The Bangladesh Genocide (1971)
16 December 1971, Pakistan conceded defeat to the Indian forces. A short war that concluded within a fortnight with more than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers surrendering as prisoners of war in Dhaka (previously called Dacca). This became the infamous largest post-WWII surrender. To add to the insult, the territory of East Pakistan seceded and a new nation Bangladesh was carved on the world map. In the present day, that's more or less how we remember 1971. A year when the two South East Asian arch-rival nations - India and Pakistan went to war, to settle scores. While Pakistan marks this as a black day, on the contrary for the Indians its a moment of pride and an occasion to cherish the valor of their victorious forces. Ironically, neither pays heed to the sufferings, the butchery and perhaps the most inhumane treatment meted to those on whose carcasses the foundation of Bangladesh was laid. The fallen and forgotten Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims) of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Perhaps, just a deliberately omitted or rather buried chapter of that disgraceful era.
This hub revisits those tragic times of 1971 before the secession of Bangladesh. Nowhere is it intended to sensationalize a past event but instead create awareness towards the injustice meted on an extreme scale and the hate crimes and the brute force that obliterated an entire populace. Crimes, that were borne out of prejudice, religious and sectarian divide and an inherent hatred that took shape of a pogrom. References have been taken by carefully and thoroughly analyzing the study material made available through several credible sources. Facts and data highlighted by independent and foreign media sources, data made available via government sources and the facts highlighted by inquiry commissions set up both in Bangladesh and Pakistan. It's imperative to understand that due to censorship of the media and the distant occurrence of these events, most of the population of West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) were never truly apprised of what savagery was inflicted in East Pakistan. What followed the war was essentially a web of concocted and fabricated theories and a make belief obscurantism. One may easily come across several such references, thousands of books, intellectual research, op-ed pieces etc with exhaustive information making it difficult to separate facts from fiction. Hence, in order to understand what actually happened during the 1971 crisis, it's essential to reference multiple sources. Reports from Indian media have deliberately not been referenced here. Though it would be unfair to neglect the role of Indian media, as it too contributed a great deal in highlighting the atrocities. It even went ahead in exposing India's role in arming the rebellion in East Pakistan, despite Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's bold attempts to keep it covert and garner the world's attention towards the brutalities occurring in East Pakistan.
One may surely argue that India's interference and the invasion of East Pakistan was an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, viewing this in one dimension would be totally incorrect, rather unfair. Sadly, India too remained indifferent towards the atrocities for a while as secessionist movements were gaining momentum in the north-eastern states of India. And even a tacit support for the East Pakistan rebellion would have easily fuelled the agitation. However, when the influx of refugees started pouring into India's bordering states, it became difficult to maintain the status quo. From an economic standpoint, India itself was poverty-stricken and in no position to even fully cater to its domestic needs. The refugee crisis had only heightened the problem, with too many extra mouths to feed. From an internal security standpoint, the Hindu-Muslim and India-Pakistan animosity aspects had to be kept in mind to avoid any communal flair-ups and internal conflicts. Eventually a consensus was reached on supporting the rebellion as an immediate war even though tabled as a suggestion, was not a feasible option. In fact, India officially entered the war only post the pre-emptive air strikes on its air bases by PAF (Pakistan Air Force). Further, while trying to understand this conflict it becomes amply clear that there is a unanimity on the occurrence of hate crimes, even though the actual number of atrocities still remains disputable. Irrespective of whatever the extent may have been, the fact remains that it doesn't exonerate Pakistan from all the bloodshed and the atrocities in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
The Seeds Of 1971
The end of British colonial rule in India led to the creation of Islamic state of Pakistan under the two nation theory. The division though was a little unfair from Pakistan's perspective. East and West Pakistan were geographically separated by around 1500 miles of Indian territory. But in hindsight, why Mohd. Ali Jinnah (Pakistan's founder) would have opted for that proposition is primarily because of the sheer number of people that joined the chorus of a separate nation of Pakistan and added weight to Jinnah's demand. Pakistan that was essentially carved out for the Indian Muslims was a bifurcated nation not just geographically but there also existed a deeper socio-religious divide between the east and west. West Pakistan became the power edifice with armed forces, economic infrastructure and the majority of bureaucracy confined there. Naturally, the division and exploitation of resources, manpower, and services were in accordance. East Pakistan even though larger in terms of population (more than 60% of total population) and rich in resources and production value, felt the brunt. The west remained first preference for the budget allocation, job creation and even resource utilization through the years that followed. The East Pakistan was a Muslim majority (Bengali & Bihari) but had a sizable Hindu minority (Bengali), who constituted 16-18% of existing 75 million population of the east. The Bengali populace often due to their dark skin and short stature were discriminated upon by their West counterparts (Punjabis, Pashtun, Sindhi etc) and moreover, treated like second-class citizens.They occupied lower ranks in the armed forces and were denied entry into the more elite navy and air force in a brazen act of discrimination.
