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Fifty years have passed since the Bengali genocide. We cannot let its memory disappear from the diaspora

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The recollections of a conflict that killed up to three million Bengalis is fast disappearing from diasporic memories. Why?

25 Mar 2021


When my mum would tell me about my dad’s bhaari (familial home) in Bangladesh, she rarely spoke about it with yearning. She’s lived in the UK since the age of nine, and both my parents chose to start a family here in the hopes of a better life. Yet the one feature of her memories which would produce a misty-eyed stare into the distance were the marigolds. 

“Hundreds of them, moyna. They have fields upon fields of them. It’s like a sea, and the smell! Your dad’s neighbours were Hindus, and they took such care of them.”

Marigolds are often used in Hindu ceremonies, turned into garlands or set on ornate pooja plates for use in ritual worship. I was surprised that my dad – a Muslim – lived so close to Hindus, particularly when we only knew Muslim Bangladeshis here in the UK. 

One day, when I was about 15, I finally asked more about the marigolds. I’d been working on a project regarding my heritage. Every mention of Bangladesh always brought to mind the storied fields of fragrant orange flowers.

My mum told me that my dad grew up deep in the Sylheti countryside, far away from any cities or towns – or large Muslim communities, unlike neighbouring Pakistan. 

“I guess the Pakistanis never got there,” she said.

I’d never heard of the violence that led to Bangladesh’s independence until then, the role religion played, or that my dad’s village was a microcosm of a country left in the dust following the withdrawal of the British. Despite only happening fifty years ago, memories of the strife are already slipping away.

A not-so distant history

Following India’s official independence  in 1947, the country underwent a brutal process of partition into two countries. It took place along religious lines, with Hindus living in what was now Pakistan fleeing to India and Muslims to Pakistan. Despite the 1,000 miles which separated the two territories, to the west of India was West Pakistan and, to the east, taking up much of the Bengal region, was East Pakistan.

The name ‘Pakistan’ literally translates to ‘the land of the pure’, and it’s this obsession with purity which colours the country’s early history. East Pakistanis were predominantly Bengalis, while West Pakistan’s largest ethnic group was Punjabi. The cultural and physical differences were vast. Urdu was made the country’s official language in 1948, whilst supporters of the use of Bengali were labelled as enemies of the state. The Bengal region was also economically deprived, making it an issue of class too. During the time spent under West Pakistani rule, East Pakistan received less than a third of the country’s investments and imports, despite producing almost two thirds of its exports.

“Like the partition that divided India and Pakistan, the process of separating Pakistan and Bangladesh was enacted along religious lines”

In 1970, West Pakistan announced an election. The overwhelming winner, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had run on a platform of ensuring East Pakistani autonomy. West Pakistan then launched a military response, Operation Searchlight. This was enacted in 1971, and was the start of both the Bangladeshi Liberation War and a genocide that would leave at least 500,000 Bengalis dead, with the highest estimates placing the fatalities around three million. The Pakistani army and the Razakars, a pro-Pakistan paramilitary group, also used rape as a systemic tool of genocide, abusing between 200,000 to 400,000 Bengali women, both Hindu and Muslim.

Like the partition that divided India and Pakistan, the process of separating Pakistan and Bangladesh was enacted along religious lines – Bengali culture was seen as inherently Hindu, while Pakistan was Muslim. 

While the violence happened, most of the world just watched. Pakistan was considered a US ally, particularly regarding the war in Vietnam. President Nixon chose to exploit the Pakistani president, Yahya, for his role as a useful intermediary with China. Archer Blood, the US counsel general in Dhaka, sent the White House a telegram which specifically used the term ‘genocide’, yet the Nixon adminstration both declined to condemn the government’s actions or even stop selling the country arms. The British government refused to interfere in the war, stating that “hideous atrocities [were]…being committed on both sides”.

Despite the horrors that took place, the genocide is rapidly being forgotten within diaspora communities. Bangladesh became its own country in 1971, meaning that the experience is still within living memory. Yet it’s being scrubbed from history before our eyes.

Modern memory

Syeda* is a British Pakistani who grew up in Birmingham. She tells me that she’d never even heard of the genocide or the war until the age of 21, whilst at university, despite having an avid interest in politics and history. “I was shocked and asked my mum, ‘Why don’t we talk about it?’ And she’s almost 60, but she said that she didn’t know about it.”

Syeda posted about the genocide on social media – and received a hostile reception from Pakistani users, both those currently living in the country and in the diaspora. She was accused of being anti-Islam and an “agent of India”. 

