A banner put up in Shillong by the Khasi Students’ Union, October 21, 2020
My grandparents lost all they had in the Partition of India. They did not long survive the trauma. My father grew up an orphan. He was in college in Assam when riots against Bengalis broke out. He had to flee for his life. I was born and grew up in Shillong. One of my childhood memories is of a day when I was walking to the district library to return two books. Two boys, probably a year or two older than me, confronted me on the street. They asked me if I was Bengali. I knew that the right answer was “no” but the lie took too long to come out of my mouth. By then they had already punched me in the face. I never told anyone about it. I was 12 at the time.
Such vignettes would be typical and unremarkable for any Bengali Hindu with roots in what suddenly became East Pakistan in 1947, and then, with a couple of signatures at the end of a brief war 24 years later, became Bangladesh. It is a relatively happy story; though three successive generations of my family experienced ethnic cleansing, nobody was killed. There are few such happy stories among grandchildren of those who stayed behind in 1947, only to be forced to flee in 1971.
War and genocide
That was the year of the third war between India and Pakistan. The 13-day war started after approximately 10 million refugees from East Pakistan flowed into India to escape genocide. The scale of the genocide still remains a matter of cynical debate. Some Pakistani apologists insist that “only” 26,000 civilians were murdered in cold blood; the figure cited by the Bangladeshis is generally 3 million. Does it make it all right if the true figure was actually “only” 1.5 million? In Europe, they would put in jail anybody who adopted a similar attitude towards the Jewish Holocaust. There is a name for such people: Holocaust-deniers.
The great majority of those killed were Bengali Hindus, who were marked out much like the Jews had been in Nazi Germany. The Pakistan Army machine-gunned unarmed civilians in a well-documented campaign described as “selective genocide” by the American Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Blood. There are details in a fine book called The Blood Telegram by Princeton University professor Gary Bass. Here is an excerpt:
“For the United States, as Archer Blood understood, a small number of atrocities are so awful that they stand outside of the normal day-to-day flow of diplomacy: the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. When we think of US leaders failing the test of decency in such moments, we usually think of uncaring disengagement: Franklin Roosevelt fighting World War II without taking serious steps to try to rescue Jews from the Nazi dragnet, or Bill Clinton standing idly by during the Rwandan genocide.
But Pakistan’s slaughter of the Bengalis in 1971 is starkly different. Here the United States was allied with the killers. The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial moments. There was no question about whether the United States should intervene; it was already intervening on behalf of a military dictatorship decimating its own people”.
President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger didn’t like India or Indians. Nixon called India’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mrs Indira Gandhi “the old bitch” and lauded Pakistan’s murderous military dictator General Yahya Khan as a “thoroughly decent and honourable man”.
The Bangladesh genocide is of a scale comparable to the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, but I doubt if Nixon ever called Hitler or Pol Pot a “thoroughly decent and honourable man”.
When India declared war, in support of the Mukti Bahini guerillas, and General Sam Maneckshaw’s forces started to make rapid progress, Nixon and Kissinger were aghast. Kissinger said the Indians were bastards, and Nixon replied, “What they need really is a mass famine”. This was a particularly insensitive remark in the context of Bengal, which had experienced the horrors of famine during the Second World War when an estimated 3 million Bengalis had died of starvation as a result of British imperial policy.
Nixon and Kissinger also diverted the US Seventh Fleet led by a US aircraft carrier, the USS Enterprise, from Vietnam, where the US was busy massacring “gooks”, to threaten India. Kissinger gently put it to the Chinese that the US wouldn’t mind if they invaded India. Only Soviet pressure prevented that from happening; otherwise, India might have been torn apart for the second time since Partition, sparking off another gigantic human tragedy. Plotting such things is not a “realist” stand in international relations. By all the laws of god and man, it is pure evil.
Wars, famines, the creations of countries…these are great events of world history. The characters are larger than life, the numbers unimaginable. Joseph Stalin, who knew a bit about such things, had remarked that “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”.
A strange forgetfulness
We have only these statistics now for historians to dispute over. The humanity of those millions of human lives was extinguished. Their tragedies didn’t even merit the name. Now, if those millions of deaths are mentioned, the reaction is a shrug, or an attempted rebuttal about numbers. Sometimes, there is victim-blaming.
