East Pakistan 1971

This topic comes up every year in December (for obvious reasons) and this year Dawn has published an unusually good summary of events (from a liberal/progressive/reasonable Pakistani POV) and Ahsan Butt has an excellent article about the thinking behind the genocide. You can read these, or read one of the many good books written about the events leading up to the Pakistan army’s surrender in East Pakistan. I have something of a personal interest in this subject (my father and two uncles served in various capacities in East Pakistan in 1971).  In this post, I just want to share my personal opinion about a few aspects of this story. This will likely upset many people, both in Pakistan AND Bangladesh, but my aim is not to upset people, just to get as close to the truth as possible. So here goes..

How many people were killed in East Pakistan and who killed them?

This question gets debated every year; Bangladesh says 3 million Bengalis were killed by the Pakistani army in one of the great genocides of the 20th century. Pakistani nationalists either deny the killings altogether, or insist that “only a few thousand” were killed (which is pretty awful in itself, when you think about it) and that shit happens in civil wars, everyone should move on. In addition, Pakistanis also blame the Bengalis in turn for two separate rounds of killings. The first one in March 1971 when Bengali mobs are accused of killing West Pakistani civilians and Biharis during the civil disobedience phase of events and a second (and bigger) round of killings that took place after the Pakistani army surrendered, when the Mukti Bahini and Bengali mobs took revenge against collaborators and against the Bihari community in general.  

The army’s refusal to call a national assembly session after the Awami League had won the elections led to province wide and near-total civil disobedience in early March 1971; civil disobedience was so complete that the military leadership was unable to find a Bengali judge willing to administer the oath of office to their new governor; banks, post offices, civil administration, everything ground to a complete halt; cantonments were running short of food because no one would sell it to them. The Biharis were Indian immigrants (mostly, not exclusively, from the state of Bihar; they were Urdu speaking, generally leaned Islamist, and supported the army during its crackdown against the Bengalis; many of them joined special “Razakar” (volunteer) groups that fought alongside the Pakistani army and served as their eyes and ears. Many of their members also took the opportunity to settle personal scores and grab Bengali (especially Hindu Bengali) property. Biharis also played a disproportionate role in  two paramilitary organizations set up by the Islamist Jamat Islami party (Al Shams and Al Badar) whose members did much the same as the razakars, but with far greater enthusiasm and ideological commitment. Incidentally, both the razakars and  AlShams and Albadar did have Bengali members, though this is now underplayed in Bangladeshi historiography.  The Jamat e Islami related groups (Alshams and Albadar) are also the prime suspects in a major crime that occurred on the eve of surrender, when many leading Bengali nationalist and progressive intellectuals in Dhaka were mysteriously picked up and killed, most likely as a heinous and calculated attempt to “decapitate” the new state whose independence seemed to be imminent.

So who is telling the truth? No one will ever know with total certainty because the opportunity to systematically examine these events, interview survivors, collect records and produce statistics was lost in the chaos that followed the independence of Bangladesh. What follows is my personal opinion, based on all that I have read and heard:

A. Killings by Bengali mobs in March 1971. When civil disobedience was launched, the Pakistani army was not in a position to protect every West Pakistani across East Pakistan. Within the major cantonments, they obviously had the upper hand, but in isolated places, individual West Pakistani officials and their families were vulnerable to Mob violence. There were a few instances of violence against Biharis before the military operation was launched on 25th March, but no widespread or systematic killing had taken place before the military operation. When the army launched its military operation, isolated West Pakistanis became targets of revenge attacks. Several were killed, including several women, and in many cases the bodies were horribly desecrated. The total number killed in these actions actually can be determined (at least in principle) since we are talking about officials and their families and their fate is relatively easy to track down. I personally am not aware of the total number killed, but I think they are likely to be in the low hundreds at most. This is tragic, but is certainly not a genocide.

B. Killings by the Pakistani army. By early March the West Pakistani army  was clearly preparing for a military solution to the “Bengali problem”, even if the final decision had not yet been taken. A plan to impose “law and order” (mostly order, not law) had already been prepared by Eastern Command under the direction of General Yaqoob Khan, then GOC (General officer commanding) Eastern command (the plan was called operation Blitz). In early March, General Yaqoob either lost his nerve or (as projected in later hagiography, supervised by General sahib himself after December 1971, but never mentioned before that date), was smart enough to see that it was a bad idea. In either case, he suddenly left Dhaka and went to Karachi. According to an eyewitness account narrated by the historian Major Agha Amin, he was considered to have deserted and was interrogated at a military facility in Karachi. It is said that General Yahya Khan wanted him court-martialed, but the idea was dropped (perhaps it would not have looked good, perhaps his aristocratic background helped, perhaps something else was involved; now that the actors involved have passed away, we may never know; no official record of these events has come to light. While it is now commonplace to say that he resigned rather than undertake military action, the fact is that unlike the principled resignation of the governor Admiral Ahsan, which is well documented, there is no actual record of General Yaqoob objecting to the military action or resigning in protest; he seems to have more or less left his post without going through any such formality).

