Saturday, February 26, 2011

1971 Bangladesh atrocities

 / 23; 90 Beginning with the start of Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1971 and continuing throughout the Bangladesh Liberation War, there were widespread violations of human rights in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) perpetrated by the Pakistan Army with support from local political and religious militias. Time reported a high U.S. official as saying "It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland."
Bangladeshi authorities claim that 3 million people were killed, while the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, an official Pakistan Government investigation, put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties. The international media and reference books in English have also published figures which vary greatly from 200,000 to 3,000,000 for Bangladesh as a whole. A further eight to ten million people fled the country to seek safety in India.
Many of the murdered intellectuals were victims of the collaborators of Pakistan Army: Razakars, Al-Shams and Al-Badr forces, at the instruction of the Pakistani Army. There are many mass graves in Bangladesh, and more are continually being discovered (such as one in an old well near a mosque in Dhaka, located in the non-Bengali region of the city, which was discovered in August 1999). The first night of war on Bengalis, which is documented in telegrams from the American Consulate in Dhaka to the United States State Department, saw indiscriminate killings of students of Dhaka University and other civilians.
Numerous women were raped, tortured and killed during the war. The exact numbers are not known and are a subject of debate with some sources quoting figures as high as 400,000. One of the more horrible revelations concerns 563 young Bengali women, some only 18, who were held captive inside Dhaka's dingy military cantonment since the first days of the fighting. They were seized from Dhaka University and private homes and forced into military brothels, with some of the women carrying war babies being released.
There was significant sectarian violence not only perpetrated and encouraged by the Pakistani army, but also by Bengali nationalists against non-Bengali minorities, especially Biharis.
On 16 December 2002, the George Washington University's National Security Archive published a collection of declassified documents, consisting mostly of communications between US embassy officials and USIS centers in Dhaka and India, and officials in Washington DC. These documents show that US officials working in diplomatic institutions within Bangladesh used the terms selective genocide and genocide (see The Blood Telegram) to describe events they had knowledge of at the time. The complete chronology of events as reported to the Nixon administration can be found on the Department of State website.
Every major publication and newspaper in Bangladesh and some international publications on genocide and human rights abuses use the term genocide to describe the event.

Operation Searchlight

Operation Searchlight was a planned military pacification carried out by the Pakistan Army to curb the Bengali nationalist movement in erstwhile East Pakistan in March 1971 Ordered by the government in West Pakistan, this was seen as the sequel to Operation Blitz which had been launched in November 1970.
The original plan envisioned taking control of the major cities on 26 March 1971, and then eliminating all opposition, political or military, within one month. The prolonged Bengali resistance was not anticipated by Pakistani planners. The main phase of Operation Searchlight ended with the fall of the last major town in Bengali hands in mid May.


The number of civilians that died in the Bangladesh War is not accurately known. There is a great disparity in the casualty figures put forth by Pakistan on one hand (25,000, as reported in the Hamoodur Rahman Commission) and India and Bangladesh on the other hand. (From 1972 to 1975 the first post-war prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, claimed on several occasions that at least three million died). The international media and reference books in English have also published figures which vary greatly: varying from 5,000–35,000 in Dhaka, and 200,000–3,000,000 for Bangladesh as a whole. It is believed in certain quarters that the figure of three million has its origins in comments made by Yahya Khan to the journalist Robert Payne on 22 February 1971: "Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands."
In October 1997 R. J. Rummel published a book, which is available on the web, titled Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. In Chapter 8, Statistics Of Pakistan's Democide - Estimates, Calculations, And Sources, he states:
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.
Rummel goes on to collate what he considers the most credible estimates published by others into what he calls democide. He writes 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."
The Office of the Historian of the United States Department of State held a two-day conference in late June 2005 on U.S. policy in South Asia between 1961 and 1972. According to a newspaper report published in both Pakistani and Bangladeshi newspapers, Bangladeshi speakers at the conference stated that the official Bangladeshi figure of civilian deaths was close to 300,000, which was wrongly translated from Bengali into English as three million. Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury acknowledged that Bangladesh alone cannot correct this mistake and suggested that Pakistan and Bangladesh should form a joint commission to investigate the 1971 disaster and prepare a report.

