Who Actually Committed Genocide in 1971 War That Lead to Creation of Bangladesh?

By Abdullah al-Ahsan
Bangladesh, 1971. Photo by Raghu Rai, via Dawn)
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 Representatives 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.” The resolution also claims that “the Government and people of India magnanimously cared for the refugees until the culmination of hostilities.”

Genocide is a serious crime and was definitely committed during that fateful year but the question that needs to be asked is genocide of whom and by whom. There existed at least three communities in the then East Pakistan at the time, but the resolution mentions only two – Bengalis (Muslims) and Hindus. It ignores Urdu-speaking non-Bengali Muslims generally known as Biharis because most of them migrated there in 1947 from the neighboring Indian state Bihar, and perhaps this community was the real genocidal victim.

More than fifty years later, one needs to examine and analyze the conditions of all three communities to find the truth behind this genocide claim. One also needs to find out the real magnanimous characters in the subcontinent.

An Extraordinary Year

The year 1971 was an extraordinary year for the South Asian subcontinent and explanations for the year’s events demand some reference to the history of the region. The area (Bengal, Bihar and Orissa known as Suba Bangala), 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 with the objective of eliminating Muslims from socio-economic power and replacing them by promoting upper-caste Hindus.

EIC’s Islamophobic white supremacist approach matched well with the Hindu upper-caste outlook. The Hindu rise in economic and political superiority soon resulted in Hindu cultural domination known as the Bengal Renaissance. During the century-long EIC rule, Muslims, Hindu lower caste and indigenous communities suffered heavily.

William Hunter, an EIC civil servant, described the condition of Muslims as “‘the Musalmans’ (became) ‘in all respects…a race ruined under British rule’.” The colonizers, however, after 1857 revolt did not follow the same policy of discrimination against the Muslim aristocracy in what became West Pakistan. This had a direct impact on independent Pakistan. Bengali Muslims lacked proportional representation in top civil and military bureaucratic cadre in the newly established government in Pakistan. One must understand the catastrophic events of 1971 in this context.

United Pakistan Years

The twenty-four years history of Pakistan (1947-1971) is a tragic history for Muslims of the entire sub-continent. Pakistan’s idealism was lost almost immediately 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 the 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 the Supreme Court of Pakistan, did not do so. Instead, Justice Muhammad Munir became the second Chief Justice of Pakistan’s top court. Soon Justice Munir came up with a new term – the doctrine of necessity – to validate military rule in Pakistan. The brown sahibs, mostly from West Pakistan, deprived East Pakistanis of their fair share in the 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. One may find a good description of this situation in Hamidul Huq Chowdhury’s Memoirs: The Dismemberment of a Nation. East Pakistani demands for justice and equal rights went to deaf ears.

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 a huge propaganda campaign and started publishing pamphlets with fake information about discrepancies between the two wings of Pakistan.

Although inconsistencies existed in the allocation of funds between the two wings of Pakistan, AL pamphlets exaggerated figures. AL also made sure that none of its political rivals could hold large public rallies anywhere in East Pakistan. On 18 January 1970, they attacked an opposition public rally (public political activities were permitted from January 1) killing two and injuring hundreds in the open daylight in the capital city of Dhaka.

Jamaat-i-Islami leader Sayyid Maududi was scheduled to address the gathering. Neither the martial law administration nor the civilian authorities took any action for exaggerating and spreading fake information about provincial inequalities.

AL supporters began attacking all political opponents. They already had a reputation of having a fascist approach to politics: In 1957, some of its leaders were involved in the killing of the Deputy Speaker of East Pakistan provincial Assembly during an ongoing session. Its student wing, East Pakistan Chhatra League, was also known for campus violence all over East Pakistan.

By the late 1960s, AL supporters began to receive support from International Islamophobic forces. A former KGB agent, Yuri Bezmenov (1939-1993), in an interview revealed mechanisms of Soviet assistance to break up Pakistan. He also describes India-Soviet cooperation in the project. Years later, I found more evidence of India’s involvement in 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 in 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 he was posted in East Pakistan during the last days of the Ayub regime while working with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Indian armed forces, and he officially received those weapons. Since there was no accountability, he kept some when he retired. Many academic works on RAW would later confirm such claims. Nevertheless, as soon as the election results were out in late 1970, a drama of negotiations began between the military and political leaders in Pakistan.

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 and raping the women. Both the martial law and civilian authorities maintained complete silence on these atrocities.

