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The Liberation War and After

Had regional and world political powers been less willing to sacrifice the population of East Pakistan to Cold War exigencies or convenient notions of state sovereignty, its economic weakness on achieving independence would have been less pronounced. The immediate concerns of the post-conflict scenario included devastated infrastructure, looming famine, returning refugees, and freely roaming armed militia, while its seventy-five million residents subsisted mainly on the proceeds of rice cultivation and jute, in turn dependent on global market conditions. Less visibly but no less vitally for the tasks of reconstruction, nation-building, and development ahead, the conflict had decimated its social structure and intelligentsia, with the Pakistani army having specifically targeted its cultural and intellectual leadership in the 'Operation Searchlight' campaign conventionally viewed as an attempt at genocide (Akmam 2002).[1]

The mortality figures from combat and associated deaths from disease and hunger are unknown, but credible estimates reach as high as half a million, making the conflict one of the bloodiest in recent history. The official figure of deaths from the war is three million and although the methodology and documentation for that figure have not been established, debate about this figure is to be prohibited under the proposed War Crimes Denial Act. Taking together the displacement of tens of millions as a result of the conflict, and the 'exported famine' of 1971-2 in a population already weakened by endemic poverty and hunger, cyclone, and floods, a total conflict-related excess mortality in the magnitude of a million or more by 1972 is fully within the realms of the possible.[2] The UN relief operation estimated the material damage of the war at $1.2 billion (about $7 billion in 2015 prices), in a country whose gross national product (GNP) was estimated at USD 4.5 billion and whose recurrent expenditure was only USD 1.1 billion in 1970 (World Bank 1972). Losses of around $300 million (USD 1.7 billion in 2015 prices) were estimated for reductions in agricultural outputs alone. But by the end of 1973 much of the basic reconstruction work was complete, as a result of a coordinated and reasonably successful relief effort under the UN Relief Operation, Dacca (UNROD) (Faaland and Parkinson 1976).

The human impacts of the war were less easily made good. During the war, in addition to the ten million who fled to India, almost seventeen million people were internally displaced. More than two million people were homeless in June 1972, and 1.5 million homes had been destroyed. The already limited rural health services had been destroyed by the war (Greenough and Cash 1973). In November 1971 alone, 2,000 people were admitted to the Cholera Hospital in Dhaka, the largest number ever admitted in a single month (note that November is in the dry season, not the usual season for cholera). A smallpox epidemic broke out in one of the Calcutta refugee camps, and the disease (all but eradicated prior to the war) then travelled back with returning refugees (Sommer, Arnt, and Foster 1973). The effects of the war on nutrition were particularly dramatic; famine predicted in 1971 and 1972 was averted (or exported) only after a vast relief effort (Curlin etal. 1976; Bose 1972; Chen and Rohde 1971).

The impacts of the war on marital and family structure and on women's citizenship marked a permanent break in the old patriarchal bargain that shaped gender relations. A possible 200,000 to 400,000 rapes resulted in an estimated 26,000 pregnancies. Sexual violence was part of the war strategy, and women, gender, and social relations were traumatized. In addition, social and cultural norms mean women are likely to have been disproportionately affected by the hardships of hunger, displacement, and widowhood. Gender relations never fully recovered after the war and the social disorder that followed (Kabeer 1988).[3]

Partition and war also weakened the civil administration. West Pakistanis had dominated the ranks of the respected Civil Service of Pakistan administrative corps, and many senior Bengali officials remained stranded in the west after the war. But on their return, officials rapidly became demoralized with the party politicization of civil administration, as well as with the corruption of networked party people. New laws institutionalized the politicization of all levels of the civil administration, removing the meritocratic recruitment procedure and strengthening political control over governance (Islam 2003; Maniruzzaman 1975a, b; Jahan 1973). All of this underlined the fact that Sheikh Mujib's gifts were in political mobilization, not public administration (Mascarenhas 1986).

Politically, the liberation struggle mobilized numerous groups of young leftists, many of them with experience of guerrilla warfare and firsthand experience of rural life; others were drawn from the student wings of political parties with organizational experience. At the same time, security and law-and-order conditions were weak, as armed groups roamed the countryside, looting and terrorizing. All of this presented a threat to the authority and capacity of the new regime, even while popular expectations of the new government were high. The undisciplined and inexperienced Awami League party rapidly deteriorated into a corrupt, venal, and inept government.11

  • [1] A more recent analysis is critical not only of the specifics of the charge of genocide in theBangladesh case, but of the validity of the concept at all (Gerlach 2010).
  • [2] The mortality statistics from the conflict are a point of debate (see Bergman (2011) for asummary) and of contemporary political contention, with the Awami League resisting anyattempt to question the orthodoxy that three million people were killed by the Pakistani army.In 2014, the International Criminal Tribunal convicted a journalist of contempt of court fordebating the mortality figures (specifically for querying the 'fact' of three million deaths: TheGuardian 2014). Refugee figures are less controversial: of an estimated population of seventy-fivemillion, almost ten million people were documented by the Indian government as having crossedthe border to India during the war, with a high proportion believed to be Hindu. Between Marchand December 1971, an average of 36,000 people crossed into India every day (Myers 1973).
  • [3] See work by Bina D'Costa, Nayanika Mookherjee, and Yasmin Saikia. The work of theseauthors will be discussed in further detail in Chapter 4, 'The Breaking of the Patriarchal Bargainand the Emergence of the "Woman Issue"'.
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