Reflections on cross-border collaborations in South Asia

Elora Halim Chowdhury | Published: 01:05, Mar 26,2017


IN RECENT years, a new wave of critical feminist scholarship has emerged around the nexus of gender, violence, war crimes, reconciliation and the Bangladesh War of Independence. In The Spectral Wound (2015), a seminal book on this topic, Nayanika Mookherjee cogently argues that the 1971 War of Independence functions as a metanarrative in Bangladesh and that gender violence is continually invoked in state speeches, policies and public discourse to the extent that it has become eulogised and flattened. At the same time, the author points out that the Pakistani account of 1971 is absent from her study. This is not a limitation of her study as accounts of the war and its memorialisation vary according to geopolitical context and can be studied within the integrity of national borders.
Raised in post-war Bangladesh in the context of a family and community with strong anti-colonial and nationalist political leaning, my generation grew up under the dual shadow of the ubiquitous and defining narrative of the Liberation War yet with limited understanding of how the same war was understood, and remembered in Pakistan. It is not a stretch to say that many of us grew up cultivating a heavy dose of outrage and hatred towards what we had come to define as our former oppressors. Even as a scholar-teacher in the field of South Asian Studies, I have found it limiting to discuss among colleagues and students the conflicted histories and legacies of partition, and the Bangladesh liberation war and not the least because of the knowledge gaps that still persist and hinder meaningful and trusting alliances. Thus when I travelled to Pakistan for the first time in my life to attend an academic conference in Lahore, my emotions were riding high.
The conference, where I would be presenting a paper on gender in Muktijuddho films, was the second in a series on the topic of South Asian transregional filmscapes across historical periods, national, religious and linguistic boundaries, and political conflict. As co-organisers of the conferences, our goal was to interrogate how regional and transregional embodiments and storylines inflect to the politics of identity and otherness in specific contexts and eras of South Asian history. Furthermore, how does politics and political identity intersect with discourses around nationalism, gender, ethnicity, religion, language, caste, class, and social position?
Our intellectual inclination to forge regional connections and conviviality had already been thwarted by state politics at the cusp of the inaugural conference to the series, which had been planned to take place on the campus of Dhaka University in January 2016. Over thirty scholars across South Asia and beyond were to gather over three days in order to share their research and to collaborate on the creation of a South Asian Media Scholars Network (later renamed South Asian Regional Media Scholars Network). But barely two weeks before the conference was set to start, the vice-chancellor and syndicate committee of Dhaka University declared a suspension of all academic exchange with Pakistan, thereby making it impossible for the Pakistani scholars from participating in the conference. Relations between the two countries had been rife with tension following the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunals verdicts and executions of war criminals who collaborated with the Pakistani army during 1971 and towards whom the Pakistani state was sympathetic. The University of Dhaka stressed that all intellectual relationships with Pakistan would be severed until the day that Pakistan apologised for the 1971 genocide.
Due to the fact that the impetus for the conference was to foster cross-border conversations and to launch the South Asian Media Scholars Network for collaborative research, my co-organisers and I decided, with heavy hearts, that without our Pakistani colleagues, this vision would be compromised. The financial, emotional, and intellectual losses of this cancellation were grave and deeply felt by participants from near and afar- many of whom had already bought tickets and made myriad travel arrangements. We were all crushed by the bewildering stance of Dhaka University to halt the fostering of long-term and meaningful reconciliation between Bangladeshi and Pakistani citizens, especially since this was the same Dhaka University officials seemed to want albeit by administering very different tactics!
Naeem Mohaiemen, a filmmaker and a participant of the SAMSNet conference that never happened, made the following comments on the cancellation:
Rather than cancelling access to Pakistani scholars, I think we need more bridge(s) with these scholars, for a deeper understanding of the complex and evolving scenario of academic freedoms, and the linked impact on state policy. Previous Pakistani governments have taken steps that are 180 degree opposite to what they have done currently-- i.e., various governments have apologised for the genocide of 1971 at the state, ministerial, and ambassadorial level; just as today those same layers deny the genocide occurred. Most of these apologies have come from governments in the 90s and 2000s which have been opposed to the Bhutto political axis, and have therefore probably apologised from a realpolitik of weakening the Bhutto political base. Those considerations don’t exist today, but new equations are coming into shape.
