Jasmin Smith grew up in East Pakistan, the wing of Pakistan that later became the country of Bangladesh. She was born to an Urdu-speaking Bengali father and Bangla-speaking Gujarati mother. She learned English at school and a simple Urdu and Bangla at home. When the Liberation War of 1971 established a new Bangla-speaking country, Ms. Smith’s acquaintances began to ask her why she was still there. She would say, “I’m Bengali. Where am I supposed to go?”
After she finished school two years later, she did leave for London, England. Like many whose ethnic or linguistic backgrounds had ties to India or Pakistan, she no longer felt welcome in the new country.
I met Ms. Smith through the Facebook group, “Memories of East Pakistan.” She created this group (“Memories”) in December 2018 as a space to feel kinship with the East Pakistan diaspora and begin the healing process. There are many for whom the trauma of migration remains unresolved. In the two years since the group’s creation, over 3,000 members have joined. Some are forced migrants escaping wartime violence, others like Ms. Smith emigrated out of Bangladesh but remember it as East Pakistan from their youth, and still others are merely observers like myself. Ms. Smith moderates the discussion, aiming to walk the fine line between acknowledging the truths and trauma of 1971, and steering clear of politicking that might alienate members.
The necessity of walking this fine line results from East Pakistan’s complicated history. It was borne out of the 1947 Partition as the eastern wing of the nation of Pakistan, though there were movements for the autonomy of Bengal from the very start. East Bengal, later East Pakistan, was home to Hindus and Muslims, and Urdu, English, and Bangla speakers, amongst others. A growing sense of ethnic and linguistic pride, coupled with economic and political repression from West Pakistan, resulted in protests such as those held on February 21, 1952 and between 1968 and 1971. When the war for liberation finally broke out in 1971, many non-Bangla speakers were dubbed to be traitors, regardless of their sympathies or ambivalence towards the new Bangladeshi nation state.
The Memories of East Pakistan Facebook group is not intended to advocate for reparations or apologies between the various groups involved in the war. The group description itself states, “This is not a political group.” Ms. Smith seeks, instead, to encourage members to share their stories and listen to others’ with open minds to find a way back to recognizing and appreciating their homeland. As one member writes:
“So many different people in one forum express[ing] their feeling, their bonding is “EKDIN BANGALI SILUM,” ekhon o ase, asi, thakbo. (“I was once Bangali – I still am, I still am, and I will remain so”)
The members of the diaspora are diverse, and come from different linguistic backgrounds and economic strata:
“I lived in Chittagong with my Urdu speaking friends, Bengali speaking friends and all others studying in St. Placid’s School. Played and fought against one another, but that lasted only for a few minutes. All was forgotten and all became friends as before. Those were wonderful days never to return. Everything started changing late 1960s.”
“We were a multilingual, multi religion family. We celebrated Christmas and Eid with equal fervour. Had we been more aware of our maternal grandfather’s religion, would have celebrated Diwali also.”
“I don’t know why people keep calling us elite. Sometimes people are perceived as elitist because they come from different backgrounds. A lot of us were not rich. My mom had to manage 5 women in her family on her income after my dad died. Not an easy task.”
Many of them had to leave their friends and family behind in East Pakistan without notice or understanding of what was going on. One member writes:
“It was a very difficult life without parents who were left behind in Bangladesh. Half the mother side family lost their lives in the mayhem. I was the only who was shipped out on 1st December 1971 for Karachi. Barely 17 years old to support myself I had to do menial jobs all over Karachi. And carry on with my College education. It was very tough. It is a very long tale of hard work and survival in a very big city…….. There is so much to it.”
Bangladeshis often refer to certain members of the Memories group as “Biharis,” an imprecise and deprecatory term for Urdu speakers. Dina Siddiqi, Professor in Global Liberal Studies at New York University, writes that Biharis were a heterogeneous group by class interests and regional distinctions, but were tied together by linguistic difference from the Bangla-speaking majority of East Pakistan. Many came from places much farther than the Indian state of Bihar to escape communal violence or find economic opportunity in East Bengal/Pakistan. The 1971 war, Siddiqi writes, rendered Biharis into permanent national pariahs. Some were granted Pakistani citizenship post-war, while others were placed in refugee camps awaiting resettlement in Pakistan; these camps remain in Dhaka today, the most famous of which is Geneva Camp in Mohammadpur.
Some commenters ask, for those who were compelled to leave, why do you not now return? The answer is complex and personal for each, but I am struck by how often the reply is simply, “It would be too painful.” By the time it became logistically and financially possible for many migrants to return, their home felt changed and unwelcoming to them.
