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The demons of 1971
Mashuqur Rahman
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January 04, 2007
Thirty-five years ago, on December 16, 1971, the Pakistan army unconditionally surrendered to the Indian Army at the Dhaka Racecourse in Bangladesh.

With the stroke of a pen, Bangladesh was born. That birth, however, came at an enormous cost. Before the Pakistan army and its local collaborators were finally subdued by the Indian Army, they had slaughtered up to 3 million Bengalis in nine months of madness.

This is the story of that slaughter. This is the story of genocide in Bangladesh.

In 1971, Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan, was part of a geographical monstrosity created by the British in 1947. Pakistan, as created by the British, consisted of West Pakistan and East Pakistan, separated by the vast expanse of the Indian land mass in the middle. East and West Pakistan spoke different languages and were culturally distinct. East Pakistan accounted for the majority of Pakistan's population, yet it was economically exploited and politically marginalised by West Pakistan.

Bengalis, the people of East Pakistan, were also persecuted for speaking their native language and for being either Muslims who had converted from Hinduism or for being Hindus. Pakistan, translated as 'The Land of the Pure', was intolerant of Bengalis because they were not 'pure' Muslims.

The tension between East and West Pakistan began to boil over in 1970 after West Pakistan's minimal response to the devastation wreaked by the cyclone of 1970 in East Pakistan. Nearly half a million Bengalis died as a result of the cyclone and the indifferent response by the Pakistani government.

In the midst of the tension, the Pakistani military rulers decided to hold the first democratic elections in Pakistan's history. The Awami League, representing Bengalis in East Pakistan, won the majority of seats in the National Assembly. However, the military leadership of West Pakistan refused to allow the Awami League to form a government.

The siege of East Pakistan by the Pakistan army had begun. War was now inevitable. On March 7, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, leader of the Awami League, gave a speech at the Dhaka Racecourse that mobilised the Bengali nation for resistance. He began the speech with a call to arms:

The struggle this time is for emancipation! The struggle this time is for independence!

On March 25, 1971, the Pakistan army launched Operation Searchlight to 'eliminate' the Awami League and its supporters in East Pakistan. The goal was to 'crush' the will of the Bengalis. The killing began shortly after 10 pm. In the first 48 hours the orgy of killing had ravaged Dhaka city.

The Hindu population of Dhaka took the brunt of the slaughter. Dhaka university was targeted and Hindu students were gunned down. Mujib was arrested shortly after declaring Bangladesh independent. The rest of the Awami League leadership went into hiding and those that survived eventually fled to India. The genocide had just begun.

On February 22, 1971 the generals in West Pakistan took a decision to crush the Awami League and its supporters. It was recognised from the first that a campaign of genocide would be necessary to eradicate the threat: 'Kill three million of them,' said President Yahya Khan at the February conference, 'and the rest will eat out of our hands.' (Robert Payne, Massacre [1972], page 50.)

On March 25 the genocide was launched. The university in Dhaka was attacked and students exterminated in their hundreds. Death squads roamed the streets of Dhaka, killing some 7,000 people in a single night. It was only the beginning. Within a week, half the population of Dhaka had fled, and at least 30,000 people had been killed. Chittagong, too, had lost half its population.

All over East Pakistan people were taking flight, and it was estimated that in April some 30 million people were wandering helplessly across East Pakistan to escape the grasp of the military. (Payne, Massacre, page 48.) Ten million refugees fled to India, overwhelming that country's resources and spurring the eventual Indian military intervention. (The population of Bangladesh/East Pakistan at the outbreak of the genocide was about 75 million.)

But the will of the Bengali people was not broken on the night of March 25, 1971. On the contrary, while Dhaka burned, so did the illusion of a united Pakistan.

At 7:45 pm on March 27, 1971 Major Ziaur Rahman, leader of a rebel army unit in East Pakistan, broadcast Bangladesh's independence on Mujib's behalf. With the following words, the armed resistance to the Pakistan army began:

This is Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro [Free Bangla Radio]. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangobondhu Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that the independent People's Republic of Bangladesh has been established. At his direction, I have taken command as the temporary Head of the Republic. In the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I call upon all Bengalis to rise against the attack by the West Pakistani Army. We shall fight to the last to free our Motherland. By the grace of Allah, victory is ours. Joy Bangla.

Major Zia's broadcast from a small radio station in Chittagong was picked up by a Japanese ship in the Bay of Bengal. It was later rebroadcast by Radio Australia and the BBC.

Yahya Khan and the Pakistan army planned their genocide well. Yahya Khan aimed to crush the Bengali spirit once and for all. Before the crackdown all foreign journalists were expelled from East Pakistan. Only a handful managed to evade the Pakistani army.