It’s a familiar tale for people – particularly Bangladeshis – who have spoken out about the war and genocide on social media in recent years. Often, they are accused of blowing events out of proportion, or ignoring Bangladesh’s role in the conflict. Some people, predominately Pakistanis, have even constructed lengthy rewritten histories, outright denying the genocide. Often, the murders are attributed to Bangladeshi freedom fighters or to India. Others simply dismiss the genocide as a relic of the past, and something to be forgotten.

Samantha Shahriar, 25 is a British Bangladeshi. Her Bengali family were on both sides of the conflict. “We have members that supported the Pakistanis, and some who fought for Bangladesh’s freedom,” she tells me. So there are varying perspectives within my family about the Liberation War and whether or not it could even be viewed as a genocide.” For Samantha’s family, the conflict has manifested in intergenerational trauma. 

“My dad’s father passed away right after the Liberation War in 1971 – or rather, he went missing and they never found his body,” she says. “They claimed he was some kind of double agent. Having lost a father at such a young age changed my dad.” On her mum’s side, her grandfather was kidnapped by the Pakistani army for weeks, until his British boss intervened.

“Some people, predominately Pakistanis, have even constructed lengthy rewritten histories, outright denying the genocide”

Understanding of Bangladeshi history is on the wane within the diaspora. With a culture which relies on oral retellings, it can be difficult to bridge the gap.

Dr Fatima Rajina is a fellow at the Stephen Lawrence Research Centre at De Montfort University, specialising in issues of British Bangladeshi identity. She was able to interview her grandmother about her evacuation during the Liberation War. “The whole conversation was in Sylheti,” Dr Fatima says. “Even though it was just the two of us in the room, my nani started whispering to me, saying: ‘Tara betintor loge kitha na khorson? Betintor tara ijjot lutilayson. (What didn’t they do with the women? They stole their honour [a euphemism for rape])’.” 

Rape was a key tool in the Pakistani arsenal: one of the first recorded instances of it being used as a weapon of war in the 20th century. There were reports of the women from Bengali families being raped in front of their male relatives just before they were executed so that it would be the last thing they’d see. Over 200,000 women were detained in rape camps for months. A key part in this was the perception of Bengali women, regardless of religion, as Hindu.

“A recommendation to set up a special court for the investigation of misconduct on the part of Pakistani soldiers was never implemented, and no subsequent prime minister has offered an apology for the use of rape as a weapon of war”

After the war, Bangladesh became a rarity among many nations, by refusing to shame rape survivors. 

“These women who were raped and carried these mixed-heritage babies were [often] shunned [elsewhere]. Bangladesh is the only country in the world which has ever acknowledged women who were raped. They were named as war heroines, the Birangona,” she says. “The state said that they shouldn’t be shunned by society, and promised them jobs and access to things.” 

This open acknowledgement of 1971’s events wasn’t mirrored by both sides. 

Following the conflict, then-Pakistani president, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, set up an independent judicial commission to investigate the army’s ‘failure’ to win the war. Yet a parallel recommendation to set up a special court for the investigation of misconduct on the part of Pakistani soldiers was never implemented, and no subsequent prime minister has offered an apology for the use of rape as a weapon of war against Bengali women.

Moving forward

For some young members of the Bengali diaspora, the weight of this history is heavy. Thamima, 18, is a British Bangladeshi. She says that her parents’ response to her when the topics of liberation and genocide come up is one of frustration. “Whenever it comes up on Bangla TV, around March, they’re always like: ‘You lot are so ungrateful!’.” With the legacy of the war and genocide rapidly slipping away, there’s a generational resentment growing, with many of those just a generation or two older having actively fought in the conflicts. “I think it’s one of those things where the legacy gets manipulated within communities,” she says.

Samantha stresses how the divide between Bangladeshis and Pakistanis has historically been one rooted in class. Again, it’s a difference which she sees in her own family history, with those who supported the Pakistani government being better-off. “It feels to me that we’re viewed as being lower class, more uneducated, more uncultured, and our darker skin plays into that.” It’s this continued tension which still underpins many interactions within the diaspora today.

When I ask the women what they would like to see in future, the response is a resounding one. The biggest step is Pakistan’s acknowledgement of its actions, and a general move towards accountability. Despite reports of improving bilateral relations, PM Imran Khan has yet to formally apologise for Pakistan’s actions.

Syeda sums up her experiences of trying to encourage greater awareness. “There needs to be accountability, but no. People would rather talk about how similar we are in music or food, as opposed to what divided us.”

Whether or not there can be any resolution between the two groups is difficult to answer. The intergenerational trauma has translated into a continued tension between Pakistanis and Bangladeshis: one which plays out both in real life, familial relationships, and on social media. For now, one thing is clear. If either group is to move on from the pain which defines their relationships and identities, a bigger push for education is key, before these histories are lost.

*Name has been changed