War and Sexual Violence – the 1971 War and an Act of Genocide

by SAHF Team

War and Sexual Violence – the 1971 War and an Act of Genocide 

By Stories of Bengali Hindus 

Sexual violence during wars and conquests is often a footnote in history books. It is treated merely as a curiosity – an inevitable part of warfare, that affected populations, the peoples, and, consequently, the course of history. In more recent history, sexual violence during armed conflicts has been documented much better. After World War II, all sides of the war were accused of mass rapes, yet neither of the courts in Nuremberg or Tokyo, set up by the victorious Allies to prosecute suspected war crimes, recognized the crime of sexual violence. It was not until the rapes in the former Yugoslavia in 1992, that the issue of sexual violence as a tool of the genocidal campaign came to the attention of the UN Security Council. The Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) 1993 included rape as a crime against humanity, alongside other crimes such as torture and extermination, when committed in armed conflict and directed against a civilian population. In 2001, the ICTY became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime against humanity. Furthermore, the court expanded the definition of slavery as a crime against humanity to include sexual slavery. Previously, forced labor was the only type of slavery to be viewed as a crime against humanity.[1]

In 1994, The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) also declared rape to be a war crime and a crime against humanity. In 1998, the ICTR became the first international court to find an accused person guilty of rape as a crime used to perpetrate genocide. A significant judgment against Jean-Paul Akayesu, a politician who was found guilty for his role in inciting the Rwandan genocide, the first time in history recognized that rape and other acts of sexual violence are constitutive acts of genocide committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group of people. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court of 2002, includes sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, etc. as a crime against humanity when it is committed in a widespread and systematic way.[2]

The United Nations Genocide Convention characterized genocidal rape as “the invisible living casualties of the genocide that must live with the physical, psychological, and emotional aftermath of the sexual violence. In addition, the victims are re-victimized by society, which is hostile to rape survivors. Genocidal rape, as with all terror warfare, is not exclusively an attack on the body -it is an attack on the “body politic”. Its goal is not to maim or kill one person but to control an entire socio-political process by crippling it. It is an attack directed equally against personal identity and cultural integrity.[3]

At this point, many people around the world would wonder why it has been only two decades since sexual violence has been recognized as a tool of genocide when armed conflicts and well-documented cases of genocidal rape have occurred ever since after World War II. In 1971, when East Pakistan seceded and emerged as an independent nation, the United Nations provided aid to the refugees. In the refugee camps, the accounts of abhorrent violence have been recorded; journalist Khushwant Singh wrote an article in the New York Times [4], where he wrote in detail the fates of women who managed to escape from the Pakistani military crackdown. An excerpt from the article:Mandhari Dasi […] sobs as she tells me how the soldiers first raped her in front of her husband and then killed him. She holds up her 1‐year‐old child and asks, “Who will look after her now?” Women cover their faces when they are unable to talk of what happened to them. Some say they have been ravished by four or five men; some have had their nipples bitten off. Almost everyone has been beaten, punched, and spat upon. Those who escaped manhandling were terror stricken. When they saw what the soldiers and their Bihari collaborators had done to the others, they fled because of bhoy — fear. In the four days, I am with the refugees, I hear that one word, bhoy, a thousand times.”  

Joseph Fried, a war correspondent for the New York Daily News, wrote: “A stream of victims and eyewitnesses tell how truckloads of Pakistani soldiers and their hireling razakars swooped down on villages at night, rounding up women by force. Some were raped on the spot. Others were carried to military compounds. Some women were still there when Indian troops battled their way into Pakistani strongholds. Weeping survivors of villages razed because they were suspected of siding with the Muktibahini freedom fighters told of how wives were raped before the eyes of their husbands, who were then put to death… Pakistani officers maintain that their men were too disciplined for ‘that sort of thing’.”[5]

Another war correspondent, Aubrey Menen, wrote about a 17-year-old Hindu bride whose father described the rape committed by six soldiers. The father said: “Two went into the room that had been built for the bridal couple. The others stayed behind with the family, one of them covering them with his gun. They heard a barked order and the bridegroom’s voice protesting. Then there was silence until the bride screamed… In a few minutes one of the soldiers came out, his uniform in disarray. He grinned to his companions. Another soldier took his place in the extra room. And so on, until all six had raped the belle of the village. Then all six left, hurriedly. The father found his daughter lying on the string cot unconscious and bleeding. Her husband was crouched on the floor, kneeling over his vomit.”[6]

The world press documented numerous atrocities, massacres and rapes committed by the Pakistani Army and the ISI and Jamaat-e-Islami trained individuals who constituted the al-Badr and al-Shams brigades who were assigned to collaborate with the Pakistani Army in finding Pakistan’s enemies, which happened to be first and foremost the Hindu minority, professors, students, scholars, intelligentsia and every other group which was deemed a threat to Pakistan.[7] Video footage of young girls telling they were raped and held as sex slaves in Army cantonments[8] show how widespread and systematic the sexual violence committed by the Pakistan Army and their collaborators was. 

