Fifty-two years ago, on March 26, 1971, Bangladesh came into existence after a bloody liberation from Pakistan. With the partition of India and Pakistan, the former was bifurcated into two, one as East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the other as West Pakistan (now Pakistan). With operation searchlight starting on March 25, 1971, Pakistan’s military began one of its kind ethnic genocide where Bengali and Hindu communities were specifically targeted.
As many as 3 million people were killed, with more than 10 million forced to take refuge in the neighbour country, India. More than two hundred thousand minor girls and four hundred thousand women were raped, these consist mostly of Hindus.
The Partition of 1947
The Partition of India after the British government left, bifurcated the land into three, with one being Bharat, East Pakistan and West Pakistan. Although the populations of both zones were almost equal, the political concentration and the decision-making bodies were concentrated in west Pakistan only.
When the partition of India and Pakistan was in papers only, a request for an independent and united Bengal was mooted by the then-Prime Minister of Bengal in British India (1946-1947). However, his demands were never met and partition was done as per Mountbatten’s plan.
Soon after the boundaries were drawn, two separate nations came into existence. Pakistan was having two geographically and culturally separate areas to the east and the west with India in between.
The authorities of West Pakistan viewed the Bengali Muslims in the East as “too ‘Bengali'” and their application of Islam as “inferior and impure”, believing this made the Bengalis unreliable “co-religionists”. And the Bengali Hindus were always under their target. The authorities at the west started assimilating the Bengalis culturally.
The Bengalis living in the east were demographically in majority, as many as 75 million Bengalis as compared to a mere 55 million Punjabis in west Pakistan. East consisted majority of Muslims, with Hindus and Buddhists as a minority. The west considered people in the east as second-class citizens, as they were ‘Less Pathan’ and ‘Less Punjabi’.
In 1948, a year after the partition governor general Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared Urdu as the national language of Pakistan, which included east Pakistan as well. However, at that time only 4% of the Pakistani population speak Urdu, and those opposing Jinnah’s decision were declared communists and traitors. The successive governments also refused to even consider Bengali as the second national language and this called for the ‘Bengali language movement; by the newly formed Awami league.
During protests in the capital Dhaka in 1952, the Muslim League, then in power, attacked the Bengalis, which resulted in numerous fatalities. People were more resistant as a result, and those who died were viewed as martyrs. This idea was further strengthened by the India-Pakistan war of 1965. People believed that Ayub Khan would readily abandon the east if it meant capturing Kashmir.
In 1970, east Pakistan faced the Bhola cyclone and the Pakistani government’s slow response to it made the situation even worse. The East Pakistan-based Awami League, headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won a national majority in the first democratic election since the creation of Pakistan, sweeping East Pakistan. But, the West Pakistani establishment prevented them from forming a government.
President Yahya Khan, encouraged by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, banned the Awami League and declared martial law. The Pakistani Army demolished Ramna Kali Mandir (temple) and killed as many as 85 Hindus.
On 22 February 1971, General Yahya Khan is reported to have said “Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands.”
In March 1971, Pakistani Army started an operation called ‘Operation searchlight’ in wake of curbing the Bengali separatist ideas. The Pakistani state justified commencing Operation Searchlight on the basis of anti-Bihari violence by Bengalis in early March.
However, soon after the operation was to be started there was political instability in East Pakistan as both Sayyed Mohammad Ahsan, the Pakistani governor in East Pakistan and his successor Sahibzada Yakub Khan resigned from their offices. This gave the Bengali protestors and the Awami League to take control.
The Bengali Hindu Genocide
The operation which was to begin on March 1, started on March 25 and the targets of the operation included Jagannath Hall which was a dormitory for non-Muslim students of Dhaka University, Rajarbagh Police Lines, and Pilkhana, which is the headquarters of East Pakistan Rifles.
Neighbourhoods of old Dhaka which had a majority Hindu population were also attacked. Robert Payne, an American journalist, estimated that 7,000 people had been killed and 3,000 arrested in that night
The operation lasted till December 16, 1971, when Bangladesh finally attained independence.
Notably, the first report of the Bangladesh genocide was published by West Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas in The Sunday Times, London on 13 June 1971 titled “Genocide”.
He wrote: “I saw Hindus, hunted from village to village and door to door, shot off-hand after a cursory ‘short-arm inspection’ showed they were uncircumcised. I have heard the screams of men bludgeoned to death in the compound of the Circuit House (civil administrative headquarters) in Comilla. I have seen truckloads of other human targets and those who had the humanity to try to help them hauled off ‘for disposal’ under the cover of darkness and curfew.”
