Independence Day of Bangladesh and the Art of Memory
Updated: Nov 29, 2022
Independence Day of Bangladesh and the Art of Memory
On March 26th, 1971, Bangladesh declared its independence from Pakistan. The war that followed created deep rifts in the subcontinent, its eruption of violence echoing the harrowing memories of India's Partition three decades before. Bangladesh's Independence Day represents the moment East Pakistan began its struggle against West Pakistan, when a unified country of Bangla-speaking Muslims and Hindus took shape.
Every March 26th, Independence Day in Bangladesh is celebrated with fervent pride. It begins with a traditional thirty-one gun salute, followed by patriotic songs, parades, grand political speeches, and everything else we have come to expect from an Independence Day in any country. TV and radio stations present the history of the country, and political parties seek to connect their name with warm feelings of national pride.
But in all this celebration of an ecstatic public holiday, what memories are lost? What is the full story of 26 March? What is the full cost of the Liberation War that followed, and what untold stories live behind the name of Independence Day?
A Brief History of the Independence Day of Bangladesh
Almost 31 years to the day after Pakistan demanded independence from India with the Lahore Resolution, Bangladeshi politicians began their own push for freedom.
Only months before, the Awami League and its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a clear victory in the 1970 Pakistani general election. But due to a lack of trust between East Pakistan and West Pakistan, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his party were refused leadership. He made a speech at the Ramna Racecourse on 7 March, 1971, where he called on his fellow countrymen to begin a non-cooperation movement against what he believed was an illegitimate government.
The night before the Bangladesh declaration of independence on 26 March, 1971, Pakistan initiated Operation Searchlight.
The operation saw the Pakistan Armed Forces and allied groups (such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the Razakars) murder a vast number of Bangladeshi nationalists and use rape as a weapon of war.
The Pakistan Army and Genocide
The mass rapes victimized somewhere between 200,000 to 400,000 Bengali women. They also massacred Bengali intellectuals, teachers, journalists, doctors, lawyers, artists, engineers and writers.
The ensuing nine months would see enormous bloodshed as Bengali guerilla forces fought back against the Pakistani army. By the end of the fighting, 3 million were dead.
The extreme violence of the conflict left a lasting legacy on the new nation. The Liberation War gained independence from West Pakistan, but at an enormous human cost.
Broken Column: Official Memory, Official Forgetting
In Broken Column, the anti-memorial form is used to undermine the use of public monuments to instantiate one memory of events in order to occlude others.
In the series, artist Pritika Chowdhry displays latex casts from various monuments around the Indian subcontinent honoring the memory of those who died in massacres surrounding Partition and the Liberation War.
These look like skin, their fleshy texture creating an eerie sense of the memorials. No longer made permanent in stone, they appear all-too delicate, all-too transient, all-too human.
The Necessity of Counter-Memories
Despite the many memorials to honor the dead, there is a conspicuous silence around the use of rape as a weapon of war in the 1971 conflict.
In their silence, these state-sanctioned memorials end up obscuring history as much as they elucidate it. Broken Column seeks to challenge the erasure of the women who endured extreme violence in the cause for independence through this presentation of this counter-memoryB
This Handful of Dust: The Mass Graves of the Liberation War
While 26th March is celebrated as Bangladesh Independence Day, the day before is observed as Bengali Genocide Remembrance Day. It was on 25 March, 1971, that Operation Searchlight began, creating unimaginable horrors throughout the country.
It is estimated that there are at least 5,000 mass graves in Bangladesh, filled with the bones of unnamed victims whose crime was the desire for an independent Bangladesh.
Their bodies are still being discovered, often when construction crews unearth them accidentally while breaking ground on new projects.
In This Handful of Dust, Chowdhry uses illustrated strips of paper to construct a space to remember the genocide, both the mass graves and the hundreds of thousands of Bengali women who faces rape as a weapon of war — a side of the conflict that no official memorial yet commemorates (though the victims are publically referred to as birangonas, brave women).
In this quiet, almost serene space, viewers are able to reflect on these experiences.
On the delicate strips of paper are drawn the rocks that are brought up with the bodies when mass graves are excavated, as well as the bones and tools of conflict that evoke the genocide.
It is not only an anti-memorial in the sense that it seeks to highlight those memories that go unmemorialized. In its form, it utilizes a radically different aesthetic than the typical state monument. It is made in fragile material, not granite. It is something that must be cared for, and the viewer must be careful while inside. It is tender, haunting and silent as the grave.
The Counter-Memory of Bangladesh Independence Day
The Independence Day of Bangladesh is not only a day to celebrate the birth of a new country. It must also be seen as a time for mourning the incredible human cost caused by the Pakistani army in East Pakistan — both just before and all throughout the conflict.
As a national holiday, it will always be accompanied by patriotic songs and a special appreciation for the national flag and all that it means.
But hidden inside this pride is also a deep pain. The death and rape of so many does not disappear. It cannot be buried or forgotten. It lives on. And so, we must remember, and we must recognize that what we remember and how is a choice.