The latest statements by Pakistani political forces regarding the 1971 genocide highlight the lack of institutional stability, continuity, and memory in the country’s various structures. I have always felt that greater exchange between scholars across borders would have been more likely to have compelled the Pakistan state to acknowledge the violence of 1971. In fact, the few Pakistani scholars and activists who have given statements condemning the government stance now have all been those who have regularly visited Bangladesh or engaged with Bangladeshi scholars.
A Pakistani scholar, who had grown up in East Pakistan and was returning to Bangladesh on the occasion of the conference after a three-decade hiatus, wrote an impassioned email calling for ‘an unequivocal apology for decades of oppression and injustice in what was East Pakistan and for the cruel slaughter and genocide of Bengali citizens.’ Echoing Mohaiemen, another Bangladeshi scholar replied, ‘In the past,​ and even now, the strongest voices inside Pakistan asking for a formal apology for the genocide of 1971 have been from Pakistani academics who have visited Bangladesh, often as guests of public universities such as Dhaka University.’ The Pakistani scholar replied to the email chain, ‘When I saw the program, I was filled with remorse and horror as I recalled the killing fields of Dhaka University where the Pakistan army massacred students, intellectuals and their families. I understand why Dhaka University authorities find it difficult to host us.  Perhaps, the logic of history always has a way of catching up with us.’ I was moved by the heartfelt and soul-bearing reflections of this scholar, yet at the same time I tended to agree that only meaningful dialogue and interpersonal exchanges between individuals, ordinary citizens of these South Asian countries could lead to reconciliation and healing. To this end, I appreciated the Bangladeshi participant’s critical stance towards the opportunistic posturing and erasure by state officials on either side.
A thoughtful email came from another Pakistani scholar,
Personally, I would not be at all upset or offended if the conference were to go ahead in the absence of Pakistani scholars. Whilst I understand you all have good reasons to be critical of the policy (and broader reactionary nationalist discourse in Bangladesh), as a Pakistani, I find it very difficult to criticise the decisions of the Bangladeshi government/State on this matter.
He offered suggestions for SAMSNet to move forward:  
Thinking constructively about my own context, it would be useful to know what you think should be done by Pakistani academics to facilitate academic exchange between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Some of the onus must surely fall on us and some considerable part of what is to be done surely has to comprise of addressing the historic silence of the Pakistani state about its crimes during the genocide of 71. At [the scholar’s own institution], many of us try to do what we can in our teaching and research but as you know, dominant views of the past in contemporary Pakistan are utterly divorced from the sordid truth.
 Any measures expected of us would need to be based on a realistic assessment of the political and institutional context in Pakistan, which I’m afraid, is not the most conducive to meaningful excavations about the past (or indeed honesty about the present).
Given the tumultuous start to SARMSNet, and the state intervention in obstructing a gathering of writers, practitioners, activists and intellectuals, I was disappointed but not surprised when the Pakistani Consulate in New York informed me last August, prior to my travel to Lahore, that my visa application was being scrutinised by the Inter-Services Intelligence. Later, I was informed by the local organisers in Lahore that indeed ISI officials had been in contact with the Dean of their institution about my scheduled participation in the second SARMSNET gathering in September 2016. Despite multiple phone calls, emails and even trips to the Consulate in New York, I was preparing dejectedly to be denied entry.
