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Skewing the history of rape in 1971 A prescription for reconciliation?

Skewing the history of rape in 1971 A prescription for reconciliation?

Nayanika Mookherjee runs a critical eye over Sarmila Bose's controversial analysis of the violence committed during the Liberation War

This is a discussion of Sarmila Bose's article: "Anatomy of Violence: Analysis of Civil War in East Pakistan in 1971" (EPW, Oct 8, 2005). A version of this paper was first presented by Dr Bose at a two-day conference, on June 28-29, 2005, organized by the historian branch of the United States Department of State titled "South Asia in Crisis: United States Policy, 1961-1972." This was arranged to mark the release of declassified US records relating to the theme of the conference.

As an Indian working in Bangladesh for nearly a decade on the public memories of sexual violence during the Bangladesh war of 1971, I was particularly struck by the author's use of the phrase "civil war" to refer to the Bangladesh war. Most Bangladeshis denounce the use of the term "civil war" to refer to the Bangladesh war as it deflects attention from its genocidal connotations.Instead, they semantically and politically distinguish the Bangladesh war as either muktijuddho (liberation war) or shadhinotar juddho(independence war).

It is also important to note that occurring at the juncture of Cold War politics, with the United States government supporting Pakistan during 1971, and the Indian government assisting the East Pakistani guerrilla fighters, the genocidal connotations of the Bangladesh war remains unacknowledged, till date. The use of the phrase "civil war" in the title of the article suggests that the author was in agreement with the Pakistani and US government's version of events of 1971. Yet the paper was claiming to provide "an impartial account." I was intrigued.

Through what Bose refers to as "case studies," she tries to highlight how violence was inflicted by both sides -- the Pakistani army and the East Pakistani liberation fighters -- during the 1971 war. She also refers to the lack of incidents of rape during the Bangladesh war in her "cases" in a small paragraph found at the end of her long article. She suggests a prescription for reconciliation through an acknowledgement of violence inflicted by all parties involved.

Soon after the Washington conference, the points made in her paper were promptly picked up by the Pakistani newspapers: The Daily Times (Hasan, June 30,2005; Editorial, July 2, 2005) and Dawn (Iqbal, July 7, 2005). Both refer to the violence inflicted by both sides, and the absence of rape during the Bangladesh war. The entry on Sarmila Bose in Wikipedia, the popular internet encyclopedia, reiterates only the brief paragraph on rape.

In a response to Uttorshuri, a Bangladeshi web mail group, on July 2, 2005, Bose said: "The heading given to the Daily Times, Pakistan, report is incorrect and not the finding of my study." Her work unleashed a barrage of criticism in Bangladesh and her research methods have been attacked as being shoddy and biased.

Collingwood (1945) has shown that historical "facts" are the reconstitution of the past in the historian's minds, involving the selection and interpretation of the past, as history is the choice of a particular expository style that is itself determined historically.

My discussion of Bose's article here, nearly ten months after the publication of her article in EPW, is an attempt to show the various responses to Bose's work, her response to these feedbacks and to highlight Bose's expository style which is appropriated by varied configurations.

In this discussion, I critically address Bose's exposition about: a) violence being inflicted on both sides, b) the lack of instances of rape in her "cases," and c) interrogate her formulation of reconciliation and highlight its implications on sub-continental politics.

Violence inflicted on both sides

All parties involved are shown to "commit acts of brutality outside accepted norms of warfare, and all had their share of humanity …with Bengalis, Biharis and West Pakistanis helping one another in the midst of mayhem," in Bose's article. This is evidenced by the Pakistan army targeting adult males while sparing women and children. However, local Bengali "loyalists"/collaborators, and not the Pakistani army, are involved in inflicting violence on their fellow Bengalis and the killing of intellectuals.

According to these accounts the Pakistani army did not inflict all the violence. This decontextualized account of Bengali collaborators does not recognize the triggers and advantages that the presence of, and collaboration with, the Pakistani army created. It misses the analytical point that in all wars local collaborators become the indispensable foot-soldiers of the institutionalized military paraphernalia.

The Pakistani army is portrayed as kind, but violent when provoked, whereas the Bengalis inflict violence "for unfathomable reasons." The situation in Bangladesh during 1971 is described through phrases like: "widespread lawlessness during March," "encouraged to break the law," "urban terrorism," and "rebels."

The treatment of the Pakistani army namely: "refusal of Bengalis to sell them food and fuel, being jeered and spat at … and the widespread disregard of curfew orders, murder of army personnel," are not considered to be examples of resistance and opposition, but are cited as instances of the suffering of the Pakistani army and an exhibition of "extraordinary restraint of the army under provocation."

The "rule of law" remains with the Pakistani army as they "secure" and "gain control" over territories. Army reaction is cited as "overwhelming" while the rebels are "disorganised and amateurish" who for "unfathomable reasons … take pot-shots at the advancing units in the bazaar which triggered an overwhelming reaction from the army."