Killing of intellectuals

Rayerbazar killing field photographed immediately after the war, showing dead bodies of intellectuals (Image courtesy: Rashid Talukdar, 1971)
During the war, the Pakistan Army and its local collaborators carried out a systematic execution of the leading Bengali intellectuals. A number of professors from Dhaka University were killed during the first few days of the war. However, the most extreme cases of targeted killing of intellectuals took place during the last few days of the war. Professors, journalists, doctors, artists, engineers, writers were rounded up by Pakistan Army and the Razakar militia in Dhaka, blindfolded, taken to torture cells in Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Nakhalpara, Rajarbagh and other locations in different sections of the city to be executed en masse in the killing fields, most notably at Rayerbazar and Mirpur. Allegedly, the Pakistani Army and its paramilitary arm, the Al-Badr and Al-Shams forces created a list of doctors, teachers, poets, and scholars.
During the nine month duration of the war, the Pakistani army, with the assistance of local collaborators systematically executed an estimated 991 teachers, 13 journalists, 49 physicians, 42 lawyers, and 16 writers, artists and engineers. Even after the official ending of the war on 16 December there were reports of firing from the armed Pakistani soldiers or their collaborators. In one such incident, notable film-maker Jahir Raihan was killed on January 30, 1972 in Mirpur allegedly by the armed Beharis. In memory of the persons killed, December 14 is mourned in Bangladesh as Shaheed Buddhijibi Dibosh ("Day of the Martyred Intellectuals").
Several noted intellectuals who were killed from the time period of 25 March to 16 December 1971 in different parts of the country include Dhaka University professors Dr. Govinda Chandra Dev (Philosophy), Dr. Munier Chowdhury (Bengali Literature), Dr. Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury (Bengali Literature), Dr. Anwar Pasha (Bengali Literature), Dr M Abul Khair (History), Dr. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta (English Literature), Humayun Kabir (English Literature), Rashidul Hasan (English Literature) and Saidul Hassan (Physics), as well Dr. Hobibur Rahman (Professor of Mathematics at Rajshahi University), Dr. Mohammed Fazle Rabbee (Cardiologist), Dr. Alim Chowdhury (Ophthalmologist), Shahidullah Kaiser (Journalist), Nizamuddin Ahmed (Journalist), Selina Parvin (Journalist), Altaf Mahmud (Lyricist and musician), Dhirendranath Datta (Politician) and Ranadaprasad Saha (Philanthropist).

Violence against women

Numerous women were tortured, raped and killed during the war. Again, exact numbers are not known and are a subject of debate. Bangladeshi sources cite a figure of 200,000 women raped, giving birth to thousands of war-babies. The Pakistan Army also kept numerous Bengali women as sex-slaves inside the Dhaka Cantonment. Most of the girls were captured from Dhaka University and private homes.
Among other sources, Susan Brownmiller refers to an even higher number of over 400,000. Pakistani sources claim the number is much lower, though having not completely denied rape incidents. Brownmiller quotes:
Khadiga, thirteen years old, was interviewed by a photojournalist in Dacca. She was walking to school with four other girls when they were kidnapped by a gang of Pakistani soldiers. All five were put in a military brothel in Mohammedpur and held captive for six months until the end of the war.
The licentious attitude of the soldiers, although generally supported by the superiors, alarmed the regional high command of Pakistan army. On April 15, 1971, in a secret memorandum to the divisional commanders, Niazi complained,
Since my arrival, I have heard numerous reports of troops indulging in loot and arson, killing people at random and without reasons in areas cleared of the anti state elements; of late there have been reports of rape and even the West Pakistanis are not being spared; on 12 April two West Pakistani women were raped, and an attempt was made on two others.
Another work that has included direct experiences from the women raped is Ami Birangona Bolchhi ("I, the heroine, speak") by Nilima Ibrahim. The work includes in its name from the word Birangona (Heroine), given by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after the war, to the raped and tortured women during the war. This was a conscious effort to alleviate any social stigma the women might face in the society. How successful this effort was is doubtful, though. In October 2005 Sarmila Bose (a Boston, Massachusetts born Harvard-educated Bengali Indian academic), published a paper suggesting that the casualties and rape allegations in the war have been greatly exaggerated for political purposes. This work has been criticised in Bangladesh and her research methods have been attacked by expatriate Bengalis as shoddy and biased because of the work's heavy reliance on Pakistani sources and for discrediting victims' testimonies based on their lack of formal education.


Violence against minorities

The minorities of Bangladesh, especially the Hindus, were specific targets of the Pakistan army. There was widespread killing of Hindu males, and rapes of women. More than 60% of the Bengali refugees who fled to India were Hindus. It is not exactly known what percentage of the people killed by the Pakistan army were Hindus, but it is safe to say it was disproportionately high. This widespread violence against Hindus was motivated by a policy to purge East Pakistan of what was seen as Hindu and Indian influences. The West Pakistani rulers identified the Bengali culture with Hindu and Indian culture, and thought that the eradication of Hindus would remove such influences from the majority Muslims in East Pakistan.
R.J. Rummel has stated states that
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 to 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 Punjabi 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

Violence against Biharis

In 1947, at the time of partition, Bihari Muslims, many of whom were fleeing the violence that took place during partition, fled to the newly independent East Pakistan. This Urdu speaking people held a disproportionate number in the new country's population. Biharis were adverse to the Bengali language movement and the subsequent nationalist movements as they maintained allegiance toward West Pakistani rulers. Between December 1970 and March 1971, Bengali nationalists subjected non-Bengali minorities, especially Biharis, to systematic persecution. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 50,000 Biharis were killed during this period, and is believed by some that elements of the Mukti Bahini, with active support from the BSF and Indian intelligence, either led or failed to stop the violence against the Biharis. When the war broke out in 1971, the Biharis sided with the Pakistan army. Some of them joined Razakar and Al-Shams militia groups and participated in the persecution and genocide of their Bengali countrymen including the widespread looting of Bengali properties and abetting in other criminal activities against them.

