Towards 1971 VI: Conclusion: Unexceptional Violence

[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 []

12 thoughts on “Towards 1971 VI: Conclusion: Unexceptional Violence”

  1. Regarding numbers (a vulgar obsession admittedly yet not irrelevant), here is a footnote from War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh by Richard Sisson, Leo Rose:

    India set the number of victims of Pakistani atrocities at three million, and this is still the figure usually cited. We interviewed two Indian officials who had held responsible positions on the issue of Bangladesh in 1971. When questioned about the actual number of deaths in Bangladesh attributable to the civil war, one replied “about 300,000″. Then when he received a disapproving glance from his colleague, he changed this to “300,000 to 500,000″. Regardless of the figure, this is a horrifying loss of life, but it is still impossible to get anything like reliable estimates as to (1) how many of these were “liberation fighters” killed in combat, (2) how many were Bihari Muslims and supporters of Pakistan killed by Bengali Muslims and (3) how many were killed by Pakistani, Indian, or Mukti Bahini fire and bombing during the hostilities. One thing is clear–the atrocities did not go just one way, through Bengali Muslims and Hindus were certainly the main victims.

  2. Last week David Armitage gave a talk here at Rice about civil war: what is it? how do we (by “we,” he meant those largely experiencing civil conflict within a western tradition) define it? I liked the talk because it was inconclusive. The takeaway: something like “civil war” is notoriously difficult to define. It is often described with the benefit of hindsight for political purposes. Armitage pointed to political scientists, who in the late 1980s actually came up with a definition: a civil war had to, among other criteria, encompass at least 1000 battlefield deaths per year. The audience of historians laughed. We could all see the difficulties of counting deaths per year, especially those that were supposed to be limited to a “battlefield.”

    Civil War is perhaps like genocide. It is difficult to say what it is, precisely, but we know it when we see it (apologies to Potter Stewart). Trying to tie a definition to it, as to how like or unlike it was to the Holocaust, means the unseemly business of counting bodies, digging into motivations, peering into ethnic and religious conflict. It means the moment one thinks one has a workable definition of such an obscenity in one instance, the horror of another instance slips away in an orgy of numbers and factoids.

    What I find encouraging about Saikia’s efforts is her engagement with actual soldiers, especially those who now feel shame, remorse, and wonder how their other selves existed amidst atrocity. Perhaps the way in is not labeling 1971 as an either/or/perhaps kind of conflict. Instead I read into the bits that Patwari analyzed here the problems of being a part of an army attached to a modern state.

    Chris Browning historicized the problem in his book Ordinary Men. How did the Nazi state coerce, or convince, ordinary German men to butcher Jews in Poland? His Afterword suggested that the answer lies in our existence in a world “…in which war and racism are ubiquitious.” “….[T]he powers of government mobilization and legitimization are powerful and increasing, in which a sense of personal responsibility is increasingly attenuated by specialization and bureaucratization, and in which the peer group exerts termendous pressures on behavior and sets moral norms. In such a world, I fear, modern governments that wish to commit mass murder will seldom fail in their efforts for being unable to induce ‘ordinary men’ to become their ‘willing executioners.'” (Browning, 223)

    Patwari’s question “Will we let them speak? Will we listen?” is particularly germane if we realize that the possibility and desirability of genocide is a characteristic of the modern nation-state.

  3. Well written, Sepoy. I wish you would write on what’s going on in Balochistan and on how it might become another Bengal.

  4. Thanks, Patwari – and yes, I agree with your reading of uprightness. You are right; motives – good or bad – are almost irrelevant; likewise, their behaviour in other facets of their lives is also not important in the context.

    Thank you, too, for your good wishes. Do let me know how I might contact you by email; the road ahead for the book project, is long.

    Thanks again.


  5. Thanks for reading, Salil. I didn’t mean to suggest that you accept the 3m estimate, but I can see how it can be read that way. Thanks for the clarification. Also, I look forward to your upcoming book on the subject.

    Your point about the army not being made up of “upright soldiers fighting for the honor of the country,” is somewhat misplaced, I think. It seems to suggest that the soldiers in East Pakistan went astray. Bose, too, takes that line, the difference being that she contends that it was “one or two companies of a single regiment.” How does one determine whether or not they were fighting for the honor of their nation? For all I know, they must have thought that they were doing just that. My argument is that whether or not they were upright soldiers fighting for the honor of the country is irrelevant. Upright soldiers, nice people, family-men, loving fathers, and so on, do commit grotesque violence, or at least, go along with it.