In one hilarious encounter at the consulate, my mother-in-law who happened to accompany me tried to reason with the receptionist by revealing her own family roots to Multan. Her [my mother-in-law’s] family had crossed over to India in 1947, and she appealed to the receptionist by pointing out the bizarre ways border control has fragmented the individual’s historical belonging to multiple territories in the region. Thankfully however, high-level negotiations between the host institution faculty in Lahore, and the Pakistani UN Representative and diplomats in New York, resulted in a visa stamp mere hours before I was to board the flight to Lahore and just in time to arrive for the conference. The same Pakistani scholar who had spoken critically about the slaughter of Bengalis on Dhaka University campus in 1971 had spent considerable time and effort in convincing the UN Representative in New York to ‘intervene’ in the granting of the visa to ‘principled academics’ who previously cancelled a global conference because Pakistanis had been barred from it. All this to say, that our South Asian conviviality and efforts of solidarity disrupted state control in small, but not insignificant, ways in this instance.
My presentation at the Lahore University of Management Sciences at the ‘Cinema and Transnationalism in Pakistan and South Asia: Regional Histories’ conference invoked no small anxiety in me given the historical and political weight of the topic and the venue — a country I had long learned to associate with the pillage and devastation of my own. My paper, entitled ‘Ethical encounters: friendship, reckoning and healing in contemporary films about the Bangladesh Liberation War,’ was an exploration of the idea of friendship, love and intimacy across cultures as modes for enacting social responsibility and care for the other. Deploying a transnational feminist analysis, I examined Bangladeshi feminist directors Shameem Akhtar’s and Rubaiyat Hossain’s films, Meherjaan (2011) and Daughters of History (1999) with women of colour theories of friendship politics to further a discussion on solidarity among women.
Through an investigation of the conflictual yet cooperative alliance between Lalarukh, a Pakistani researcher working on war crimes enacted by Pakistani military on Bengalis in 1971, and Monika, her Bengali activist friend whose family is a survivor of the war’s devastation, I reflected on the idea of dissident friendship, and argued that relationships between individuals of heterogeneous backgrounds with discrepant power positions in society can elicit a deeper understanding of human connection. Similarly, the love between a Bengali woman and a Pakistani soldier amidst the war in Meherjaan questioned nationalist narratives of war, and engendered lesser known and diverse understandings of women’s complex and varied relationships to war. In addition, the rejection and embracing of ‘war babies’ as featured in both these films as well as Munsur Ali’s Shongram 1971 (2015) raised questions of healing and agency. Exploring contested relations — between women, women and the nation, state and citizenship — I discussed whether such conflicted alliances are inevitably crushed within dominant patriarchal colonial relations or whether they can cause a change in self-and-other-perception. I further explored whether or not this process trumps, or is trumped by, other competing loyalties women might have, to family, community, or nation.
My trepidation grew since I was not only the Bangladeshi scholar at the conference, but mine was also the lone presentation that focused on Bangladesh. Moreover, I was scheduled to present at the last session of the day when perhaps a more uplifting topic and tone would be expected in order to bring the conference to close. Maybe it was my own trumped-up anxiety reverberating in the room, but I felt cloaked in a heavy curtain of solemnity as I spoke. However, the audience was warm, gracious and generous in their acceptance of me and my research. The responses at and beyond the conference will stay with me as precious and heartfelt engagements between individuals of war-torn countries in the region and interactions between whom are rare yet full of promise. I categorise the responses below into three camps:
The first came from an older generation of scholars who had lived through the war and were better informed to the extent of the war’s repercussions has had on Bangladesh. One scholar-activist from an U.S. based institution, told me that he was part of an activist-intellectual circle who had been committed to negotiations among civil society and the state to offer an official apology to Bangladesh. ‘We tried here…’ He trailed off, shrugged his shoulders and moved on to a different topic. During and following my presentation, rather than engaging with the paper, he appeared to have an interest to ‘educate’ me about Tareque Masud’s films — the importance of which I fully appreciated even though these were not the subject of my paper. This same well-meaning scholar also informed me that he knew all the key activists in Bangladesh by naming several personally. Another senior scholar, also based in the U.S., urged me gently to refrain from calling the violence of 1971, a genocide. According to her research she said, the proper definition of genocide does not quite match how ordinary people remembered and accounted for the war. It was a state-imposed term, she surmised. A third scholar broke down in tears, hugged me and apologised repeatedly. While I felt a great deal of sorrow about our shared and painful history, and empathy for her inability to reach out to more Bangladeshis given the very real state obstructions that govern our movements, I was admittedly taken aback by her emotional response at an academic presentation. The dropping of names to hint intimate knowledge and familiarity, the questioning of the definition of genocide and whether or not one occurred in 1971 or in whose terms continue to challenge and inform my own evolving understanding of the contested terrain of 1971 from multiple regional perspectives.
