(Work in Progress) Cultural Destruction as Genocide – The Shahid Minar Example

In 2010, I was involved in an international mooting competition in New Delhi. The problem question that was given to us touched upon many legal issues pertaining to international criminal law but one that stood out, for me, was whether the destruction of cultural property can be considered to be an act of genocide or, at the very least, a symptom of genocide/genocidal intent.  Perhaps this was because the work of the Bangladesh’s International War Crimes Tribunal had begun and a spot light was shone on the genocide that occurred in the country in 1971, an incident that had long been neglected by national and international discourse. As an inevitable part of this process, the term genocide was deconstructed into its constituent parts and incidences of mass murder, rape, torture, premeditated targeting of religious minorities, etc., came to light. But one crime that received relatively little attention was that of the destruction of cultural property; cursorily considered under the generic head of ‘war crimes’.

For the past few weeks and months, the topic of cultural destruction has come to the fore again; not because of a secessionist/liberation struggle but due to a paroxysm of the body-politic. Starting with the demolition of religio-cultural property in Ramu late last year to the demands of Hefazat-e-Islam in more recent times, hostility towards Bengali culture (or ‘Hindu influences’ as some like to call it) has re-emerged and apparently,  found a new voice.

I therefore felt that some old ground needed to be retread, firstly on what genocide is and secondly, in relation to the role culture and cultural property, such as the Shahid Minar, played in the emancipation of East Pakistan and how they were subject to attack during the genocide that ensued during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation. This will allow me to make the argument that what occurred in Bangladesh was not only genocide on ethnic or religious grounds, but cultural grounds as well. In light of that, in the second part of my essay, I will seek to explore how culture and cultural property has been protected in Bangladesh. I will also tentatively give suggestions on what more can be done in this regard, given Bangladesh’s obligations under international instruments.

It may be that I am trying to do too much with this ‘project’, but here goes. Below please find the first few sections of my essay – comments are welcome:

Cultural Destruction as Genocide: The Shaheed Minar Example

If you are plucked out, tell me,

What of me remains?

                                                – Shamsur Rahman (1929-2006)

 In the ongoing war crimes tribunal, ‘genocide’ is the most serious charge leveled against the defendants. But what is it? The portmanteau term, which was conceived by a Polish law professor, Raphael Lemkin, who had himself escaped from the Holocaust, juxtaposes the Greek genos (race or tribe) and the Latin cide (killing), so as to literally mean the destruction of a group. While he conceived of genocide in more broad terms, to include the “disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups”, the drafters of the most important Convention on the prohibition of genocide, The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide 1948 (the ‘Genocide Convention’), adopted a more restrictive definition.

The definition, as stated in Article 2, was as follows:

“genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such’:

a) killing members of the group;

b) causing serious bodily harm or mental harm

c) deliberately inflicting on the group condition of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

(Emphasis added)

It is notable that the definition emphasizes physical destruction as being incumbent in genocide and particularly, the evisceration of targeted national, ethnic, racial or religious groups – rather than amorphous concepts like ‘cultural destruction’ and the targeting of cultural groups. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the drafters. The idea that the systematic erosion of culture through the destruction of monuments, texts, art and other institutions and artifacts, amounting to a serious crime of war/armed conflict, is not new. The Netherlands in particular took an active role, both before and after the Second World War, in promoting the drafting of a Convention to protect cultural property during times of armed conflict, which finally led to the ratification of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict in The Hague in 1954. Side by side with the drafting of the Genocide Convention, the content of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 was also being discussed, with its Articles 22 and 27 eventually enshrining an individual’s right to freely participate in their culture and deeming cultural rights to be ‘indispensible’.

This political background clearly acted on the minds of those preparing the Genocide convention, since, as the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs notes, the drafting process of the Convention involved a debate over the concept of ‘cultural genocide’, with one side asserting that it is illogical to equate mass murder or rape with the destruction of cultural institutions and property while another acceding to Lemkin’s view “that a group could be effectively destroyed by an attack on its cultural institutions, even without the physical/biological obliteration of its members”. The former perspective eventually prevailed. It is needless to say that despite this, in the deliberations of international and national courts and tribunals set up to punish suspected genocidaires, the question of cultural destruction has still been considered, as it has helped corroborate the existence of genocidal intent and even assisted in determining what a national, ethnic, racial or religious group can be considered to be.