In 1948, Urdu was forced upon as an official language disregarding the fact that East Pakistan was almost entirely Bengali speaking. People were enraged and the conflict for the first time took shape of a movement of opposition - 'The Language Movement', that reached its climax in 1952. The subsequent martial laws only worsened the situation. In the years to follow, the unrest and opposition strengthened with mass support and in due course of time, it catalyzed the assertion of a 'Bengali' national identity. In December 1970, for the first time, Pakistan was all set to go to polls with President Yaya Khan paving way for a democratically elected government to take over the existing military junta. However, a month before the election a tragedy struck. East Pakistan was devastated by the deadly Bhola cyclone that left behind a trail of death & massive destruction. As estimated by relief workers, the death toll was in excess of 200,000 civilians with the low-lying areas completely washed off. Even during such tragic times, East Pakistan was let down by the Pakistani regime. The major part of the relief and rehabilitation was carried out by foreign countries/agencies (mostly US, Britain and the Soviet Union) with minimal assistance from West Pakistan. This perhaps served as the final nail in the coffin. The people responded back by giving an overwhelming majority to the nationalist Awami League that contested against the West Pakistani PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) in the elections that followed. Awami League garnered a clear majority sweeping 167 of 169 seats, placing them in the driver's seat to lead the nation. Despite the overwhelming majority they were deliberately barred from forming the government and unfruitful negotiations followed. When the talks with military leadership and the opposition party (PPP) failed, infuriated and let down, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (leader of the Awami League) reached out to the East Pakistan populace to launch a civil disobedience movement. At this juncture, there was no turning back! The resentment took shape of a revolt, that only grew stronger and violent with passing days.
Censorship of Pakistani Press
Operation Searchlight And Genocide That Followed
Within a short span of time, the civil disobedience movement had garnered massive support. Fearing a rebellion, on the evening of March 25, 1971, the Pakistani forces launched the notorious 'Operation Searchlight'. Their targets were well defined that included Awami League leaders and supporters, the Hindu minority, rebel groups, intellectuals and the students. The Pakistani military was on the full offensive as they drove through the city. The Dhaka University (then Dacca University) became a witness of the first war crimes as Pakistani troops barged into the campus. Several student and professors were lined up and gunned down. Iqbal Hall, rumored to be a weapons stockpile for the Bengali nationalists was blasted by mortar fire. The inside of the hall was scorched. The loud noise of explosions and the clatter of machine-gun fire rocked the silence of the night. Even tanks were deployed that kept pounding the identified buildings. Pro Awami League newspaper Ittefaq's building was one such example. An utterly devastating sight all around, the smell of death was in the air. For the unarmed and helpless civilians, it was the beginning of the end as the atrocities only went brutal in the days that followed.
