How rape was used as a weapon of war in 1971
The marauding Pakistan military, the hardcore Muslim militia, and their dreaded henchmen had executed all methods of war crimes to punish the defiant nation. During the brutal birth of Bangladesh, Pakistan’s occupation forces carried out mass atrocities, enforced disappearances, and extra-judicial killings; they also used rape as a weapon of war.
Several researchers have estimated that over 500,000 women were sexually abused during the war, but unfortunately, a majority did not identify themselves due to social stigma.
While the rebellious Mukti Bahini had fiercely engaged in skirmishes and battles with the occupation forces, the Pakistan military committed war crimes more vigorously to reprimand the people.
Evidence of the enslavement of women for sex was discovered from erotic paintings and sketches found in hundreds of Pakistan military and Muslim militia camps.
Pakistan troops were also shown pornographic films before they went for patrols and military raids in towns and villages. Such projectors and films were discovered in several camps, and destroyed by the Mukti Bahini in anger.
Most sexually abused women who had been rescued by the victorious Mukti Bahini were not accepted by their families. Those women later went missing and were never to be found, lamented Hasan Morshed, a researcher of 1971 rape victims. He co-founded the 1971 Archive and documented 100 narratives of sexually abused “Birongona,” who are recognized as “muktijoddha” (Liberation War veteran).
Fortunately, the Collaborators Act of 1972 -- for the trials of suspects of crimes against humanity -- included rape as a war crime. Later, the International Crimes Tribunal, established in 2009 for the trials of domestic war criminals, also included rape as a weapon of war.
After the Second World War (1939-1945), the allied powers established two courts, namely the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. Unfortunately, both tribunals failed to recognize rape and the enslavement of women as weapons of war.
The first tribunal which included rape as a war crime was the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, created in 1994 following the Rwandan genocide.
Morshed, at a presentation of “Women and Rape” organized by Naripokkho, argued that the number of rape victims was not important. What needed to be understood was that rape had been used as a weapon of war.
He said that the Pakistan military junta committed genocide with the “intent to eliminate” a race, language, culture, heritage, traditional practices, and religion in a bid to establish a “superior” race.
The tool of rape had been adopted for several reasons: Firstly, to give birth to “war babies;” secondly, to change the identity of race and ethnicity; and thirdly, to break the morale of a defiant nation.
Rape as a weapon of war did not come into being suddenly. It was pre-planned by Pakistan political elites in the early 1950s.
Muslim League elites who boasted of the creation of a Muslim nation conspired to merge the language and culture of the people of Pakistan into a single Urdu-speaking community. They did not hesitate to propose that the Bangla alphabet be changed to Arabic syllabary.
Elite Pakistani rulers deliberately wanted to change the demography of the rich and traditional rural fabric. They wanted to eliminate rural professions, the vibrant rural economy, rural industries, the folklore and culture, and middle-class land-owners.
Morshed explained that Muslim League leaders, with blessings from the civil administration, sporadically organized racial riots, including both low and high-intensity conflicts all over Bangladesh (1946 – 1971) to force Hindus to migrate to India.
In the years after, 87% of Hindu teachers migrated to neighbouring states of India for safety and security. This resulted in the shutdown of more than 1,000 educational institutions.
Post-1970, in the first-ever general election conducted 24 years after its birth, the Pakistan junta concluded that the Bangalis could not be reined in or disciplined. Therefore, genocide and rape would be the only tools in response to their defiance.
Days after the crackdown at midnight, March 25, 1971, the Pakistan military generals’ war-cry rang out: “We will change the race of the bastard Bengalis!”
During the bloody War of Independence, notorious Muslim leaders and mullahs issued a fatwa that said that women and properties were “Maal-e-Ghanimat,” or the spoils of the holy war, concluded researcher Hasan Morshed.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and a recipient of the Ashoka Fellow and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be followed on Twitter @saleemsamad.