(part of The Darkness Visible series)
(During the War in 1971 the dead were often left unburied.)
“Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands.”
~ President of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan
The war for independence that led to Bangladesh being created out of what had been "East Pakistan" was beyond brutal. This scar upon Bengali past has never truly healed and the wound it leaves upon Bangladesh is often readily visible. On February 5th this wound was ripped wide open as protesters took to Shahbagh Square to show their discontent with the verdict given by the International Crimes Tribunal. The verdict handed down had dealt with the numerous crimes committed during the genocide of 1971. And once again, in the Bengali view at least, the world had sided with Pakistan.
But what really happened in 1971?
"It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland."
~ as reported by Time magazine, accredited to US officials.
When Bangladeshis helped elect a nationalist leader, Sheikh Mujib, the Pakistani ruling class decided they had had enough of the "downtrodden races" in East Pakistan". Almost over night the Pakistani military imprisoned Sheikh Mujib and began a campaign of genocide the world was not ready to face. But the storm that was about to be unleashed was not new... it was in fact easily predictable.
When Pakistan had been cut loose from British rule Bangladesh had been rolled into Pakistani command under the impression that common religious beliefs could bind the two ethnic groups. The racial factor of the unholy union was completely overlooked by Brits and Pakistani officials alike. Britain wanted to be free of the hassles and monetary drag that the region had become. Pakistan wanted control of the region for the resources and power that came with colonial style rule.
Racist views on the part of Pakistani leaders was evident from the start. Politicians and military personnel alike were openly hostile to the "east Bengalis" they had managed to gain control over. And it was this persistent grinding of their boots upon the neck of Bangladesh that eventually led to bloodshed. Yet this is a fact that Pakistan to this day refuses to admit.
"East Bengalis…have all the inhibitions of downtrodden races … their popular complexes, exclusiveness and … defensive aggressiveness … emerge from this historical background.”
~ Pakistani General Ayub Khan, 1967
(Stray Dogs Feeding Upon Unburied Bengali Corpse)
When the genocide was initially launched the Pakistani forces set out following the Turkish example laid out in Armenia. During the initial phase of the genocide the Pakistani forces targeted teachers, students, politicians, and community leaders. This was meant to break the Bengali social structure and deprive East Pakistan of its ability to mount a sophisticated form of resistance. It was the same methods employed by The Young Turks, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao. It is the exact method that has been proven successful in every genocide the Pakistani leadership had seen occur prior to 1971. Thus it is evident that the Pakistani government not only knew what they were doing but was intentionally taking on the systematic slaughter of Bangladesh.
From the very beginning Pakistani military officials had already set a quota for just how many Bengali civilians they wanted to have killed by the end of the year. The acting President of Pakistan, General Yahya Khan, ordered his troops to kill at least three million Bangladeshi civilians so as to "bring the others under control". From that point it was clear that the military would continue to use methods indicative of ethnic cleansing to clear vast areas of Bangladesh and cull the overall population.
The second wave of the genocide came as Pakistani troops established "rape camps" and permitted troops on patrol to carry out gang rapes of any Bengali women or girls they came across. This portion of the genocide once again mirrored the heinous acts carried out by The Young Turks during the Armenian Genocide. This act of demanding that Bengali females "offer comfort" for the occupying Pakistani troops was a double bladed sword. First it offered Pakistani troops a perverted moral boost as they were given permission to rape any girl of any age they desired. And ultimately it allowed Pakistani officials to cut the birth rate across the Bengali population.
The second part of using rape as a weapon was complicated in its intent. By bringing "shame" upon the Bengali female victim the Pakistani forces could multiply their initial crime. If the victim was not raped to death and survived the camps or rape patrols she would be forced to live with the crime. This meant that she was forced to hide her "shame" from her family and community or face being ostracized by her own family. In extreme cases the rape victim could face exile from her community or even the rare "honor killing". All of this was known by Pakistani officials and intended by employing rape as a method of ethnic cleansing.
"In East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) [General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan and his top generals] also planned to murder its Bengali intellectual, cultural, and political elite. They also planned to indiscriminately murder hundreds of thousands of its Hindus and drive the rest into India. And they planned to destroy its economic base to insure that it would be subordinate to West Pakistan for at least a generation to come. This despicable and cutthroat plan was outright genocide."
~ R.J. Rummel, Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900
The final phase, though carried out throughout the genocide, was distinctly religious in the fact that Pakistani forces targeted Hindu individuals living within East Pakistan. This shows the Pakistani desire to use genocide to cleanse the area they wished to keep under Pakistani rule of outside religions. The fact that Pakistan intentionally targeted Hindus isn't a surprise either... in fact it too could have been predicted by the British and UN long before Pakistan slaughtered them in the 1971 genocide.
