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The Bangladesh Genocide (1971)
16 Dec 1971, Pakistan conceded defeat to Indian forces within a fortnight. It was perhaps the shortest war fought with the largest post WWII surrender. More than 90,000 Pakistani soldiers lay down their arms and surrendered as prisoners of war in Dhaka (previously called Dacca). But that was not the end of the humiliation, territory of East Pakistan seceded and a new nation Bangladesh was carved on the world map with the conclusion of the war. In the present day that's more or less how we remember 1971, as a year when the two South East Asian arch rival nations - India and Pakistan went into yet another war to settle scores. While Pakistan marks this as a black day for obvious reasons, for Indians on the other hand its a moment of pride and an occasion to cherish the valor of the mighty Indian forces. Ironically, neither pays heed to the sufferings, butchery and perhaps the most inhumane treatment meted to those on whose carcasses the foundations of Bangladesh was laid - The Bengali Hindus and Bengali Muslims of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Perhaps, just a deliberately forgotten 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 injustice meted on extreme scale and the hate crime that obliterated an entire populace. Crimes borne out of prejudice, religious divide and an inherent hatred that took shape of a pogrom or even worst. 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 facts highlighted by inquiry commissions setup both in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Its imperative to understand that due the censorship of media in Pakistan and the distant occurrence of these events, most of the Pakistanis (then West Pakistanis) were never apprised of what savagery was inflicted in East Pakistan. "Out of sight is out of mind", stands true in this case especially in view of the propaganda that followed and the web of concocted and fabricated theories that were spun around. One may come across several theories, thousands of books and literary work, op ed pieces etc on this topic both pro and anti. Hence to fully understand what actually happened during the 1971 crisis its essential to reference multiple sources. Reports from Indian media have deliberately not been referenced. Though it would be wrong on my part to neglect the Indian media in those times as it was on the forefront in highlighting the atrocities and even went ahead in exposing the fact that India was arming the rebellion in East Pakistan, despite Indira Gandhi's bold attempts to keep it covert and garner the world's attention towards the brutalities occurring in East Pakistan.
While one may surely argue that India's interference or even invasion of Pakistan was an attack on Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity however viewing this in one dimension would be totally incorrect. Sadly, India too remained indifferent towards the atrocities for a while as secessionist movements were on the rise in north eastern states of India and supporting East Pakistan rebellion would have fueled the agitation. However when influx of refugees started pouring into the bordering states, it became difficult to maintain the status quo. From economic standpoint, India was in no position to even cater to needs of its huge population and refugee crisis had only heightened the problem with too many extra mouths to feed. As it is the Hindu-Muslim and India-Pakistan animosity aspect also had to be kept in mind to avoid internal conflicts. Hence eventually a consensus was reached on supporting the rebellion as an immediate war was not an option. In fact India officially entered the war only post the pre-emptive air strikes on its air base by the Pakistan forces. While trying to understand this conflict it becomes amply clear that there is a unanimity on occurrence of hate crimes, even though the actual number of atrocities still remain disputable. Irrespective of whatever the number may be, the fact remains that it doesn't exonerate the Pakistan army from the bloodshed and atrocities in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).
