The following edited extract is taken from Anam Zakaria’s wonderful book 1971 and includes difficult content including violence and sexual violence that requires real consideration before using in the classroom. Questions that could guide a sensitive class discussion can be found below and could be used alongside a glossary and timeline.
Over two years ago, in response to an article I wrote on 1971, I received a thank-you email from a stranger. The message was short but unsettling. It read: ‘I was one of the victims [of] what happened in East Pakistan, my father along with thirty-three members [of my family] were brutally murdered. Thank you for highlighting the truth.’
Back in Pakistan, it was perfectly all right to speak about the violence against the Biharis (though there has been little investigation into the number of Biharis persecuted, or their experiences. Rather their persecution is used as a political chip to explain the army action). After all, this was violence the Pakistani state was comfortable remembering, for it legitimated army action
And so, in the heat of May, I landed at the Karachi airport. After a quick check-in at the hotel, I made my way to the Services Club where Ansar had arranged to meet me.
* * *
I was nervous as the Uber driver inched closer to the Services Club (a Defence Services Officers Mess in Pakistan). 1971 continues to be a controversial topic in Pakistan. I wondered how Ansar and his friends would respond to my research. I was particularly hesitant because I had learnt from one of our telephonic conversations that Ansar had served as a major in the Pakistan Army. From the other interviews I have conducted with army officers, I have often found it hard to move beyond nationalistic rhetoric. I have also found that my questions about violence in East Pakistan have at times annoyed the officers. I wondered how the evening would pan out, and if Ansar too would be frustrated by my questions, unwilling to delve into any remembrances not endorsed by the state.
However, I was also excited to meet Ansar. Since he belongs to the Bihari community, I was curious about the intersection between his personal experience and his profession. How does belonging to a community that came to be persecuted before, during and after the war shape his perceptions about the military operation? Are his experiences in line with state narratives on the war? Do the two overlap neatly, one feeding into the other—his story of victimhood becoming the state’s justification of perpetrating violence? Or is there is a difference between the personal story of the war and its appropriation by the Pakistani state? What happens when states turn personal traumas into heroic national stories of victimhood or triumph?
I called Ansar upon my arrival and he came to receive me at the gate. He was a middle-aged man, dressed in pants and a button-down shirt. A greying moustache and glasses adorned his face. He welcomed me warmly and guided me towards one of the rooms he had booked for our meeting. It was big, with ample space for the few of us who were meant to collect there for interviews. When I entered, only one man was seated in the room. Ansar introduced him to me as Khurshid, who also hailed from Bihar. I began telling them about my research, but Khurshid interrupted me just a few seconds in and started to share his story. He seemed eager to talk.
In 1971 Ansar was still in East Pakistan. He was a young boy, no more than twelve years old, when the violence ensued. I asked him to share his memories from then.
‘You won’t find what happened between 1 and 25 March 1971 anywhere in Bangladeshi books. Their history begins from 25 March, but do you think the Pakistan Army was bitten by a dog that it suddenly decided to launch an operation on that date?’ Ansar began passionately, without pausing to gather his thoughts.
He thus began by telling me that if I wanted to understand 1971, I must focus on what occurred prior to 25 March. This didn’t surprise me. The Pakistani state and the Bihari community insist that one must investigate and understand the events prior to the operation. There are two mainstream versions of 1971. The one before 25 March is the one Pakistan has chosen to remember. History seems to end on this date when it comes to 1971. In contrast, for Bangladesh, official history begins on 25 March. These different histories have their own victims and perpetrators, neither state willing to blur these binary lines to reach a more holistic truth. For those in Bangladesh, speaking about what happened in early March (in terms of violence against non-Bengalis) can be seen as tantamount to questioning the liberation struggle. The mention of Bihari casualties and victimization is a Pakistani narrative, and a Pakistani narrative can only be anti-Bangladesh. For Ansar though, who belonged to both, the Pakistan Army and the Bihari community, this is a critical truth worth remembering and sharing.
‘On 3 or 4 March, they burnt our house and looted us. We were forced to run. At least 30,000–35,000 Biharis, Urdu-speaking Punjabis and Pathans, were killed between 1 and 25 March. *This figure is heavily disputed.
They [referring to the Bengalis] were coming inside our homes, asking who was carrying weapons. Woh itne tareeqay se kaam kar rahe thay (they were working in such a systematic way). They went to organizations responsible for arms licences and took the addresses of those people [who had bought arms]. They would go and find out who had weapons and then bring a mob to take them away and disarm them (so they couldn’t defend themselves).
