1971 war: Bangladeshi accounts
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Mahfuz Anam’s recollections
During my freedom fighter days I never thought I would live to celebrate my country’s Silver Jubilee even if I managed to survive Pakistan’s genocide and the risks of our own war. Hence, witnessing the Golden Jubilee is a moment of inexpressible joy.
For us in East Pakistan, soon to become Bangladesh, the period from December 7, 1970, when Bangabandhu won his massive election victory, to December 16, 1971, when we won our freedom, was the most epoch-making time. In these 12 months we emerged as our own master from being a second-class citizen of a country that we helped to found, and in which we were subjected to all sorts of humiliation as an “inferior” segment of the population. Our language was suppressed, heritage reframed and culture re-tailored.
The overcoming of this imposed environment of inferiority and transforming ourselves into a fighting nation, daring to challenge the “killing machine” that we called the Pakistani army, is the real story of Bangladesh’s birth.
Even the most dire images of the Pakistani army did not prepare us for what we saw after the night of March 25, 1971. The savagery was mediaeval and the brutality beyond description. There must have been an unfathomable inner hatred for us Bengalis and a racially biased sense of superiority. Otherwise how could the Pakistani army kill so many women, children and men, burn down and loot thousands of villages and cause, till then, the largest refugee exodus since WWII?
I reached Agartala in the early phase of the war after a late evening car ride from Dhaka to the outskirts of Cumilla Cantonment, miles of walking in the dark, a long boat ride during the night and finally crossing the border as the day broke. I linked up with my comrades from East Pakistan Students Union (EPSU), a prominent leftist student body that formed a part of the communist movement and had set up a camp in the town.
My involvement in a variety of activities to promote the cause of our Liberation War ended with me joining a training course organised by the special Officer Training Wing (OTW) of the Indian Army under Operation Jackpot, to train officers for the Bangladesh army. It was held at Murti, a small, makeshift military outpost near Siliguri, West Bengal.
There were nearly 70 of us, huddled together around a one-band radio on that most glorious December 16 afternoon listening to the surrender of the Pakistani army to the joint command of the Indian Army and Bangladesh forces headed by Lt Gen J S Aurora. The moment the signing was complete, we broke the serenity of that winter evening sky with our fullthroated “Joy Bangla” slogan that resonated from the surrounding hills.
I still remember after 50 years, as if it were only yesterday, the feeling that overtook my whole being that “no one will ever be oppressed for his or her religious identity” in independent and secular Bangladesh.
It was after our independence that I became fully aware of the enormity, the multifaceted and all-encompassing nature of Indian assistance in our liberation struggle – the warmth of its people, the support of every part of its administration, dexterity of its diplomatic corps and the sacrifice of the Indian Army.
The murder of Bangabandhu and the subsequent killing of senior leaders of the Mujibnagar government, and usurpation of state power by the military sent Bangladesh into a tailspin from which we started to recover only after the defeat of autocracy and restoration of democracy in 1991.
Today we stand on the verge of graduation from the least developed country (LDC) category with average GDP growth of 6% over the two decades and a per capita GNI at $2,227. Our continued economic growth in spite of the unpredictability of the global economy and the Covid 19-led devastation has given us a newfound confidence and a sense of dignity which we have been longing for, but missed, ever since our birth in 1971.
However, our growth has come at the price of a “democracy deficit” and a dangerously rising rich-poor gap. Our exponential growth in budget — Tk 786 crore in 1972-73 to Tk 603,681 crore in 2021-22 — has come with a similar growth in corruption, cronyism, politicisation and absence of good governance.
How Bangladesh is able to remove some stringently repressive anti-free speech and free media laws, and how it is able to reform the economy, regulatory framework, financial regulation and rule of law will greatly determine how smooth or bumpy our future will be.
There are signs of our increased self-assuredness turning into overconfidence.
Leesa Gazi’s film
Leesa Gazi, a writer and filmmaker, grew up in Bangladesh and migrated to England in 1998. Her documentary feature, Rising Silence, sheds light on the lives of rape survivors in the aftermath of the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh. She speaks to TOI about it
Q: Your documentary, Rising Silence, seems to be a personal as well as emotional journey for you too. What made you pick up the subject?
A: All my childhood I grew up hearing stories of our Liberation War from my father, who was a freedom fighter. A few profoundly haunting images never left me; like that nameless boy who died on the eve of Bangladesh's Independence Day, December 16, 1971. When he was told the news, a peaceful smile emerged at the corner of his lips and then he died. Another image my father told me of was when he witnessed hundreds of mute, faceless women standing back-to-back on a convoy of trucks. They were Birangona women. I remember trying my best to picture their faces, but I couldn't. Because their stories were not only forbidden and overshadowed by various regimes after the assassination of the founding leader in 1975, but they were also hidden, shunned, ostracised from their homes and from society.
I wanted to know these women on their own terms, beyond labels and statistics. When I was going to meet them for the first time in 2010, I still could not imagine their faces. It was an unbearable idea. However, once I met them, they were real, they could have been anyone; it could have been me. I felt there must be many like me who wanted to know about them. As I look back now, I think the journey of Rising Silence began on that very day. In the midst of the faceless numbers, I wanted to show that one person who could be someone's daughter or sister, or mother, or friend or lover or indeed any woman; who had a childhood, has a name and a story to tell. I wanted the audience to know them as they are and beyond the term ‘Birangona'.