A reign of terror had begun and thousands were slaughtered - both innocent and the alleged guilty. Forced disappearances became a common phenomenon. Initially it was about seeking selective targets but later on, anyone suspected of being an actual or potential rebel or a sympathiser, faced the wrath. Fire squads would round up people and kill at will. While most of the time the bodies were dumped into mass graves, at times they were deliberately left to rot in the open, as an obvious message to the dissenters. It was rage and there was not even a drop of compassion. Battered, bayoneted, chopped, incinerated or shot at multiple times were perhaps the few inhuman ways that the dissenters were being dealt with. While the indiscriminate killings continued, the Hindu population of East Pakistan faced an existential crisis, nothing short of a pogrom. The army-men would even go to the extent of checking for the circumcision during their capture missions to segregate Hindus and later mercilessly execute them. Hindu dominated areas were deliberately targeted. Early in the crackdown, the butchery carried out in Jaganath Hall which was a Hindu dormitory was a classic example of a pogrom. The depth of racial hatred among the west especially the dominant Punjabis can be ascertained from the fact that there was a general consensus that Hindus had made the Bengali Muslims less pure as Pakistanis. Terming them as 'Kafirs', their slaughter was considered as ethnic cleansing. There were verbal instructions to eliminate Hindus, although Lt. General A K Niazi later rubbished that allegation.
As the army continued to wreak havoc through the length and breadth of East Pakistan, hustling and bustling areas were reduced to ghost towns either due to mass killings or they had been abandoned by those seeking refuge in India. Day in, day out there were kill and burn missions with looting, arson, rounding up of suspected rebels or sympathizers and picking-up women at will. Bihari Muslims or 'Biharis', who had migrated from Bihar during the partition were taken into confidence and used as informers by the Pakistani army to locate the Mukti Bahini rebels, the Awami leaders and also identify the Hindu dominated areas. Pro-Pakistani militia or auxiliary forces like Razaker, Al-Badr, Al-shams were also created to provide information, assistance and they too physically participated in the horrendous atrocities in East Pakistan thus becoming collaborators of the war crime.
Its also essential to point out that during this period of secessionist movement or liberation war, atrocities of equally heinous nature including killing and rape was also committed by Mukti Bahini rebels and Bengali nationalists. Mostly atrocities were reported in Chittagong and Khulna. These number again vary into thousands and primarily these included Biharis, whose loyalty was suspected. As for the Biharis who were estimated at around 1.5 million, their sufferings never truly ended. Till date, Biharis are languishing in refugee camps in Bangladesh. They are essentially stateless people as neither Pakistan nor Bangladesh is willing to accept them as citizens. It's also worth mentioning that during the final phase of the liberation war it was a commendable job on the part of Indian forces who avoided another pogrom from taking place. The minorities especially Biharis who became the collaborators of Pakistani army were sure to face the wrath of the Bengalis especially the Mukti Bahini. If it wasn't for the Indian army strictly adhering to norms of Geneva Convention and ensuring the protection of the collaborators as well as the surrendered soldiers, there would most likely have been a total annihilation. It is for this very reason also that the Indian intervention in Pakistan is often viewed as a humanitarian one.
I saw bodies rotting in the fields. “I saw a decomposing body left in a main street, obviously left there as an example.”— Scott Butcher (Officer, US Dhaka Consulate)
The green of East Pakistan will have to be painted red.— Maj. Gen. Rao Farman Ali (Pakistan Army)
The Exploitation Of The Bengali Women
The sole purpose of taking up this topic separately is to highlight the heinous crimes and the inhuman treatment inflicted upon the Bengali women by the oppressors and their silent suffering and supreme sacrifice in the war of liberation. Although not ascertained, but as many as 200,000 - 400,000 women were sexually assaulted and raped, which makes it one of the worst cases of genocidal rapes in the documented history of human civilization. However, there's more to it and academics and intelligentsia all over the world agree that, rape was consciously deployed as a 'weapon of war'. The sole intent was breaking the morale of the secessionist forces, essentially the Mukti Bahini. There are plenty of accounts of women picked up at will by the Pakistani soldiers and of army camps becoming 'harems'. The survivors account are explicit and speak of, how many victims succumbed to the torture and starvation inside these camps. It's ironical that despite the harrowing tales and some of the evidence available, there still continues to be an air of disbelief around this inhumane chapter of the Bangladeshi liberation war. Especially from a Pakistani perspective.