The second categorisation of response came from my own generation of scholars, those born after 1971. Several scholars approached me after the presentation to talk about their attempts to incorporate materials about 1971 into their research and teaching. They shared the very real difficulties in accessing sources due to the erasure and silence in official discourses, polices and archives. One scholar who had studied in the US and had Bangladeshi friends in graduate school, shared stories about how they initially treated him with animosity. It was only over time and after many discussions that he was able to gain their trust. A film aficionado and presenter at the conference gave me a bear hug, and asked to take photographs with me. He said half jokingly, ‘I am never going to Bangladesh. I wouldn’t want to face any of these women (birangona) or children of war you speak of in your research.’ Yet another scholar who listened very attentively and quietly said to me, ‘1971 was a big loss for Pakistan. We lost so much in terms of our own culture and history.’ The question of loss was further complicated by another Pakistani scholar who shared with me late into that night her own father’s story, who, during the war had been posted in Dhaka as an engineer. Prior to the war when the army was warning West Pakistani civilians to leave for the West, this man chose to remain in the East and ended up providing shelter to his Bengali neighbours. The horrors he witnessed in those months have remained with him throughout his entire life. She also shared stories of ‘war widows’ in West Pakistan, whose husbands —Bengali men — left to join the resistance and never returned. The stories of loss I heard from my Pakistani colleagues were tinged with the loss of separation, and the absence of space for reflection. On the other hand, the meaning of loss was tinged with the joy of liberation in the stories of 1971 I often find narrated in fiction and film from Bangladesh. In a poignant statement, in Shameem Akhtar’s film, Daughters of History that I mentioned above, Monika challenges Lalarukh about their differing positions towards the war by posing the question, ‘Separation or Liberation?’
The most jarring of the responses came from the younger cohort of scholars and attendees. One stands out in particular. A younger woman who had earned her PhD in Public Policy in the same university where I teach in Massachusetts approached me after my session and said how my presentation had brought a solemn tone to the conference, which needed to be acknowledged. She confessed her own prior reluctance to reach out to me while she was a student on our campus in Boston because she had been afraid of my reaction to her, which she perceived would have been negative, since she was Pakistani! She also revealed to me that her father was a journalist and activist who still had ties in Bangladesh and following my presentation, she called and asked him ‘What were you doing in 1971? Were you on the streets marching and protesting?’ Her father’s response was, ‘We did not know what was going on in East Pakistan. What could we have done?’
The following evening, upon her invitation, I had dinner with this scholar’s family as she said that her husband wanted to meet me. As it turned out, he was the son of an army officer who served in 1971. This young man stated, ‘Even if these alleged war crimes happened, no good will come of these trials Bangladesh is holding. No healing will come of it.’ He also talked, not without discernible pride, about his father who he related, ‘still cannot talk about his own experiences in 1971 without breaking down in tears.’ To his father, the young man said, ‘it [the Independence of Bangladesh] was an irreparable loss.’ It is noteworthy that during my time in Pakistan, Mir Quasem Ali, the convicted war criminal, was executed in Bangladesh. I woke up on the morning of September 5th to read the headlines in the national daily, Dawn condemning the execution.
