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.
We pass banana trees and rice fields, men wearing lungis and homes with tin sheds. Heavy monsoon rain pours down on us as we drive along on a bumpy, narrow road to Chuknagar in Khulna district. My view of lush green fields is interspersed with small roadside shops selling drinks and snacks, with big Fair and Lovely billboards hanging above them. In between these shops and the fields are men selling fresh vegetables to passers-by.
Once every few moments I look away from the scenery and glance down to read a few pages from the book resting on my lap. It was given to me by Professor Muntassir Mamoon (conversations with whom are mentioned in Chapter 5) and is titled 1971 Chuknagar Genocide. The book has been edited by Mamoon and includes testimonies of what is known in Bangladesh as one of the worst massacres of the 1971 war. It reads:
The route from different areas to India intersected at Chuknagar. From there, with the help of brokers or pro-liberation people, they used to cross the border. Hundreds of Hindus gathered daily at Chuknagar from Batiaghata, Dakope, Satkhira, Bagerhat, etc., areas to go India.
By 20 May 1971, which is the date I am told mass killings took place, Chuknagar was flooded with India-bound refugees, ready to leave their homes to escape the unrest and bloodshed in East Pakistan. According to one version, when a row broke out between a Bihari boatman and the passengers over the fare, the Bihari informed the Pakistan Army about many Bengalis gathering at Chuknagar. The hope, I am told, was to push the Bengalis out by instilling fear and getting hold of the refugees’ jewellery, money and belongings. Instead, it is estimated that 6000 to 10,000 people were killed. (Others would claim higher figures, as mentioned in my interviews later.)
The numbers and events at Chuknagar have been contested just like other events of 1971. My focus then, as mentioned earlier, is not to ascertain the ‘facts’, but to meet with people who had witnessed or suffered what happened there and to learn how they continue to survive while living in close proximity to a site which took away many of their loved ones. How did they make sense of what had happened? How did they cope with their loss? What did it mean to come back to the field today, where I’m told a college has been built? And what did it mean to speak with a Pakistani about what had happened? Those are some of the questions I reached Chuknagar with that morning.
We parked outside Chuknagar College, a private institution established next to the ‘killing field’ in 1983. The principal, Shafiqul Islam, welcomed us in the hallway and ushered us into his office. I noticed framed photographs of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Sheikh Hasina on the wall behind his desk. Many other offices have the same photographs. I wonder what happens when it is the BNP, and not the Awami League, which is in power? I am told that textbooks are revised, as are airport names and currency bills, when the party in power changes. Do the photographs outlive the political party in rule?
Islam was dressed in a white shirt, with a red scarf hanging from his neck. A sticker on the scarf depicted the Bangladesh and Indian flags. He told me the Indian high commissioner presented it to him for his research on 1971.
‘I was about fifteen years old in 1971,’ he began. ‘This place, Chuknagar, was used as a transit point by many people who were crossing over into India. By now, everyone had heard of the killings. They were trying to seek refuge. As students, we would help arrange vehicles for the crossing over. On 20 May, about 11 a.m., we heard shots being fired. I remember, I was in the market. I heard that the Pakistan Army had come. There were twenty-five to thirty soldiers . . . suddenly there was continuous firing. I crossed the river and ran [to a place] four to five kilometres away. It was only around 5 or 6 p.m. that I returned (eyewitnesses told me the firing had begun at 11 a.m. and continued till 4 p.m.). There were bodies everywhere, the river was full. I don’t think any less than 15,000 people died, but there’s no record of the incident. I’m trying to create awareness. We’ve formed a committee on the 1971 genocide in Chuknagar. In 1999, the government recognized it as a killing field. The highest number of people was killed here. Every 20 May, we have discussions, programmes, memorials, meetings. Victims, journalists, professors come together and the students help arrange all of this.’
I asked what happened to him after the killings on 20 May? Where did he go? How did he survive the rest of the war? ‘May onwards, the Indian Army started training 2000–3000 Bengalis per month. The Mujibnagar government had offices in India and would send freedom fighters to recruit young boys and students. By August, I had also become a freedom fighter. I went to a Mukti Bahini camp 10 to 12 miles away. There, I was given rifle and gun training. After the surrender, I helped arrest fifteen to sixteen razakars and punished them. Many razakars were killed.’
A few other men from the area also collected in Islam’s office to meet. They had heard about some Pakistanis visiting to learn about what happened on this spot on 20 May 1971. One of them said, ‘I was here, I witnessed the killing. Minimum figure of people killed is 10,000, but actually about 12,000 people died. People were taking shelter on trees, inside homes and in ponds. One of my cousins also died, he was only thirteen years old. He opened the door thinking the army wasn’t there, but as soon as he opened it, he was shot. He was Muslim . . . I am also Muslim. I was hiding in one of the homes. The Pakistan Army would call people out and ask them to recite the kalma (prayer to denote one’s Muslim faith), say “Pakistan zindabad, Allah-o-Akbar (Long live Pakistan, God is great)”. I recited it and was saved. So many people had collected here that day. The border is only a few kilometres away. This is a short route to India and many people used to stop here to sell, buy, cook, eat, rest. I was a college student in 1971, eighteen years old. Like Islam, I also became a freedom fighter by August. I went to India for training. When we came back, our troops fought the Pakistan Army.’
Questions to guide class discussion
- How old was Shafiqul Islam in 1971 and – as a student – what was he doing in Chuknagar?
- What does Shafiqul describe seeing occur on 20 May 1971?
- Why does Shafiqul want to tell this difficult story? How does he do this?
- What did Shafiqul do after the events of 20 May?
- What did Shafiqul do after the end of the war?
- Why does the historian / author find it difficult to eat when hearing these stories?
- Why could Shafiqul’s story be so difficult for the Pakistani government to hear?