Post the creation of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib personally involved himself in reintegrating these women into the society. In order to help them escape the social stigma, he referred to them as 'Birangona' or brave women. But this was perhaps too little to restore their honour, dignity, let alone highlight their courage. On the contrary, it didn't even help prevent their ostracism from their families and the society. Many were murdered in cold blood by their own while many traumatized victims embraced death. Few were even compelled to kill their half-Pakistani babies. Even though the war ended, but their sufferings were far from over. Perhaps one of the first and most important, initiative that the government of Bangladesh took was, the creation of a body called Bangladesh Women’s Rehabilitation Board (BWRB) on 18 February 1972. The BWRB had two prime objectives. First, to organise clinical services wherever possible in Bangladesh to provide medical treatment to the rape victims. Secondly to plan, organise and establish facilities and institutions, especially vocational training centers, to effectively rehabilitate thousands of destitute women in need of immediate help. Destitute women were not necessarily ‘violated women’ but were considered to be ‘war-affected’ - who had either lost their husbands or the bread earners of the family or had lost their property during the war. In line with the objective, abortions camps were also organised in several parts of the country. Though, a lot of these women had already conceived or were due which only added to the government woes. These war babies were just as unwanted as their mothers. The government, as well as foreign agencies/organisations, then organised adoption camps for facilitating the adoption of these war babies. Canada was among one of the first countries to undertake adoptions followed by the US as well as many European countries.
Dr. Bina D'Costa, who focuses on human rights, justice and security issues in South Asia was amongst the few on the forefront of taking up this cause. She even managed to track down the Australian obstetrician, Geoffrey Davis, who was brought to Dhaka in February 1972 by the London based International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and the United Nations. Davis was tasked with performing late-term abortions and facilitating the large-scale international adoption of the war babies born to Bangladeshi women. He remained there for a period of six months. According to Dr. Davis, these women were treated in the worst possible way by their husbands or family members. He says, “And the men didn’t want to talk about it at all! Because according to them the women had been defiled. If they had been defiled they had no status at all. They might as well be dead. And men killed them. I couldn’t believe it!” Rape victims suffered from both sides. While interviewing him Bina was also apprised of the strategy of the Pakistani soldiers. Davis describes, “They’d keep the infantry back and put artillery ahead and they would shell the hospitals and schools. And that caused absolute chaos in the town. And then the infantry would go in and begin to segregate the women. Apart from little children, all those that were sexually matured would be segregated. And then the women would be put in the compound under guard and made available to the troops.”
Considering the shame that these women had to live with, despite the mental and physical torture they went through and the ostracism they were subjected to both by their own as well as the society, it wouldn't be wrong to say that they did bear the greatest burden of the war. And unfortunately, they were buried down in the history as mere collateral damages. The deep-seated patriarchy and the sham of conservative society ensured suppression of these voices and trampled their demand for justice.
Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands— President Yaya Khan
Some Facts & Figures
- An estimated +300,000 East Pakistanis were killed (primarily Mukti Bahini rebels, Bengali Hindus, Awami League leaders & sympathizers, students and Intelligentsia) under the infamous Operation Searchlight launched by the Pakistani Army. The Bangladesh Government, however, puts the number as high as 3 Million while the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission, an official Pakistan Government investigation, put the figure as low as 26,000
- Around 200,000 - 400,000 women of varying age groups were raped, constituting one of the most heinous rape-crimes in the history. Often described as genocidal rape
- The Guinness Book of Records included these atrocities amongst one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century
- An estimated 10 Million refugees flooded into bordering states of India to escape brutalities by the Pakistani army. Just four months post the onslaught, India recorded refugee count comprising of 5,330,000 Hindus, 443,000 Muslims, and 150,000 other minority groups
- Credit goes to the brave reporting of some of the foreign and Pakistani correspondents. A special mention to Archer Blood's (American Consul General at Dhaka Consulate in East Pakistan) famous Blood Telegram and tireless efforts to highlight the atrocities and the pogrom in East Pakistan. Without all their efforts, the world perhaps would never have been apprised with an insider account of Pakistan's cowardice and the murder of democracy by brute force and crushing dissent
With regards to human right violation and atrocities of 1971, is it time for Pakistan to introspect?
Sometimes Words Don't Suffice
Religious and sectarian divide have time and again insitigated mobs to spill blood in this part of the world. In fact, the entire Indian sub-continent itself has remained a witness to such gruesome killings that have often been religiously and politically motivated. They remain the talk of the town for a while but soon collective amnesia takes over and it's business as usual.
The Inquiry Commissions, Trials & Post War Scenario
Till date, there is no clarity on the extent of brutalities and economic losses incurred through the destruction of properties and the looting and arson that followed in East Pakistan post initiation of the brutal Operation Searchlight by Pakistani army on 25th March 1971. Even if the numbers may seem a bit inflated, still the mass killings by Pakistani Establishment and the pogrom carried out by its forces is easily comparable with the holocaust against Jews or the Rwanda genocide. Here's a brief look at some the developments that followed post the liberation war:
In the aftermath of a humiliating defeat to their arch rival, military dictator Yaya Khan took responsibility and stepped down. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took charge with immediate effect. An official inquiry was ordered and the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission was constituted with the prime objective of uncovering the reason for Pakistan's surrender. War crimes perhaps were not even a secondary preference, which became evident in the coming days. The commission began its proceedings in Rawalpindi on the 1st February 1972 and recorded evidence of 213 witnesses on camera, including military personnel and civilians. The first report was tabled the same year. The inquiry was reopened in 1974 and 73 bureaucrats and top military officers were interrogated. While examining the witnesses it became apparent that there was a sense of moral degeneration among several high ranked Pakistani officials and the fact that, with the past, martial laws, the lust among these men for wine, women, as well as land and property, only intensified. The same was quoted in the report. It also recommended setting up a special court for further trials however that was never adhered to. The supplementary report was leaked in 2000 and was finally declassified by Pakistani government after three decades, whereas the original still remains classified. Pakistan remained in denial mode and the rest is history.
After being released from the Pakistani prison, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took charge as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh on January 10, 1972. Under his leadership, the newly formed government of Bangladesh enacted the Collaborators Act (1972) followed by the International Crime Act (1973), that barred re-entry of any collaborators into Bangladesh. As many as 37,000 collaborators were arrested out of which 26,000 were pardoned and released in general amnesty as no grave charges were proved against them. However post a coup resulting in Sheikh Mujib's assassination on August 15, 1975, it was only chaos that followed, emboldening the religious zealots and paving way for fanaticism.
Decades later in 2009, the International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh was set up to investigate and prosecute those accused of the 1971 genocide. Those accused included, the Pakistan army and their local collaborators Razakar, Al-Badr, Al-Shams. Five opposition politicians including 4 Jamat e Islamia leaders along with a senior leader of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have been hanged since 2013 post convicted by the tribunal. Abdul Kader Mullah, one of Jamat's top leader was the first politician to be found guilty by the country's Supreme Court. Islamist party leader Motiur Rahman Nizami was also amongst those hanged, despite severe criticism from opposition parties and religious groups as well as Pakistan. The Tribunal though has had its share of criticism of not being in line with international procedural standards and accused of being politically motivated.
