The Bangladeshi Genocide
in Comparative Perspective
Dr. Adam Jones
Professor, Political Science
University of British Columbia, Canada
My background is as a scholar in the field of comparative genocide studies – founded by the man who invented the word “genocide,” Raphael Lemkin, whom we also consider as the father of the United Nations Genocide Convention. Genocide studies how encompasses scholars, students, and activists from an extraordinarily wide array of disciplines and backgrounds, including law, sociology, history, political science, psychology, philosophy, gender studies.
Within comparative genocide studies, sadly, the Bangladesh genocide remains strikingly little known – something that I and a few others have sought to redress in our modest ways. This reflects the peripheral position of East Pakistan/Bangladesh in the global order – something that also accounts for the lack of international interest and intervention at the time, to which I will return.
This is despite the fact that from a comparative perspective, the Bangladesh genocide of 1971 was one of the most extreme and destructive genocides of the twentieth century, with as many as 3 million people killed. Reading English language sources like Anthony Mascarenhas’s short book, and even more Kalyan Chaudhuri’s impressive work Genocide in Bangladesh, I was struck by the parallels between the Pakistani slaughter of Bengalis and some of the most savage atrocities in modern record, including the genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, Japanese rampages in China and the Nazi genocides in Eastern Europe during World War Two. The scale and systematic character of the slaughter and material destruction was simply breathtaking.
So, too, are there obvious and disturbing parallels between the kind of racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds that fuelled these earlier genocides, and the Bangladeshi slaughter of 1971. When we look at the origins of the genocide, therefore, we must clearly recognize its ideological foundations: the conviction of the West Pakistani leadership that Bengalis were an inferior and almost subhuman race – “a low-lying land of low, lying people,” as Pakistani General Niazi put it.
But ideological hatreds are rarely sufficient to explain genocidal outbreaks in themselves. What is frequently required is an atmosphere of crisis and existential threat among the perpetrators. We see this clearly in the Bangladeshi case. The movement for Bangladeshi autonomy and proto-independence was seen as a profound challenge and security dilemma for the Pakistani state, and for the dominance of West Pakistani elites within that federation.
In this sense, despite the common temptation to view genocide as an expression of irrational evil, the 1971 genocide was a rational act by West Pakistani elites and their allies in East Pakistan to preserve their stranglehold on power, and indeed to expand and deepen it by “cleansing” the east of its Bengali identity and much of its Bengali population. Bangladesh therefore offers an example of the intimate relationship between war, whether civil or international, and genocide – indeed, I have referred to these as the “Siamese Twins” of mass violence throughout history.
How much of the genocide was actually pre-planned is an open question. Clearly, there was a determination to crush Bengali resistance through a short and extremely sharp application of terror, mass murder, and forcible expulsion.
But I think comparative genocide studies has gradually moved away from a static model of preordained outcomes, towards a more dynamic and dialectical framing. In the Bangladeshi case, I think we need to recognize that mass terror and genocide spiralled and deepened as the failure of the initial slaughter to suppress Bengali nationalism became plain, and as resistance deepened in the form of the Mukti Bahini movement aided and abetted by Pakistan’s historic enemy and rival, India. A parallel here would be the kind of genocides-by-counterinsurgency that we find in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Afghanistan during the 1980s, which occurred in the context of progracted guerrilla wars.
Rationality and realpolitik also explain much of the international dimension of the conflict. Thanks to Gary Bass’s recent book The Blood Telegram, we have an intimate portrait of the kind of self-consciously “realist” decisionmaking that determined U.S. policymaking under Nixon and Kissinger during this period. Likewise, India’s policy, though cloaked in a humanitarian mantle, was heavily shaped by realist considerations – the opportunity to dismember a key rival; the material and political challenge of millions of refugees on its soil, especially in volatile West Bengal; and the opportunity for the government of Indira Gandhi to mobilize and consolidate domestic political support.