There is no commentary on the contestations that exist in Bangladesh in relation to the varied national narratives of 1971. As a result, the observation by the former liberation fighter Iqbal: "This must be the only country in the world where there are two views on the independence of the country," remains unanalysed.

As in-depth reading of various critical literature on war and violence (Butalia 1998; Das 1995; Nordstrom 2004) would show liberation and independence of countries are not homogenous narratives, and contain within their folds multiple contesting interrogations of wars through which countries become free. This is more so the case in Bangladesh (Hitchens 2001), given its fractured histories of partitions and independence.

Also, Nixon's reference to Bangladesh as the "god-damn place" remains uncommented upon. This article, which was first presented in a conference hosted by the US department of State, is particularly conspicuous in the absence of any critical examination of the US support for Pakistan's role in the Bangladesh war of 1971, in the context of Cold War calculations.

The article is helpful in addressing the ethnicization of the army as "Punjabis," and in bringing out some of the nuances of the Pakistani army. That wars and conflicts are rife with instances of violence, kindness, cowardice, complicity, contradictions by the same individuals is not anything new and has been highlighted by various feminists, critical researchers and filmmakers within Bangladesh (Akhtar et al. 2001; Choudhury 2001; Kabir 2003; Masud 1999, 2000).

They show the multiple, contradictory, subjectivities of the Bangladesh war experience, and the violence inflicted upon the poor, women, Biharis, and adivasis. In my own work, I have encountered similar complicities and contradictions. Rather than citing these experiences as ahistorical and apolitical "facts," they need to be located at the crossroads of local and national politics and histories.

The earlier mentioned formulation by Collingwood is significant here. In her other writings, Bose has attempted to go beyond Indo-Pakistani enmities. She highlights the various symbolic roles of a flag, and the possible repercussions of possessing a Pakistani flag in India (Bose 2003). In the Christian Science Monitor she argues (Bose and Milam 2005) in support of the sale of F-16s to Pakistan as a stabilizing factor within world and sub-continental geo-politics. In the EPW article, the nature of her expository style and presentation of "facts" make her "cases" representative of war-time experiences of all in Bangladesh.

Skewing the history of rape

The small paragraph, located in the last page of the article, relating to the absence of rape in the "cases" has been highlighted as evidence that the Pakistani army did not rape. In her response to Uttorshuri, Bose says: "The issue of rape amounted to about 100 words out of a nearly 6,500 word paper on the subject of patterns of violence in 1971." An issue as contentious as the "patterns" of violence of rape can be claimed to be absent, through only 100 words! Bose explicates: "As I pointed out in the discussion that followed, there is evidence elsewhere that rape certainly occurred in 1971. But it seems -- from this study and other works -- that it may not have occurred in all the instances it is alleged to have occurred."

Bose's comment that rapes did occur elsewhere in 1971 is absent in her EPW article. In it she emphasizes the need to distinguish between the instances where rape occurred and where it did not. Throughout, it shows that the Bengalis raped Biharis while the Pakistani army did not rape anyone during the war. Also, it is not very clear which "cases" are being referred to in the statement: the rapes "may not have occurred in all the instances they are alleged to have occurred." Rather than this generalized statement, it would have been more transparent scholarship to cite the specific "cases" where the rapes were alleged which the research instead finds, is absent.

Bose shows, in the case of "mutinies" by "rebels," that "there was assault and abduction" of women. The Pakistani army however, "always" targeted adult males while sparing women and children. The Hamdoodur Rahman Commission (2000) established by the Pakistani government, while referring to the attack and rape of pro-Pakistani elements by Bengalis, also cites various instances of rape.

Eyewitness accounts can also be found in the eighth volume of the Dolil (Rahman 1982-85: 106, 192, 385). There is literature from the 1970s (Greer 1972; Brownmiller 1975) and recent scholarship and films based on oral history from within Bangladesh (Akhtar 2001; Choudhury 2001; Guhathakurta 1996; Ibrahim 1994, 1995; Kabir 2003; Masud 2000) which shows that the Pakistani army committed rapes and highlights the complexities of these violent encounters. Bose makes no reference to any of these documentations.

Recently, in Bangladesh, various women from different socio-economic backgrounds have narrated their violent experiences of rape by the Pakistani army and local collaborators. The well-known sculptor, Ferdousy Priyobhashini, has been vocal about her war-time experiences and the role of Pakistani army and Bengalis. My own work with various women who were raped during the war shows the contradictions of the war-time experiences while highlighting their violent encounters. All these documentations emerge as important counter-narratives to the various prevalent Bangladeshi nationalist accounts of the war. Emphasizing these war-time contradictions is not tantamount to a denial of the incidents of rape perpetrated by Pakistani army and their local collaborators.

A prescription for reconciliation?