Escalation of the Carnage

The government of Yahya Khan decided to take 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 July 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 March 23, 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)]

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

A friend of mine, also from Sirajganj and living in the town at the time, confirmed this story to me. In fact, he also told me that an unknown person came to their town a few days before the arrival of the army and claimed that he was coming from Dhaka where the army and non-Bengalis were indiscriminately killing the Bengalis.

“Why are you sparing these non-Bengalis in your town?” He asked the town-dwellers. He instigated the local population to take revenge by attacking non-Bengalis in the town and so began the massacre. When the Pakistan army entered the town a few days later, the first casualty was a group of mostly elderly Bengalis who had just finished their Fajr prayer and according to our friends wanted to welcome the army entering the town. The army on its part lined up about ten or so of them and killed everyone. The group included the father, grandfather and a younger brother of a very close friend of mine. The army also burnt down many houses indiscriminately. Yet a friend of mine remained loyal to the united Pakistan idea until December 16, 1971. The Sirajganj event also confirms the role of RAW agents in East Pakistan.

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 Bengali nationalists.” Bose has partially answered the question that we have raised in the introduction of this article: Finding the real victim of genocide in the conflict. Yet the Congressmen have failed even to mention the massacre of non-Bengalis in 1971. In an article written for Aljazeera in 2011 after the publication of her major work on the subject Bose 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 the events of 1971 is the story of the treatment of non-Bengalis – the story of the real genocidal victim.

Pakistan’s Silence
In August 1971, the Yahya regime published a “White Paper” about the situation in East Pakistan with some description of atrocities committed against the non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistani Bengalis but it made almost no impact on the mainstream media even in Pakistan. Qutubuddin Aziz published Blood and Tears with reports of “170 eye-witness accounts of the atrocities committed on West Pakistanis, Biharis, and other non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistan Bengalis in 55 towns of East Pakistan by Awami League militants and other rebels in March-April, 1971” but that too had little impact in the mainstream media. Decades later, one victim penned, “I actually contacted Dawn to write about this and they did not even want to talk about it. They only wanted to talk about what the Pakistan Army had done. They weren’t even willing to examine the role of the PPP in all of this.” The author was referring to the English language daily in Pakistan. This last observation partially explains the reason for Pakistan’s silence on the episode. In fact, the Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas’ article in the Sunday Times on June 13, 1971, that informed the world about the so-called genocide in East Pakistan also mentions the killings of non-Bengalis, but somehow this part of the story got lost. Were some Pakistani politicians also involved in the conspiracy to dismember Pakistan? In fact, the Ganga hijack affair, the event that India used to stop Pakistan’s airline operations over Indian territories, indicates some connection in this regard. Although it was clear that the hijacking was an Indian plot, Pakistan’s Zulfiqar Bhutto welcomed the two hijackers and made them heroes in Pakistan.
However, the Yahya administration – the management that imposed a war on the total population of East Pakistan with its Operation Searchlight on March 25 – made non-Bengalis and pro-Pakistani Bengalis even more vulnerable to the aggression of the secessionist elements. By then most Bengali members of Pakistan’s armed forces either had revolted or were eliminated by Pakistan’s armed forces themselves. Only a handful remained loyal to Pakistan. Indiscriminate killings by all sides continued. The Yahya regime foolishly kicked out all foreign journalists from East Pakistan and heavily censored the internal press. Subsequent governments in Pakistan also have been shy to speak about it. Brig Karrar Ali Agha failed to find a reputed Pakistani publisher for his work. Even to this day, the government of Pakistan has not released the findings of its own appointed commission on the subject. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission report came into the public eye only after 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 brutal behavior against non-Bengalis. However, knowing the character of AL student wing, East Pakistan Chhatra League, I could not rule out the possibility of such atrocious conduct. Yet, reports of organized massacres all over East Pakistan struck me as extremely shocking. This reminds me 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. So does the arrival of the unknown person to Sirajganj and instigating to initiate massacre of non-Bengalis there.

Genocide of Whom?

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

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 now 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 seriously examine India’s role in the whole episode and find the truth.

Abdullah al-Ahsan is a former professor of comparative civilization in the Department of Polıtıcal Scıence and Internatıonal Relatıons at Istanbul Sehır Unıversıty. Earlier he taught at International Islamic University Malaysia for almost three decades. A graduate 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



Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Pakistan Week.

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