Time of the Writing, the Hour of Reading

[Editor’s note: This essay was originally published in Economic & Political Weekly (February 13, 2016) and is expanded from a public discussion organized by Dina Siddiqi and Seuty Sabur of BRAC University, Dhaka.]

Nayanika Mookherjee acknowledges that The Spectral Wound has taken “a long time” (xxi) to write. She narrates the early morning “thought struggle,” as well as the ethical challenges involved in crafting this work. At the time she started her research, there were no major English language works on the birangonas, the officially sanctioned term for victims of rape during the Bangladesh independence war. In the intervening years, several researchers have begun looking into similar terrain, possibly intellectually and emotionally inspired by elements Mookherjee also cites in her journey. These elements include the Ain o Salish Kendra oral history project, the Nilima Ibrahim book and related works Ami Birangona Bolchi (I am Birangona Speaking), the codification of the birangona in plays and films (e.g., Leesa Gazi and Komola Collective’s recent work), and the evolution of a visual literacy (we may say skepticism) that has led anthropologists to go back and look at some of the “horror” images produced in the aftermath of the war. This visual anthropology has included works that problematize the male gaze on the birangona, as in Sayema Khatun’s Muktijuddher HIS-STORY: Ijjat o Lojja (His-Story of Liberation War: Honor and Shame) in the Public Anthropology series (Rahnuma Ahmed ed.). Ahmed herself has parsed Naibuddin Ahmed’s famous image of a rape victim (“Distances,” New Age, March 26, 2008), and that reading can be productively placed alongside Mookherjee’s rereading of Naibuddin’s photographs.

In the last five years, three English language books have appeared that also touch or focus on the role of women in the 1971 war, including the category of the birangona. I center these particular works here because they have come from researchers primarily based in the west, publishing in American and European presses. This is the same context in which Mookherjee’s book will most widely circulate; therefore her audience will read these other works alongside hers. They may also inadvertently overlook works like that of Khatun, unless it is translated. Among the English language publications, the most analogous is Yasmin Saikia’s Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh (Duke, 2011), which received a very different, noticeably chillier, reception in Bangladesh. The second book is Bina D’Costa’s Nationbuilding, Gender and War Crimes in South Asia (Routledge, 2011), which included the Bangladesh war crimes case within a multi-country study. Finally, there is the notorious revisionist history of 1971, Dead Reckoning (Hurst, 2011) by Sarmila Bose. In claiming that the Pakistani army behaved as per the “rules of war,” Bose dismisses charges of targeted killings of Hindus, as well as war rapes. Nayanika Mookherjee was one of the first critical respondents to Bose’s work, responding to the essay in Economic & Political Weekly (September 9, 2006; December 15, 2007), and to the book in The Guardian (June 8, 2011)[1]. Through these responses, as well as a series of linked academic essays, Mookherjee has actively engaged with the ecology of research around war crimes in 1971.

One benefit of the book’s long gestation is the ability to go back and revisit her ethnography in Enayetpur, as well as a large visual record (photography, cinema, publications, and theater). Mookherjee has repeatedly used the term achrano (combing), gleaned from one of her interviewees, as well as from a comment of a student at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh and David Cohen’s Combing of History. She has deployed this metaphor of combing over as something that both reveals and obscures. Her ethnography has also been enhanced by a combing process, showing us nuances, slights, and hidden objects that reveal over the long duration. The research obstacles that she describes frankly were also possible because of the longer engagement with this project. The book contains ethnography that looks not only at what is spoken, but the eco-system within which such speech is made possible. She tells us early on that a researcher warns her she will have to hear altu faltu (nonsense) (49), but in fact what she finds are “talkable” ithash (history) (57). She notes astutely the role of the gatekeepers of the narrative (61) in guiding stories down certain channels, so much so that Mookherjee stopped asking directed questions about ghotona (the event) and instead the women found their way through their stories.

The second layer of ethnography is of the story circulation environment. One of the book’s important interventions is a direct cataloguing of the management of the birangona story, and some of this will be uncomfortable reading for those who have chosen to be silent about this performative element for fear of treading on sacred grounds. We read that some of the initial birangonas were given ashah (assurance) (60) by civil society movements about material gains (e.g., houses, land, jobs) for consenting to be photographed and having their stories told. Such compensation may have been an ethical necessity given the time away from livelihood, as well as to offset the social-economic stigma that could result in villages as a result of going public. Such stigma included the chain of khota (taunt) (67) that the book documents in the “Bringing out the Snake” chapter. We also note the birangonas’ own discomfort with the process, as when they refer to being offered murgi pulao (chicken with flavored, spicy rice) when they would prefer shaak (greens) (61), and the nod to the instrumentalization of victims in the quotes “Are they doing business by using us?” and “Our prices have been raised in the market” (62). We note the errors of overreach that occur in the rush to publicize the experience of sexual violence, as when Moyna is asked to name an accused national war criminal directly, and unexpectedly blurts out “she kida?” (who is he) (59).

This uncomfortable grey area is one where a long gestation has assisted the book. If in the 1990s, at the early stages of the birangona documentation arc, Mookherjee had published an account of these moments, I suspect a large portion of the coalition that is broadly referred to in her book as “left-liberal,” and elsewhere as “shushil shomaj” (civil society) or by the increasingly contested category of “secular,” many, including myself, would have taken umbrage. But the experience of various levels of accidental or deliberate instrumentalization in recent years, as well as critiques of the Bangladeshi NGO-industrial complex by anthropologists Rahnuma Ahmed, Lamia Karim, Dina Siddiqi, Nazneen Shifa, and others has meant that the critical parts of the book will also be met with nods of recognition. Mookherjee writes toward the end of the book about a moment of disagreement with left-liberal activist networks, and how she transforms in that moment from “amader (our) Nayanika” to bhindeshi — “the foreign, other Nayanika” (257). Other recent researchers have similar, private stories of the convenient deployment of kache tana (pulling close) to appropriate, and dure thela (push away) to delegitimize.

