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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Dhaka’s Despair

Yasmin Saikia reveals the individual stories of suffering of Bangladesh’s women in the nine months of armed conflict in 1971

Written by Syed Badrul Ahsan | Published: February 4, 2012 12:10:54 am

Book: Women,War And The Making OF Bangladesh

Author: Yasmin Saikia

Publisher: Women Unlimited

Price: Rs 600

War is more than an epic tale of glory or a humiliating story of defeat. That it leaves victims in its wake,that it often keeps the lid on some truths which need to be revealed at some point is a theme Yasmin Saikia sets out to explore in Women,War and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971. The events of 1971,then,are of a wider dimension than what they appear to be within the perspectives of politics and war. As Saikia would have you know,there was the war between the Bengalis of East Pakistan and the other Pakistanis in West Pakistan. And then there was the war which had India and Pakistan eventually bringing the Bangladesh conflict to an end in December of the year. South Asia,or call it by the old,familiar term,the Indian subcontinent,was reshaped in that the conflict was to leave the old India,already partitioned into two states,sliced into a bit more of politico-geographical division with the emergence of Bangladesh.

Saikia,in the manner of a historian who leaves no footnote missing in the tale,acknowledges all the realities that politics threw up in 1971 and all the geopolitical transformations,which followed in consequence. But then she moves on to that other,largely ignored aspect of the story — the silence with which Bangladesh’s women have kept their stories of suffering at the hands of Pakistan’s soldiers in the nine months of the armed conflict. Even as the Pakistan army and the Bengali Mukti Bahini (liberation army) sought to quell each other in a condition fast going beyond control,thousands of Bengali women,of nearly ever age and straddling every segment of society,were speedily falling prey to the lust of Pakistan’s soldiers.

Saikia’s assessment of the conditions in which women suffered in 1971 and beyond is based on the substantive,for she spent several years travelling through the subcontinent,especially through Bangladesh,entering regions of memory that had hardened over the years. With assistants in tow,Saikia toured through Bangladesh,locating women who,decades after the war,existed in a region between shadow and reality.

Beauty,the war child,perhaps speaks for many of her generation when she notes the ostracism,indeed the trauma she and others like her went through — and yet go through — after 1971 because of the endless rape their mothers were subjected to by Pakistan’s soldiers. And those mothers were all symbolised by Nur Begum,Beauty’s parent. These women,all birangonas (women raped by the Pakistan army),all brutalised,were to suffer through new trauma once they discovered that their families were not about to accept them back. And were the political classes,immediately after the war or long after it,to be of any help? Aparna from Chittagong speaks for every woman for whom the war was a long tale stretching into months of systematic gang rape by soldiers. In three decades,says Aparna (speaking to the author in the 30th year of Bangladesh’s freedom),no one has asked her what she is doing and what she wants out of life. Her bluntness says it all: “The government has neglected thousands of women,like me… I don’t have a normal human life and cannot fulfil my most basic needs. I can’t even wear a nice sari.”

That outburst is twin-edged. In the first place,it is a reminder to Pakistan of the immorality its ostensibly religion-driven soldiers indulged in during the war. In the second,it is an indictment of successive Bangladesh governments over their careful looking away from the birangonas. Should these women not be honoured as freedom fighters? That is what you ask as you hear Firdousi Priyabhashini’s revelations of the horrors done to her for months on end by the Pakistan military.

As you read,you are struck by Yasmin Saikia’s quest for fairness in the narrative. She finds the time and the wish to speak to those other women,the Biharis,who went through suffering in the immediate aftermath of the war. Belonging to an ethnic group made notorious by its support for the Pakistani occupation forces,these women have,post-1971,their own stories to tell. Saikia goes reflective,and so do we,when a young Bihari man in Dhaka asks her why his generation should be paying the price for the crimes committed by an earlier generation of Biharis.

Saikia broadens her canvas,to bring into the limelight the many women whose contributions to the Bengali war for freedom,whose observations of the tragedy as it unfolded before them have all too easily been pushed under the rug. Women have lost their whole families to the conflict. Some have seen their brothers pulled out of ponds,into which they had plunged to save themselves,and shot and their husbands maimed. If that is courage in the face of adversity,there is to be more of it. And it comes encapsulated in the wartime contributions of Mumtaz Begum,the young college student who served as a member of the Students’ League in 1971. She waged war on the battlefield,came back home radicalised,was part of a group of young people believing in scientific socialism,went to prison for what turned out to be five years,and ended up marrying her jailor.

Saikia takes you to the dark side of the moon. You emerge from it a little more chastened,your thoughts in a flurry.

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