Feature Img
Body of a young woman at the mass killing field at Rayer Bazar. She was first raped and then brutally killed.
Body of a young woman at the mass killing field at Rayer Bazar. She was first raped and then brutally killed.

The history of rape in 1971 has remained an extremely painful and a distant subject in our lives and the narratives have never been explored in all its dimensions. We mention rape when discussing about 1971 as part of the political component, an example of Pakistani barbarity, but we are socially or personally unable to accept rape victims into our own lives. It exists in our collective political construction talked about from the safety of anonymity, but as social individuals, we deny its presence due to the threats of stigma and anxiety generated by our cultural construction.

* * *

Sexual activity during war has several dimensions and rape is one of them, its most violent face. It’s important to put some context to understand sexuality in war situations better. For example, during World War II, most armies provided sexual service for the soldiers either through supply of war prisoners as in Korea and China as ‘comfort women’ or large scale prostitution as in India. Sexual services were easier to access in the West — prostitution, wives of others, single women who were lonely as many men had gone to war, etc. were all outlets for the soldiers looking for sex. It was essentially consensual in nature. Sex is part of war as in normal life.

In 1971, Pakistani soldiers obviously needed women and in a few cases young boys — but their presence in Bangladesh was too brutal for normal sexual client servicing; in fact most sex workers had run away while the number of clients dramatically increased by many times as the number of soldiers were at least 100,000. So these soldiers turned to the civilian population to provide sexual satisfaction. Since very few Bengali women were willing to have sex with them, commercially or otherwise, unwillingness became a key part of this equation. So forced sex through coercion was very common which if not rape in a narrow sense physically but is otherwise so. It’s not as well discussed as rape but probably occurred more than rape. As a soldier says on his way to a liberated Dhaka, “All these women had been rescued from the shelters and the bunkers. They were being led away. Where would they go now?”

* * *

This was brutal but essentially recreational sex. As Gen. Niazi of Pakistan said, “are the soldiers supposed to go to Lahore to find women?” So they found it in the local areas. No one knows how many women experienced forced sex but they were many.

Was Niazi’s own Bengali sex partner a willing one or forced? Her husband, a wealthy professional was picked up and never seen again despite ransom payment. She provided regular sexual companionship to him. There were probably others. The lady in question escaped to Pakistan in December — what else could she do — and her last orders were to make sure Niazi had a properly cooked chicken dinner.

* * *

Rape in 1971 had a much darker side as it was also an ideological act of the Pakistan state. We don’t know how many soldiers actually went to do this as part of faith but it certainly made them feel better to rape kafir women than Muslim women. Since Pakistan sold the war to the soldiers as a holy war this argument was obviously useful and of course all rape victims no matter what their religious identity were conveniently kafir in Pakistani eyes. That is all Bengalis were considered — kafir.

As the Pakistani major from Jhelum wrote on being told that his friend was sexually ravaging Bengali women. “We must tame the Bengali tigress and change the next generation.” Change to better Muslims, Pakistanis?

* * *

Dr. Geoffrey Davies, an Australian doctor who performed abortions in Bangladesh says that the team was aborting over hundred a day. He remains till date the foremost source of unbiased information on the situation being a foreigner and a certified medical doctor working under the UN banner. Dr. Bina D’Costa whose thesis is on raped women interviewed him. He says of his task, “I was trying to save of what have survived of the children born during the time that the West Pakistani army had Bengali women incarcerated in their commissariats. The West Pakistani officials didn’t get why there was so much fuss about that. I interviewed a lot of them. They were in a prison in Comilla. And they were saying, ‘What are they going on about? What were we supposed to have done? It was a war!” Dr. Davies also adds, “They had orders of a kind or instruction from Tikka Khan to the effect that a good Muslim will fight anybody except his father. So what they had to do was to impregnate as many Bengali women as they could. That was the theory behind it.”

* * *

Rape is always a weapon of intimidation. This is common in every war and in today’s Serbia, Congo, etc. this has been proved to be brutally true. In a war, the enemy is always attacked sexually to weaken them. In case of Bangladesh, it was an ethnic war and so most sexual incidents were forced and are statutory rape. A young woman who is forced to marry a Pakistani officer when a gun is pointed at her brother is not really conducting a consensual act.

* * *

Sexuality and war make companions of terrible consequences.

Salma was 16 and arrested from a field in Jessore when she ran out of bullets fighting the Pakistan army. She was taken to Jessore jail where she spent all her days till December experiencing every form of torture including rape. When she was released in mid-December, she ran out from the jail and began to run towards her father who had come to take her home. As they embraced, her father whispered in her ears, “If you have been raped, don’t tell anyone.”