The passage of time has added sedimented new meanings to this book, and that can best be seen in the political context within which public memory of birangonas operates. Mookherjee has documented some of this shifting political environment, both in this book, and in two essays: “The Dead and their Double Duties” in Space and Culture journal (May 2007) and “Denunciatory Practices and the constitutive role of Collaboration” in Traitors: Suspicion, Intimacy, and the Ethics of State-Building (University of Pennsylvania, 2009; edited by Sharika Thiranagama & Tobias Kelly). A reading of this changing environment can be mapped onto the dates of her initial interest in this topic (1992), the initial period of fieldwork (1997-2001 and later between 2001-2003), the subsequent journal articles (2006-2013), and the publication of this book (2015). The terrain of remembrance in Bangladesh has gone through a radical, transformative, and disruptive change over this timespan. This was clearest in the aftermath of the 2013 Shahbag movement (demanding death penalties for accused war criminals), which has placed the former unity of the urban left-liberal alliance in crisis. In the early 1990s, during the initial phase of this research, the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda, the demand for restitution of Japanese comfort women, and the 1995 UN classification of rape as a war crime had brought the issue of 1971 birangonas to center stage. By the time Mookherjee began her fieldwork in 1997, Bangladesh had an Awami League government for the first time since 1975, and we began to see an opening in the area of birangona testimony, with support of civil society NGOs. By the time she was, I presume, writing up her dissertation, Bangladesh was again under a Bangladesh Nationalist Party government, and the opening for 1971 narratives began to be stifled again. In the period when her journal articles started being published, the country transitioned from a Caretaker (military) government to the third Awami League government and the beginning of the long-awaited war crimes trials. However, by the time of the book’s final publication, the country’s progressive forces were unexpectedly and sharply divided, struggling to make sense of the implosion of liberal politics in the aftermath of Shahbag.

I want to suggest that when Mookherjee began her research, the project of birangona testimonies, indeed the entire initiative of oral history of 1971, was a site of feminist resistance — to a hostile state, to the rise of fatwas, and to forms of imposed piety. However, by the time we reach 2015, a transformed situation suggests that not always is the remembrance of the war automatically tied to a progressive project. Progressive and feminist projects can also have their own forms of silencing, and we see this in the reception of Yasmin Saikia’s book, especially in the palpable discomfort over a survivors’ testimony that also indicts sexual violence in Bangladeshi society before and after 1971. Even more disturbing than these quiet blind spots are the way feminist struggles can also be appropriated by the war on terror project. In the 1990s it may have been logical, and tactically effective, to link 1971 rape crimes with the 1990s spate of anti-women fatwas in villages. Today, conflating forms of piety, as well as Islamism (what Mookherjee calls “jujuburi (ghost) of Islamic Fundamentalism” (254)), with 1971 narratives, can actually be counterproductive. The risk of appropriation of feminist concerns by a global project of perpetual war on terror have been signposted by, among others, Rahnuma Ahmed in New Age, Seuty Sabur in Alal o Dulal, Nasrin Siraj Annie, and Saydia Gulrukh in Thotkata.

Meanwhile, opposition to the war memory project comes from two different sources — the first is internal to Bangladesh’s polarized political landscape which prevents political parties from finding common cause even over foundational narratives; the second is external and specific to the project of revisionism inside Pakistan which also seeks to suppress left-liberal forces inside that country. Academic audiences can read Mookherjee’s analysis of some of the problems in the war photographs of Kishore Parekh (“recaptioning” (163)), Naibuddin Ahmed (“rumors of staging” (193)), and Rashid Talukdar (the “politics of pose” (205), after Allen Feldman), and parse these as examples of “open semiotics” (173) and an alternative to Benjamin’s fear of the deadening effect of “mechanical reproduction” (188). However, similar examples of misrecognition or recaptioning have been deployed by authors such as Sarmila Bose to argue that the problems in these artifacts are evidence that the entire project of public memory around 1971 is a hallucination or subterfuge. I would argue that these faulty public memory objects could be productively reread within the flexible discursive space created by a brutal war and its uncertain, contested aftermath. But that argument requires patient readers who are willing to let go of absolutes, and in the present moment binaries of true/false have more adherents within discursive contexts in Pakistan and Bangladesh. This is the volatile and contested terrain into which this book and its arguments now enters.

Mookherjee began her project at a time when political and social forces in Bangladesh were arranged around fewer, clearer polarities of power and memory. The 1971 memory project was, at that time, in oppositional and resistant mode. Today, it sometimes can have unusual and unexpected alliances with forms of local and global power. Similarly, the revisionist account that wishes to deny the existence of genocide also has new transnational alliances, and sophisticated forms of discursive power. Mookherjee’s extensive ethnography on public memory and secrets needs to be reread within that changed environment, where forms of uncertainty may be the only things we are certain about anymore.


Naeem Mohaiemen is a filmmaker and Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at Columbia University. His essays include “Dead Reckoning: Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971” (Economic & Political Weekly) and his most recent film is Last Man in Dhaka Central.



[1] When I wrote my own response to Bose, also in Economic & Political Weekly (September 3, 2011), I focused on other aspects of the book because the issue of wartime rape had been comprehensively addressed by Mookherjee.

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