During the war, a so-called fatwa originating in West Pakistan declared that the Bengali freedom fighters were Hindus and that their women could be taken as the “booty of war”.
Imams and Muslim religious leaders of Pakistan publicly declared that the Bengali women were ‘gonimoter maal’ (war booty) and thus they openly supported the rape of Bengali women by the Pakistani Army. Hindu women used to be killed after being raped and Bengali Muslim women were left alive to give birth to “pure” Muslims.
A 17-year-old Hindu bride who was gang raped by Pakistani soldiers was also documented
“Two went into the room that had been built for the bridal couple. The others stayed behind with the family, one of them covering them with his gun. They heard a barked order and the bridegroom’s voice protesting. Then there was silence until the bride screamed … In a few minutes, one of the soldiers came out, his uniform in disarray. He grinned at his companions. Another soldier took his place in the extra room. And so on, until all six had raped the belle of the village. Then all six left, hurriedly. The father found his daughter lying on the string cot unconscious and bleeding. Her husband was crouched on the floor, kneeling over his vomit.”
Bangladeshi sources cite a figure of 200,000 women raped, giving birth to thousands of war babies. The soldiers of the Pakistan Army and razakars also kept Bengali women as sex slaves inside the Pakistani Army’s camps, and many became pregnant.
An article in Time magazine, dated 2 August 1971, stated “The Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Muslim military hatred.”
Pakistan army eastern command headquarter officials in Dhaka made clear the government’s policy on East Bengal. After the elimination or exile of Hindus, their property was going to be shared among middle-class Muslims.
According to Colonel Naim, Hindus “undermined the Muslim masses.” He said Bengali culture to a great extent was Hindu culture, and “We have to sort them out to restore the land to the people.”
In April 1971 at Comilla, Major Rathore said to Anthony Mascarenhas, regarding Hindus: “Now under the cover of fighting we have an excellent opportunity of finishing them off…Of course…, we are only killing the Hindu men. We are soldiers, not cowards like the rebels.”
Hindus were alleged to have corrupted the Awami League. Pakistani soldiers repeatedly boasted to US Consul Archer Blood that they came “to kill Hindus”. A witness heard an officer shouting to soldiers: “Why you have killed Muslims. We ordered you to kill only Hindus.” US government cables noted that the minorities of Bangladesh, especially the Hindus, were specific targets of the Pakistani Army.
No International affirmations
In the US senate, a report was presented, post-genocide with the title “Crisis in South Asia,” Edward M Kennedy details the violence against Hindus and the ‘United States’ complicity in that violence.
Hardest hit have been members of the Hindu community who have been robbed of their lands and shops systematically slaughtered, and, in some places, painted with yellow patches marked “H”. All of this has been officially sanctioned, ordered and implemented under martial law from Islamabad. America’s heavy support of Islamabad is nothing short of complicity in the human and political tragedy of East Bengal.
Even after repeated attempts the international community have never addressed the Hindu genocide in the Bangladesh liberation war. As such, the allegation that genocide took place during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 was never investigated by an international tribunal set up under the auspices of the United Nations.
Almost after fifty-two years of the liberation war and operation searchlight, there is a need that the United Nation to give it recognition. Affirming this genocide will help to bring solace to the individuals and families affected, and ultimately serve to create space for more meaningful action now and in the future.
However, in October 2022, Two US lawmakers introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives, urging the US President to recognise the atrocities committed against ethnic Bengalis and Hindus by the Pakistani armed forces in 1971 as a genocide.
Congressman Steve Chabot and Indian-American Congressman Ro Khanna introduced the resolution in the US House of Representatives early today (October 15, 2022), calling on Pakistan to offer apologies to the people of Bangladesh for its role in such a genocide.
“We must not let the years erase the memory of the millions who were massacred. Recognising the genocide strengthens the historical record, educates our fellow Americans, and lets would-be perpetrators know such crimes will not be tolerated or forgotten,” Chabot, a Republican Party member, said in a tweet.
Khanna, a Democrat and the US Representative from California’s 17th congressional district said;
“There was a genocide. Millions of people were killed (in 1971) in what is now Bangladesh, and what was then East Pakistan. About 80 per cent of those millions that were killed were Hindus, Chabot, US Representative for Ohio’s 1st congressional district,”