Liberation’s Women

Published: March 14, 2012 - 15:40

Book: Women, War and Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971
Author: Yasmin Saikia
Publisher: Women Unlimited
Price: 600
Year: 2011

The violence of rape was responded to with more violence by the new Bangladeshi State, represented by liberators, Bengali men

Mukherjee P Guwahati

Forty years of the Muktijuddha (war of liberation) and the formation of Bangladesh is being commemorated through a series of publications. In that oeuvre, two unrelated projects complement and supplement each other, adding to the grand-narrative of the lesser known strands of a remarkable struggle which is a watermark for the present and future South Asian revolutions.

Women, War and Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 by Yasmin Saikia is a sensitive book divided into three broad segments: 'Introducing 1971', 'The Told and Untold Stories of 1971' and 'Creating the History of 1971'. The book is intense and effective as it manages to de-clutter the academic jargon that usually dots such narratives and goes back to the power of the monologue. Of history, told by the fringe as it is (and I refuse to call it 'subaltern'). The fringe is not merely the vexed question of minority and the other, but the manufacturing of a stigmatized identity by the nation-state towards those who they believe 'should' be punished as an offshoot of revolution.

Here's an extract: "After the war the Bangladesh government mandated an abortion programme to get rid of 'bastard Pakistanis' and women were compelled to accept the State's intervention if they wanted inclusion within the newly liberated country and to live a normal life, at least, at an external level.

A clinic for rape victims called Sada Bahar was set up in the heart of Dhaka city on February 18, 1972, and it functioned for six months thereafter. A rehabilitation centre called Nari Punarbashon was also established to assist victims. The violence of rape was responded to with more violence by the Bangladeshi State, represented by liberators, Bengali men. Purity and impurity, belonging and exclusion, were worked out and physically carried out on the body of the women, the site of national dishonour and power for men to control the imagining of a new 'liberated nation'."

There in lies the crux of the book, and the necessity of this analysis. How do we look at the Stateless Bihari refugees of Camp Geneva who are neither a part of the Bangladesh mindset nor welcome in Pakistan? These people float from nowhere to nothingness, and a coherent narrative from the contours of personal memory becomes impossible. Impossible, because their memories have been trampled upon, superimposed with a grand narrative, and the schism between secessionist and patriotic tendencies is widened.

Each monologue is a searing testimony. Nurjahan Begum of Khulna says: " ...They tore open her stomach and pulled out the unborn child and killed him, too. They were beasts, like animals. What had my daughter done to them? She was innocent like all other women in this country. Women are treated like cattle. What was her crime, except that she spoke Urdu? That made her an enemy? She was born in an Urdu-speaking family. What other language could she have spoken? They did not care. My daughter had not harmed anyone, but they killed her because she spoke Urdu. No one has fought for justice for us."

This is not a representative monologue. Each one evokes victims' memories, women's services and women's war (as classified by the author). However, these are overlapping monologues. The brutality on the bodies of women and the consistent circumspection for all parties of the war is a recurrent theme.

Each monologue is also a pointer to the commissions and omissions of history. For example, the early period of 1972 (which appears briefly in one of the end chapter notes of the book) is a very important period that shaped a lot of future rumblings inside Bangladesh (mostly, not for the better) till the custodial death of Tajuddin Ahmed. This is a period where the role of former freedom fighters turned professional arsonists needs to be studied with greater detail, and I am sure these will reveal (and has revealed) many opportunists who have played out their fundamentalism and secularism depending on their political gain (this is a common South Asian phenomenon and Bangladesh during 1972-75 is one of the symptoms).

Finally, this book is a timely reminder to focus on micro-narratives. When you look at the history of passive resistance in India, Gandhi is an important pivot, but it is his footsoldiers and their impact that we don't discuss.

Purity and impurity, belonging and exclusion, were physically carried out on the body of the women, the site of national dishonour and power for men to control the imagining of a new 'liberated nation'

How much have we discussed Thakkar Bapa, how many economics teachers at the undergraduate level bother to discuss JC Kumarappa, or how many chroniclers of Ambedkar, Phule, Periyar and Narayana Guru have bothered to get into a mass-oriented approach of deconstructing the rich lives of Uda Devi, Mahaviri Bhangi, Jhalkari Bai, Bijli Paasi, Sant Ram Udaasi, Daldev, Baldeo, Shambuk from the Ramayana, Lochan Mallah, Samadhan Nishad, Avanatibai Lodhi, Ahilyabai Holkar, and even contemporary names – Jogendranath Mondal and Manorajan Byapari?

If we study these micro-narratives, which is much more than documentation or an anthropological collage, then a powerful human testament will emerge. A record of these testaments would free our history of both the readings of the Rightists and 'Official Leftists' as both these categories have unwaveringly converged to spin the yarn of ideological convenience.

A direct impact monologue questions our notions of history. Yasmin Saikia's book needs wider circulation and translations in Bangla and Urdu (in moderately priced paperback regional editions) to reach a crowd much more important than the ivory-towered intelligentsia. My only suggestion (not that it takes away from the grand narrative weaved by Saikia) is that it would have been great to include some cultural narratives – how these narratives of the officially damned found their way into songs, palas, folk assemblages, into the interior landscape of painters and the lens of the pioneers ranging from Rashid Talukdar to Shahidul Alam.

When I was inching towards the last pages of the book, as if predestined, a CD from the UD series landed in my hands. A rare compilation called Bangladesh Mukti Andoloner Gaan from the corpus of great music composer Salil Chowdhury. These songs were composed by him for an opera on Bangladesh Muktijuddha which never got completed.

'My daughter had not harmed anyone, but they killed her because she spoke  Urdu. No one has fought for justice for us'

This eight-song compilation recorded by Arijit Chakraborty and Oliva Chakraborty gives us a glimpse of how political material can be shaped into revolutionary music with two unforgettable compositions in Abu Master and Cheye dakho notun shuktara. For a moment one felt that the grand narrative of deceit perpetrated on 'others' by the official nation-state as highlighted by Saikia and a cultural take on these other voices got fused into this text narrative and music narrative of dissent that we ignore and overlook.

The book is a must and so is the CD. Hear them together. Read them together. There is an interesting chapter in Jacques Ranciere's book The Future of Image called 'Naked Image, Ostensive Image and Metaphoric Image'. The book and CD lie in the intersection in Ranciere's words: "...transforming itself into an enormous poem establishing unbounded communication between arts and mediums, artworks and illustrations of the world, the silence of images and their eloquence. Behind the appearance of the contradiction, we must take a closer look at the interaction of these exchanges."

Indeed, the missing human rights activist Kalpana Chakma of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (kidnapped by the army on June 12, 1996) will always haunt the nation-state. Whether we like it or not.

The violence of rape was responded to with more violence by the new Bangladeshi State, represented by liberators, Bengali men
Mukherjee P Guwahati

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This story is from print issue of HardNews