The Rape Camps 

According to the reports, girls as young as eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted during the nine-month repression. Pakistani soldiers had not only violated women on the spot, they also abducted thousands of girls and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use. The women were kept naked to prevent their escape. In some of the camps, pornographic movies were shown to the soldiers, “in an obvious attempt to work the men up”. Khadiga, a thirteen-year-old, was interviewed by a photojournalist in Dacca (Dhaka). She was walking to school with four other girls when they were kidnapped by Pakistani soldiers. All five were put in a military brothel in Mohammadpur, Dhaka, and held captive for six months until the end of the war. Khadiga was regularly abused by two men a day; others, she said, had to serve seven to ten men daily. At first, Khadiga said, the soldiers tied a gag around her mouth to keep her from screaming. As the months wore on, the captives’ spirit was broken. Kamala Begum, a wealthy widow, lived in a Dacca suburb. When the fighting started she sent her two daughters into the countryside to hide. She felt she could afford to stay behind, secure in her belief that she was “too old” to attract attention. She was assaulted by three men, two Pakistanis, and one razakar, in her home. Khadiga and Kamala Begum were interviewed by Bérengère d’Aragon, a photographer, in an abortion clinic in Dhaka.[9] The Pakistan army and its local collaborators targeted both Muslim and Hindu women, however, the Hindu women and girls were subjected to disproportionate aggression. Many rape victims were killed in captivity, some migrated to India or committed suicide after the war. What happened to the Hindu girls is a textbook definition of total or partial destruction of a group that fulfills the prima facie condition of genocide under the Genocide Convention.[10]

The War Enquiry

The Hamoodur Rahman Commission was a classified War Enquiry Commission, which was constituted to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances of the 1971 war. In its report, the commission held widespread atrocities, other abuses of power by Pakistani generals, and a complete failure in civilian and martial-law leadership responsible for the loss of East Pakistan. According to the report, statements by Lt. Col. Aziz Ahmad Khan (Witness No. 276) were highly significant. Lt. Col. Khan stated: “The troops used to say that when the Commander (Lt. Gen. Niazi) was himself a [rapist], how could they be stopped. Gen. Niazi enjoyed the same reputation at Sialkot and Lahore.”[11] 

According to the same report, and of course, countless eye-witnesses and survivors accounts, the Hindu minority especially was subjected to unprecedented targeting and brutality, a fact that has not been properly addressed, let alone acknowledged.[12] Of course, it wasn’t only the Hindu girls and women who became the targets of mass rapes; Muslim women were raped too. Ferdousi Priyabhashini, a Muslim woman from Khulna, who was one of the first women to publicly tell about the torture she went through, wrote in her autobiography ‘Nindita Nandan’, which was published in 2014 and is yet to be translated. Priyabhashini told that the soldiers raping her said to her “You are a Hindu, you are a spy” just because she wore a saree and bindi.[13] Racial, religious, and cultural nuances played a role in singling out targets for the genocidal rape campaign. In order to present the realities of the war, the sexual violence, which was committed against the Urdu-speaking Muslim women by some of the Bangladeshi guerilla fighters, should be mentioned too. People from different communities were targeted by different entities with different motivations, and atrocities were committed by multiple sides of the war.[14] 

What is noteworthy is the fact that the Hindu minority community was not the nucleus of any armed resistance, and it was dispersed throughout East Pakistan.[15] The Hindu minority community has been disenfranchised and violently attacked ever since partition by both Urdu and Bengali speaking Islamist mobs during the 1950s and 1964 riots.[16] During the 1971 war, the Hindu community was yet again targeted brutally. A particularly harrowing aspect of the 1971 war was the systematic rapes of Hindu girls and women, a textbook example of an act of genocide committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a group of people. Yet, this atrocious method of torture and destruction was formally recognized over twenty years later, even when international relief organizations were aware of what was happening to the women during the 1971 Liberation war. The main perpetrators were never prosecuted properly and the victims never got justice.          

Sources: 

  1. https://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/rwanda/assets/pdf/Backgrounder%20Sexual%20Violence%202014.pdf
  2. ibid.
  3. M. Rafiqul Islam, National Trials of International Crimes in Bangladesh: Transitional Justice as Reflected in Judgments
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/08/01/archives/why-they-fled-pakistan-and-wont-go-back-why-they-fled-pakistan.html
  5. Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia, Bina D’Costa
  6. ibid.
  7. The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers, Peter Tomsen
  8. Rape during the 1971 Bangladesh War
  9. Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will
  10. M. Rafiqul Islam, National Trials of International Crimes in Bangladesh: Transitional Justice as Reflected in Judgments
  11. http://img.dunyanews.tv/images/docss/hamoodur_rahman_commission_report.pdf
  12. The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, Gary J. Bass
  13. Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971, Yasmin Saikia
  14. Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World, Christian Gerlach
  15. The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, Gary J. Bass
  16. Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth-Century World, Christian Gerlach

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