General Tikka Khan was then sent in as his replacement, and the (usually small) Pakistani garrison in East Pakistan was built up by airlifting several battalions of fresh troops from West Pakistan. General Mitha, one of the most professionally competent officers in the army, was in charge of the troop movement and stayed around to supervise the initial military action. On the 25th, this somewhat augmented military garrison launched “Operation Searchlight“, arresting Sheikh Mujib, trying to arrest other Awami League leaders (with less success; most were able to hide and eventually made it out to India and safety) and cracking down with extreme violence against all manifestations of Bengali nationalism. One of the targets that night was Dhaka University, a stronghold of nationalist students. It was shelled with artillery, and attacked with mortars and machine guns and a large number of students was massacred. Other Bengalis had set up improvised roadblocks all across town, obviously imagining something close to a typical South Asian police operation, they were completely stunned by an army willing to use tanks and indiscriminate force. Bengalis who made the mistake of standing on those barricades or even close to them got shot. An unknown number (dozens? Hundreds?) died.

Those were the initial civilian casualties. Then the real killing started. There were a 5 battalions of the East Bengal regiment and a regimental center in East Pakistan, mostly manned and officered by Bengalis. The Pakistan army either suspected (correctly) that ex-military officers sympathetic to the Awami League had made contingency plans that involved these units rising in revolt in case of a crackdown, or they just did not trust them, but in any case, they had drawn up plans for disarming and rounding up these units. Similar plans were put into action against Bengali paramilitary (East Pakistan Rifles) and police units. Several units, including were successfully disarmed and most members were arrested. Then hundreds of these men were killed in the subsequent days or weeks. It is not clear that there was any specific order from the top to kill them; it seems that the West Pakistani army officer’s blood was up, and several went ahead and killed prisoner and past comrades in cold blood. Some of these killings are justified as revenge for EBR having rebelled and killed West Pakistani officers and families, but it should be noted that disarmed officers and men were killed in several cases where no rebellion had taken place or where it had been thwarted before it could do any damage.  These killings are documented in more than one book written by Pakistani officers who did not participate in them and felt outraged by them.

In peripheral areas, where the West Pakistani presence was limited, Bengali soliders and police, supported by the civilian population, were able to capture several smaller towns and a large chunk of the second largest East Pakistani city, the port city of Chittagong (where then Major Zia ur Rahman, a Bengali officer in the EBR, captured the radio station and managed to transmit the first declaration of independence, picked up by a passing ship and replayed on BBC). Several West Pakistani officers and families trapped in these places were massacred. Larger and better equipped West Pakistani units gradually recaptured all these towns and there were multiple incidents of indiscriminate killing of Bengalis, whether bystanders or captured rebels. In the most egregious case, a Pakistani officer in Comilla (a Colonel Yaqub) felt (incorrectly as it turned out) that he was under threat of being surrounded by Bengali rebels (mostly police and paramilitary). He happened to be holding hundreds of disarmed Bengali police and troops. For some reason, he felt that these prisoners were an “internal threat” to his position, so he had them taken out in batches to a nearby squash court and shot. The bodies were buried using a bulldozer. 17 officers and 1325 other ranks were executed in this one massacre. When Chittagong was recaptured, the army units there killed prisoners as well. These events are documented in Pakistani books or reported by first hand participants.