This is the result of immense power inequities. On the side of the victims, there were the repeated traumas. Too many people simply died; the rest had to struggle to survive. They were in no position to tell their stories. They were too weak and too far away. The perpetrators were perhaps silenced by guilt; they would not confess to it, because they wanted to hide their sins.
This has resulted in collective amnesia. What is truly remarkable is the extent of the amnesia. The Partition in the Punjab has been written about, made into films, discussed and aired. In a way, the trauma has been expressed and dealt with.
Bengal and Assam had a combined population around twice that of Punjab. Both suffered Partition, but it is a rare Indian who knows that Sylhet was a part of Assam; even Sylhetis don’t remember that they were citizens of Assam before 1947.
I didn’t know until a few years ago where my family’s roots lay. I had heard my father speak Sylheti with his friends, and learnt also to find it funny. It was downmarket, a language of gauche people. I had no idea of Bengali history, and I didn’t care; it was an identity that I had learnt from childhood to avoid.
The Bangladeshi may suffer from other complexes, but denial of his Bengali identity is not something he is tutored into. After 1971, emerging victorious from the war, he was able to recover some dignity in being who he was. The Bengali Hindu remained a refugee, or became one. It was a state where scratching together a living was all that mattered; everything else had to be sacrificed.
The entry of refugees in large numbers is never welcomed anywhere. Demographic balances in Northeast India were threatened, even overturned, by the Partition influx. The Bengali refugee, competing for scant jobs in the already impoverished economy, was a threat. The next phase of violence and ethnic cleansing began.
It was marked by riot after riot, first in Assam, then across the new region. There were the usual lynchings, rapes and murders. I’ve forgotten about most. One, however, stands out in memory for its bestiality. It was the gang rape and murder of a young, newly-married woman who was dragged out of her home in Shillong and killed, after she had been gang-raped, by criminals who inserted a stake into her vagina. No one was ever arrested; there was no question of any local being arrested for any crime against a Bengali.
This was in 1991. Things have improved a lot in recent years. The East Bengali – whether Hindu or Muslim – is still, by birth, a “Bangladeshi” or at best, a second-class Indian citizen, anywhere in Northeast India, but at least mass murders (ever heard of the Nellie massacre?) have temporarily stopped. For that we should probably give thanks to our unwilling hosts, and be grateful.
We also need to acknowledge and overcome the collective psychic trauma that often lingers after such horrific experiences. A great deal of academic work by scholars who have studied victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide elsewhere attests to this. The Jewish experience is most written about, but there is also work from Algeria by Frantz Fanon. It is there, perhaps, that we should look for answers.
Shame of negrification
Fanon offers clues that can help us understand the self-hate of the Bengali bhadralok, especially of East Bengal origins, which is in perennial battle with his sense of cultural superiority. Here is a brief note on Fanon’s study of the impacts of what he called negrification:
“Fanon’s diagnosis of the psychological dimensions of negrification’s phenomenological violence documents its traumatizing effects: first, negrification promotes negative attitudes toward other blacks and Africa; second, it normalizes attitudes of desire and debasement toward Europe, white people, and white culture in general; and finally, it presents itself as such an all-encompassing way of being in the world that no other alternative appears to be possible.”
In the case of Bengalis, this manifests itself in negative attitudes towards other Bengalis, West Bengal and Bangladesh. It normalizes attitudes of desire and debasement towards all cultures seen as more powerful – from the Hindi-Hindu one of North India to the white American one of North America. And of course, it appears to the victims of this psychological problem that there is no alternative.
The conflict within ourselves is to some degree the conflict with such ‘negrification’. To understand this, we have to understand ourselves in context; we have to look at our histories and memories from colonization to the present. What we have chosen to forget is as telling as what we have chosen to remember.
Do you know where your grandparents were from? Can you speak the dialect they spoke, or read the language? Are you ashamed to speak it in public?
Uncorking the “forgotten” repressed memories can be frightening. There will be a tendency to run away. But running away will mean a denial of part of the self. That path leads to rootlessness, anomie, and eternal confusion.
Embracing it with anger, as some might be tempted to do, is also a dangerous path. It is possible that the spirit of Kazi Nazrul Islam’s great poem “Bidrohi” may again come to life. You don’t need to know the language to feel what it means; just listen to a reading of it on YouTube.
