Part II: Fluctuating witnesses

Dec 2012

Pages: 1 | 2 | Part I

While many of the interviewees in Bangladesh had confounded me with their exhausted and depressed moods, those in Pakistan exuded relief at finally having a platform to speak. One moving account came from a Bihari who told me, “I had already left for West Pakistan, but my brother was still in Chittagong. One day I heard your Mukti Bahini had come and killed him. You know, I couldn’t cry when I heard that news, but I cried when I heard Dhaka fell.” (7) The knowledge of Bengali violence against Bihari locals created a conflicted research experience, since I was still emotionally attached to the idea that Bengalis had killed only Pakistani soldiers, not civilians.

In giving oral recollections, each side had powerful claims to make. But selectively chosen anecdotes cannot automatically be expanded into macro-history, overriding larger tendencies that individual stories cannot adequately represent. Certainly, a full history cannot be written without extensive research and teasing out of the symbolic meaning of urban legends and the role that some “Biharis” played as the blunt edge of West Pakistani domination–as informants, strategic hamlets, and suppliers of manpower for death squads (alongside Bengalis who opposed the rupture of Pakistan).

While the killing of Bihari civilians by Bengalis is not defensible, a sober evaluation of role, scale, and power also has to be part of writing history. A distinction needs to be made between the violence of a chaotic, freelance Bengali mob and the systematic violence of the Pakistani military and the death squads they supported and armed. Afsan Chowdhury explains the dynamics of revenge killings: “Bengalis did commit atrocities including rape of Bihari women and unless we accept that we shall never have the moral force to stand up to ourselves. . . . I have also explained the role of the Pakistan army in facilitating this and it was important for Biharis to understand that. Did the Pakistanis expect to attack Bengalis in Dhaka and expect the Biharis living unprotected and unsafe all over Bangladesh to be untouched? I believe [the] Pakistan army didn’t care about them and practically signed their death warrant. This is further proven by the abandoning of the Biharis after their defeat in December and [their] escape under Indian army protection leaving the Biharis behind, the staunchest of Pakistanis, to face the music of vengeance.” (8)


7. Author interview, 1994.

8. Afsan Chowdhury, “Is reconciliation with Pakistan a realistic goal?”,, 26 March, 2011.

* This essay is the second in a multi-part series, “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971.” You can read the first segment here. A version of this essay appeared in the edited collection Lines of Control: Partition as Productive Space (2012). 

Naeem Mohaiemen is a visual artist ( and a PhD student in anthropology at Columbia University. He is the editor of Chittagong Hill Tracts: In the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism (2010) published by Drishtipat/Maunsher Jonno Foundation in Dhaka. 


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5 Responses to Part II: Fluctuating witnesses

  1. […] This is the third of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II […]

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  3. […] of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II | Part III | Part […]

  4. […] of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part […]

  5. Damian on Jan 2013 at 3:28 AM

    I don’t want to go by the argument that the guy was Hindu lokniog or having that wristband or had no beard. The point simply is what the hell was their navy doing with 20 odd radars always monitoring each inch of their waters. When fishermen cross the disputed waters, they are immediately caught! This is hard to believe, that they entered the city. Aren’t there checks on ports even if they managed to stay underwater from karachi to mumbai???and how about the ammunition, all from pakistan? they must have carried it in some cases, weren’t they checked on arrival? that’s truly absurd.

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