Reconciliation, according to Bose, is possible through an acknowledgement of violence inflicted by all parties involved. However, for her, this is hinged on an unequal reliance on literally accepting the various viewpoints of the Pakistani army and administration, drawn from secondary sources (only one interview with General Niazi is briefly quoted).

While referring to the innumerable publications on 1971 as a "cottage industry," Bose seems to negate the emotive expressions of her informants as "the cultivation of an unhealthy victim culture" and a "ghoulish competition with six million Jews in order to gain international attention." This highlights a lack of empathy with her informants, and insensitivity to their comprehension of violence.

Primo Levi's work on Auschwitz shows that individuals who have encountered and survived violence make various complicated, competitive and contradictory negotiations to inhabit their survival and "victimhood." Here, Bangladeshi testimonials are ironically the means through which war-time narratives are negated.

The various individual accounts of violence, in turn, become muted with the prescription of "reconciliation." Significantly, for many Bangladeshis, "reconciliation" has a jarring resonance, as it is perceived to be the objective of various war-time collaborators, who are currently rehabilitated in the Bangladeshi political landscape.

Seen only as a "god-damn place" (Nixon), a "basket case" (Kissinger), Bangladesh is stereotypically viewed internationally, and in South Asia, as a country ravaged only by poverty, floods, cyclones and, hence, in need of the saviour, interventionist, developmental paradigms.

Here, Bangladeshi histories and politics are again delegitimized as a result of sub-continental dynamics, as there is no engagement with the wider picture in Bangladesh.

The expositions in this article itself stand in the way of reconciliation between Bangladesh and Pakistan, and cannot provide a prescription to resolve these hostilities. War-time contradictions, complicities, nuances can be highlighted without negating the foundational violence of the history of rape of the Bangladesh war perpetrated by the Pakistani army and the local collaborators.

While the Bangladesh war might be a "civil war," or Indo-Pakistan war for India and Pakistan, for most Bangladeshis it is the war of liberation and independence, even though that liberation might be interrogated in post-colonial Bangladesh. Only by recentring the issues which concern Bangladesh, along with highlighting the contradictions of wartime experiences, rather than proffering an argument which caters to Indo-Pakistan geo-political concerns, could one help the cause of reconciliation between Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This piece is adapted from "Bangladesh War of 1971: A Prescription for Reconciliation?" EPW, Vol. 41 No 36: 3901-3903. We have reprinted it here by special arrangement with EPW due to the intense interest within Bangladesh generated by the original Bose article that Dr Mookherjee discusses.

Dr Nayanika Mookherjee is a Lecturer in the Sociology Department in Lancaster University and a Research Fellow for the Society of South Asian Studies, British Academy.


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Bose, Sarmila and WB Milam. 2005. "The Right Stuff: F-16s to Pakistan is Wise Decision." Christian Science Monitor, April 11, 2005.

Bose, Sarmila. 2003. "What's in a Flag?" The Daily Times (Pakistan), September 23, 2003.

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Greer, Germaine. 1972. "The Rape of the Bengali Women." Sunday Times, April 9, 1972.

Hamdoodur Rahman Commission of Enquiry. 1971. Published in August 2000. Pakistan Government.

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Hasan, K. 2005. "Army Not Involved in 1971 Rapes." June 30, 2005.

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Nordstrom, Carolyn. 2004. Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century. California Series in Public Anthropology, University of California Press.

Rahman, Hasan H, ed. (1982-1985). Bangladesher Shadhinota Juddho Dolilpotro (Documents of the Bangladesh Independence War). Sixteen Volumes. Dhaka: People's Republic of Bangladesh, Information Ministry.


Choudhury, Afsan. 2001. Tahader Juddho (Their War).

Kabir, Yasmin. 2003. Shadhinota (A Certain Freedom).

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Discussion Forum: Story of Pakistan


IndPride: Sarmila Bose: In Praise of Pakistan

The Daily Times (Pakistan), July 2, 2005. 2005_pg3_1

US Department of State South Asia in Crisis: United States Policy, 1961-1972 June 28-29, 2005, Loy Henderson Auditorium, Tentative Program.

Uttorshuri: "Revisionist Historian on Rapes of 1971," July 2, 2005.


This article was previously published in December, 2006


Chronological list of the archives:

1971 in International Media Reports

March, 1971

April, 1971

May, 1971

June, 1971

July, 1971

August, 1971

September, 1971

October, 1971

November, 1971

December, 1971




Book Reviews


Freedom in the air is a non-profit project aimed at building a rich repository for all sorts of contents on Bangladesh's Liberation War of 1971. Besides producing exclusive video interviews of war heroes and experts and a turn-by-turn daily interactive calendar of 1971, The Daily Star Online gathered very rare declassified diplomatic cables, the sensational Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report that proved genocide by Pakistan army, significant collection of rarely seen photographs and international newspaper reports. There is an exceptional collection of TV reports, video footages and documentaries which The Daily Star does not own but using with courtesy of the original owners and those who uploaded.