Furthermore, since the drafting of the Genocide Convention, there have been a number of other international treaties and conventions, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, which have broadened the scope of cultural protection. It is therefore quite likely that if the Genocide Convention was drafted at a more recent date, its terms would be different.

The standard formulation of genocide has been questioned by a number of academics and civil society activists over the years, frequently citing the systematic extermination of the cultural practices and institutions of the American Indians, First Nations peoples, the Jews in both nineteenth century Russia and twentieth century Central Europe, the Palestinians and Tibetans as well as indigenous and aboriginal communities around the world, as examples. I submit that the planned and motivated corrosion of Bengali culture, both before and during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, can be added to this growing list.

The Bangladesh Context

Phalgun brings wreaths of flowers,
and waves of protests…

– K. Ashraf Hossain (Tran. 1983)
in Poems on 21st, p. 103

Professor Rafiqul Islam notes that the ‘language issue’, as it was to be termed, was raised even before Pakistan was established. Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed, a former Vice Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, suggested that Urdu should be the state language of the future state, to wish Dr. Md. Shahidullah, a famous Bengali linguist, responded in the negative. According to Dr. Shahidullah, “To surrender Bengali to Urdu or Hindi as the language of the court and the university will be a shameful surrender of Bengal”. A month after Partition, a booklet was published in Dhaka entitled “Pakistaner Rahstra Bhasha Bangla na Urdu” (Pakistan’s state language: Bengali or Urdu), which called for the use of Bengali in official, legal, educational and bureaucratic communications. Such pleas were largely ignored or dismissed.

It is well-documented that in the years that followed, discontent in East Pakistan grew due to widening economic disparity and political marginalization. However, what really sparked latent Bengali nationalism, was the attempted repression of their cultural practices, and in particular, their language. As the late Kabir Chowdhury, former National Professor of Bangladesh and Director of the Bangla Academy, notes in his “Of Ekushey”, “The Bengalee’s love of and attachment to their language and culture were great and when…the rulers of Pakistan declared that Urdu and Urdu alone would be the state language of the new country they inevitably, perhaps inadvertently, sowed the seed of its future disintegration.” Here the celebrated Professor utilizes the term “Urdu and only Urdu” which Muhammad Ali Jinnah used to affirm his position on ‘the language issue’ in the speeches he delivered at the Dhaka Race Course and Curzon Hall, Dhaka University. Beyond these speeches by the Governor General of Pakistan, there was a broader effort to entrench a policy of cultural assimilation through various administrative means, including the removal of Bengali as a medium of education and as a component of school curricula and excising the language from stamps, currency notes, etc. The Azad of 24 May, 1950 reports that the Pakistan government suggested that a solution to the language issue could be reached by writing Bengali in Arabic script and just such a policy was advocated by the Central Pakistan Education Advisory Board. In spite of the fear expressed by students of implicit ‘colonial designs’ and attacks on Bengali language, literature and culture, the Pakistan government spent large sums of money to start twenty adult education centres in different parts of East Pakistan to teach primary Bengali through the Arabic script. For the purpose of ‘reforming’ Bengali, the Pakistan Government also formed an East Bengal Language Committee on 9 March, 1949, which in its 1950 report suggested that steps needed to be taken to avoid the ‘Sanskritisation’ of the language, align Bengali with Islamic ideology, wean out unintelligible terms and grammar and strongly encourage the study of Urdu. The repercussions of such marginalization are explained by Badruddin Umar: “if Urdu became the state language, the educated society of East Bengal would become ‘illiterate’ and ‘ineligible’ for government positions.”

The protest to these policies was multi-faceted. Starting from the “Rashtra Bhasa Sangram Parishad” (The State Language Action Committee) to the students of Dhaka University to the Bengali members of the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, a number of individuals and groups stood up to demand that Bengali be recognized as a State language of Pakistan. Derided as fifth columnists and dividers of Pakistan, such proposals were virulently rejected by the ruling Muslim League and pro-Bengali rallies were brutally quashed. Yet the protests went on in various forms unabated. On 26 February, 1948, an “All Party State Committee of Action” was formed and on 11 March, 1948, they led a protest on the streets. The Muslim League took recourse to force, with the police being authorized to lathi-charge the demonstrators and shell them with tear gas. According to Professor Rafiqul Islam, nearly a thousand people were thrown into prison.