    “Bose mentions the soldier who helped the boy get a pardon and that some soldiers had tears rolling down their cheeks as the massacre unfolded. That may be, and there is much good in representations that humanize soldiers, but what needs to be highlighted is the fact that they still went along and assisted in the cruelty that so troubles them, moves them to tears, and, at least in some cases, haunts them for the rest of their lives. One explanation for that may be the militarist nationalism that idolizes the military and puts the defense of a nation—always deemed under siege from enemies without and within— at the forefront of national self-hood. Another explanation is the very institution of military that has at its core obedience, hierarchy, and killing which is writ large when it is unrestrained by public scrutiny and accountability.”

  6. Patwari: I think one other way to draw a distinction between those two “models” of genocide is that, where the Other to be killed without crime is an intimate Other, there is an erotic component to the violence, and a feeling of release/liberation, that might not be present where the we encounter the sort of “industrial” extermination the Nazis are known for. In fact, in Eichman in Jerusalem, Arendt draws a(n) (implicit but useful) contrast, when she describes the orgy of anti-Jewish violence that broke out in Romania BEFORE the Nazis could begin the transport/segregation etc. that served as preparatory work for the death camps. She cites Nazi correspondence expressing great disgust/distaste for the Romanian attitude, as it wasn’t civilized. That is, the Nazis (a bit like the army officer referenced in Saikia’s book/your piece), or at least A strong undercurrent in the Nazi attitude, saw this as dirty, distasteful work — and then took pride in the fact that they were up to the job (in turn legitimizing the dirty deed: “hey, you’re doing some good even if you feel sick — you’re demonstrating you’ve got the spine to do what’s needed”). To exult in it struck more than one as barbaric, as confusing the necessary work that history had placed on the shoulders of the Germans (and that others were too craven or hypocritical to carry out) with mindless killing. That seems to me to be the more important distinction, rather than whether one is genocide and the other isn’t. [As you’ve explained, doesn’t seem like Saikia would disagree either.]

    Aside: Based on my experience of the USA, however, one problem is that only the former — i.e. the “industrialized” slaughter — is recognized as genocide; the other “model”, the sheer messiness of the other “model”, is banished to anthropology of the “age-old ethnic hatreds” sort. In turn incentivizing the desperate race by activists to shoe-horn “their” particular mass killings into the neat categories of the Nazi paradigm…

  7. Thanks patwari… while I wait for my copy of her book, your comment/explanation of Saikia’s point adds a lot of context, and makes a lot of sense…

    To add to your (and Salil’s) point, I definitely agree that the vulgarity of numbers ought to be eschewed just as much as the vulgarity of a G-fixation ought to be. Gujarat 2002 offers a great illustration: the massacre of “only” a couple thousand people is not generally associated with terms like “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” — but an examination of the rhetoric of cleansing/”safaaya”, the incitement, the complicity of the state government, etc., reveal a pattern of great similarity with situations where far larger numbers have been killed; even if one doesn’t want to unambiguously say that a “genocide” occurred, personally it’s difficult for me to not describe the violence as “genocidal”. It feels qualitatively different from even some conflicts where more people might have died (e.g. Kashmir; or the Pakistani actions in NWFP). [I stress, not “worse” or “better” so much as “different”.]

  8. Quick clarification. After quoting from my review of Sarmila Bose, Patwari asks “Is that so?” The reference is to my calculation that if the 3m figure is correct, it would require 11,000 deaths a day, making the 71 war one of the most lethal.

    In case there are readers here who don’t go back to my original piece, and conclude, from Patwari’s question “Is that so?” that I accept the 3m figure, well, I don’t. I’ve gone on to say in my piece how such a figure exceeds known deaths in the DRC conflict, in the Rwandan conflict, and so on. So the 3m figure is not accurate, but then nor is it “a few thousand,” as Bose implies. It is entirely possible for a few hundred thousand to have died during the conflict, possibly less than half a million. But, as I argue at the end of my piece, the argument should not be about the numbers, nor about whether one should call it a “genocide”. It was a grotesque crime against humanity, for which the Pakistani army bears the primary responsibility. The other side, as it were, didn’t comprise of innocent angels, but the army wasn’t made up of upright soldiers fighting for the honor of the country.