I want to share two additional experiences in Pakistan which occurred beyond the parameter of the academic conference. One was at the house of Professor Salima Hashmi, artist, activist and daughter of the late revolutionary poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Professor Hashmi generously invited my research collaborator and I to her house, which was also the house in which poet Faiz had lived. During the course of the evening, she pointed to an arm chair in the parlour and said, ‘That’s the chair on which my father sat utterly devastated upon his return from Dhaka in 1974. He could not believe that his Bengali friends there — who were like his brothers — would no longer speak to him with the same warmth.’ She was referring to the criticism Faiz encountered from some of his contemporaries in Bangladesh about the actions of the Pakistan state and the less than vigorous resistance of Pakistani intellectuals. Professor Hashmi talked about the censorship of the media at the time and how it was like the entire Western Wing of the country was ‘under a blackout.’ More recently, Salima Hashmi has been anointed by the Prime Minister of Bangladesh as a Friend of Bangladesh on behalf of her father’s contributions to the Bengali resistance. She recalled those days in 1971 and the lives lost – young men in Pakistan who went into the war without even knowing what they were fighting against. She is currently editing a memoir of one such fighter, she said.
At another dinner with old college friends at the famed Karachi sea-side restaurant, Kolachi once again I was reminded how fraught interpersonal relationships can become between nationals of the Sub-continent. While Indians and Pakistanis may share a certain nostalgia and concord about their histories and belonging, the same cannot be said about Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Indeed, we need a different frame to understand the vicissitudes and lasting legacies of the second Partition of the Sub-continent. As the warm ocean breeze swept over us and we dug into the delicious kabab, khatakat, and kulfi the spouse of my college friend was telling me how excited her mother was to hear that she was dining with a Bengali that night. Her mother had been born and raised in Chittagong and still spoke of it with great fondness. I asked when her mother had left East Pakistan and she responded with a visible shudder, ‘Oh well before all the drama erupted, thank God!’ I did not have the courage to probe what she meant by ‘drama.’ But not because I was afraid of the conflict that may have ensued.
My college friends remembered well the heated debates we used to have late into the night sitting around the lounge in the dormitory of the small liberal arts college in Wooster, Ohio where we were students in the early 1990s. These debates included the political categorisations of Liberation vs Separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, the imposition of Urdu as the official state language and the Bengali Language movement. They could not have forgotten my reluctance to speak back to them in Urdu when South Asian students would gather together and the inevitable camaraderie of shared cultural and linguistic backgrounds would sweeten our interactions until of course the Bengalis spoke up about the colonial Pakistani state. That night in Karachi, I did not probe further because I lacked the stomach to hear the answer. My friend joked about the Bangladesh Government’s thirst for blood as he referred to the most recent execution. ‘With good reason of course’ he was quick to add. I wanted to ask whether Pakistanis had read about the 2013 Shahbag protests in Bangladesh where thousands had gathered to demand justice for 1971 and where the rallying cry had been ‘Death by execution (faashi chai).’ So many gaps in our knowledge about each other, too many erasures making meaningful exchange even among friends meeting after two decades untenable.
I began this essay by invoking critical feminist scholarship about 1971. While I have meandered in my reflections here to harken back to the conference that never happened, and to the one that did and the politics of location and audience in each, I want to end by imagining a learning circle of scholars, activists, ordinary citizens from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. A learning circle where one could engage productively and more routinely with our shared histories, experiences and identities in the region. Undoubtedly, scholarly texts and research projects serve the communities who suffered unspeakable trauma in the momentous birthing of our nations. Furthermore, these texts and conversations can raise awareness and foster much-needed dialogue among ordinary citizens who grow up with that legacy of liberty yet violence of nationalist and anti-colonial struggles.
Drama, healing, agency, reconciliation, justice – these are but a few keywords that we could unpack in relation to the Partition, Bangladesh War of Independence and the many conflicts that continue to divide us, our regions, and inflect our interpersonal relations. Dialogue and exchange are critical to understanding and negotiating the layered meanings and consequences of conflict but also cooptation and cooperation across time, space and politics. We continue to push forward for more cross-border dialogue and exchange through the collaborative praxis and spaces like SARMSNET, a small but critical endeavour at these turbulent times. The power and lasting impact of interpersonal reflections, we maintain, cannot be understated. 

Elora Halim Chowdhury is associate professor & chair of the department of women’s & gender studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and a co-founder of the South Asian Regional Media Scholars Network.

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