When Pakistan and India were carved out of British held territory the issue of religion came to the surface almost immediately. In the initial fighting the Muslims of what is now Pakistan used ethnic cleansing to attempt to push all Hindus and Sikhs out of what was then West Pakistan. The Hindus on the Indian side of the border also turned to ethnic cleansing to attempt to push all Muslims and Sikhs over the border into what was then West Pakistan. This genocide was complex in the fact that both Hindus and Muslims engaged in genocide to gain their territorial aspirations while Sikhs were caught in the crossfire. It was not the case in 1971 when Pakistani forces engaged in genocide in what was then East Pakistan.
The intentional targeting of Hindus in Bangladesh was however a point in the genocide where the fog of war blurs the lines between Pakistani guilt and Bengali complacency. There is no denying that Bengali citizens helped Pakistani forces in their genocidal ambitions in clearing out Hindus and the businesses they had built in Bangladesh. Through greed, lust, and outright hatred; Bangladeshi civilians were lured into cooperating with Pakistani forces.
However, no matter how many Bengali forces helped, the original sin of organizing and instigating of genocide still laid with Pakistani politicians and military leaders. Both ethnic Bengalis and Hindus alike were targeted and slaughtered in the genocide. The means and excuses for doing so may have varied. But the results were the same in both communities.
(Rayerbazar Killing Field, 1971)
"The genocide and gendercidal atrocities were also perpetrated by lower-ranking officers and ordinary soldiers. These “willing executioners” were fueled by an abiding anti-Bengali racism, especially against the Hindu minority. "Bengalis were often compared with monkeys and chickens. Said General Niazi, ‘It was a low lying land of low lying people.’ The Hindus among the Bengalis were as Jews amongst the Nazis: scum and vermin that [should] best be exterminated. As to the Moslem Bengalis, they were to live only on the sufferance of the soldiers: any infraction, any suspicion cast on them, any need for reprisal, could mean their death. And the soldiers were free to kill at will. The journalist Dan Coggin quoted one Pakistani captain as telling him, "We can kill anyone for anything. We are accountable to no one." This is the arrogance of Power."
~ R.J. Rummel, 'Death by Government'
In the end the government of Pakistan was guilty of killing an estimated 1.5 million Bangladeshi civilians. This number was only half of the intended 3 million Bengalis the Pakistani government had intended to kill during the genocide (officially 'Operation Searchlight'). The only reason for the shortfall in the total number killed however was not failure of intent but military defeat at the hands of stiff resistance to Pakistani tyranny.
Matthew J. White, in his 2012 book The Great Big Book of Horrible Things, estimates the total Bengali civilian death toll at 1.5 million. R.J. Rummel wrote that, "Consolidating both ranges, I give a final estimate of Pakistan's democide to be 300,000 to 3,000,000, or a prudent 1,500,000." And yet Pakistan is only willing to admit (rarely) that they did kill 5,000–35,000 in Dhaka, and 200,000 across Bangladesh as a whole. But most of the time Pakistan isn't even willing to admit to even the 5,000 figure. Most Pakistani politicians and historians fiercely defend the actions of their government in Bangladesh and insist that any deaths were justified and could never be considered "genocide" or even "massacres".
(Bengali Militia Executing Pakistani Spies After Pakistan's Surrender)
The outside world both during and after the Bengali Genocide remained oddly silent. UN officials felt that it was more important to address the massacres Bengalis committed against minorities after the Liberation War (another term for the genocide carried out by Pakistan in 1971 due to its leading to Bangladeshi independence). US officials sought to pacify Pakistan and grow an alliance with the defeated nation as US interest in the area increased with Soviet involvement in the region sparked. Europe simply looked the other way as they focused on US involvement in Vietnam and other special interest in the region that seemed more important at the time.
As time has passed the wound that this genocide left has festered and reopened almost routinely. UN organizations continue to focus on Bangladeshi war crimes while appearing to excuse Pakistani involvement in the genocide. With every snubbing of the massive loss of life the United Nations once again fails to realize it's promise of "Never Again". It also continues to drive a thorn into the side of both Pakistan and Bangladesh as the two nations continue to argue about the historic facts of that ill-fated 1971 war.
Till Bangladesh is given closure the history of the genocide that formed the nation will never be given a chance to heal. Much like other nations who have suffered genocide, Bangladesh will never be fully able to close this chapter of their history in a healthy manner let alone recognize their loss in a way that could heal the national wound. Instead the lives of those lost will continue to haunt the two nations and those who continue to live with their tainted history.