When Pakistan and India split in 1947, and when Bangladesh and Pakistan split in 1971, millions of refugees were driven out of the new countries into India. Many others were killed. Decades later, a Bangladeshi-American nonprofit in Long Island is trying to document the losses in their home country through the voices of the survivors. John Light reports.
John Light: Bangladesh’s violent road to nationhood particularly devastated women and religious minorities. Statistics for those killed and raped are unreliable, but most everyone believes that the toll was in the millions. Shuvo Dastidar is the executive director of a nonprofit called the Indian Subcontinent Partition Documentation Project – or ISPAD, for short. Dastidar’s a first-generation Bangladeshi American. He hopes to build public memory of the killings in Bangladesh through video interviews with survivors.
Shuvo Dastidar: “The legacy of it is something that, I guess with every single interview that we manage to do able to do and get online, then we’re building a legacy of it.”
Light: The problem Dastidar faces is that his interview subjects don’t want to discuss their violent past.
Dastidar: “If you have a story about how you were forced to watch your parents raped in front of you, these are memories that you manage not to talk about, and even forget, for the duration of your life. And then you’re coming up at the end of your life – is this something that you want to bring up and talk about.”
Light: Shuvo Dastidar and his father Sachi conduct the interviews in a small office at SUNY Old Westbury. Sachi remembers living as a refugee, and his presence helps subjects open up. So far, the Dastidars have interviewed 40-some Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and Indians who are living in America. They have also inspired other Bangladeshi- and Indian-Americans to return to South Asia and document their families’ histories. Pratip Dasgupta is one of them. As far as Dasgupta knew, the last of his family had left Bangladesh as refugees in 1947. But a few years ago, he discovered he had a cousin whose family had stayed behind. So he booked a plane ticket to Bangladesh and met his cousin for an interview.
Pratip Dasgupta: “He gave me the whole story of his family. Which is my family too. We felt very close when we first met, after fifty-odd years.”
Light: “Dasgupta was proud to see that his cousin was now a successful banker, but the cousin recalled in detail how his brother was beheaded by the Pakistani army in 1971. Dasgupta has also observed that minorities are not yet safe in Bangladesh, especially around the holidays.”
Dasgupta: “Every now and then I see on the Internet that temples have been destroyed, deities have been desecrated. These things are still happening.”
Light: This past week, Hindu Bangladeshis celebrated Durga Puja, their most important holiday. And in Bangladesh, tens of thousands of police officers were guarding Hindu mandirs to protect the statues of deities from attack. John Light for Faith in the City.