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Bangladesh in 1971: Genocide of Whom and by Whom?

East Pakistani demands for justice and equal rights went to deaf ears. In Pakistan today there is a common tendency to blame India for what happened in 1971, although both the Qur’an and history has taught us that whatever befalls a community, it happens due to its internal weaknesses.

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Refugees stream across the River Ganges Delta at Kushtia, fleeing the violence in East Pakistan during the ongoing West Pakistani military campaign called Operation Searchlight. (AP Photo/Michel Laurent/ Smithsonian Mag)

Two US Congressmen, Mr. Chabot from Ohio (Republican) and Mr. Khanna from California (Democrat), have moved a resolution entitled “Recognizing the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971” in the House of Representative on October 14, 2022 calling that the House “recognizes that such atrocities against ethnic Bengalis and Hindus constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide.” Genocide is a serious crime and genocide was definitely committed during this fateful year but the question that one needs to ask is genocide of whom and by whom. There existed at least three communities at the time, but the resolution mentions only two – Bengalis (Muslims) and Hindus. It ignores Urdu-speaking non-Bengali Muslims known as Biharis because most of them migrated there in 1947 from the neighboring Indian state Bihar. More than fifty years later, one needs to analyze conditions of all three communities to find the truth behind this genocide claim.

An Extraordinary Year

The year 1971 was an extraordinary year, but explanation for events of this year demands some reference to the history of the whole region. The area (Bengal, Bihar and Orissa), rich both agriculturally and industrially, attracted immigrants and colonizers throughout the medieval period. In 1757, the English East India Company (EIC) occupied the territory and introduced a discriminatory policy to eliminate Muslims from socio-economic power by promoting Hindus, although in pre-British Bengal Hindus enjoyed equal opportunities. The British white supremacist Islamophobic approach well matched with the Hindu upper caste outlook. The Hindu rise in economic and political superiority soon resulted into Hindu cultural domination – a phenomenon that came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance. During the century long EIC rule, Muslims and Hindu lower caste suffered heavily. William Hunter, an EIC civil servant, described the condition of Muslims as “‘the Musalmans’ as ‘in all respects…a race ruined under British rule’.” The colonizers, however, seemed to have learned a lesson through this experience: after 1857, they did not destroy a whole community; they only created loyal native aristocrats. Muslims of Bengal, on their part, secured the separate electorate system – a system that safeguarded Muslim voting Muslim members of legislative assemblies in an environment where the Hindu majoritarian approach had threatened Muslim interests. This system eventually helped establishing Pakistan as a separate nation in 1947. However, due to the British discriminatory policy, Bengali Muslims hardly had any representation in top civil and military bureaucratic cadre in the newly established government in Pakistan. The 1971 catastrophe must be understood in this context.

United Pakistan Years

The twenty-four years history of Pakistan (1947-1971) is a tragic history for Muslims of the sub-continent. Pakistan’s idealism was lost and within a decade, elites in Pakistan fulfilled the objective of the former EIC official Lord Macaulay’s desire of creating agents of English taste (brown sahib) in colonial territories. They hardly recognized contributions of Bengali Muslims to the Pakistan Movement and made no gesture to create equal opportunities for East Pakistanis to catch up with their legitimate share in the country’s civil and military bureaucracy and in its economic growth. In fact, the only handful of those East Pakistani officials who had held higher positions in the British-Indian administration, were also deprived of further promotion. Justice Abu Saleh Muhammad Akram, the senior most serving judge to succeed the first chief justice of Pakistan’s Supreme Court did not do so. Instead, Justice Muhammad Munir became the second Chief Justice of Pakistan’s apex court. Justice Munir soon came up with a new term – the doctrine of necessity – to validate an executive action justifying the dissolution of Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly. East Pakistan was also deprived of their fair share in central government’s assets while the main source of foreign currency income came from an East Pakistani product, namely jute. This created a huge tension between the two regions of Pakistan. East Pakistani demands for justice and equal rights went to deaf ears. In Pakistan today there is a common tendency to blame India for what happened in 1971, although both the Qur’an and history has taught us that whatever befalls a community, it happens due to its internal weaknesses. More than half a century later, one needs to reflect and look back and identify its causes. Aside from historical causes noted above, one finds plenty of immediate weaknesses. We will highlight only a few here.