Despite Khwaja Nazimuddin, the then Chief Minister of East Bengal, signing an eight-point agreement with representatives of the Committee regarding the recognition of Bengali as a state language, all of this was undone by Jinnah’s visit and the aforementioned findings of the East Bengal Language Committee.

Following the volte face of Khwaja Nazimuddin on 26 January, 1952, when he declared at the Dhaka Session of the Muslim League that “Urdu will be the state language of Pakistan”, a new and reinvigorated State Language Committee of Action was formed, comprising members from all parties except the Muslim League, who announced on 21 February, 1952 as State Language Day.

It was to be the apotheosis of the Language Movement. The government banned all forms of public processions, which the demonstrators defied – leading to open confrontation. The police and paramilitary force resorted to tear gas shelling, lathi-charges and eventually shooting. These shootings claimed the life of Barkat, a student making his way through the Dhaka University Medical College at the time, along with a few other demonstrators. Hundreds of others students were injured and thousands were arrested, but amidst this suffering was catalyzed a new Bengali consciousness, a consciousness that was more aware of its cultural underpinnings.

This is perhaps unsurprising. Bhaba, in his “Location of Culture”, opines that those who have suffered the sentence of history, through subjugation, domination or other means, learn the most enduring lessons for living and thinking. Social marginality, in his view, forces one to confront the concept of culture outside objects d’arts or a traditional idea of aesthetics, to engage with culture as an uneven, incomplete production of meaning and value, often composed of incommensurable demands and practices, produced in the act of social survival. (pp. 246-247)

This manner of engagement with culture, as an uneven, incomplete production of meaning and value, is best represented by an incident that occurred two days after the death of Barkat and his compatriots: the creation of the first Shahid Minar.

The Shahid Minar

By 23 February, 1952, Dhaka University students, with their own hands and with the bricks, sand, lime and mortar they were able to acquire, had built a memorial to mark the death of the language martyrs of 21 February. This humble, rudimentary Shahid Minar attracted widespread attention and despite the slanderous attempt of the Government to name such a practice as being idolatrous, people from all walks of life thronged to place flowers at its feet.

From its base, slogans were chanted and vows to avenge spilled blood were taken, causing the governing authorities considerable consternation and led them to eventually order the demolition of the structure. This was a deeply miscalculated move that stoked the anger of Dhaka University students, who strove to rebuild the memorial. This led to the area being kept under constant police protection. Such an isolated attempt proved to be futile as hundreds of Shahid Minars were erected in schools, colleges and universities across the Eastern province of Pakistan. In the words of Alauddin Al Azad, the heroism of those who participated in the language movement ‘erected an indestructible monument’ in the hearts of the people and this was manifested in the ‘granite peaks’ of their ‘thousand fists’ raised in protest. Despite its destruction, the Shahid Minar had transformed into “an inexhaustible source of strength and inspiration for a still wider struggle.” (p. 146, Flaming Flowers)

(to be continued…)

The Protection of Cultural Property in Bangladesh

In his paper on the building of national identity through archaeology, M.L. Smith of the University of Pittsburgh notes that museums were specially targeted by the Pakistan army during 1971 and were requisitioned for wartime use. The rehabilitation of these museums and spaces was part of the nation’s rebuilding process and in Smith’s words, the affirmation of a unique national identity. (p. 702, M.L. Smith, “Bangladesh: Building National Identity through Archaeology” Antiquity 74 (2000): 701-6)

Major General Shafiullah v. Bangladesh – positively identifying war memorials as cultural heritage. (Thank you Md. Azhar Uddin Bhuiyan for pointing out this case)

There is now much work being done to list immovable properties like the Shahid Minar as listed properties of cultural, historical and political interest: http://www.thedailystar.net/news-detail-74498. This is in line with the

Cultural Genocide

Canada was against the concept of cultural genocide being included in the Genocide Convention and was even prepared to vote against the Convention in its entirety, if it was included as part of the definition of genocide. (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/canada-threatened-to-abandon-1948-accord-if-un-didnt-remove-cultural-genocide-ban-records-reveal)

Half a world away, an art theft for the Bengali cause – http://www.essentialvermeer.com/fakes_thefts_school_of_delft_lost_sp/vermeer_theft_01.html#.VZQdg_lVikp

(to be continued…)