Towards 1971 VI: Conclusion: Unexceptional Violence

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[Part 6 of 6 — A short version of this series was published at DAWN – Books & Authors]

That three million perished in the 1971 conflict is widely stated around the world. Salil Tripathi points out that “Killing three million people over 267 days amounts to nearly 11,000 deaths a day. That would make it one of the most lethal conflicts of all time.” Is that so? Numerous scholars have concluded that the figure of three million is exaggerated and incorrect. Sarmila Bose contends that “it is possible to estimate with reasonable confidence that 50,000 – 100,000 people perished in the conflict in East Pakistan in 1971, including combatants and non-combatants, Bengalis and non-Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis.” The Bangla Academy’s district surveys, conducted between 1996 and 2001, Naeem Mohaiemen mentions, also found the figure to be much lower.  However, the importance of establishing statistically sound estimate of casualties and other war-crimes notwithstanding, as Sarmila Bose points out, there is no magical number of dead that needs to be hit before one can refer to a mass killing with the historically charged label of genocide.

The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 states that:

genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It is this definition with which Bose contends that the Pakistan Army’s violence in Bangladesh cannot be termed as genocide of Bengalis, but Bengali violence on Biharis can be. Bose claims that since Pakistan Army could not differentiate among Bengalis as to who was pro-liberation and who was pro-Pakistan, it used “proxies” or “profiling” to target people of a certain occupation (police), or political affiliation (membership of Awami League), age (adult), gender (in Bose’s reckoning male, but not female!), and religion (Hindu) and therefore engaged in “political killing.” She does not accord the same logic of profiling to the killings of Biharis, which she contends had to do with the narrow ethno-linguistic nationalism and xenophobia of Bengalis.

Bose does state that the killings of Bengali Hindus simply for being Hindus “could be [my emphasis] termed genocidal by their nature” but then mentions that the Pakistan Army left many unharmed, as if that somehow dilutes the genocidal nature of violence unleashed upon Hindus. She mentions that Hindus were attacked, looted, and hounded by Bengalis too, which is apparently the case from the evidence she presents. However, the war being waged by Pakistanis on Hindu ‘subversives’ and their ‘Hindu-like’ accomplices in Bengal is surely the overarching concern, and a key factor even in Bengali violence on Hindus since that is the broader context that animated the violence in Bangladesh in 1971. That India encouraged the migration of Hindu refugees from Bengal who were imagined as future “good citizens,” (but not Muslim refugees) also went into the making of Hindu exodus, which she correctly names as ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Hindus, but one that went hand in hand with the genocidal attack on Hindus.

Saikia, too, contends, that “it is not possible to establish that the Bangladesh case was genocide.” Violence in East Pakistan was not produced in death factories but as passionate episodes of violence responding to a previous outbreak of violence. This violence happened between and within communities. The perpetrators were driven by a multitude of motives ranging from group interest, politics, revenge, greed, and opportunism. Saikia advances another term, “Politicide,” whereby “political issues lead to mass murder of communal victims,” as an alternative to genocide.  Since the violence in 1971 was carried out on groups based on political terms, Saikia posits:

This was distinct from the violence committed by Nazis against Jews. Jews were not a political or military threat to Germany. They were killed solely because of their ethnoreligious identity.

(However, it seems that this methodology remains locked in a frame that takes the Nazi Holocaust as the standard with which every atrocity is compared to determine its station on the morbid hierarchy of misery.)

Remembering the dead as numbers is dehumanizing, and terminological labels have an effect of exceptionalizing violence and evil. Rather than being tied up with what terminology best describes the violence of 1971, Saikia brings our attention to the fact that common people committed atrocities as they took sides with ethnic or political groups and that “it is almost impossible to distinguish victims from perpetrators.” Pakistani military administrators, Indian politicians, Bengali leaders, and those following the aforesaid classes

reduced their enemies into abstract numbers and demographic units, categorizing us and them. The abstraction of humans to fit ethnic, religious, and national labels opened the space for a cold, inhuman purpose for one human being to violate another human being. Bounded communities saw themselves as enemies of other bounded communities.

A diverse population was reduced to mere labels – such as Hindu, ‘Hindu-like’ Bengali, Indian agent, Bihari, razakar and collaborator – and violence unleashed.


Perhaps the most important insight to emerge from a critical examination of the 1971 war and the consequent partition, is the need to recognize and affirm our shared humanity with the Other, which breaks down in times of conflict. Unable to see the Other except through de-contextualized and homogenized social identities, we are then left with no other vocabularies than the ones coughed up by ideologies of war. We reduce each other to mere labels as the contest for power plays out and the society brutalized. Saikia writes about Pakistani military officials like Amin and Alam who refused to see themselves as perpetrators of violence, and explained away their violence as normal. They considered themselves to have been merely performing their duty to “clean Pakistan of the betrayers, the Bengalis.”