Moving toward Conflict

Faced with protests against his dictatorial rule, President Ayub Khan handed over power to the chief of armed forces, although under the constitution formulated under his own patronage, he was supposed to hand over power to the Speaker of the National Assembly. The Speaker happened to have been from East Pakistan. The new military general turned president, Yahya Khan, conducted a general election in 1970 but did not ensure a free and fair process. In East Pakistan, the Awami League (AL) – the party that secured most seats in the parliament – made a mockery of the system. It began with a huge propaganda campaign by publishing pamphlets with fake information about discrepancies between the two wings of Pakistan. Then they made sure that none of its political rivals could hold large public rallies anywhere in East Pakistan. On January 18, 1970 they attacked an opposition public rally (since January 1 public political activities were allowed) killing two and injuring hundreds in the open daylight in the capital city Dhaka. Neither the martial law administration, nor the civilian authorities took any action for exaggerating and spreading fake information about provincial inequalities. They also began fascist type attacks on political opponents. The AL had already a reputation of having a fascist approach to politics: In 1957, some of its leaders were involved in killing the Deputy Speaker of East Pakistan provincial Assembly during an ongoing session. Its student’s wing, East Pakistan Chhttra League, was also known for campus violence all over East Pakistan. By the end of Ayub regime, they began to receive support from International Islamophobic forces. A former KGB agent, Yuri Bezmenov, in an interview has revealed mechanisms of Soviet assistance to breakup Pakistan.

Years later, I found more information about how India was assisting secessionist elements in East Pakistan. In a casual discussion, an Indian friend of mine told me that he had received an offer from one of his neighbors that he could assist settling a personal dispute by supplying him with grenades. How he could have a military weapon in his personal possession, my friend wondered. His neighbor explained that when he was posted in East Pakistan during the last days of Ayub regime to work for Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Indian armed forces, he officially received those weapons. Since there was no accountability, he kept some when he retired. Many academic works on RAW would later confirm this claim. Nevertheless, as soon as the election results were out in late 1970, a drama of negotiations began between the military and political leaders. While these negotiations were still going on, extremist elements of AL began to target non-Bengalis all over East Pakistan; not only looting and vandalizing their properties but also sporadically killing them extremely cruelly. Both the martial law and civilian authorities maintained complete silence on these atrocities.

Beginning of the Carnage

The government of Yahya Khan decided to take the fatal military action on March 25, 1971. Reporting on their first night’s operation in a Dhaka University hostel, a Pakistani army officer describes in a recently self-published book:

In another room of the hostel, twenty stark naked young girls of West Pakistan and Bihari origin were found locked up, some since as long as fifteen days. In Jul 1971, I had the opportunity to speak to one of the NCOs of this unit, who was a part of the party, which recovered these unfortunate girls. This tough and hardy soldier shuddered at the memory and said that what they saw at that time would neither be forgotten nor forgiven by anyone present there. The young and innocent girls had been kept naked throughout their captivity and were sadistically tortured and brutally raped beyond all conceivable limits. The last addition to this group was a fifteen-year-old daughter of a Bihari businessman, who had been forcibly lifted from her house on 23 Mar, and during the last two days had been raped by at least 50 hoodlums. Five of these girls later expired due to internal injuries. It was only on witnessing such barbaric and inhuman episodes that some soldiers went berserk too and it became difficult for their officers to maintain the traditional control and discipline of the Army. In some instances, even some officers lost control over themselves. The intent here is to present some idea of the inherent stress of the situation and the extreme emotional trauma the troops were exposed to. Suffice it to say that for many soldiers as well as some officers, the spirit of revenge coupled with the opportunity to exact it proved too strong to be curbed merely by platitudes of the traditional Army discipline. [The Creation of Bangladesh: Witness to Carnage 1971 (p 217)]

Killings and rape of non-Bengali communities outside of Dhaka continued after March 25. A Bangladeshi academic, Taj Hashmi, has recently narrated his personal experience and developments in Bangladesh in the “Preface” of his book Fifty Years of Bangladesh, 1971-2021: Crisis of Culture, Development, Governance and Identity (Palgrave, MacMillan, 2022) as:

“At Sirajganj, a small town in northern Bangladesh before the Pakistani Army entered the town on 27 April 1971, I lost many Bihari school friends, who were burned alive or brutally killed by Bengali lynching mobs. Fazlul Haq Qureshi was one of them. He saved my life the day before he was killed along with all of his immediate family members. Almost 700 Bihari men, women and children met the same fate at Sirajganj alone, where I grew up.”