However, we should not overlook the moral and humanitarian influences at work in these spheres. Actors like Archer Blood and Edward Kennedy in the USA were clearly motivated by moral outrage at the mass atrocities, and their words and actions had some influence on outcomes. Mass media reports reflected some of that same outrage, and were also influential, particularly in the wake of the then-recent genocide in the Biafra region of Nigeria. And even though we cannot consider India’s intervention to be principally humanitarian, the domestic political and media uproar over the genocide was clearly significant, as Bass’s book also makes clear.
Let me say a few words about several of the genocidal strategies employed in Bangladesh in 1971:
Eliticide – the targeting of intellectuals and academics, cultural figures, media workers, even sports figures – anyone seen to be at the vanguard of Bengali identity and culture
Politicide – the attempt to eliminate all actual and potential supporters of the Awami League and Mukti Bahini
Gendercide – the targeting of Bengali men and boys above all, noted by numerous commentators although it has rarely been foregrounded in analyses of the genocide. An exception is my own treatment of the subject in the case-study I wrote for the Gendercide Watch website, which you can find online.
What is notable and challenging about those strategies is that they overlap. By this, I mean that because men generally constitute the overwhelming majority of military fighters and political and cultural elites, in Bangladesh as elsewhere, it can be difficult to separate analytically the extent to which victims were targeted on the basis of their elite identity, their political beliefs, or their gender identity. But one of the things I have argued is that victims are always targeted on the basis of multiple and overlapping identities of this type – never are the variables found in strict isolation.
I should note, before leaving this subject, the additional gender element of the genocidal strategy which has received considerable attention in the literature: the targeting of Bengali women for mass rape, often followed by murder as a further expression of gendered hatred and a desire to cover up the crime. This is again a very typical feature of modern genocides. Not only does rape and sexual assault target women physically, but it also attacks them at a profound level of identity, and it undermines the wider bonds of solidarity within the targeted ethnic and cultural group by alienating women from men, and humiliating men in a patriarchal context, who are shown as unable to protect “their” women from assault and violation. The issue of rape survivors and the further victimization and impoverishment of widows in the aftermath of genocide is another notable element of the post-genocide environment in Bangladesh, and this too is a distressingly common feature of genocidal aftermaths.
Let me conclude with some additional observations about the aftermath of the Bangladeshi genocide. I want to focus on two principal elements: the quest for justice, and the construction of memory.
The Bangladeshi case is similar to many others in the twentieth-century context, in that genocide and crimes against humanity produced a concerted campaign for justice and restitution for the victims. However, the Bangladesh case is distinctive in several respects, or even unique.
Notably, the establishment of the International Crimes Tribunal in 1973 was one of the earliest systematic attempts to seek justice for genocide – the first major one since the Nuremberg Trials after World War Two, and the first in history in which the vocabulary of genocide was front-and-centre in the campaign. It precedes the ad-hoc tribunals established for Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and Sierra Leone, not just by years but by decades. Yet it is again very little known and studied by comparative genocide scholars, especially legal scholars.
Bangladesh is also notable for the long and winding road that the struggle for justice has been forced to follow since 1973. All of you in the audience know that much better, and feel the pain of it more deeply, than I ever can. Only in the last few years have cases actually come to trial and verdicts been passed.
Typically for such proceedings, we have witnessed intensive debates, both nationally and internationally, about the nature of the justice being sought and delivered. Some have alleged that this is a kind of “victor’s justice” – the same allegations made against the architects of Nuremberg and the UN-sponsored tribunals of the 1990s and 2000s. I would only say here that my brief time and limited investigations here in Bangladesh have given me a much better sense of the depth of feeling that underpins the desire for justice in Bangladesh. I am more skeptical than I was toward the criticisms of the skeptics, and better informed about the ways that certain elements within Bangladesh have long stalled and impeded the essential quest for justice and recognition. Only now, decades after the atrocities, has it indeed been possible to launch the kind of process that the crimes so clearly required, even if one can retain strong reservations, for example about the institution of the death penalty for convicted perpetrators.
Justice-seeking is of course an important subset of the wider shaping of memory and memorialisation in the aftermath of genocide.
