On Tuesday 4 December, the Indian-American historian Dr Sarmila Bose (Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford) will be delivering a talk, hosted by the Pakistan Society, at the London School of Economics. Today I signed a joint letter to the LSE to voice, in the strongest terms possible, disgust that the LSE has given Dr Sarmila Bose a platform for her work on genocide denial.
In September Bose published the paper Losing Victims: Problems of Using Women as Weapons in Recounting the Bangladesh War which purports to examine the “true extent of rape, who were the victims and who the perpetrators and any systematic policy of rape by any party” in the war in East Pakistan in 1971. In it she presents a lopsided re-writing of the sexual violence that was carried out in 1971, she denies the extent of the rapes committed by the Pakistan army and their Bengali collaborators (the Razakars). This is not her first work in historical revisionism. In 2005 she published her first paper on the atrocities of 1971, in which she specifically diminishes the extent of the genocide by the Pakistan forces.
On March 25 1971 the Pakistan army unleashed a systematic campaign of genocide on East Pakistan. Nine months later, a defeated Pakistan army left behind the aftermath of one of the most concentrated acts of genocide and mass rape in the 20th century. Most estimates of the killings and sexual violence of 1971 puts the death toll between 300,000 and 3 million dead with between 200,000 to 400,000 women raped.
According to Gendercide Watch:
The number of dead in Bangladesh in 1971 was almost certainly well into seven figures. It was one of the worst genocides of the World War II era, outstripping Rwanda (800,000 killed) and probably surpassing even Indonesia (1 million to 1.5 million killed in 1965-66).
Susan Brownmiller, in her book, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, assessed the figure to be between 200,000 and 400,000. She writes:
Rape in Bangladesh had hardly been restricted to beauty. Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted â€¦ Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use.
In Losing Victims, Bose argues that the claims of “hundreds of thousands” rape victims trivialises the “possibly several thousand true rape victims” of the war. She does not manage to offer a convincing explanation of how she reached this “several thousand” figure other than saying that the size of the Pakistani army could not have committed that many rapes in nine months:
The number of West Pakistani armed forces personnel in East Pakistan was about 20,000 at the beginning of the conflict, rising to 34,000 by December. Another 11,000 men â€“ civil police and non-combat personnel â€“ also held arms.[â€¦]
For an army of 34,000 to rape on this scale in eight or nine months (while fighting insurgency, guerrilla war and an invasion by India), each would-be perpetrator would have had to commit rape at an incredible rate.
Mash has writen an inspired article that dismantles Bose’s denial of the extent the atrocities. Her massively played down figures are based on the number of Pakistani troops deployed in East Pakistan in 1971:
The actual number of Pakistani forces at the end of the war, and taken POW by the Indians, was 90,368, including over 54,000 army and 22,000 paramilitary forces. It is not unreasonable to conclude that a force of 90,000 could rape between 200,000 to 400,000 women in the space of nine months. Even if only 10% of the force raped only one woman each in nine months, the number of rapes are well over “several thousand” claimed by Ms. Bose. Since Ms. Bose does the math in her paper, I will do the macabre calculation for the total force here. To rape 200,000 Bangladeshi women a Pakistani force of 90,000 would have to rape 2 to 3 women each in nine months. Not only is this scale of atrocity possible by an army engaged in a systematic campaign of genocide, it also has parallels in other modern conflicts (for example, the rape of between 250,000 to 500,000 women in Rwanda within 100 days).
Bose’s paper is steeped in imbalance and skewed commentary:
- The Pakistani forces are shown to be a benign, even a benevolent force with just the occasional slip into “opportunistic” rape.
- Every one of the accounts by Bangladeshi rape victims are qualified with the liberal use of the words “alleged” and “claimed”. Their accounts are then countered with versions by Pakistani military personnel which are always accepted unconditionally. They are not tasked with the same need for corroboration that she demands of the Bengali accounts.
- She dismisses accounts of two corroborative witnesses because they were illiterate!
- A Bengali para-military soldierâ€™s account of a Pakistani officerâ€™s conduct is rejected because the man uses uncomplimentary language and is “uncorroborated”. However, the Pakistani officer’s peer’s glowing posthumous references (“he was a shaheed” – a martyr) are accepted at face value to reject any charges of rape.
The content and rhetorical thrust of Bose’s work on the Bangladesh War in 1971 is based on selective choice of facts, inadequate research and a lack of transparency in her choice of case studies. Above all, her reliance on sources is one sided and biased which calls to question the academic objectivity of the author. She also uses language that displays an appalling insensitivity to victims of rape that should immediately call to question her understanding of the male motivations behind rape. In fact in her second paper she makes the following statement right at the outset:
The exaggerations and distortions of the issue of rape purveyed by many claiming to speak for the Bangladeshi liberation movement insult the true victims by trivialising their suffering, implying that it would not be noteworthy without the inflation of numbers and addition of gory perversions.
If insult to the true victims has been made, it is by denying their numbers and trivialising their suffering as Bose has taken pains to do. The massive numbers of sexual violence do not diminish any individual case of rape but rather shows the grotesque magnitude of the Pakistani campaign.
There is a second group (outside of the Pakistani army’s supporters) who support Dr Bose’s revisionism: Bangladeshi Islamists. In the Liberation narrative, the Pakistan army’s death squads were supported by para-militia organisations which operated under the wing of the Jamaati Islami party. These war criminals are alive and well today and still command the party but the single reason why their party has not managed to gain control of Bangladesh is because of popular antipathy. Most of the men and women who fought in the war as Muktijodhas (Freedom Fighters) may be dead and gone, but their sacrifice is still a part of popular memory – but revising history is forgetting their sacrifice and vindicating their killers. Needless to say, the Jamaatis have already welcomed Bose’s work. In the past they were forced to sheepishly talk around the issues of 1971 but if recent press statements are anything to go by, they now brazenly echo Bose’s “findings”. The Harvard educated historian has handed the Islamists a carte blanche.
The LSE is under no particular obligation to invite genocide deniers address their members. However, it has every right to do so. But by doing so gives credibility to Dr Sarmila Bose’s “history”. It also gives her work the oxygen of controversy despite her methods and construction of narrative being biased and agenda-driven. I end with a section from the letter to the LSE:
As supporters of free speech, we have no trouble engaging with Dr. Bose’s views. However, having invited a scholar who has made it her mission to provide a skewed perspective of the Bangladesh war by supporting the Pakistani military standpoint only, we feel it is the duty of your institution to create the circumstances for a healthy exchange of ideas. To date, no one from either the Pakistan society or the University has invited a researcher/writer who has worked on the subject and anyone from the Bangladeshi community, to engage with Dr. Bose at this event for the purposes of a ‘real’ and equitable dialogue.
I will be at her talk on Tuesday after which I will be reporting back here. So watch this space.
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