As the army moved out of Dhaka to recapture the country, the use of force against civilians varied according to the whims of the local commander. Some were professional and avoided all indiscriminate slaughter. Armed resistance was generally weak and the ill equipped, ill-organized and outnumbered Bengali soldiers and police who had rebelled generally opted to escape to India once the army moved against them. Because of this, there are some Pakistani officers who recaptured towns and enclaves with hardly a shot being fired. Unfortunately, they seem to have been a minority. The more common procedure was to shoot first and ask questions later.  Some officers were especially notorious in this regard. Brigadier Jahanzeb Arbab (later Lt General and governor of Sindh) for example was particularly fond of scorched earth tactics and wherever his brigade marched, the road was surrounded on both sides by burning villages and dead Bengalis. These victims were likely in the thousands soon enough. To get a flavor of the thinking here is a paragraph from a post by respected military historian Hamid Hussain:

A Pushtun ex-cavalry officer has eloquently expressed this thinking. During a conversation in early 1971, he dismissed Bengalis as cowards and predicted that they will run when first shot is fired. He confidently stated, “Do you know what an armoured regiment can do in Bengal? It will go through the Bengalis (he used the derogatory term ‘Bingo’) like a knife through the butter”.40 In March 1971, when the military action started, most officers and rank and file justified their actions on the basis of whatever seems plausible to them. At 16th Division HQ, Anthony Mascarenhas was told, “we are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing off two million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years”. At 9th Division HQ at Comilla, Major Bashir justified the military action by stating that Bengali Muslims were “Hindu at heart” and this was a war between pure and impure. His superior Colonel Naim justified the killing of Hindu civilian population to prevent a Hindu take over of Bengali commerce and culture.42 A senior officer in Khulna told Maurice Quintance of Reuters, “It took me five days to get control of this area. We killed everyone who came in our way. We never bothered to count bodies”.43 Captain Chaudhry commented after the March operation that, “Bengalis have been sorted out well and proper — at least for a generation”. Major Malik agreeing with this assessment, remarked that, “Yes, they only know the language of force. Their history says so”.

The army had been told that the entire “problem” in East Pakistan had been caused by Hindus and treacherous Bengalis who had joined them. While several commanders killed Bengali civilians almost at random if they happened to come in the way (or just be unlucky enough to be standing nearby) during an operation, once the objective had been achieved, they were usually not out there looking for random Bengalis to kill. But Hindus were another matter. In several units, it became standard policy to kill any Hindu they happened to find. Of course, the Hindus of East Pakistan learned this soon enough, and they headed out towards India whenever possible. Many (tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands) died of disease and starvation along the way or in overcrowded refugee camps in India. There were some 10 million Hindus in East Pakistan, and almost to a man, they either got shot or left for India. Many Muslim Bengalis left as well, but the exodus (and the victims) were disproportionately Hindu. This was one of the biggest refugee crises of modern times and is undoubtedly a war crime and an attempted genocide. Did three million die? Probably not. But not for lack of trying. Those killed by shooting or shelling (or air attack; there are documented instances of crowds of Bengali civilians being strafed from the air) were probably in the thousands, but not in the millions. The apologists (including Sharmila Bose) who say that the numbers killed cannot have been that large because all the documented killings “only” add up to a few thousand at most, are ignoring uncounted and unrecorded dirt poor villagers killed casually and indiscriminately  as “collateral damage” during military operations, but they are probably correct in saying that the total killed in this manner is not in the millions. But VERY large numbers (tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands) did die in refugee camps and they too should be counted as casualties of this genocide.

Incidentally, Tikka Khan was removed as commander Eastern command in April and General Niazi took his place. Much of the indiscriminate killing happened under his watch, not Tikka Khan’s, but since Tikka remained governor, and since he had been in command when the operation started, he continues to be labeled “the butcher of Bengal”. A good deal of butchery happened in the first 2 weeks on his watch, but then, even more happened in the next 8 months, so perhaps this identification of Tikka Khan as the main person responsible for the killings needs some revision. It is in fact likely that while he did not prevent or punish this behavior, he did not order it either. Niazi and several staff officers made many more crude remarks about killing Bengalis than Tikka Khan ever did and did far more to encourage an atmosphere of impunity and indiscriminate use of force.  In any case, most soldiers in the army, from the chief (General Hamid) down to the lowliest private, were ready to kill Hindus indiscriminately for no more reason than the fact that they were Hindus. They did not need orders from Tikka Khan to do this.  This is not to exculpate him, but just to fill in the rest of the story. (General Hamid is known to have gone around inspecting troops and asking the soldiers “Jawan, kitna Hindu mara” (young man, how many Hindus did you kill?).

The Hindu-centric nature of this genocide was underplayed by both the Bengali nationalists and the Indian government, and both had good operational reasons to do that. The Bengali nationalists wanted to paint this as a West Pakistan versus Bengali war, not a West Pakistani Muslim army versus Hindus war. And it was a war against nationalist Bengalis, it just happens to be the case that when it came to the genocide of innocents, it was Hindus who were the biggest target. The Indian government had at least two reasons to downplay this fact: one, they did not want to fan the flames of communal violence within India. And secondly, they too understood that to get an independent Bangladesh, they needed this to be West Pakistan versus East Pakistan, not West Pakistan versus just the Hindus of East Pakistan.