One of them was Simon Dring. On March 30, 1971 he filed a chilling report of the massacre that took place in Dhaka on the night of March 25. Dring reported that in 24 hours of killing, the Pakistan army slaughtered as many as 7,000 people in Dhaka and up to 15,000 people in all of Bangladesh.

The Pakistan army employed tanks, artillery, mortars, bazookas and machine guns against the unarmed population of Dhaka. Their targets were students, local police, intellectuals, political leaders, Awami League supporters, Hindus and ordinary citizens. They carried out their ruthless killing spree with military precision.

Dring described the attack on Dhaka University as follows:

'Led by American-supplied M-24 World War II tanks, one column of troops sped to Dacca University shortly after midnight. Troops took over the British Council library and used it as a fire base from which to shell nearby dormitory areas.

'Caught completely by surprise, some 200 students were killed in Iqbal Hall, headquarters of the militantly antigovernment students' union, I was told. Two days later, bodies were still smoldering in burnt-out rooms, others were scattered outside, more floated in a nearby lake, an art student lay sprawled across his easel.

'Army patrols also razed nearby market area. Two days later, when it was possible to get out and see all this, some of the market's stall-owners were still lying as though asleep, their blankets pulled up over their shoulders.'

The 'old town' quarter of Dhaka city was singled out for destruction by the Pakistanis because of strong Awami League support there and because there were many Hindu residents in the area. Here is how Simon Dring described the attacks on unarmed civilians:

'The lead unit was followed by soldiers carrying cans of gasoline. Those who tried to escape were shot. Those who stayed were burnt alive. About 700 men, women and children died there that day between noon and 2 pm, I was told.

'In the Hindu area of the old town, the soldiers reportedly made the people come out of their houses and shot them in groups. The area, too, was eventually razed.

'The troops stayed on in force in the old city until about 11 pm on the night of Friday, March 26, driving around with local Bengali informers. The soldiers would fire a flare and the informer would point out the houses of Awami League supporters. The house would then be destroyed -- either with direct fire from tanks or recoilless rifles or with a can of gasoline, witnesses said.'

After having massacred 15,000 unarmed civilians in a single day, the Pakistani soldiers bragged about their invincibility to Simon Dring:

'"These bugger men," said one Punjabi lieutenant, "could not kill us if they tried."

'"Things are much better now," said another officer. "Nobody can speak out or come out. If they do we will kill them -- they have spoken enough -- they are traitors, and we are not. We are fighting in the name of God and a united Pakistan."'

In the name of God and a united Pakistan, genocide had just begun.

The Pakistanis began their killing spree in the major cities of Dhaka, Chittagong and Comilla. However, as terrified Bengalis fled to the countryside, the Pakistani army followed. Pakistan began to fly in additional troops into Bangladesh to continue the genocidal campaign. The goal was the extermination of the Bengali nation.

Hindus in particular were targeted for extermination. Bengali Muslims, however, did not escape the Pakistani killing machine since Bengali Muslims were considered 'tainted' by their Bengali/Hindu culture. In the face of the ongoing massacres, a guerilla army formed under the leadership of rebel Bengali military officers and organised student activists.

This guerilla army, known as the Mukti Bahini in Bengali, fought a war of attrition with the Pakistani army until December 16, 1971. The Mukti Bahini received training and support from the Indian government as it resisted Pakistani occupation. The Pakistani army was constantly harassed by Bangladeshi resistance. In response the Pakistani army slaughtered more Bengalis.

The killing continued unabated throughout the summer of 1971. The army moved methodically from village to village, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. In June the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg filed a number of eyewitness accounts from Bangladeshi towns for The New York Times. In response, the Pakistan army expelled him from the country on June 30, 1971.

Schanberg described the systematic subjugation and killing of Bengalis:

'Army trucks roll through the half-deserted streets of the capital of East Pakistan these days, carrying "antistate" prisoners to work-sites for hard labor. Their heads are shaved and they wear no shoes and no clothes except for shorts -- all making escape difficult.

'Street designations are being changed to remove all Hindu names as well as those of Bengali Moslem nationalists as part of a campaign to stamp out Bengali culture. Shankari Bazar Road in Dacca is now Tikka Khan Road, after the lieutenant general governor of East Pakistan and whom most Bengalis call "the Butcher."

'Since the offensive began the troops have killed countless thousands of Bengalis -- foreign diplomats estimate at least 200,000 to 250,000 -- many in massacres. Although the targets were Bengali Moslems and the 10 million Hindus at first, the army is now concentrating on Hindus in what foreign observers characterize as a holy war.

'Of the more than six million Bengalis who are believed to have fled to India to escape the army's terror, at least four million are Hindus. The troops are still killing Hindus and burning and looting their villages.'