I think it is fair to say that in Bangladesh, as Arild Engelsun Ruud has argued in an important article on school textbooks in this country, the 1971 genocide has been defined as a critical and foundational moment in nation-formation and nation-building. The victims are defined as the nation’s heroes and martyrs; their blood has fertilized the soil of Bengali identity. Related to this is an enshrining and politicizing of death tolls in genocide. We see this with the statistic of 3 million killed, and the hostility and suspicion sometimes directed against those who question the figure, as with the current controversy over Sarmila Bose’s book, which I haven’t yet read, and blog posts by the Bangladesh-based journalist David Bergman. This is a very sensitive subject, since genocide deniers often seek to politicize death tolls by minimizing them. I’ll say only that I consider a death toll in the millions to be unproven, but conceivable, especially if we include the victims of starvation and disease among refugee populations, as I believe we should.
This incorporation of genocide into nation-building narratives is a frequent post-genocide phenomenon – think of the foundational place of the Holocaust in contemporary Jewish and Israeli identity, for example, or the way that Circassians have used the memory of the 19th-century Russian genocide against their people, in the context of the Sochi Olympics, to bolster the cohesion and solidarity of their far-flung diaspora. All nations are collectively imagined communities, as the scholar Benedict Anderson has argued; and key upheavals like war
However, I think it also poses some dangers. In the Bangladeshi case, I think it may have led to the downplaying of a number of important elements, and I am again drawing on Arild Ruud’s analysis here.
First, it tends to emphasize the guerrilla resistance and the violence directed against the martyrs, at the expense of the more general targeting of the civilian population.
Second, among that civilian population, it tends to skate over the highly specific and disproportionate targeting of Hindus among the Bengali population of East Pakistan. They constituted an overwhelming proportion of refugees. Their targeting was a key element in the mobilization of East Pakistani paramilitaries and death squads by West Pakistani forces. And memorialisation of the victims has tended to be submerged in the narrative of the emergent Muslim-majority and increasingly Muslim-identified state of Bangladesh.
Third, a narrative of heroic liberation tends to avoid the subject of the vengeful and in some ways parallel violence inflicted at the end of the genocide and in its immediate aftermath, against elements that were viewed as collaborating with West Pakistan. I am thinking especially of the so-called “Biharis,” non-Bengali speakers, and also the population of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, a district in which I have been travelling in the last week or so.
It is ironic that even though the population of the Hill Tracts was absolutely devastated by the West Pakistani genocide, it was generally constructed as “collaborationist” in the wake of the genocide. And this combined with a portrait of the tribal population that that ironically mirrored the West Pakistani elites’ construction of Bengalis: as primitive, inferior, subversive, and impeding national development.
Within only a couple of years of the 1971 genocide therefore, persecution and crimes against humanity possibly amounting to genocide were being perpetrated by leaders and agents of the new Bangladeshi government against the Adivasi people of the Hill Tracts. We have seen this pattern quite regularly in post-genocidal contexts, for example the targeting of ethnic Germans at the end of the Second World War, or Palestinians during the formation of the Israeli state, or Serbian civilians in Kosovo after the 1999 war there. Should the mass atrocities in the Hill Tracts also be part of the narrative of genocide in Bangladesh?
All of this serves as a reminder, I think, that in memorializing genocides and pursuing justice for their perpetration, we must work to retain a stance of self-monitoring and self-criticism, and avoid some common temptations and traps. We must avoid nationalist and patriotic hubris and an excessively “heroic” and “triumphal” narrative of genocide and its consequences. We must not use genocide as a justification for further mass crimes. We must be nuanced and inclusive in our understanding of the ways in which genocide occurred and the kinds of victims it targeted. In this way, I feel, we can more truly honour the victims and survivors of genocide, and work to guard against future outbreaks of genocide and related crimes, in our own societies and in others.
Thank you very much for your attention, and I welcome your comments and questions.Speech given on 22nd March, 2014, 18th Anniversary of Liberation War Museum