1971 Bangladesh Liberation War and Mass Graves
This Handful of Dust: Bones, Guns, and Stones
The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 was a result of complex geopolitical forces in South Asia. In the partition of 1947 Pakistan was created as two distinct landlocked areas, called East and West Pakistan. Over the next couple of decades, the cultural and political differences between East and West Pakistan came to a head and the people of East Pakistan wanted a separate state. This separatist movement resulted in what is titled as the “Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.”
The nation of Bangladesh was carved out of the body of Pakistan. It was another partition, this time of Pakistan, but curiously, it is not called a partition. Instead, it is called the War of 1971 or Bangladesh Liberation War.
1971 Bangladesh Genocide
This second partition was bloodier and more brutal than the first one of 1947. The war crimes committed in this conflict have left deep wounds in the Bangladeshi psyche. There is an academic consensus that the events which took place during the Bangladesh Liberation War constituted a genocide. As a result of the conflict, about ten million people, mostly Hindus, fled the country to seek refuge in neighboring India. It is estimated that up to 30 million civilians were internally displaced out of 70 million, (1971 Bangladesh Genocide).
There are many documented instances of mass killings and mass graves. In Bangladesh March 25, 1971, is observed as Genocide Day. Private organizations and war researchers estimate that there are at least 5000 mass graves in Bangladesh. They are usually found in the process of digging up the earth for building foundations of new buildings. (Dhaka Tribune 2019).
Rape as a Weapon of War
The Pakistani army systematically used rape as a weapon of war. About 200,000-400,000 women were raped during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
The Bangladesh government publicly designated the thousands of women raped by the Pakistani military and their local collaborators as birangonas,
A Spectral Wound
Nayanika Mookherjee writes that while this celebration of birangonas as heroes keeps them in the public memory, they exist in the public consciousness as what Mookherjee calls a "spectral wound" (Mookherjee 2015).
International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka
An International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was formed on 25 March 2009 in Bangladesh to investigate and administer justice regarding the war crimes (mass killings and mass rapes) committed by the Pakistan army and their local collaborators during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, (Wikipedia 2021).
Counter-Memories of 1971
The mass graves and the birangonas are the living counter-memories of 1971. Michel Foucault coined the term, “Counter-Memory” to describe a modality of history that opposes history as knowledge or history as truth. For Foucault, counter-memory was an act of resistance in which one critically examines the history and excavates the narratives that have been subjugated, (Foucault 1977).
Jalladkhana Killing Field Museum
I had the opportunity to work very closely with the Museum of the Liberation War in Dhaka, and the Jalladkhana Killing Field Museum. Jalladkhana literally means mass grave, and the museum is built on top of one of the largest mass graves that were discovered in Dhaka. Thankfully, it is one of the mass graves that have been preserved and no urban buildings have been constructed over it. Both the museums have carefully preserved human remains (bones, skulls) from many mass graves.
It was a visceral experience to be so up-close to the 1971 genocide. Feeling the raw outrage and anger of the protesters, and the up-close encounters with the mass graves left indelible marks on my consciousness.
Anti-Memorial to 1971
When memory is unbearable, how do you memorialize it? James E Young describes an anti-memorial as, “Anti-memorials aim not to console but to provoke, not to remain fixed but to change, not to be everlasting but to disappear, not to be ignored by passers-by but to demand interaction, not to remain pristine but to invite their own violation and not to accept graciously the burden of memory but to drop it at the public’s feet,” (Young 1997). The Liberation War Museum in Dhaka has been storing all the bones that have been unearthed in the mass graves and displays a small portion of this macabre collection in vitrines along with extensive photo documentation of the mass graves.
While I was in Dhaka, I figured there was no way for me to work with this material artistically because some events from history are simply too traumatic, too unbearable, they can only be felt, they cannot be aestheticized. So, I had pretty much left it at that.
Shortly after the Dhaka trip, I had the opportunity to go on a trip to Ireland, a country with a deep connection to India because of the shared histories of colonial trauma and sectarian violence. When I was driving through the countryside of Southern Ireland, I found myself very intrigued by the stone fences and the rock formations in the Burren. The history of land ownership in Ireland and the hard struggle of the Irish people for their independence also struck a chord in me.
When I returned from Ireland, I started drawing these stones, and in the process of drawing, which is a very immediate and intuitive medium for me, the stones started turning into bones. The more I drew, the more bones came out on the paper, and I realized that my visceral experience of the mass graves in Dhaka that I had buried in my subconscious was coming out through the drawings of the stones.
The drawings grew to then include firearms, which also I had worked on within the Liberation War Museum. The drawings now also include other artifacts of war, such as barbed wire fences, gauze, bandages, wounds, burns, slits, bombs, grenades, and tally marks.
When a memory is unbearable, how do you memorialize it? I am still figuring that one out.
Monuments and their Failures
While the museums and monuments in Dhaka are addressing the genocide and mass graves, the women’s trauma is still missing from these sites of memory. Perhaps it is because the memorials and museums are state actors invested in the nationalist project of nation-building. But once again, the women have been rendered invisible. While I understand the cultural weight of these memories of mass rape and rape as a weapon of war, I am saddened to see this elision.
"This Handful of Dust,"
by Feroze Ahmed-ud-Din
The title of this anti-memorial is an intertextual reference to "This Handful of Dust," a collection of poems by Bangladeshi poet, Feroze Ahmed-ud-Din (Periscope 2021). This project attempts to create a trans-cultural bridge of memories and histories between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Ireland.
2021. 1971 Bangladesh Genocide. October 31. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=1971_Bangladesh_genocide&oldid=1052667425. 2019. Dhaka Tribune. March 25. https://www.dhakatribune.com/bangladesh/nation/2019/03/25/genocide-day-hundreds-of-mass-graves-lie-unmarked-or-have-been-constructed-over. Foucault, Michel. 1977. In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, by Donald F. Bouchard, 160. Cornell University Press. Mookherjee, Nayanika. 2015. The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Duke University Press Books. Mookherjee, Nayanika. The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. Duke University Press Books, 2015. Periscope. 2021. The International Writing Program. November 2. https://iwp.uiowa.edu/archives/periscope/feroz-ahmed-ud-din. 2021. Wikipedia. October 31. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=International_Crimes_Tribunal_of_Bangladesh_Timeline&oldid=1037313077. Young, James E. 1997. "Germany’s Memorial Question: Memory, CounterMemory, and the End of the Monument." The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol 96, no 4 855.