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.Gregory H. Stanton President, Genocide Watch
Censorship of Pakistani Press
The Seeds of 1971
The end of British colonial rule in India led to 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 Jinah (Pakistan's founder) would have preffered that proposition is only because of the sheer number of people that joined the chorus of separate nation of Pakistan and added weight to Jinnah's demand. Pakistan that was essentially carved out for 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 majority of bureaucracy confined there. Naturally the division and exploitation of resources, manpower and services was in accordance. East Pakistan even though larger in terms of population i.e (more than 60% of total population) and rich in resources and production value, felt the brunt. The west remained first preference for budget allocation, job creation and even resource utilization through the years. The East Pakistani's although majorly Muslims (Bengali & Bihari) 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 Pakistani fellow civilians (Punjabis, Pashtun, Sindhi etc) and moreover they felt 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 when 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 movement of opposition - 'The Language Movement', that reached its climax in 1952. The subsequent martial laws worsened the situation. In the years to follow, the unrest and opposition only strengthened with mass support and in due course of time it had catalyzed the assertion of a Bengali national identity. In Dec 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 death toll was more 200,000 civilians with the low-lying areas completely washed off . During such tragic times east Pakistan was yet again let down by Pakistani regime as major part of the relief and rehabilitation was carried out by foreign countries/agencies (mostly US, Britain and Soviet Union) with minimal assistance from the west. 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 in the elections that followed. Awami League garnered a clear majority sweeping 167 of 169 seats putting them in the driver's seat to lead the nation. They were however deliberately barred from forming a government despite the overwhelming majority. When the talks with military leadership and western opposition party failed, infuriated and let down, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman (leader of Awami League) openly reached out to East Pakistanis to launch a civil disobedience movement. At this juncture, there was no turning back! The resentment took shape of a revolt and only grew stronger and violent with passing days.
The green of East Pakistan will have to be painted red.— Maj Gen Rao Farman Ali (Pakistani Army)
Operation Searchlight and Genocide That Followed
Fearing the rebellion, on the evening of 25 March, Pakistani forces launched a pre-emptive strike under the notorious Operation Searchlight. Their targets were well defined that included Awami League leaders and supporters, Hindu community, rebel groups, intellectuals and students. The Pakistani military was on full offensive as they drove through the city. The Dhaka University (then Dacca University) became witness of the first war crimes as Pakistani troops barged into the campus on March 25th 1971. 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. 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 miserable civilians, it was the beginning of the end. Status quo for the months to follow.
A reign of terror had begun and thousands had been slaughtered - innocent along with allegedly guilty. Forced disappearances became a common phenomenon. Initially it was about seeking selective targets but later on anyone suspected of being actual or potential rebel or secessionist became victim of indiscriminate killings. Fire squads would round up 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 of things to come. 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. At this point, its imperative to mention what happened with the Hindu population of East Pakistan was nothing short of a pogrom. The army-men would even go to the extent of checking for the 'musalmani' or 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 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 wreck havoc though 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 refugee 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 Pakistani army to locate the Mukti Bahini rebels, 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 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 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. Its 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 and if it wasn't for the Indian army strictly adhering to norms of Geneva Convention and ensuring the protection of the surrendered soldier and the collaborators, there would most likely have been a total annihilation. It is for this very reason also that Indian intervention in Pakistan is often viewed as a humanitarian one.
"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."
Anthony Mascerenhas (Pakistani Journalist)
"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."Lt Col. Mansoorul Haq, GSO-I, Division, Pakistan (Witness No. 260, Hamoodur Commission Report)
Facts & Figures
- An estimated +300,000 East Pakistanis were killed (primarily Bengali Hindus, Awami League leaders & sympathizers, students and Intelligentsia) under the infamous Operation Searchlight by Pakistani Army. Bangladesh govt 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.
- 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 twentieth century
- An estimated 10 Million refugees flooded into bordering states of India to escape brutalities by Pakistani army. Just four months post the onslaught, India recorded refugee count comprising - 5,330,000 Hindus, 443,000 Muslims and 150,000 from other groups
- If it wasn't for Archer Blood's (American Consul General at Dhaka Consulate in East Pakistan) famous Blood Telegram and perhaps the most elaborate account of the atrocities and the pogrom or the brave reporting of some foreign and Pakistani correspondents, 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.
Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands— President Yaya Khan
The sole purpose of taking this topic up separately is to highlight the inhuman treatment inflicted upon the Bengali women by the oppressors and their silent suffering and supreme sacrifice in the war of liberation. The fact that as many as 200,000 - 400,000 women were raped makes it one of the worst cases of genocidal rapes in the documented history of human civilization but there's more to it and academics and intelligentsia all over the world agree that this was perhaps the first time rape was consciously deployed as a 'weapon of war', with sole purpose of breaking the morale of the secessionist forces. There are plenty of accounts of women picked up at will by the Pakistani soldiers and repeatedly raped for weeks and months. Some were tied to trees while others were taken to the army camps that became 'harems', where savagery was unleashed upon them. Many succumbed to the torture and starvation in these rape camps. Its ironical that despite the harrowing tales and evidences 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 and to help them escape the social stigma, he described them as 'Birangona' or 'brave women'. But this move that was meant to restore honour, dignity and highlight courage didn't even help prevent their ostracism from the society. Many were killed by their husbands or committed suicide unable to bear the pain, few even murdered their half-Pakistani babies themselves. There are also references where some women scared to go back home after being held captive in Pakistani rape camps, chose a life of molestation, begging their captors to take them along. 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. Board had two prime objectives: (1) To organise clinical services wherever possible in Bangladesh to provide medical treatment to the rape victims; and (2) To plan, organise and establish facilities and institutions, specially vocational training centres, 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 organised in several parts of the country. Though, a lot of of these women had already concieved or were due which added to the government woes. These war babies were just as unwanted as their mother. Government as well as foreign agencies/organisations facilitated adoption camps were setup for facilitating adoption for these war babies. Canada was among one of the first countries to undertake adoptions followed by 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 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 mothers of raped children were treated in the worst possible way by many of 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.
"Rape in Bangladesh had hardly been restricted to beauty". Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted."Susan Brownmiller Excerpts: 'Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape'
With regards to human right violation and atrocities of 1971, is it time for Pakistan to introspect?
Sometimes Words Don't Suffice
The Indian sub-continent unfortunately has constantly remained a witness to such gruesome killings of varying proportions. Here are a few flashback pictures from our dark past to jolt us of our acquired state of trance and make us question our own conscience.
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)
Millions of souls nineteenseventyone
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?
Excerpts from Allen Ginsberg's 'September on Jessore Road'
Should Pakistan instead of being in denial, issue an official apology to Bangladesh?
The Inquiry Commissions & Trials
Till date there is no clarity on the extent of brutalities and economic losses through 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 though the numbers may seem a bit inflated, still the mass killings by Pakistani Army and the pogrom carried out is easily comparable with the holocaust against Jews or the Rwanda genocide. No substantial role of either the Geneva Convention or of International Court of Justice was observed. Let's take look into the inquiries and investigations that followed post the genocide in the respective nations:
Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission was constituted in December 1971 by then president of Pakistan Zulfikar Ali Bhutto with the prime objective of uncovering the reason for Pakistan's surrender. War crimes were not even the secondary preference. 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. 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 special court for further trials however that was never adhered too. Pakistan remained in denial mode. The supplementary report was leaked in 2000 and was finally declassified by Pakistani government after three decades, whereas the original still remains classified.
Immediately post independence and release of Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from Pakistani prison, the newly formed government of Bangladesh enacted the Collaborators Act (1972) and the International Crime Act of 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 in 1975, it was only chaos that followed emboldening the religious zealots and paving way for fanaticism.
International Crimes Tribunal (Bangladesh) was setup in 2009 to investigate and prosecute those accused of the 1971 genocide including the Pakistan army and their local collaborators Razakar, Al-Badr, Al-Shams during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. 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 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."
All the 90,000 POWs (prisoners of war) held by India, including those accused of war crimes were released and repatriated to Pakistan post the tripartite Delhi Agreement between Bangladesh, Pakistan and India in return for Pakistan's recognition of Bangladesh. No trials or inquiry were conducted on Indian soil.
I have given you independence, now go and preserve it.— Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
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/ Oppression of East Pakistan https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4aVyHaIGg-k Genocide first globally highlighted by Anthony Mascarenhas
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-16207201 References and elaborate accounts of genocide Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide http://www.genocidebangladesh.org/
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
Trials of 1971 - Alzajeera https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWlTVRPFQDM
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