Genocide debate

Time reported a high U.S. official as saying "It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland." Genocide is the term that is used to describe the event in almost every major publication and newspaper in Bangladesh. Apart from that all international publications on genocide and human rights abuses classify the atrocities of 1971 as an act of genocide by West Pakistan.
After the minimum 20 countries became parties to the Genocide Convention, it came into force as international law on 12 January 1951. At that time however, only two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were parties to the treaty, and it was not until after the last of the last five permanent members ratified the treaty in 1988, and the Cold War came to an end, that the international law on the crime of genocide began to be enforced. 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.
Although both Pakistan and its primary ally USA have denied genocide allegations, the word ‘genocide’ was and is used frequently amongst observers and scholars of the events that transpired during the 1971 war. It is also used in some publications outside the subcontinent; for example, The Guinness Book of Records lists the Bengali atrocities as one of the top 5 genocides in the 20th century.
On 16 December 2002, the George Washington University’s National Security Archives published a collection of declassified documents, mostly consisting of communications between US officials working in embassies and USIS centers in Dhaka and in India, and officials in Washington DC. These documents show that US officials working in diplomatic institutions within Bangladesh used the terms ‘selective genocide’and ‘genocide’ (Blood telegram) to describe events they had knowledge of at the time. They also show that President Nixon, advised by Henry Kissinger, decided to downplay this secret internal advice, because he wanted to protect the interests of Pakistan as he was apprehensive of India's friendship with the USSR, and he was seeking a closer relationship with China, who supported Pakistan.
In his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens elaborates on what he saw as the efforts of Kissinger to subvert the aspirations of independence on the part of the Bengalis. Hitchens not only claims that the term genocide is appropriate to describe the results of the struggle, but also points to the efforts of Henry Kissinger in undermining others who condemned the then ongoing atrocities as being a genocide.

War trial attempts

Immediately after the war, the topic of putting the war criminals to trial arose. Just as the war ended, Bangladeshi prime minister Tajuddin Ahmed admitted to Professor Anisuzzaman that the trial of the alleged Pakistani military personnel may not be possible because of pressures from the U.S., and that neither India nor the Soviet Union were interested in seeing a trial.
On December 24, 1971 Home minister of Bangladesh A. H. M. Qamaruzzaman said, "war criminals will not survive from the hands of law. Pakistani military personnel who were involved with killing and raping have to face tribunal." In a joint statement after a meeting between Sheikh Mujib and Indira Gandhi, the Indian government assured that it would give all necessary assistance for bringing war criminals into justice. By July 1972, the Bangladeshi government reduced the number of alleged war criminals from 400 to 195. In his book Liberation and Beyond, JN Dixit wrote that the Bangladeshi government was not interested about gathering evidence about the handful of war criminals. He was uncertain about the reason for this approach, and considered that it may have been the result of a negotiation between the Bangladeshi and Pakistani governments. He thought that Sheikh Mujib did not want to do anything that would stop Pakistan and other Muslim states from giving Bangladesh official recognition. Worldwide support in favor of war trials faded after the 3 nation agreement.
On December 29, 1991 one of the alleged war criminals, Ghulam Azam, became the Chairman or Aamir of Jamaat-e-Islami which prompted political debates. As a result, a National Committee was established after a proposal of writer and political activist Jahanara Imam. Subsequently on February 14, 1992 "Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee" was formed to bring Azam and his followers to trial. On March 6, 52 Muslim clerics supported the effort. An open court named Gonoadalot was formed and, on March 26, 1992, Jahanara Imam read out the verdict against Azam. Following the verdict Sheikh Hasina moved a proposal in the house to begin the prosecution, but it was not passed.
A case was filed in the Federal Court of Australia on September 20, 2006 for alleged crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity during 1971 by the Pakistani Armed Forces and its collaborators. Raymond Solaiman & Associates acting for the plaintiff Mr. Solaiman, have released a press statement which among other things says:
We are glad to announce that a case has been filed in the Federal Magistrate's Court of Australia today under the Genocide Conventions Act 1949 and War Crimes Act. This is the first time in history that someone is attending a court proceeding in relation to the [alleged] crimes of Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity during 1971 by the Pakistani Armed Forces and its collaborators. The Proceeding number is SYG 2672 of 2006. On October 25, 2006, a direction hearing will take place in the Federal Magistrates Court of Australia, Sydney registry before Federal Magistrate His Honor Nicholls.
On May 21, 2007, at the request of the applicant "Leave is granted to the applicant to discontinue his application filed on September 20, 2006." (FILE NO: (P)SYG2672/2006)

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