    Just thought I should clarify, lest I appear to have accepted the 3m figure.


    Salil Tripathi

  9. Thanks Q. Saikia’s discussion on what to call the violence in 1971 is rather brief (and I think, rightly so) wherein she touches on Rwanda and Nazi Holocaust as the two ‘models’ of genocide: “The processing required for committing genocide can be an ‘industrial’ production that occurred in Nazi Germany, or genocidal violence can occur within communities that share intimate and passionate relationships, as in the case of Rwanda and Bosnia.” Out of these two ‘models,’ she suggests that East Pakistan doesn’t fit the first, but resembles the second. She says that genocide is strategically used to establish its perpetrators’ power, who “define the event through their motivation to willfully destroy and annihilate the victim community that they define as different from them.” With that in mind, she asks whether the Pakistani soldiers thought they were committing genocide, and suggests that “the violence of the Pakistan Army was driven by the desire and motivation to save Pakistan and make the Begalis submit.” I read that as her drawing a distinction between domination and annihilation, in terms of objectives.

    Then she presents the concept of ‘politicide’ (“political issues lead to mass murder of communal victims”) that scholars of genocide studies have put forth. That, it seems to me, more aptly describes the violence of 71, as well as the cases of violence recognized as genocide, since, as you said, “the scale at which credible genocidal attempts need to occur means that they are ONLY justified, populations can ONLY be mobilized, if the targeted other is presented as posing an existential threat (in a classic case of projection) — it isn’t surprising that virtually all of the mass killings that are susceptible to the G-word (the Nazi exterminations; Rwanda etc.) occur in the context of a war, when, presumably, such representations become even more plausible.” She mentions that the list of perpetrators of violence in East Pakistan included Bengalis, Biharis, Pakistanis and Indians, and asks whether we should conclude that there were multiple genocides. With this discussion on the indeterminacy of the term and some brief detailing of politics of labeling the violence (something that I have tried to hint at throughout the series), she moves on to more interesting questions about violence regardless of how we label it.

    That said, I find that quote perplexing. Whether or not Jews were *really* a political or military threat, they were perceived to be that. In hindsight, I probably shouldn’t have removed my parenthetical remark to that effect.

  10. PS — I don’t mean to cavil; Saikia appears to have written an excellent book, and I look forward to reading it (thanks for the shout out — my copy of “State of Islam” arrived yesterday!).

    Great series — the shifts in perspective, the way every post looked at a different aspect, left me wanting a 10, 15, who-knows-how-many-part series….

  11. I haven’t read the Saikia book yet, but the quote on why 1971 wasn’t genocide — “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.” — is most odd. Saikia seems to be adopting some kind of “objective” test as to whether or not the targeted Other posed a real threat — ignoring that in genocidal rhetoric, symbolism, and psychology, the targeted Other ALWAYS poses a threat. Stated differently, it isn’t as if the Nazis sat around saying to each other “The Jews pose no threat to us, but we’re going to kill them because we hate Jews” — on the contrary, the Nazis (and not only the Nazis, but a vast swathe of more or less respectable right-wing opinion) believed that “Jewish money”, “Jewish influence”, “Jews” etc. constituted a threat to Germans, German-ness etc. The point isn’t that 1971 needs the G-word to be condemned (I especially liked the point you made about how respectable victimhood needs the G-word to truly cash in, the G-word serving as the shield beyond which no further thought is necessary), but that there would be no genocide if this standard were applied. I don’t know if she considers Rwanda (itself a far more apt analogy to, e.g. the 1946-47 violence in the sub-continent, and perhaps 1971, than the Nazi extermination drives), but that presents the logic of genocides in an especially naked form: contrary to the Saikia quote, I would argue that in fact, the scale at which credible genocidal attempts need to occur means that they are ONLY justified, populations can ONLY be mobilized, if the targeted other is presented as posing an existential threat (in a classic case of projection) — it isn’t surprising that virtually all of the mass killings that are susceptible to the G-word (the Nazi exterminations; Rwanda etc.) occur in the context of a war, when, presumably, such representations become even more plausible. [The Nazis in fact confirm this thesis: they were always repugnant anti-Semitic bigots, but they weren’t killing millions of civilians until the war occurred. So too with Rwanda, where the genocide occurred against a backdrop of conflict with the RPF, the situation in Burundi, etc.]

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