This had started from the end of February . . . on 21 February, which is their Language Day, the tensions had started in Chittagong, Dhaka, Khulna and Rajshahi. That was the turning point, when they divided people: these are Urdu speakers or non-Bengalis and these are Bengalis. They had proper slaughterhouses where they would slice the necks and throw the bodies away. The Chittagong circuit house, which is a museum now, was a slaughterhouse. We also stood in line, I remember waiting. My mother had covered my eyes with her hands’. He lifted his hands up to his eyes to illustrate. ‘I was looking through the gap in her fingers, looking at how they were cutting people’s necks. There were 150 people in the line, waiting to be killed. This was in the month of May.’
I swallowed uncomfortably as he painted a vivid picture. Later, when I visited the circuit house in Khulna, I was told that a part of it had also been used as a slaughterhouse, only this time it was used to kill Bengalis. Each time I would shut my eyes, I would hear screams, accompanied by flashbacks of my visits to the museums that archived the skulls, the photographs of naked, tortured women, of massacred bodies. For days after my return to Pakistan, I would wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. Nightmares of being a victim in the stories that I had heard, being the one tortured, became nightly occurrences for a while. And all this was just from hearing stories and looking at visual documentation of the war. What would it do to a child who had to stand in line, witness people being slaughtered, knowing that his turn was soon to come? I shiver at the thought.
‘How old were you at this time?’ I asked.
‘I was thirteen years old,’ he laughed softly, shaking his head. ‘Kuch samajh nahi aa raha tha (I couldn’t understand anything). We were hungry, we were . . .’ he began but was unable to finish his sentence. He shook his head again. ‘Baray halaat kharab thay (the conditions were terrible).’
He told me that growing up he had never experienced any hostility between Bengalis and Biharis. Even when tensions escalated outside, things remained calm at his school and in his immediate surroundings. His family, therefore, did not even consider leaving for West Pakistan. Today, after having lost his father, he regrets the decision. ‘I sometimes say to my mom that my dad was a nut. He knew exactly what was going to happen (Ansar’s father was a journalist, and therefore well aware of the news coming in). But he wanted to remain in a fool’s paradise. He would keep saying that sab theek ho jayega (everything will be alright).’
‘The first time there was an attack on our house was on 3 or 4 March. They came and stole our radio. I didn’t understand what was going on. I kept calling out to Minnu (nickname changed), asking what was happening?’ Ansar explained that Minnu was his Bengali class-fellow who happened to live in the house to his left. He told me that Minnu’s father had brought the Bengalis to his house that day. ‘His father had done this to us, he misbehaved with my mother, was rude to my father . . . I kept saying “Minnu, what is happening”, but he just stood there silently.’ Minnu too was probably no more than thirteen years old. I wonder how he made sense of the situation, of his father looting his class-fellow’s home. I wonder how deep the psychological scars are on children who are caught in conflict, forced to make enemies out of friends overnight based on ethnic, racial, religious or linguistic lines, things they have only vague understandings of.
While one of Ansar’s neighbours had looted his home, it was his other neighbour who saved him and his family when the attackers came for the second time. In this case too, it was a class-fellow’s home. ‘This time, the Mukti Bahini came to burn our house. This was around 27 or 28 of March. It was only because Nasreen’s (Ansar’s other class-fellow whose name has been changed) father warned us that we got away. We escaped from the back door before they torched it. Nasreen’s father was a pure Bengali, he was a thorough gentleman. He saved us by telling us about the attack before it happened.’
Later, Ansar would often send these neighbours letters from Pakistan. When he had a chance to go to Bangladesh, he visited them. During our conversation, he even called Nasreen so that I could speak to her. He showed me photographs of her and her family. It was obvious that their bond was still strong.
I asked Ansar where his family and he went after his house was burnt. He told me that by this time his father had gone missing and the children were alone with their mother. His father (name withheld) had got on to a train on 23 March to go to Dhaka for work. That was the last time Ansar saw him. Over the years, he did a lot of research to try to find out what happened. He went back to Bangladesh to trace him, met people, sifted through documents to find some closure. He even managed to locate the driver of the train that his father had been on. He told me that his father was killed on 14 April. ‘Mukti Bahini (it should be noted that Mukti Bahini, the Liberation Army, officially came into being on 11 April 1971. However, perceived as the face of the enemy, any Bengali aggression is usually attributed to the Mukti Bahini, even prior to this date) members had stopped the train and segregated Bengalis from the Urdu-speaking passengers’. The latter, he told me, were taken to a warehouse where they were kept locked for ten to twelve days. ‘The kidnappers had made deals with a few people. Those who could pay were released.’ As the Pakistan Army started to make inroads after the military operation was launched on 25 March, Ansar said the train moved forward to another location, close to the border with India (the exact location has been omitted to protect identity). According to his research, it was here that his father was killed. He was only forty-two years old.