But her village never forgave her and she ultimately had to leave her village out of constant social persecution. When she was being registered as a freedom fighter in the late ‘90s, the visiting politician invited her for sex. At an event, she was introduced as a rape victim despite her protests that she be presented as a freedom fighter.

Rape has both social and political dimensions and none are happy for women.

* * *

During 1971, when two women were raped in a village, they were so stigmatised by the local people that they both committed suicide. A young girl, noticeably beautiful, according to eye witness was raped by a Bengali political leader; she hanged herself. After the war, Dr. Davies mentions that the cases of suicide of raped women was what brought attention to the issue and made the international agencies to send him, a specialist in late pregnancy abortion.  War destroys women in many ways including after the war is over through social ‘stigma and shame’.

* * *

State ideology, military necessity, religious impulses along with sexual need of soldiers in a land where women were not keen to sleep with them made rape inevitable by the Pakistan army. But few other armies would invoke duty towards God and the state in order to perform rape, but it happened in 1971. Subsequently, the social system of Bangladesh made life horrific for the victims.

Bangladeshis must never stop condemning themselves for the way they treated victims of forced sexuality and rape. They also must never forget that the 1971 war’s most horrific victims were those women who were made to suffer in the name of Pakistan.

Afsan Chowdhury was part of the Muktijuddher Dolilpatra Project led by Hasan Hafizur Rahman from 1978 to 1986 which produced 15 volumes of documents on the history of 1971. For the BBC, he produced eight radio series and several chat shows on the issue on 1971. He has produced a video documentary on women and 1971 titled “Tahader Juddhyo”. Afsan has edited and co-authored a four-volume history of 1971, “Bangladesh 1971”.
He has worked in several parts of the world as a development and Human Rights specialist for the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.

Afsan Chowdhuryis a bdnews24.com columnist.

30 Responses to “Rape in 1971: in the name of Pakistan”

  1. S M Altaf Hossain

    If you refer Rakhi Bahini’s activities then the crime of 71 will be over-looked!!! Whom you want to save by diverting the common point (discussion). Of course Rakhi Bahini did many wrong but is it compare-able with Pakistani’s brutality??? Please have some sense…

  2. ahtsham

    i am pakistani i feel very shame when i listen such shameful acts of pakistani army in my childhood i wanted to join pak army but now i do not want to join pak army bangladesh men and women are our brothers and sisters so how we can even think to rape a single girl but now you can see in pakistan terrorism is very common evena single person is not sure about his life so all this is due to our acts may Allah forgive us i am very shameful from my bangali brohers and sisters……

  3. Farhad Mahmud

    My point is very simple: I did not see a single instance in that article where Afsan Bhai makes the point that no matter what the form and no matter what the rationale – making them good muslims, or “recreational sex” etc etc, it all boils down to RAPE and nothing else but RAPE.

    I would appreciate if someone could quote a single line from that article which says that.

    On the contrary, all he is doing is reducing a serious subject to a matter of useless tautological discourse, all in the name of some hallowed academic work. Examples of such sentences: “Sex is part of war as in normal life” “Pakistani soldiers obviously needed women” “normal sexual client servicing” was not possible, and most seriously, “so forced sex through coercion was very common which if not rape in a narrow sense physically but is otherwise so” !!

  4. samuel J

    It is a very shameful incident that bangladeshi never got the voice for war crime trial of the pakistanis.Bangladesh though may have forced birth by india.This does not make bangladeshi been treated in a savage way.Unfortunately, this savage treatment was done and it is history.Pakistani’s allowed to escape by indians for war crime was pathetic.The pakistani soldiers should have been put on trial and punished.

  5. Jaywalker

    Why do you repeat Mr. Afsan? Didn’t you get any new issue to insert?

  6. Somnath GuhaRoy

    While working in Haryana and Punjab of India,I came across many retired faujis who had fought in Bangladesh in 1971 war. Some of them told me that they were stunned when they found harems of captured naked / semi-naked and sick Bangali women in surrendered Pakistani garrisons, and that the Sardarji (Sikh) soldiers would take off their pagri(turban) cloths from their heads to offer as clothes to these ladies.

    • S M Altaf Hossain

      Being Bangladeshi and Muslim, I Salute to that Noble Shardarji (Sikh) who offered his pagri to ‘tortured women’

  7. Pavel

    Sex is part of life. Rape is part of humiliating humanity. No matter what rape is not any part of life or religion or war or anything. It’s a crime against humanity.

