While the story for many immigrants from South Asia involves a search for opportunity and wealth in the West, for some it involved the very real matter of life and death. This was the case of my parents, Jyoti and Purabi. Their decision to come to the United States very literally saved their lives.
My parents are both from a nation that is now known as Bangladesh, a small country to the east of India, bordered on three sides by India and opening out to the Bay of Bengal in the south. Growing up, their homeland was first known to them as the British Eastern Bengal until the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, when the Brits quit their claims in the region and divided the former colony into two countries along religious lines, secular India and Islamic Pakistan – with the latter state being comprised of two regions separated by a thousand miles. East Bengal became East Pakistan, with little binding it to West Pakistan aside from religion. East Pakistan had a different language (Bengali vs. Urdu), a higher population, a more advanced economy, and its own native culture. These factors contributed to an increasingly hostile relationship with West Pakistan, which became dictatorial in its attempt to control the culture and politics in the East.
By the 60’s, unrest in East Pakistan was reaching a boiling point, with Bengali nationalism growing in fervor and millions of people engaging in acts of civil obedience in order to defend their culture and gain equal representation in the shared government, which was largely controlled by the West. My parents were both from minority Hindu families, putting them at particular risk of persecution by the West if and when the Islamist government attempted to forcibly assert its influence in the East. They were also brought up in relative poverty, having to essentially support and raise themselves and their siblings with nothing but their hard work and intelligence. Education was the vehicle that carried them both out of poverty and political turmoil, and into the United States of America.
My parents got married in Bangladesh in 1967, meeting barely a month before and only seeing each other only three times. My father came to the U.S. in 1969 on a F-1 student visa to study at Temple University in Philadelphia. My mother arrived a year later on the same F-1 visa to study at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. They intended to pursue their studies in peace and safety, away from the turmoil that was starting to engulf their homeland. My father had been able to come to the U.S. primarily because of the logistical and financial support of his adoptive father, Govinda Chandra Dev, who was a prominent intellectual in Bangladesh and one of the leaders of the nationalist movement.
They had barely settled in as young married students in Philly, when war broke out in their homeland – a war which would forever affect their lives and shaped the people they became, and brought with it a grief and sorrow so profound that it has crossed generations, even influencing who I am and what I believe as a first-generation American and second-generation immigrant.
On the night of March 26, 1971, the Pakistani army launched a surprise military operation in East Pakistan in an attempt to obliterate the nationalist movement – a systematic extermination of Bengali political and military leaders, intellectuals, and academics in an attempt to crush the movement by removing its leaders and destroying their morale. In the first few days they had assassinated hundreds of the nation’s most important and beloved leaders and thinkers… including Govinda Chandra Dev, the man who adopted my father, and gave him the means to move to the U.S. so he could have a chance at a better life. The Pakistani army broke into his faculty residence in the dark of night, shot him dead, and threw his corpse into a mass grave with dozens of other professors and students – people who had yearned for the right to call themselves Bengali.
That night, East Pakistan died. Bangladesh was born.
Pakistan’s military junta believed that “Operation Searchlight” would once and for all crush the nationalist movement, and did not anticipate any prolonged resistance. Instead, Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan and a nine-month-long war of independence was fought, during which time the Pakistani military engaged in one of the worst genocides in the post-WWII era:
By the time Pakistan unconditionally surrendered to the joint Bangladesh-Indian alliance in December (and 13 days after India entered the war), it is estimated that around three million people had been killed, 10 million refugees were displaced, and a few hundred thousand Bengali women had been raped by the Pakistani military – bringing an even more grotesque and vicious dimension to the savage war.
Particularly hard hit were religious minorities, especially Hindus. My father affirms the fact that had he not been allowed into the U.S., he would have been among those students killed in the first few days of the genocide.
Instead, he and my mother made the most of the gift of life, and settled in the United States, both getting PhDs and teaching across the country. They raised two children as American citizens, never letting us forget their ancestral homeland and the fundamental aspects of our cultural identity. They brought me to live in Bangladesh for seven years, off and on – an experience that has exposed me to a completely different world and brought me in touch with a people and culture that I cherish dearly. Along the way my mother also provided support for three of her siblings to immigrate to the U.S., giving up an excellent career in Bangladesh and restarting it in the U.S. to sponsor her youngest brother when he wished to immigrate here. They did these things while also becoming literary legends in their homeland where they have spent many years off and on working to improve the country they still feel fundamentally a part of.
America’s willingness to welcome the world’s best and brightest students to study within its borders saved many people like my parents from conflict and potential disaster, and in turn these immigrants have brought a wealth of intellectual capital to this country – increasingly to the detriment to their homelands with staggering ‘brain drain.’ The American ideal of a multicultural society – where all are free to practice (or not practice) any religion without fear of persecution – has also provided safe haven for persecuted minorities around the world who would otherwise be in fear of their lives. My parents are proof positive of the benefit this country gains for keeping its gates open to those who deserve its opportunities, and I intend to preach that lesson for as long as I live as an American citizen of Bengali descent.