40 years after the war

Women, War and the Making of Bangladesh
Remembering 1971
By Yasmin Saikia
Women Unlimited
Pages 304. Rs 600 

Reviewed by Uttam Sengupta

The story of how the revolt began in East Pakistan in 1971 is the stuff war films are made of. It was March 25, 1971 and the officers of EBR (East Bengal Rifles) were having their dinner. After finishing the dinner, holds the possibly apocryphal tale, the Bengali officers stood up and shot their West Pakistani colleagues dead. The revolt was quickly suppressed and the Pakistan Army punished and brutalised the eastern part so much that refugees poured into India, giving Mrs Indira Gandhi the excuse and an opportunity to act as midwife in the birth of Bangladesh.

The cataclysmic events that changed the history and the geography of the Indian subcontinent prompted different narratives in each of the three countries. In India, the euphoria of victory led to lionising heroes and their bravery, while in Pakistan there was a sustained search for scapegoats who could be blamed for the debacle in the East.

In Bangladesh, an entire generation of Bengali professionals and academics had been killed as a deliberate policy to eliminate the intellectuals. Recording history was possibly the least of the priorities before the traumatised nation, resulting in either overly emotional or incoherent accounts. Above all, people collectively chose to bury a painful past, specially the parts which were embarrassing, shameful and dealt with cowardice and humiliation.

Forty years after the war of liberation, this book breaks the silence maintained by the women of Bangladesh. As it is, history of wars deals with the victors and not the vanquished or the victims. Women being the worst sufferers, they are scarcely given a second look. The impressive attempt by Saikia is largely successful in bringing both scholarship and compassion to deal with a subject that has mostly been buried.

There was, Saikia points out, not one but four different wars which led to the creation of Bangladesh. While there was a civil war between the West and East Pakistan, there was an international war between India and Pakistan, an ethnic war between Bengalis and ‘Biharis’ (Urdu-speaking people in the then East Pakistan) and, finally, a gender war in which women were subjected to violence by virtually every warring faction.

It is this unimaginable and excruciatingly painful violence on Bangladeshi women that Saikia analyses with rare empathy.

Conducting research in the subcontinent is daunting at the best of times. While Englishmen were meticulous in maintaining records and recording details, our attitude to archives and history since Independence has been rather casual. Saikia also faces the usual bureaucratic walls, the conspiracy of silence, the indifferent record-keeping and ignorant record-keepers. Above all, she is snubbed by women who see no profit in recalling their humiliation during the war. "Will it make my husband love me more or will it make my son respect me more?", asks a prosperous businesswoman in Dhaka, who had been subject to sexual violence during the war. To Saikia’s credit, she persevered and helped several women delve into their memories and retell their personal trauma.

In all wars, women struggle to nurse, to feed, to keep families together and to retain their honour and dignity. But Saikia’s book is possibly the first attempt to give voice to the women of Bangladesh, who have suffered silently. Only two women have so far been recognised by Bangladesh as ‘freedom fighters’ while a large number of women, who fought, supported and facilitated the war, provided food and shelter at grave personal risk, sacrificed their own family members and often themselves for the cause, remain unsung and have been forgotten.

The women were assaulted and violated by not just Pakistani soldiers, but even by friends, neighbours, politicians, strangers, colleagues and relatives. Saikia brings a scholar’s detachment to highlight the resultant loss of faith in the community and the breakdown of trust. It is a poignant book that will keep readers awake and haunt them for a long time.