‘We didn’t know anything about what happened to him. We just knew that we had to save our lives. Everybody was trying to save their lives. After our house was burnt, we went and hid in an empty school building nearby. We stayed there for a while.’ He paused for a moment, his pace slower than what it had been all evening. These must have been some of the most painful days of his life. It took time and effort to reflect on them. Slowly, he started to speak again. ‘One night, I went out on the road in the dark. I needed to get food for my younger siblings. So I went to a store nearby. The shutter was broken. I went inside and stole two bottles of Fanta and two packets of biscuits for my brothers and sisters (thirty-five years after this incident, when Ansar visited Bangladesh, he told me that he returned to the store to pay—500 takka—for the items he had stolen. The shopkeeper was moved to tears. It turned out that he remembered Ansar’s family). I remember seeing bodies on the road that night. There was a woman moaning . . . she had been shot and was bleeding . . . she was asking for water. I ran from one place to another to find water, but she died after having just a sip.
‘The next morning, a man [from the West Pakistani army] was crossing by in a jeep when my mother peeked outside. He instantly pointed his gun at her, glaring at her suspiciously. When my mother started speaking to him in Punjabi, he said, “What are you doing here? Everybody has been killed. Come to the camp!’”
‘When we got into the jeep, the man (who was West Pakistani) kept insisting, “Bahir mat dekhna, bahir mat dekhna.” Maine socha pata nahi kyun keh raha hai, magar thak-thak awazein aa rahi thi (the man kept saying, ‘Don’t look outside, don’t look outside.” I didn’t understand why he was saying that, but I could hear sounds of “thak-thak”). It was only later that I realized we were driving over bodies. That’s where that sound was coming from. There was no other way (of getting around) as the bodies were everywhere …
When I asked Ansar later if he felt the Army operation was justified given what he suffered, he point-blank answered, ‘Absolutely justified.’
‘When we got to the camp and were allotted a small jhopri (hut), my mother began to cry. We were from a very rich family; we lived in a good house. She said, “Will we live in this now?” The man who rescued us felt bad and asked us to shift into his quarters. We got some food and drinks there. That’s how we spent our time in the camp. The man who saved us was from the military police. He’s still alive and lives in Lahore.’
However, Ansar and his family were to witness more violence and chaos in the days to come. Their rescue wasn’t complete. He told me that one day ‘the Mukti Bahini attacked the camp that he was living in. The army was busy in operations. There were just a few jawans at the camp, whom they beat up. They loaded us on the truck and took us away to the circuit house.’ It was here that Ansar had stood in line, waiting to be killed, his neck sliced, as the others before him. ‘Everybody was standing there, waiting to be killed. We were also standing. Sab tamasha dekh rahe thay. Fortunately, the Pakistan Army came in time and we were taken back to the camp.’ His family continued to live there for a few months, entering Pakistan later through a special Red Cross aircraft in October or November, a date he doesn’t remember.
Almost two years after this conversation Ansar told me that his mother was raped during the war. While they were hiding in the empty school, two men had entered. He told me that they were from the Mukti Bahini. ‘When my mother saw them, she pushed me and my siblings under the haystack. She was raped right there, in front of us, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. She was left half unconscious. When the men left, I gave her a sip of the Fanta I had stolen . . .’ He said that I was the first person he had told about this. ‘How can I tell the world how my mother was raped? That my father was killed? My heart bleeds, beta.’
While the Bangladeshi state has recognized Bengali rape survivors as birangonas, the experiences of Bihari women have mostly been ignored.
The stories of these women—like Ansar’s mother—find little mention in Pakistan too. To speak of rape and sexual assault undergone by women during Partition or in 1971 would bring ‘dishonour’ to ‘our’ women, ‘our’ nation.
Questions to guide class discussion
- Where was Ansar born and how old was he in 1971?
- Ansar says “you won’t find what happened between 1 and 25 March 1971 anywhere in Bangladeshi books” – what could he mean by this?
- What happened to Ansar and his family?
- Who was Minnu and does his reaction to Ansar’s question surprise us? Why?
- Who was Nasreen and does her role in the story surprise us? Why?
- What happened to Ansar’s father?
- Who ‘saved’ Ansar and his family?#
- What is Ansar’s opinion on the massacres by the Pakistani Army of Bengalis?
- What happened to Ansar’s mother and why is this so difficult to hear?
- Is Ansar a victim, perpretator, collaborator or resister? Why?
- Why could Ansar’s story be so important to listen to in Pakistan?
- Why could Ansar’s story be so difficult to tell in Bangladesh?