    In 1971 most criminals perpetreting such heinous act was Pakistanis. Those local people who aided and supported this act were Pakistanis in their hearts and mind. Just because they could not accommodate themselves in Pakistan, they remained in our land hiding under different umbrellas.

    In 1971 Bangali were not militarily equipped to face such a big war. The Pakistani barbarians attacked the unprepared nation all of a sudden. But for having courage, skill and quick learning capacity, the nation washed the Pakistani criminals out only in 9 months.

    Most criminals by now have died or became inactive due to natural aging process. Oh! Niazi. If you were alive! Come now and commit one such act. We shall snatch your liver and heart and feed our pets. And shall throw the rest of your bodies into the Bay of Bengal for our flesh eating fishes.

    Pakistani soldiers needed women much in 1971? For that they committed such sin at that extent? How could they stay in Indian Prison cells long for 2 years after the surrender? Did they rape their fellow soldiers to satisfy the lust at that time?

    Look at Pakistan now. No security. No trust. A failed social system. Maybe it was natural justice.

    • Somnath GuhaRoy

      Not “may be”, but DEFINITELY a case of KARMA! “Individuals, families, societies – none is intrinsically dear to me, nor hateful. One only reaps the fruits of one’s actions. Actions now are fruit of the future, and the fruit you taste now is action in the past. I am neutral.” -Bhagavad-Geeta.

      • voice of reason

        So by that rationale, Bangladeshi victims of the atrocities were only tasting ‘fruits’ of ‘past actions’! Hence they were not innocent at all? The logic is absurd.

      • Somnath GuhaRoy

        No logic would ever call innocent victims responsible for their sufferings. It however does not mean that the individual and state theories/perpetration of violence, injustice and indignities on innocent victims will in the long/short term go unpunished or that such activities will not result in harsh results for such perpetrators states.
        Actions have unforeseen long-running reactions/consequences in every field of human activity — economical, social, cultural, political, environmental, scientific, etc. It would be presumptuous to wish away this theory of action and reaction in the field of human personal actions too. Even Marxian/other theories count in this factor.

  8. Mozammel

    Afsan Choudhury’s article is a real event of the powerful over the powerless.
    There is a saying- the might is right. If it is made right is might it becomes a universal truth.
    Those who thought Bengalis as kafirs and were commanded to replace them with faithful Muslims were utterly wrong.
    Because it was violation of the universal system not to replace but to modify.The evolution science teaches the modification and adaptation not the replacement. The deniers could have been replaced long ago.
    But this had not happen and will not happen.
    The judgement will be from within the individuals and this is the omnipotent punishment for the crime committed.
    But we cannot lie silent to those who ask for the opinion and judgement.
    We have to do the right job in the right way in the right time and rest is up with the universal system of justice.
    Is there any lady or lady’s father who will ask for justice?

  9. Adnan Hossain

    Many thanks to afsan chowdhury for this very important write-up. I fully concur with most of the issues raised in the article. However I would just add one more point on the occurrence of rape during war. While lack of availability of women for the sexual gratification of the soldiers do perhaps contribute to forced sex rape in the context of any war can and ought to be read as a manifestation of belligerent masculinity. That is, rape is a weapon to emasculate a ‘nation’. Despite the fact that males also often are the victims of rape in war, women are particularly susceptible to it as it is assumed that a nation is shamed when its women folks are violated. In other words women are often considered the repository of nationalist sentiments. Thus when women of a nation are shamed/violated the whole nation is shamed by default. And this is so as nationalism is a hetero-normative masculinist discourse. For instance, work by Nayanika Mukherjee demonstrate these linkages between masculinity, nation and war babies in the context of 1971.

    The comment by MBI Munshi sounds like a red herring to me. The suggestion that the rapes perpetrated by the Rakhi Bahini are/were not discussed/catalogued has nothing to do with the horrendousness of the rape of Bangladeshi women by the Pakistani military and their allies. Of course rapes committed by Rakhi bahini (if they really did and am sure Afsan chowdhury would have better data on this)needs to be condemned with as much force with which we should condemn the rape by the Pakistani military and its allies. But to say that the rapes perpetrated by some quarter of AL and the Rakhi Bahini have not been discussed and catalogued is no reason to undermine the viciousness of what the Pakistani military and its local associates did.

    I would also like to draw attention to the violence conducted against the women of CHT in Bangladesh by the Bangladeshi army. While the story of Kolpona Chakma has made it to the headlines many stories of such violence are yet to be told. I hope Afsan Chowdhury would at some point write an investigatiive piece on this isuue.

