IF the 1971 war is remembered at all in Pakistani political culture, it is as a conflict between India and Pakistan, as an episode in the continuing saga of antagonism between the two nation states. Bangladeshis are simply forgotten, except as betrayers of Pakistan, collaborators with India against Pakistan, or at best as brainwashed victims of India’s plot. The tropes — such as ‘Bengali betrayal’ and ‘Indian designs’ — deployed to explain away the secession of East Pakistan serve as devices and convenient frameworks to stunt any meaningful reflection on (West) Pakistan’s own conduct during and before the war. Silence ensues, and endures.

Yasmin Saikia’s book, Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971, is an important intervention in the discourse around 1971. It examines and demonstrates clearly the brutality of war as experienced by various marginalised groups, especially women, and the ongoing routine violence of the silencing of their voices. Saikia documents women’s voices and highlights their agency and the multiplicities of their role in the conflict. The book includes not only the narratives of women upon whom violence was visited by men — Pakistani and Bangladeshi, pro-liberation and pro-Pakistan — but also of the women who fought as rebels against the Pakistan army and the discrimination they endured during and after the war at the hands of their fellow Bangladeshis. She explores the post-war experiences of women through the narratives of those who worked as caregivers and social workers to ‘rehabilitate’ the survivors of rape and aided in the nascent patriarchal state’s abortion and adoption programmes.

Saikia argues that the Bangladeshi nation state also has a vested interest in preserving a certain memory of the past in order to continue to legitimise itself. As is the case with Pakistan, the forgetting of 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’étre fresh.

The official Bangladeshi narrative rests on a singular focus on Bengali victimhood and Pakistani oppression. A Bengali is always the oppressed man who fought valiantly and ultimately triumphed in liberating his nation from the Pakistani colonial boot. The dead are supposed to consist of victims of the Pakistan Army only and collaborators include only opportunists and monsters but not political actors acting out of 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.”

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, categorising 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.

The Pakistanis believed that the war would be quickly won as Bengalis being “weak and unmartial, and cowardly,” would quit their rebellion. This “myth of power” over Bengalis held sway over rank and file Pakistani soldiers, whose martial “manliness of bravado,” and ignorance of Bengali society, language, people and even body language made for a destructive brew. At checkpoints, young Bengali men were forced to remove their lungis (sarongs) in front of their elderly and womenfolk to see whether they were circumcised and thus Muslim. The Pakistan Army killed Bengali Hindus simply for being Hindus, as they were readily assumed to be either Indians or Indian agents crossing into East Bengal to attack the Pakistan army.

On the other hand, the Bengali nationalists targeted Biharis for violence and pogroms. Differences in language and economic conditions, and the Biharis’ perceived natural loyalty to Pakistan, transformed them into an outcast community suspected of being collaborators and/or razakars. As Saikia points out, “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.” While the Pakistan military did nothing to stop the massacres of Biharis as they unfolded, it later used the atrocities as war propaganda to legitimate its own dirty colonial war in the East. After the war, Biharis became “stateless refugees,” and were 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.”

ALL facets of the 1971 conflict and the subsequent nation-making processes had a devastating impact on women, including rapes, exile, migration, camp-life, loss of family, social ostracism, financial insecurity, and the consequent exploitation and silencing of their voices.

The racialised discourse that deemed Bengalis as Hindu (or Hindu-like), polluting and destroying the nation from within, made the purging of the Bengali essential to restoring the nation to its original purity. In Saikia’s words, “Muslim Pakistani (read: Pure) men assumed that the sacrifice of the Hindu women was necessary to undo the malaise.”

Saikia surveys Bangladeshi literature produced about the war and finds that it silences the memory of women and renders them absent as agents and subjects of history. A unity between the Bengali woman, land, and nation is forged in the liberation-war centred Bangladeshi narratives, whereby the rape of the Bengali woman “stood for the rape of Bangladesh.” Thus the raped woman — even as her voice is systematically silenced and her story purged from collective memory — becomes a rallying cry for nationalists to call for revenge against Pakistanis and their razakar collaborators. This Saikia calls “the national male heroes using rape as a weapon, once again […] to make gains for themselves.”

Birangona (brave women) is the only way women’s experience of the war is remembered. The term birangona marked women who came to be increasingly seen as fallen or loose, impelling women to hide their experience. What birangona narratives do exist are doctored and engineered by their sponsors, and become “external, almost pornographic stories about women’s loss of honor. Not surprisingly birangonas, although projected as female heroes, are also viewed as being complicit in the crime of rape.” This, then, justified denying women their voice and the nation forgetting their experience and suppressing their memory from history. Such cultural, political, and epistemic silence, Saikia shows, is instrumental to the production of official national histories in the service of nation-making. Silenced by processes of nation-making, the voices and stories of women’s experience of the 1971 war must be heard.

PERHAPS the most important insight to emerge from a critical examination of the 1971 war is the need to recognise and affirm our shared humanity with the ‘other’ which breaks down in times of conflict, leaving us with no vocabularies other than the ones coughed up by ideologies, rendering us unable to see the ‘other’ except through decontextualised and homogenised social identities, as the contest for power plays out and the society brutalised.

Saikia also talked to Pakistani military men like Amin and Alam who explained away their violence as normal and considered themselves to have been merely performing their duty. She also writes about 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.

It is the narratives of the repenting perpetrators and their recognition of guilt that can bring some solace to the victims. Men like Malik “haunted by the memory of the Other” tell of their crimes and by that speech act “deliver a justice to their victim 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 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 soldier who sought Saikia out to tell her his story as a Pakistani soldier who 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?

Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 (HISTORY) By Yasmin Saikia Oxford University Press, Karachi ISBN 9780199064762 324pp. Rs675