When the burden of the killing became too much for the army, the Pakistanis enlisted and trained paramilitary units made up of non-Bengali Muslims and Bengali collaborators from right-wing religious parties. These paramilitary units, the al-Badr and al-Shams, worked as informers and assassins to augment the military's gruesome task of killing Bengalis. In June 1971 Sydney Schanberg reported on the formation of these units:

'Throughout East Pakistan the Army is training new paramilitary home guards or simply arming "loyal" civilians, some of whom are formed into peace committees. Besides Biharis and other non-Bengali, Urdu-speaking Moslems, the recruits include the small minority of Bengali Moslems who have long supported the army -- adherents of the right-wing religious parties such as the Moslem League and Jamaat-e-Islami.

'Collectively known as the Razakars, the paramilitary units spread terror throughout the Bengali population. With their local knowledge, the Razakars were an invaluable tool in the Pakistani Army's arsenal of genocide.'

At the end of June 1971, Schanberg visited the town of Faridpur and reported on the persecution there:

'The Pakistani Army has painted big yellow "H's" on the Hindu shops still standing in this town to identify the property of the minority eighth of the population that it has made special targets.

'The campaign against the Hindus was -- and in some cases still is -- systematic. Soldiers fanned through virtually every village asking where the Hindus lived. Hindu property has been confiscated and either sold or given to "loyal" citizens. Many of the beneficiaries have been Biharis, non-Bengali Muslim migrants from India, most of whom are working with the army now. The army has given weapons to large numbers of the Biharis, and it is they who have often continued the killing of Hindus in areas where the army has eased off.

'However, army commanders in the field in East Pakistan privately admit to a policy of stamping out Bengali culture, both Muslim and Hindu -- but particularly Hindu.

'In Faridpur -- and the situation was much the same throughout East Pakistan -- there was no friction to speak of between Hindu and Muslim before the army came.

'The army tried to drive a wedge between them. In April, as a public example, two Hindus were beheaded in a central square in Faridpur and their bodies were soaked in kerosene and burned.

'Still, there is no sign of a hate-Hindu psychology among the Bengali Muslims. Many have taken grave risks to shelter and defend Hindus; others express shock and horror at what is happening to the Hindus but confess that they are too frightened to help.'

For his part in exposing Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh, Schanberg was promptly expelled from Bangladesh.

The Pakistan army and the Razakars did not stop at simply massacring Bengalis. They also took to raping Bengali women. During nine months in 1971, over 200,000 Bengali women and girls were raped. Many were taken as sex slaves and raped multiple times by the Pakistani army.

By December 1971 the genocide had decimated Bengali society. On December 3, 1971 the Indian Army formally joined the war. In 13 days the Indian Army delivered a humiliating defeat to the Pakistan army in Bangladesh. The army that had committed mass murder against an unarmed civilian population was decisively routed in less then a fortnight.

The Pakistan army, on the verge of defeat, was determined to wipe out Bengali culture in one final act of barbarism. On December 14, 1971, the Pakistan army unleashed the paramilitary units al-Badr and al-Shams to exterminate Bengali intellectuals. The goal was to find and kill Bengali political thinkers, educators, scientists, poets, doctors, lawyers, journalists and other intellectuals. The al-Badr and al-Shams fanned out with lists of names to find and execute the core of Bengali intellectuals. The intellectuals were arrested and taken to Rayerbazar, a marshy area in Dhaka city. There, they were gunned down with their eyes blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs.

On December 16, 1971 the Pakistan army in Bangladesh formally surrendered. At the cost of three million dead the nation of Bangladesh was born. It was the most concentrated act of genocide of the 20th century.

Thirty-five years after the birth of the nation, many have forgotten the sacrifices of those who are no longer with us. But for those of us who survived, for our parents who kept us safe through the months of terror, there is no erasing the horrors of 1971.

Bangladesh today has yet to exorcise the demons of 1971. Many of the Razakars who collaborated with the Pakistan army and murdered countless Bengalis have today returned to Bangladesh. Some of the Razakar leaders from 1971 today lead the Jamaat-e-Islami party. Still others live freely in the United Kingdom and the United States. None of these Razakars have yet to face justice for the crimes they committed in 1971.

Today the secular Bangladesh that was born from the ashes of 1971 is under threat. It is under threat from the same anti-liberation forces that helped perpetrate the genocide of 1971. The future of a secular Bangladesh hangs in the balance today. In 1971, Bangladeshis learned the evils of both racism and religious extremism. It is a lesson we forget at our own peril.

Mashuqur Rahman is a Bangladeshi blogger living in the suburbs of Washington, DC with his wife and daughter. He blogs about foreign policy and Bangladesh. He was a child during the 1971 genocide. Like most Bengali families, his family fled to the countryside during the war. They returned to Dhaka toward the end of the war to escape Pakistani military raids on their village. Like thousands of other Bengalis he was witness to the Pakistan army's surrender in Dhaka on December 16, 1971. He was perched atop his father's shoulders while Lieutenant General A A K Niazi signed the instrument of surrender with the Indian Army.

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