    In Solidarity

    Adnan Hossain

  10. Faiz Siddiqui

    It was a shameful accident in the history of Pakistan. I think President Asif Zardari with his “Doctorine of Reconciliation” had apologised to Baluch for the past deeds by the establishment, including Bhutto’s operation in ’70s. He should also apologise to our Bengali brothers, if he has the courage.

    • Somnath GuhaRoy

      It was not an accident but only one of the results of the Pakistani ideology of demonising non-Muslims, atheists and secularists, and their ill-treatment and genocide; this eventually grew into its own self-devouring attitude.
      In Hindu mythology, demon Bhasma-Asura acted good and pleased God to get from Him the power of turning anyone into ashes with the touch of his hand. Bhasma-Asura used this power to try to dominate others and tried to forcibly marry and rape their women. God, whereupon, tricked Bhasma-Asura into place his hand on his own head destroying himself and the good were saved.
      I find in this fable striking similarities to the present problems and fate of Pakistan.

  11. J

    Highlighting the past is one thing, but what about now? Where are these people? Has anyone done anything for them? Why do they still have to fight? Bangladesh is so modernised now, why does this social stigma still exist?

  12. harun al nasif

    Bangladeshis must never stop condemning themselves for the way they treated victims of forced sexuality and rape. They also must never forget that the 1971 war’s most horrific victims were those women who were made to suffer in the name of Pakistan.

    • Tarin

      What the Pakistani army did to the Bengali women was sinful and shameful? But how about the country? WHat was the fault of these women who are physically weak compared to a man> Why did the society shun them and castigate them so much that either they escaped to other villages or towns or even worse West Pakistan, or they committed suicide in addition to facing sexual advances instead of being recognized as war heroines/freedom fighters? We as a nation failed unbelievably considering how we treated our own women!! We should demand apologies from Pakistan BUT before that we should make it a point to honor and put the dignity of these women who have suffered all these years after 1971. After all these women were forced to have sex. Its not as if they did it for their own pleasure! Imagine how they must have felt?

      We as a nation built monuments, celebrate the independence with pomp, confer various arrangements for freedom fighters, continue to ask for apology from Pakistan but we never asked for forgiveness for the women who suffered humiliation during and after 1971? Very few people, politicians and governments have raised this issue! Politicians frequently mention that our ladies were raped but how many of them ever offered employment, empowerment and social recognition to these group of women who suffered the worst atrocities during 1971? How many? Time to ponder over this issue!

  13. Muhammad

    The greatest tragedy I ever came across during the short span of my life is ‘the rape of Bangladesh”. I cannot believe, that the fellow brothers/citizens of one wing of Pakistan who lived together in the same country for 23 years and shared the same religious and almost identical cultural values and sentiments can do such horrendous activities like raping and indiscriminate killing of innocent people and go for looting, burning/destroying houses and properties.

    I can never forgive them. Most interestingly, a great chunk of Pakistani people and the stooges of Pakistani rapers/killer of Bangladesh do not agree that such a great atrocity of the century was carried out by the Pakistan Army and their non-Bengali Biharis.

    Ironically, these hated anti-Bangladeshi and anti-independence collaborators of Pakistan were rehabilitated in Bangladesh politics and they were made prime minister (Shah Aziz, who went to United Nations as a member of Pak delegation to oppose Bangladesh independence war!), ministers etc. What a great shame! The rapers of my mother and sisters, the killers of my fathers and brothers, the butchers of the golden sons of Bangladesh-the intellectuals, were in the throne of Bangladesh! We had to accept these and digest these! Who were responsible for this humiliation of my nation?

  14. Akbar Hussain

    Historically war is a component of politics but also a part of criminality. Wicked politicians made war to promote their evil plans and saner part of the mankind stepped into the battlefield to stop them. The brutalities we went through in 1971 were a criminal outburst of the Pakistani mind. We were never a part of Pakistan emotionally and this truth was known to the Pakistani ruling cliques from the day one.
    From 1947 to 1971 this uneasy relationship was a constant source of mistrust and deception. This was the reason why we were suppressed and oppressed whenever we were explicit in our expressions that enough is enough. The great misconception that religion makes a nation pushed the Pakistanis to this brutality which clearly goes against the spirit of religion. The lethal brew of religion and politics pushed them to this barbarism. But unfortunately this tragic lesson has been forgotten by many in Bangladesh under the leadership of late Ziaur Rahman and Khaleda Zia.

    Akbar Hussain

    • Somnath GuhaRoy

      The politicians are smart enough to learn their lessons; in fact unlike ordinary and emotional people they don’t need to really since they are aware of the consequences at the outset.
      However, they care only for their own profits, and hence misuse ideas of nationalism, patriotism and religion to exploit common people condemning an entire generation to misery.

  15. srabon

    What is most tragic is that such heinous crime still continues, committed by our own people.

  16. Rahman

    ‘Dead Reckoning’ redefines history of 1971
    Dead Reckoning by Sarmila Bose: This ground-breaking book chronicles the 1971 war in South Asia by reconstituting the memories of those on opposing sides of the conflict. 1971 was marked by a bitter civil war within Pakistan and war between India and Pakistan, backed respectively by the Soviet Union and the United States. It was fought over the territory of East Pakistan, which seceded to become Bangladesh. Through a detailed investigation of events on the ground, Sarmila Bose contextualises and humanises the war while analysing what the events reveal about the nature of the conflict itself. The story of 1971 has so far been dominated by the narrative of the victorious side. All parties to the war are still largely imprisoned by wartime partisan mythologies. Bose reconstructs events via interviews conducted in Bangladesh and Pakistan, published and unpublished reminiscences in Bengali and English of participants on all sides, official documents, foreign media reports and other sources. Her book challenges assumptions about the nature of the conflict, and exposes the ways in which the 1971 war is still playing out in the region.

  17. Somnath GuhaRoy

    When will the barbarians and their leaders be punished? Why has not there been any trial of these extreme violators in any court for atrocities against humanity and women and men?
    We must learn to treat rape victims, as sufferers and not stigmatise them. For that change in ourselves, women must not be viewed as sex objects and as property of men – but as individual human beings.
    Niazi and Tikka Khan should have at least been slapped in the face for their terrible comments.

  18. toosinbeymen

    A horrendous story of brutality!

    These crimes obviously stem from the opposing army viewing the population, civilian and military, as lesser human beings. US soldiers do similar things nearly every time they’re engaged in a conflict and it shows very poor management and training by their leaders.

    Actually, it’s not poor management. If truth be told, truth be told it’s as bad and humiliating as that sounds. It happened in Vietnam but not to the level described in this article.

    The Pakistanis need to come clean on these crimes. Have they humbled themselves and apologised to the Bengali people, to the least? Have they shown any regret in their brutal action?

    The story of Salma is heart wrenching. And so unnecessary! It’s too bad she couldn’t escape the crimes that were committed against her. She was even treated badly by those she fought for, her fellow countrymen. How horrible for her and shame for all those who treated her that way!

    The social stigma and shame at least are problems that hopefully will end over time. Perhaps, it will take generations to adopt new ways but women MUST be given respect as individuals. As human beings.

  19. MBI Munshi

    If we associate rape with the viciousness of the Pakistan army why did the Rakkhi Bahini and certain notorious AL youth kidnap and rape women soon after 1971? Why have these incidents not been catalogued and discussed?

    • Muhammad

      Munshi, we do not support any atrocity, killing, rape by anybody. I never heard that Rakkhi Bahini went for rape; I know that they did some excesses, beat people as a petua bahini of ruling party. We never support them. If certain notorious AL youth kidnap and rape any woman, that cannot be generalised and these acts were not patroned by any Govt., and should not justify arson and rape perpetrated by Pakistan Army. Here is another tragedy. If somebody raises the issue of Pak Army’s atrocities, immediately the example of misdeeds of after independance Bangladesh govt is brought in. Why? One wrong doing cannot be justified by another. Pak army’s genocide is a crime against humanity. It must be deplored by every human being.

    • Hasan Mamud

      We, the victim nation of 1971 know the butchers of our Liberation War very well and we also know their present supporters. Look how they deliberately mix up issues and try to dilute the war crimes of mass-rape in 1971, one of the worst episodes in human history.

      These people do not seem to have any respect for their mothers or sisters. They are enemy of humanity and disgrace to any nation.

    • Somnath GuhaRoy

      Munshi Sahab,
      After reading your unbelievable “logic”, now I understand why my classmates Ramsundar and Abbas, and friend Dr. Tajuddin always maintained that anyone with belief in religion was necessarily an evil or misguided person.
      Everyone can see the difference between individual rapists in any society and the Pakistani establishment’s and mentality’s use and advocacy of rape as an instrument of religious and national oppression and humiliation.
      As a Bengali, I’m distressed that any Bengali should hold such a mindset.
      Gentlemen such as Mr. Akbar Hussain, Faiz Siddiqui, Afsan Chowdhury and others make me proud to be a Bengali.

  20. Golam Arshad

    Afsan: A horrific story! Sin of all sins! The Pakistani marauders! No mercy! No pardon! Punish them, punish them, punish them!

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