It was March 25, 1971. On the stroke of midnight, the cruelest military crackdown descended on the innocent Bengali folks. The marauding Pakistani army cordoned Peelkhana, the headquarters of the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR), Rajarbagh Police Barracks, and Khilgaon Ansar Headquarters. The darkest night turned into the worst nightmare in the country’s history. After Yahya Khan had left Dhaka without any prior notice the Pakistani invasion force as a sequel to the blueprint, launched the planned military operation called ‘Operation Searchlight’ at zero hour against the defenseless Bangalees of East Pakistan and caused huge collateral damage. Streams of blood flowed. Fear stalked the streets of Dhaka. The most heinous genocide of human history occurred in what is now Bangladesh.
The crackdown was launched by General Tikka Khan, commander of Pakistan’s forces in East Pakistan, who was nicknamed ‘Butcher of Bengal and Baluchistan’ in the international media. Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi took over command from Tikka Khan in April 1971. Most of the leading figures in the Pakistan military during that period later wrote memoirs blaming each other for cowardice, lack of strategic thinking or excessive use of force. General Niazi too described the initial military operation launched by Tikka Khan. As he puts it, “Peaceful night was turned into a time of wailing, crying, and burning. General Tikka let loose everything at his disposal as if raiding an enemy, not dealing with his own misguided and misled people. The military action was a display of stark cruelty more merciless than the massacres at Bukhara and Baghdad by Genghis Khan and Hulagu Khan.” Tikka resorted to the killing of civilians and a scorched earth policy. His orders to his troops were: “Matti, Matti, Admi Nehi” (I want the land and not the people.)” Niazi also referred to Major General Rao Farman Ali who had written in his table diary, “Green land of East Pakistan was painted red by Bengali blood.”
But for various reasons the 1971 genocide in Bangladesh has not been taken cognizance of in earnest. Dr. Adam Jones, Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia, Canada and an expert in the field of comparative genocide studies in his piece titled “The Bangladeshi Genocide in Comparative Perspective” refers to this matter of obscurity in regard to the genocide and mentions the reason for it. As he puts it, “Within comparative genocide studies, sadly, the Bangladesh genocide remains strikingly little known – something that I and a few others have sought to redress in our modest ways. This reflects the peripheral position of East Pakistan/Bangladesh in the global order – something that also accounts for the lack of international interest and intervention at the time.” Considering Bangladesh genocide of 1971 from a comparative perspective, Dr. Jones contends that it was one of the most extreme and destructive genocides of the twentieth century, with as many as 3 million people killed.
Having read the veteran Indian journalist Kalyan Chaudhuri’s impressive work Genocide in Bangladesh published in1972, I was struck by the parallels between the Pakistani slaughter of Bengalis and some of the most savage atrocities in modern record, including the genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the Nanjing Massacre aka Rape of Nanjing perpetrated on the Chinese citizens and capitulated soldiers by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Sino-Japanese War preceding World War II, the Nazi genocide in Eastern Europe during World War II, and the Rwandan genocide of 1994.
Given the intensity of loss of blood and the span of time, the scale and systematic character of the Bangladesh genocide and the collateral damage caused by it is simply breathtaking. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1981 testifies to it: “Among the genocides of human history, the highest number of people killed in a lower span of time is in Bangladesh in 1971. On average of 6,000 to 12,000 people were killed every single day. This is the highest daily average in the history of genocides.”
All major genocides in history—the Holocaust, Cambodian genocide, Circassian genocide, Armenian genocide, Rwandan genocide, Greek genocide, Dzungar genocide, Assyrian genocide have two estimates, the highest and the lowest. War casualties may vary in different researches, but the increase and decrease of numbers do not add to or deduct from the irreparable loss to the victims. Besides, given the high frequency of the casualty the Bangladeshi genocide would be the most atrocious. The renowned Pakistani writer S. Akbar Zaidi in his special report on united Pakistan contends that even the Pakistani authors consider the atrocities committed against Bangladeshi innocent population by the Pakistani army as ‘horrific’. As he puts it, “There has been a great deal written by Pakistani military men and historians, as well as by Indian and Bangladeshi academics and scholars, on what happened in East Pakistan between March 25 and Dec 16, 1971. While versions may vary, as do number counts — of casualties, massacres and rapes — there is broad consensus, especially among Pakistani authors, that the scale and nature of atrocities conducted by the military was on a horrific scale.” Mr. Zaidi pities the ‘West Pakistani intellectuals or political leaders’ who did not protest and oppose ‘military action in East Pakistan’. He also thinks that “Their silence makes them complicit in the killings.”
Kalyan Chaudhuri was a newspaper reporter who made frequent visits to the bordering areas of East Pakistan after the crackdown and to Bangladesh after liberation. He talked to people in various areas, often remote, in an attempt to collect the facts associated with the tragedy that enabled him to infuse his narrative with the feelings and sufferings of the luckless victims of the 1971 massacre. In his book Genocide in Bangladesh, he tries to justify the sources which indicated the highest number of killings in the genocide. To quote, “The Soviet newspaper Pravda, in a report from its Dhaka correspondent on January 3, 1972, claimed that over three million were killed. So far this is the highest figure, often quoted by Bangladesh sympathizers and some foreign newspapers… Sheikh Mujibur Rahman readily accepted the Pravda figure. He said the day he landed in liberated Bangladesh on 10 January 1072 that the number of killed was three million and of women raped 200,000.” To find out the number of human casualties and the extent of destruction during this period, Mr. Chaudhuri added, “The new Government has set up one official and one non-official inquiry committee. These have started house-to-house survey and census work. Mr. Abder Rahman, Chairman of the 12-member official inquiry committee, disclosed in March 1972, that the figure of the dead, defying human belief, rose 300,000 in thirty days after they had started the survey. The figure is jumping at such a rate that the Bangladesh Government’s rough and preliminary estimate of annihilation of 30 lakhs of men, women, the old and children does not seem to be baseless.” Taking everything into consideration and on mature reflection Bangladesh Genocide Day—March 25 should be recognized by the United Nations as International Genocide Day.
Dr. Rashid Askari is a freethinking writer,
academic, translator, and former vice
chancellor, Islamic University Bangladesh