On "Collective Humanity": Revisiting 1971

In the first of a two-part series titled “Reflections on Collective Humanity,” Managing Opinion Editor Tapti Sen ’25 discusses the parallels she sees between the violence of her own cultural history and that ongoing in Gaza.

In 1971, the world watched as a genocide unfolded.

Starting on March 25th 1971, the army of West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) enacted a brutal military crackdown on East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). I will always recall my mother telling the story of herself, 7 years old, hidden in a nearby forest with her family, watching as West Pakistani soldiers burned down their village. She told me how my aunt, her older sister, clasped the palm of her hand over my young cousin’s mouth — willing her not to cry — because any sound would have been the death of them all. She described the heat from the sweltering Bangladeshi humidity and nearby fires drenching her frock, the mosquito bites all over her arms and legs and face. Within the next months, most of my mother’s family had left behind their home and fled to India — as did 10 million Bengalis, over 70 percent of whom were Hindus. The walk to India was a 100-km plus trek.

My father, 12 at the time, was living in Dhaka City, the biggest target of the military crackdown. My grandparents had already heard the rumors that massive violence would come to Hindu families in the area. They had seen the “H” spray-painted on the doors of their friends and neighbors,  signaling that those houses were to be a target. When the crackdown started, his family hid in a nearby warehouse until the immediate violence died. In the aftermath, they too made their way to India, with the exception of my uncle who had left to join the liberation struggle.

My parents were the lucky ones. They were privileged enough to have had access to safe places during the massacre — privileged to have made their way across the border into the Indian refugee camp they stayed in for months. Countless Bengalis didn’t share their fate.

When I hear my parents talk about their experiences of 1971, I can’t help but tear up. I’ve always been an emotional person — perhaps too emotional, some people might say. And yet, to think of my parents as children, robbed of their youth, living in the reality that their loved ones could die at any moment — it’s heartbreaking to think about.

1971 is a national wound in Bangladeshi history that has never fully healed. For Bengali Hindu families like mine, disproportionately the target of violence, it is especially so.

In 1971, the world watched as a genocide unfolded, and the West did nothing. America refused to intervene, because Pakistan was their ally against the USSR and they hoped to use them as an avenue to open diplomatic relations in East Asia. The Pakistani soldiers wielded weapons supplied by the United States as they murdered and raped countless Bengalis.

In 1971, the world watched as a genocide unfolded and did nothing, and in 2023, we are making the exact same mistake. The events of Oct. 7 — and the Israeli lives that were lost, the hostages that have been taken — are horrific. This cannot be denied. But in its unquestioning support of Israel’s retaliation since then, America has become complicit in the deaths of thousands of Palestinians. And as we watch the death toll in Gaza since Oct. 7 surpass 5,700, we know there will be more.

And I can’t help but think to myself that history is repeating.

Yet again, the U.S. will stand by as war crimes are committed against innocent people, and yet again world leaders will do nothing, even as countless people across the globe speak out against the atrocities taking place in Gaza.

In this moment, maintaining normalcy feels sick — it feels unjust, it feels evil. Minutes before I started writing this article, I saw the story of an older sister outside Gaza, grieving over the last messages her baby sister, Raneem, sent to her before she died in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. “Are you okay? I miss you. Goodnight big sister,” she wrote.  

I broke down in tears, because I thought of my own older sister, and the unimaginable terror of being separated from her. I could see myself in the texts the baby sister sent to her sister, texts that I myself had certainly sent, when my sister was studying in the U.S. and I was alone in Bangladesh. “Diya, I miss you very much and talk to me on phone and skype and chat. Goodnight,” I emailed her when I, too, was but a child. I can’t imagine what it would be like to never receive a response to that email. Even as I’m writing these words right now, tears are streaming down my face.

I can’t fathom how many people are going about their everyday lives right now. Sometimes, it feels like my mere secondhand grief is insurmountable. I can’t imagine what it is like to have loved ones in Gaza right now. It feels horrific. It feels dystopian, honestly, that on Amherst’s campus I go to Val and grab-and-go and class and we discuss Arendt and Montaigne and every other fancy name you can think of — and then I check the news and see the death tolls rise in Palestine.

In many ways, it feels like we’re speaking into the void. There has been unprecedented and beautiful support for Palestinian civilians and urgent calls for a ceasefire across the world within the past few days. But at the same time, the Biden administration has proposed a national security package that will send 14.3 billion dollars in aid to “bolster Israel’s air and missile defense system readiness” and strengthen its military. Compare that to 9.15 billion dollars that has been allocated for “humanitarian assistance” for Israel, Gaza, and Ukraine (and I wonder how those numbers are going to be split). Leaders across the world are voicing some version of either support for Israel or “peace on both sides” — the latter of which I can’t help but wonder whether will simply be a return to the terrible conditions that were the lived reality of Palestinians in Gaza before Oct. 7.

President Michael Elliott’s email on Oct. 11 condemned the loss of Israeli life — as he was right to do — but has not offered the same firmness about the massive loss of Palestinian life since. I hear peers and classmates characterize any critique of the Israeli government's actions as antisemitism, as if the global Jewish population is identical to the Israeli government’s atrocities, as if there aren't countless Jewish and Israeli voices speaking out against the bombings in Gaza. As Palestinian Professor Sa’ed Atshan put it, “I find the empathy and compassion that so many Americans have for Israeli life to be beautiful. Yet the extreme imbalance in recognizing the humanity of Israelis versus Palestinians has been relentlessly stoked by the biases of mainstream U.S. media […] I hope that one day we will get to the point that the sort of empathy that the majority of people in the U.S. so readily feel for Israelis can also be extended to the Palestinian people as well.”

As I’m writing this, it is Vijayadashami, the 10th day of Durga Puja, the most major religious festival for Bengali Hindus, epitomizing the defeat of good over evil. Truth be told, though I am tied to my Hindu identity, I do not identify as "religious" — I have grown up wary of religion seeing just what religious fundamentalism and supremacism has wrought in both my country and its neighboring ones. But today, one of the most important days of the year for my religion, for the first time in a while, I felt the helpless urge to pray — because it feels like no human intervention can or will come.

I’ve heard much talk of the need to focus on collective humanity in the past weeks. I am a strong believer in collective humanity and collective liberation — but the term has been co-opted and twisted beyond its original meaning to an inconceivable extent. People have used it to justify “both sides did wrong” rhetoric; to call for a simplistic return to peace, return to the pre-Oct. 7 status quo — as if Gazan Palestinians have truly experienced peace for the past few decades.

That is not collective humanity — and if you think it is, you have already accepted Palestinians as subhuman. We cannot deny the historical and present realities of violence anywhere in the world. We can and should condemn the killing of innocents on both sides. We must acknowledge the horrific genocide and cultural trauma that led to the formation of Israel and the need for Jewish people around the world to feel safe and affirmed. We must also recognize the countless ways in which Israel has historically transgressed international law in its displacement of and denial of basic fundamental human rights to Palestinians and continues to do so.

I hope to elaborate further on what I think collective humanity actually does look like in the following issue. ​​But ultimately what I want to leave you with is this: Those of us who are historically disenfranchised, marginalized, and colonized know the story that is unfolding before our eyes all too well. We cannot accept the Western paradigm that Jewish and Palestinian liberation are mutually exclusive.

The world is once again standing by as an unspeakable tragedy unfolds. And what I have to say is this, if you truly believe in "collective humanity", you must forcefully oppose the domination of all oppressed peoples, whether they be Bengalis, Jews, or Palestinians.