“We who became the diaspora have an address, often a fancy address in a prestigious locale, but where is home, it is a certain place during a certain time encapsulated in our memory. Thikana aache kinto bari nai.” (we have an address but no home)
“East Pakistan is something just in our memories. It does not exist anymore. We may be American, British or Canadian or whatever nationality we adopted but our hearts and soul still belong to the country where we grew up.”
Historians of South Asia struggle with the appropriate geographic unit of analysis and period of study. Do we talk about East and West Bengal? Bangladesh? The Bengal Delta? Post-partition? Which partition? East Pakistan is often forgotten as a time and place within these discussions. Indeed, it is hard to make sense of the complex overlappings of language, culture, religion, and ethnicity that were present in East Pakistan, and persist in the minds of its diaspora. But as with many digital platforms, these politics occasionally become legible online. For example, over the two years of its existence the “Memories” group name has evolved to reference both East Pakistan and Bangladesh in its title to signal inclusivity to a broader group. This move had to be accompanied by an expansion of the time period considered, past Bangladeshi independence to 1974.
In another case, Memories group members and moderators debated over the language and scripts permitted in posts, then ranging from Bangla to Urdu to Arabic, in Latin script and otherwise. It was eventually decided that only posts that were written primarily in English would be allowed. The reasons were pragmatic: it was the most commonly understood language among members, automatic Facebook translations were felt to be poor, and Ms. Smith did not like to approve posts in which she could not understand what was being said. This decision incurred minor backlash; some pointed out the significance of banning languages in the context of Bangladesh’s history, or felt it inappropriate to use the language of the colonizer. Moderation seems to have proceeded relatively successfully and peaceably, however. But decisions like these remind us that politics are inescapable, even for nominally-apolitical groups.
I feel drawn to this group as part of my own journey to understand my Bangladeshi background, and as a historian and anthropologist-in-training. I discovered the Facebook group last August, during my first visit back to Bangladesh after ten years away. It was only the third time I had ever visited my birth country. I was taught to only ever speak Bangla at home, and grew up listening to my mother singing Bangla songs in the kitchen and my father tell stories of his time in BUET. But these were the limits of my knowledge of Bangladesh. I didn’t keep up with its politics or films or music, but have been turning towards learning its history in recent years.
It was fascinating to see old photos of my Phuppi’s neighbourhood in Dhanmondi on the Memories page. I glowed when I saw people fawn over photos of old Bangali actresses with red saris and round faces that reminded me of my own. I was touched one morning when I saw a post pop up of the old Railway Building in Chittagong where I know my Nanabhai had worked. I quickly forwarded it to my mother, who wrote back saying the rightmost room in the photo was indeed where he had sat. My mother had not returned to Chittagong since she left it in 1994. “Ma,” she wrote, “this makes me so nostalgic.”
I feel tempted to screenshot and download every old photo and memory that is posted in the group. For the historian, this is not merely a social group; it is a digital archive, a collection of primary source memoirs and photographs unlike any in current existence. As I study the complex history of the subcontinent, I see how many local histories are untold because there are no written eyewitness accounts and few attempts to recover the stories afterward. Some organizations recognize and seek to remedy this situation. Berkeley, California is home to one of the largest efforts, the 1947 Partition Archive, which frequently collaborates with other organizations in South Asia. The Citizens Archive of Pakistan is another example of an organization that has honoured the particular period and place of East Pakistan, through a 2016 exhibit.
The Memories of East Pakistan Facebook group stands in contrast to these organized initiatives. It did not begin as a systematic attempt to collect oral histories or archival documents for future study. It was driven, rather, by a social and psychological need to find community amongst those sharing a common experience.
From my perspective, the group’s existence on Facebook introduces difficulties for the preservation of the posts and comments sharing historical insights. A researcher cannot easily query the posts, download them, or perform analyses on the members and content.
But preservation and analysis are at best secondary purposes of the Facebook group that has become a community for those displaced by political turmoil. As Ms. Smith posted on the group’s two-year anniversary:
“This site has taken over a big part of our lives but I’m grateful to have a place to go to when I need a break from my real world. I often think of my mom and Grandma in Canada who sat day after day thinking about their past. They had stories to tell but no one had time to listen. Life would have been quite different had they possessed an iPad.”
It will be to the relief of many, however, if the written memories are preserved beyond the social media platform, as Ms. Smith eventually intends to do with a published anthology. These stories provide insight into diverse experiences from the 1971 Liberation War, but also enrich our understanding of the everyday lives of those who knew East Pakistan before it was Bangladesh.