Baizid Haque Joarder speaks to Indian political psychologist and social theorist Ashis Nandy, who recently visited Bangladesh as the keynote speaker at the 2nd International Conference on Genocide and Mass Violence, about the psychology of war criminals and different ways of memorialising war
It’s been 46 years since the independence of Bangladesh, and we are only starting to receive justice for the genocide. Should we be worried it will be forgotten as history moves on?
There are many genocides which have been forgotten by people, at times for decades and even centuries. For instance, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943 that accounted for the loss of about three million lives in the region was man-made and almost deliberately imposed. There was no crop failure – it was purchased off for the buffer stock for Britain under the direct orders of Winston Churchill.
In Indonesia, nearly a million were killed during the 1960s at the instigation of the CIA. That too, was forgotten until filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, in his documentary The Act of Killing, exposed the largescale murders of not only the communists but innocent men, women and children of the Chinese community in Indonesia, from which most of the communists came.
Different strata of society attribute different meanings to their memories of a war. It is clear that in the case of Bangladesh, it is a part of public consciousness that cannot be wiped out. Even when a genocide is denied or ignored, the surviving families and a large sector of the community still remember. The genocide also lives in memory as an unwritten legend waiting to be written up as an epic.
Is remembering enough? How does society come to terms with war criminals or collaborators who go unpunished?
If societies can quickly recover from a disabling trauma and are able to organise themselves properly, the criminals can probably be caught and tried. However, as one coming from a background in clinical psychology and studying genocide, I must say that crimes of genocide never go unpunished. The criminals may avoid justice initially but in the end, they have to confront their inner demons. Babu Bajrangi, the best known killer of Gujarat riots who is in jail for his crimes has gone mad in the prison. I don’t believe that his madness had nothing to do with the lives he has taken. It is not easy to mobilise an ordinary person, pull him out of his ordinary life and turn him into an expert killer/murderer without any cost. His deeds come back to haunt him when he tries to return to normal life.
I have done a large study of Partition violence some 50 years after the event. We had the chance to interview a few of the killers who were still living. We did not find a single happy killer amongst them, though they were all justifying what they did.
One person we interviewed over many days was part of the team that killed Gandhi. He also took part in killings in Bombay, Gwalior and Hyderabad, This person, a bitter refugee who came from West Punjab, justified his actions by saying he was saving the young Indian nation from the clutches of Gandhi, who acted as the “Father of Pakistan”. But his tone changed over the interviews. He began to say that he was no longer the same person and had become a humanist. He also tried to portray himself as a person who had moved closer to Gandhi and began to speak of some of the good qualities of the Muslims and about some of the Muslim friends he had in his childhood. He, too, did not seem a happy person. He was haunted by his own past.
You spoke about remembering genocide. Are there ways in which we manipulate these memories and use them to our own advantage, turning them into myths?
There is always some danger of that. People do trivialise things and, given half a chance, any politician will use traumatic memories of mass violence and war as means of political mobilisation and polarisation.
But then, over time people also become more sceptical; they learn how to discount doctored history and motivated books, biased and all that. This doesn’t even need the exhaustion of information systems such as history books, TV and other forms of media coverage. So, despite all efforts to erase memories, fragmented memories do continue to live on.
I am trying to convey that, not only the victims and their families remember, the memories are often transferred over generations. When there is no reconciliation, the next generations may foster ideas of brutality and revenge, leading to the continuous brutalisation of public consciousness.
On the whole, attempts to have a cultivated, well-designed, official memory is doomed because human beings can voluntarily remember things, by setting alarms and using notebooks to record appointments, but we cannot deliberately forget. It is psychologically, neurologically and physiologically impossible to make someone forget something unless you damage their brains. Even then, you cannot be sure that a particular memory has been erased.
Not merely that. The memories that you want to forget are the ones that stick around longer and is often passed on to the next generations. The brutalisation of public consciousness is partly because of this reason.
Do we unintentionally glorify war while remembering it, using it for nationalist purposes? Is this a better alternative to using religion to create national identity, which is slowly replacing secular national ideologies in many South Asian countries now?
Peace is an unheroic adventure. Empathy, compassion – these are unheroic ventures which are often viewed as feminine attributes, and nobody wants to be called effeminate.
Regarding the use of religion in nationalist discourse, the problem is that, certain terminologies (atheism, secularism) are being used in a sense that is very different from meanings they carry in the West. You can be a Muslim communist but that doesn’t mean you are denouncing Islam. Such contradictions are taken more easily in these parts of the world. Maulana Bhashani was more of a leftist than many famous leftists in South Asia. Yet, he never chose to drop the title of “Maulana” from his name.