He has devoted one chapter in the book about the merciless massacre of Bihari Muslims in 1971. The Indian-American academic Sarmila Bose has perhaps conducted the most extensive and painstaking research on the subject. In 2006, in an article in The Telegraph (India) she captioned a picture as “The massacre may have been genocide, but it wasn’t committed by the Pakistan army. The dead men were non-Bengali residents of Jessore, butchered in broad daylight by in Bengali nationalists.” Bose has partially answered the question that we have asked in the title of this article. And yet the Congressmen have failed even to mention massacre of non-Bengalis in 1971. In an article writing for Aljazeera in 2011 after the publication of her major work on the subject she wrote:

As soon as I started to do systematic research on the 1971 war, I found that there was a problem with the story which I had grown up believing: from the evidence that emanated from the memories of all sides at the ground level, significant parts of the “dominant narrative” seem not to have been true. Many “facts” had been exaggerated, fabricated, distorted or concealed. Many people in responsible positions had repeated unsupported assertions without a thought; some people seemed to know that the nationalist mythologies were false and yet had done nothing to inform the public. I had thought I would be chronicling the details of the story of 1971 with which I had been brought up, but I found instead that there was a different story to be told.

The different story that is missing regarding events of 1971 is the story of the treatment of non-Bengalis. Why are these stories missing? Not only the Yahya regime – the regime that imposed a war on the total population of East Pakistan with its Operation Searchlight on March 25; it also made non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistani Bengalis vulnerable to aggression of the secessionist elements. By then most Bengali members of Pakistan armed forces either had revolted or were eliminated by Pakistan armed forces themselves. Only a handful remained loyal to Pakistan. Indiscriminate killings continued by all sides. The Yahya regime foolishly kicked out all foreign journalists from East Pakistan and heavily censored internal press. Subsequent governments in Pakistan seemed to have been shy to speak about it. Brig Karrar Ali Agha failed find a reputed Pakistani publisher for his work. Even to this day, the government of Pakistan has not released findings of its own appointed commission on the subject. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission report came into the public eye only when an Indian news channel leaked it.

I have always wondered about reports of non-Bengali massacres in various parts of then East Pakistan. Were these reports exaggerating the situation? As a college student at the time, I participated in many protest marches during the last days of Ayub Khan, and I witnessed growing tension but I could not have imagined such behavior against non-Bengalis. However, knowing the character of AL student wing, Chhattra League, I could not rule out the possibility of such atrocious behavior. Yet, reports of organized massacres all over East Pakistan struck me as extremely shocking. This reminds of many unknown faces participating in anti-Ayub rallies and my Indian friend’s assertion of the presence of RAW agents in East Pakistan makes sense to me now.

Genocide of Whom?

Does this mean we are suggesting that Pakistan armed forces did not commit genocidal crimes? Definitely not. However, genocide by definition demands evidences of organized killings and elimination of a community. Therefore, one should examine whether Pakistan army’s actions were in response to some of the atrocities committed by AL thugs earlier, as reported by Brig Karrar Ali. I have discussed the subject with Dr. Gregory Stanton, President of Genocide Watch, explained the situation in Bangladesh during the period, but he was insisting on Hindu genocide at the time. Referring to his Bangladeshi and Indian colleagues, he told me that any recognition of Bihari genocide would only undermine the genocide committed by the Pakistani troops. He also expressed his reluctance to conduct further inquiry on the subject. Are the interest groups politicizing the issue? Only a thorough examination of all three communities today has the potential of finding the answer. Such undertaking, however, may jeopardize India’s image as a “magnanimous power.”

Magnanimous India

The resolution placed at the US Congress wants us to recognize India’s “magnanimous role” in creating Bangladesh. Hundreds and thousands of Bangladeshis, particularly in the diaspora, are crying foul today because of India’s hegemonic control over their country. They forget that the geography of their country is the main factor that their leaders in 1947 opted for fighting for a homeland jointly with what became Pakistan. More than half a century later one should also seriously examine India’s role in the whole episode.

Views expressed are personal

Abdullah al-Ahsan

Abdullah al-Ahsan is former professor of comparative civilization in the Department of Polıtıcal Scıence and Internatıonal Relatıons at Istanbul Sehır Unıversıty. Earlier he has taught at International Islamic University Malaysia for almost three decades. Graduated from McGill University, Montreal, Canada, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, Ahsan has written and edited several books and many articles on the relationship between contemporary Islamic and Western civilizations. His books and articles have been translated into Arabic, Bengali, Bosnian, Turkish and Urdu. He now lives in Chicago.

1 Comment

  1. Your article gives a true insight on the subject of Genocide in former East Pakistan. As a Pakistani Army officer from East Pakistan, I fully concur in what you have diligently researched and written. I am witness to what happened to Biharis in Jessore and Khulna being present there throughout from November 1970 till surrender on December 17, 1971, with a brief period of absence from the scene.

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