Saikia documents dissenting, and repentant officers as well, to posit neither “a banal idea that perpetrators and victims deserve similar understanding,” nor that the perpetrators’ taking responsibility of their acts exonerates them of their crimes. She does so to point out that the concept of insaniyat [humanity] gives us a vantage point from which to understand the complexities of violence, women’s suffering, and perpetrators’ obligations. She writes about Sahubzada Yaqub Khan, the chief commander of the Pakistan Army in the Eastern wing who sent telegrams to high command that a military solution was not acceptable and resigned after having failed to convince Yahya Khan to halt the military operation. She discusses her interaction with Colonel Nadir Ali, who went through a psychological breakdown during the war:

His state of madness freed him, and he stopped playing the role of a soldier. Later, after regaining his equilibrium, he was able to recognize his and his ‘enemies’’ humanity and fill the empty space wracked by violence to develop speech and tell the story of war in his own language, Punjabi.

She seeks out the lower cadre jawans and rank and file soldiers like Malik, who described himself as a “troubled soul” for the violence he saw his fellow soldiers commit, for not having done anything to stop his higher official from raping a woman as he stood guard at the door, and for looting Bengali villages to obtain food provisions for his company.

Whether or not there can be closure to what happened that fateful year in East Pakistan, and whether or not some form of reconciliation can occur between Bangladesh and Pakistan is a separate matter. What needs to happen first and foremost is the acknowledgement of violence and recognition of the pain and misery of those that suffered. It is the narratives of the repenting perpetrators and their recognition of guilt that can bring some solace to the victims. Saikia highlights the case of men like Malik and Nadir Ali, who “being haunted by the memory of the Other” tell their crimes, and by that speech-act

deliver a justice to their victims that no tribunal, state, or court of law can deliver, and in that same gesture they make us aware that their existence as human rests on the Other. The perpetrator realizes that he owes his life as a human to another, his victim, whom he tried to destroy. This is the story that history cannot speak, the truth lies with the survivors – perpetrators and victims – who let us enter a murky world of memories and show us the possibility of moving beyond it towards closure.

The denial of their own violence exists in the three sub-continental nation-states – a willed collective amnesia regarding 1971 that is constructed through nationalist narratives, be it the Bengali betrayal for Pakistan, the innocent victim-warrior mukti-jodha for Bangladesh, or the savior, white knight triumphalism for India. But if we are to break the cycle of violence, a space needs to be opened up for people like Mohammad, a Pakistani soldier who sought Saikia out to tell her his story, and how he was told that Bengalis had killed a large number of Biharis and was sent to raze a Bengali town. Mohammad pleads that “it is important that Pakistan and Bangladesh governments must talk. I am ready to testify to my victims in Bangladesh and seek their understanding and forgiveness.”

Will we let them speak? Will we listen?


Sepoy pointed out that “The Bengal question cleaved Pakistan into two. This second Partition gave rise to the first outright embrace of the process of Islamization under the leadership of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.” Bhutto gained unrestrained power over Pakistan in the aftermath of the war of 1971 that nevertheless was no match for his megalomania. He turned Pakistan away from the ambit of South Asian politics and towards the Middle East. In efforts to please the Saudi regime and bolster his own flagging legitimacy, Bhutto pandered to its Pakistani Islamist allies and declared Ahmadis non-Muslim. He unleashed the disgraced Pakistan military on Baluchistan in 1974 in a campaign that earned the butcher of Bengal, General Tikka Khan, the epithet Butcher of Baluchistan, and gave the Pakistan military a second lease on life. Bhutto’s pet, General Zia, in due time, overthrew his ever authoritarian government in a military coup, and went on to enhance, build on, and focus the processes of Islamizing the state — what Sepoy calls the Sunnification of Pakistan.

The Sunnification of the state and society of Pakistan dovetailed with America’s Jihad on the “godless communists” and the “evil empire,” and is evident in and constructed through (among other deplorable policies and actions) not only the introduction of blasphemy laws to criminalize Ahmadiyyat in Pakistan but also by supporting and enabling anti-Shia militias to crush Iran’s imagined allies among the Pakistani Shia as part of both America’s and Saudi Arabia’s not so cold war with Iran. These developments accompanied decrees to police women. And so it was that, in Saadia Toor’s words,

within the discourse of the regime, the terms momin (‘pious Muslim’) or mard-i-momin (‘pious Muslim man’) became synonymous with the normative citizen, with predictable implications for women and non-Muslims. Accordingly, the new legal/constitutional regime distinguished between Muslims and non-Muslims, between women and men, and between Muslim women and Muslim men, with pious Muslim (Sunni) male emerging as the only true subject of rights and privileges and all others being relegated to the status of second class citizens.”1

The military junta, unaccountable to the civilian government, is the shadow government of Pakistan with tentacles deep in Pakistan’s culture, politics, and economy. Its commercial empire, what scholar Ayesha Siddiqa has dubbed ‘Milbus,’2 is maintained at the cost of education, healthcare, basic rights, and a democratic society. Erasure of inconvenient episodes of history from memory is vital to this mutually re-enforcing relationship between steadily escalating militarization and a narrowing vision of what the State of Pakistan is and can be.


Previously: IIIIIIIV, V

  1. Toor, 2011, p136 []
  2. Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, Pluto Press, 2007 []

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