This was the spirit that moved Bengal in the early years of the 20th Century. Subhas Bose is remembered, but the forgotten heroes tell a fuller story. Look at the list of prisoners who gave up their lives for India’s freedom in the “kala pani” of Andaman’s infamous Cellular Jail. Most were Bengalis. Nobody remembers their names. India’s freedom was bought with their lives, and the price of Partition was paid for by the million or so Bengalis and Punjabis who died, and the many millions more who became refugees. They don’t have respect even in death, and Bengal and Punjab have gradually declined to second-class peripheries. The true beneficiaries of India’s freedom have been the ones who contributed least to the cause.
Turning away from anger
This is just cause for anger, but it is necessary to reject angry responses. A Cartesian turn is necessary at this point.
As the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han has pointed out, in today’s neoliberal world, revolution is impossible. “Neoliberalism turns the exploited worker into a free entrepreneur — the entrepreneur of himself. Everyone is now a self-exploiting worker in his own business. Everyone is master and servant in one. Class warfare has changed into a running inner battle with the self. Failing today means blaming oneself and feeling ashamed. People see themselves as the problem, not society”, says Han.
Indian social scientist Ashis Nandy had written of other aspects of the same thing many years earlier. “In a peculiar reversal of roles, the vulgar materialism Adorno describes is now an ally of the global structure of oppression. It colludes with ethnocide because culture to it is only an epiphenomenon. In the name of shifting the debate to the real world, it reduces all choice to those available within a single culture, the culture affiliated to the dominant global system. In such a world, ruled by a structure that has co-opted its manifest critics, the search for freedom may have to begin in the minds of men, with a defiance of those cultural themes which endorse oppression by themselves endorsing the conventional defiance of oppression. As we know, oppression to be known as oppression must be felt to be so, if not by the oppressors and oppressed, at least by some social analyst somewhere.”
Today, there is no recognition of the larger forces at play in the world among most people. They do not see the ethnocide, or recognise their own roles as oppressors, or oppressed, or collaborators. Such blindness is not unusual. For instance, for centuries most women around the world did not think there was anything wrong with patriarchy.
In this neoliberal world, the Syrian refugee is a victim, but so is the black American youngster with little education and no prospects in life…except perhaps in the Army, where he would get a job killing people he has no fight with.
The Hindu and Muslim are both equally victims and collaborators in ethnocide in this global system. So are the small tribal communities of Northeast India and the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh; cultures and ways of life that had survived relatively intact for thousands of years were suddenly tossed into the dustbin of history in a matter of three or four decades. The sudden dislocation has caused trauma there too. It is important that we recognize the pains of these groups, who are all victims of larger global players and processes.
At present, nobody on earth knows a way out of the machine of global capitalism which is grinding us all into cogs for its own use. It has doubtless improved the material lives of millions. It continues to do so. At the same time, it has also caused the steady creep of the profit motive into all areas of human lives and relationships. Space and time are now not merely measured with precision; they are monetised. Since human life cannot be lived outside of the matrix of space and time, capitalism has effectively colonized the entire human world.
Even the high moral ground is now a purchasable commodity. “Pay more to buy something eco-friendly made in a factory that pays fair wages” is the pitch. You can feel good about your elevated morals if you can afford it.
In this world, experiences, lifestyles and values are shared between peoples and classes across countries and continents. The dividing line, if there is one, is between what used to be called the global North, and the global South. Since globalization implies a greater inter-connectedness, these lines run between countries, but also through them. It is therefore possible to find white Europeans in Europe who are part of the global South, and brown Indians in India who are part of the global North. They just don’t recognise themselves as such…yet. The existing outdated frameworks within which identities are constructed act as blinkers and prevent people from seeing these new realities of the hyper-connected world.
Understanding this situation will help history’s forgotten victims in formulating a healthy response that avoids the twin extremes of repressing memories and identities, or igniting them. It can also help yesterday’s oppressors to come to terms with their savior complexes and guilt.
This essay was originally written in 2015 and first published in Raiot. This is a slightly edited version of the original
Please feel free to Google for more details, and do read the texts if you have the time and the inclination.
Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”. Leopold Senghor said, “I feel, therefore I am”. I am just an ordinary human being. I think, and feel.
After Amnesia, the title of this essay, is borrowed from the title of a book by Dr G.N. Devy.
The Blood Telegram, Gary J Bass
Traditions, Tyranny and Utopias, Ashis Nandy
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy