WMC Reports

WMC Women Under Siege Conflict Report: Bangladesh (2012)


The Bangladesh War of 1971—in which up to 3 million people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of women raped—seemingly has its roots in strange cartography. As University of Chicago professor Rochona Majumdar puts it, the 1947 Partition between India and Pakistan was geographically “very weird,” with the nation of Pakistan split into two noncontiguous land masses. Mapped to the west of India was West Pakistan, the largest ethnic group of which comprised Punjabis (mostly in the western part of the now divided Punjab, the eastern part of which lay in India), but also Pakhtuni-, Balochi-, and Sindhi-speaking peoples, who largely spoke and/or understood Urdu, a language rooted in India’s United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). The eastern “wing” of the country, East Pakistan—later Bangladesh—was on the other side of India, largely Bengali-speaking with ties to India’s Bengal. As the BBC points out, the provinces were separated by “more than 1,500 km of Indian territory,” or 932 miles. From the beginning, the state was carved into separate sociolinguistic regions.

Adding to the strain was the fact that the Pakistani army was drawn largely from the Punjabis and Pukhtoons of West Pakistan. Although statistically there were more Bengali than Urdu speakers in the nation, Bengali speakers from the East were poorly represented. This became especially divisive during early periods of military rule.

Bangladesh Liberation War Museum - Photo credit: taylorandyumi

Thousands of Bengali women were held in rape camps in Bangladesh's "Liberation War."

Just two years after the creation of Pakistan, a group called the Awami League was formed in an effort to petition for East Pakistan’s autonomy. At the end of 1970, the League won in a landslide election in East Pakistan—the first election in Pakistan’s history in which voters could directly choose members of the National Assembly. Though the victory meant the League would control the government, the government in West Pakistan refused to acknowledge the results. Rioting ensued.

In 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (called Mujib), leader of the Awami League, declared independence and renamed East Pakistan “Bangladesh.” Talks between leaders failed to bring reconciliation; on March 23, 1971, East Pakistan, at the direction of Mujib, celebrated “Resistance Day” instead of the national “Republic Day.” Mujib was later arrested and moved to West Pakistan. Soon after, Pakistan began Operation Searchlight, its violent crackdown on Bangladesh. The fighting lasted nine months. India, which took in up to 10 million refugees from East Pakistan/Bangladesh, aided the rebels in their fight against Pakistan.

In December of 1971, Bangladeshi “freedom fighters,” with the help of Indian military forces, defeated Pakistan’s soldiers.

Human Rights Watch estimated that Pakistani forces killed up to 3 million people, though the Pakistani government sets that number much lower, at about 26,000. Hundreds of thousands of women and young girls were raped, though estimates on sexualized violence vary greatly as well. However, as Yasmin Saikia, chair of Peace Studies at Arizona State University's Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict and author of several books about the Indian subcontinent, explains, the 1971 war must be viewed in the context of longer-term conflict in the region. Present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, she says, all committed profound acts of violence between the late 1940s and early 1970s.

Read the full report here.

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