and every member of his family including kids, grandpa, grandma, uncles, and aunts. Only one significant member aka Hasina survived because she was out of the Sonar Bangla at the time.

    4. Pakistan took money form East.
    — Dollar for Dollar E. Pakistan had more spending money before 1971 than what they have now. Please look at the budgets of the two regions in before and after 1971.

    Separation of E. Pakistan was a terrible loss for us. However we cannot beat ourselves to death because Bengalis decided to separate. They should have followed a peaceful method if they didn’t want to live with us. No country in the world lets go of her territory without significant struggle. Look at India (Punjab fiasco and Sikh massacres), America (Civil war), China (Tibet), Turkey (Kurds) etc.

    Thank you.

    Dr. Qazi

  11. “Separation of E. Pakistan was a terrible loss for us. However we cannot beat ourselves to death because Bengalis decided to separate. They should have followed a peaceful method if they didn’t want to live with us.”

    Very “US” centric

  12. as far as im concerned, mohajir (inc. bihari) muslims had as much right to settle in then east pakistan as bengali muslims from west bengal (india) did. therefore those ‘urdu speakers’ are as much bangladeshi as bengali muslims are. people like ‘mozammel’ are possibly genetic or psychological descendants of famine-stricken and most impoverished subcontinental communities right from colonial period, who has not yet developed enough grey matter to understand politicians are not truth-tellers.

    i am a Bangladeshi bengali myself. i think this ‘mozammel’ unintentionally makes an important point – “They were not invited here”. the fallacy in this very sentence should lead anyone to discard his whole argument. i’d be interested to ask him if his grandparents living as second-class citizens of british hindustan (not bengal) ever wanted an autonomous/semi-autonomous state to uphold their dignity and customs or not

  13. @Dr. Qazi

    As far as I know, Bhutto was insisting on having a separate constituency in West Pakistan and administer it without East Pakistani (i.e. Muijb’s) involvement. And Mujib wanted a pan-Pakistan coalition government. But then Mujib’s agitation of the public made things even worse. Bhutto and Mujib both crossed the line and Bangladeshis and Pakistanis both had to pay a price.

    Beside that, I agree with all your points

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