Q: Birangona literally means brave woman. As your documentary says, in the context of the 1971 war, it means the women who faced sexual violence from the Pakistan army and their local collaborators. How many such survivors existed in 1971. How difficult was it getting the women to speak on the subject?
A: It is difficult to say how many such survivors lived through the campaign of mass rape. After 1975 people were ridiculed, harassed and even killed for being freedom fighters. They were representative of an ideal which had a vast popular resonance but which the authorities wanted to wipe out. So we could only imagine what Birangona women had to endure. Since August 15, 1975, the day Bangabandhu was killed along with most of his family, they were thrown out of women's rehabilitation centres overnight across Bangladesh. The centres were then locked up, documents were burned down to erase their existence.
Dr Geoffrey Davis, a physician who participated in the victim relief programme to perform late-term abortions on the survivors of rape, estimated in an interview with Dr Bina D'Costa that the commonly stated number of 200,000 was probably "very conservative" compared with the real numbers.
Amidst the military coups and the dictatorship of independent Bangladesh, the stigma of rape and the collective shame attached to it was so appalling that it was never spoken of in public. So the plight of those women was largely ignored, and then almost forgotten. Birangona women wanted to tell their stories, but there was no safe space then; to do so was often life-threatening. When they started to feel safe to talk, many of them had already perished, and many stories had gone untold. They have plenty to say. All of them, in fact, own a towering voice and burning stories. We have never cared to listen to them. We have been busy stigmatising them for generations.
Q: The documentary shows many Birongonas continue to be shunned by both their families and taunted by society. Comment
A: In more or less every part of the world, male on female rape has been seen as a source of shame for the victims. Patriarchal society has burdened women with the loss of dignity caused by rape while the action of the perpetrator is often overlooked and not factored into the discussion. The stigma around sexual violence is monstrous. When you live in a world where women are not regarded as people and rather subjects of male possession, female victimhood can be widely disregarded. Where women are seen as male property and custodians of male pride, defiling them is a painless method of defaming their fathers or husbands - and in turn, their families, their communities and even their countries. When women are incumbents of the pride of others, they are also then held responsible for the loss of said pride, whether it was their fault or not. Targeting women and girls using rape and sexual violence as a tactic of war comes from the same mindset. If we want to bring change, we need to eradicate this attitude which has been engraved in our cultures, our DNA since the dawn of time.
Q: Yet some of these stories are also of hope. What were the inspiring take-aways from the documentary?
A: There were many times when I was in complete awe of their courage and compassion. Their stories have given me a sense of humanity, strength, faith, a sense of pride which I have never experienced before. They took me into their homes and villages, beyond history and politics, to share their lives and experiences as women. They inspired me and helped me a great deal to understand who I am, what I am capable of as a woman. They accepted us without judgment and with an unconditional love that came so naturally to them. These incredible women remain defiant, and the dignity they have shown is honourable. By living, they overcome and grow beyond the monsters of war and daily prejudice with extraordinary strength and the most profound expression of love.
I don't know how it is even possible to think of saving people while living through extreme violence. They saved lives living in such horror. I saw them disowning their children to protect them; building a future even while living with the ghost of the past; not fearing to speak their minds; rising from the ashes to stand tall. What spirit they uphold! A birangona recites, "The one who loves another, their heart will weep forever. That's why my tears never end" — Then she'd break into dance and song. It has been the most inspiring thing to experience that after all this, they still have the heart to celebrate life - "Being human is the best form of existence.”
Q: Did the Bangladesh government ever help them out financially, or in terms of counselling?
A: In Bengali, Birangona means ‘Brave Woman’, and this was the honourific granted by the interim government of Bangladesh, only six days after the war ended to the survivors of the campaign of mass rape carried out by the Pakistani Army in the Liberation War of Bangladesh in1971. This is very significant because in spite of the stigma of rape, their plight was recognised by the government of Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country. This recognition by a state of its victims of sexual violence remains globally unprecedented. In 2015 the Government of Bangladesh officially recognised the Birangona women as Freedom Fighters and began the process to identify them to provide them with a stipend.
Q: Did the Bironganas say anything about the role played by the Indian army in 1971?
A: Yes, some of the women recalled that the Indian Army entered their villages around 13th of December 1971 along with the Muktis (freedom fighters) to fight the Pak Army.
Q: How long did it take to make your documentary? Who financed it and how much did it cost?
A: From the research stage to the completion of the film, it took us three years. The Executive Producer Abbas Nokhasteh at Openvizor financed the lion's share of the production budget. Manusher Jonno Foundation and the Osiris Group made a healthy contribution towards it. We also raised funds where artists and rights activists from the Bengali community in London donated money personally or through organisations. It cost approx £60k.
Q: Can you please tell me a little more about yourself. And how did you take to filming?
A: I grew up in Bangladesh and was a member of a leading theatre company Nagorik Natya Sampradaya for more than a decade. I migrated to the UK in 1998 and immediately started working as a TV producer on a community TV channel in London. From 2008 I started working as a professional actor and writer for the stage. Then in 2012 we, the four founding members of Komola Collective, formed our art company that tells stories from women’s perspectives. The four of us are Filiz Ozcan, Sohini Alam, Caitlin Abbott and I. I see myself as an incidental filmmaker. I did not study film or theatre.
Edited excerpts of this interview was first published in The Times of India in 2019