From a Bangladeshi perspective the trauma of 1971 sought nothing less than a death penalty and hence their sentiments have strongly been against the amnesty enjoyed by the perpetrators. And they keep echoing time and again as a sudden outburst. In the recently conducted seminar on 25th Mar 2017 marking the 'Genocide day', Bangladesh' law minister Anisul Huq was quoted saying "The government will petition the International Criminal Court to direct Pakistan to hand over the "195 prisoners of war" (POWs) to Bangladesh to face trial for the alleged war crimes committed during the Liberation War of 1971."
On July 2, 1972, the governments of Pakistan and India signed the supposed peace treaty in the form of the 'Simla Agreement'. All the +90,000 POWs (prisoners of war) held by India, including those accused of war crimes were released and repatriated to Pakistan. The agreement itself was a comprehensive blueprint to normalize the relations and to work towards the establishment of durable peace, friendship and cooperation.
While it's pretty obvious where we stand on that but nonetheless, it became a bone of contention ever since. In retrospective, it seems that Prime Minister Gandhi made a wise decision. The nation's welfare, the cost of war, the pressure of 10 million refugees and the added cost of more than 90,000 POWs would have been the prime factors that led to the decision back then. Besides one has to also account for the back-channel negotiations that facilitated the release of Mujib Rahman, who was on a death row in a Pakistani prison.
I have given you independence, now go and preserve it.— Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
Should Pakistan instead of being in denial, issue an official apology to Bangladesh?
Some Excerpts and Specific References
Excerpt from Anthony Mascarenhas' Article, 'Genocide' in London's Sunday Times dated June 13, 1971
"I have witnessed the brutality of 'kill and burn missions' as the army units, after clearing out the rebels, pursued the pogrom in the towns and villages. I have seen whole villages devastated by 'punitive action'. And in the officer's mess at night, I have listened incredulously as otherwise brave and honorable men proudly chewed over the day's kill.
'How many did you get?' The answers are seared in my memory."
Excerpt from 'Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape' by Susan Brownmiller
"Rape in Bangladesh had hardly been restricted to beauty". Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted."
Statement as recorded by Lt Col. Mansoorul Haq, GSO-I, Division, Pakistan (Witness No. 260, Hamoodur Commission Report)
"Any Bengali, who was alleged to be a Mukti Bahini or Awami Leaguer, was being sent to Bangladesh - a code name for death without trial, without detailed investigations and without any written order by any authorized authority."
Gregory H. Stanton, President, Genocide Watch
"There are eight stages of a genocide. The last of the eight stages is denial. All of them are evident in the genocide committed by the Pakistan forces."
Excerpt from Allen Ginsberg's 'September on Jessore Road'
Millions of souls nineteen seventy one
homeless on Jessore road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan
Where are our tears? Who weeps for the pain?
Where can these families go in the rain?
Jessore Road’s children close their big eyes
Where will we sleep when Our Father dies?
The Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission Report 1974 (Pakistan)
Transcript of 2002 Interview of Dr. Geoffrey Davis with Dr. Bina D'Costa http://opinion.bdnews24.com/2010/12/15/1971-rape-and-its-consequences
Genocide first globally highlighted by Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-16207201
References and elaborate accounts of genocide, Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass
A detailed account of the events of 1971 and the aftermath of the tragedy http://www.genocidebangladesh.org/
1971 War: Witness to history http://herald.dawn.com/news/1153304
Trials and Judgement by International Crimes Tribunal(Bangladesh)
Research Papers - Dr. M A Hassan, Convener, War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, Bangladesh Government of India Archives
Bina D'Costa and Sara Hossain papers Redress For Sexual Violence Before The International Crimes Tribunal In Bangladesh: Lessons From History, And Hopes For The Future
Mustafa Chowdhury Research Papers on War Babies of Bangladesh
Ministry of External Affairs India, Simla Agreement
© 2017 Ashutosh Joshi