Rapes. It is widely accepted that there were many cases of rape in the course of the military crackdown. But again, the numbers are vigorously disputed (nobody denies that some rapes happened); The Bangladeshis sometimes claim that a million women were raped. This is almost certainly an exaggeration. Pakistani sources (and Sharmila Bose) think there were very few rapes because relatively few women are on the record as having reported being raped. The problem here is that given the stigma attached to being raped, it was natural for most women to hide this fact. The other problem is that most of the raping was not a matter of the army invading enemy territory and raping women the day they captured the place (the way rapes are traditionally imagined to happen in a war). In some cases, this kind of rape may indeed have happened too, but most of the rape was of a different kind. Those units led by officers who were willing to do this or at least, willing to look the other way, once they settled in a particular place, would start looking for women to have sex with on a regular basis. Generally, these would be the poorest and most vulnerable women around. In many cases, they were procured by local razakars or by local Bengali gangsters. These gangsters were still around when the war ended. Many became local politicians in the new nation. It was not easy to find women willing to come forward and record their sufferings with their procurers and tormentors still around and still powerful. The true number of rapes will never be known, but from the memories of soldiers who served there, it is clear that there was widespread sexual abuse of local women and it was mostly NOT a matter of one day going out and raping someone on the street or in their house, but of women being forced to come to the camp to be used for sex (obviously against their will, hence obviously and correctly categorized as rape).

Bengali resistance went through several phases. The first phase was the one described above, as the crackdown began, many soldiers, paramilitaries and police rebelled and took over peripheral towns and enclaves, but in the next one or two months, the army was able to recapture all major towns and communication links. Ruthless use of force and collective punishment cowed the population. Hindus and all politically active people escaped to India or died trying. By June 1971, the “trains were running on time”.  Tikka Khan as the governor was primarily responsible for restoring essential services and re-establishing a modicum of administrative authority, but this control did not extend to the villages. The villagers were dirt poor and were not armed and were rarely able to launch any significant attacks on the army, but neither were they under close control. Meanwhile, the Indians arranged for thousands of volunteers to be trained in Guerrilla warfare and gradually a real insurgency did build up. These rebels were not able to kill large numbers or carry out any large operations, but their presence made the country unsafe and their abilities gradually grew with time. That said, even in late November they were not in a position to independently hold terrain or carry out attacks of the sort that the US army faced in Vietnam for example. The Bengali population, especially those with any education, were hostile and angry, and it is very likely that they would eventually have made continued West Pakistani rule impossible, but they were not in that position in November 1971. What liberated Bangladesh was the Indian army. Bengali resistance certainly helped, acting as the eyes and ears of the advancing Indian army and conducting sabotage and disruption behind the lines (and in many cases, for example in the crossing of the Meghna, providing small watercraft to help the Indians get across), but without the Indian army, there would have been no Bangladesh in December 1971.

The Military Defeat. Pakistani strategic doctrine held that the defense of East Pakistan was in the West. In 1971, with the local population almost universally hostile, with only about 50,000 regular West Pakistani troops in the entire province, 1000 miles from home, demoralized by 9 months of insurgency, cut-off from resupply and surrounded by superior Indian forces, there was no expectation that Eastern Command could resist a full-fledged Indian invasion for months or years. Instead, the plan was for them to hold strong points and delay the Indian advance while the much larger army in West Pakistan attacked India and forced them to back off. Behind this theory was the understanding that foreign powers (China and the US) would also step in to save Pakistan. By late November, Indian troops were constantly shelling Pakistani positions, and in several areas had advanced a short distance into East Pakistan, but no full-scale invasion had been launched. With the situation in East Pakistan deteriorating, the “defense of East Pakistan is in the West” theory was (half-heartedly) put into operation on December 3rd with some air attacks and very limited ground operations. The Indians, who were ready to move in any case, now fully launched their well prepared and planned invasion of East Pakistan. The performance of the Indian army (particularly of 4 corps under General Sagat Singh and 101 communications zone under General Gill and General Nagra) was even better than their own planners had anticipated, while the Pakistani plan failed in many critical respects. Partly this was because the Pakistani army believed that the Indian objective was to liberate limited enclaves in order to set up a Bangladesh government there, and they aimed to prevent this by concentrating relatively large forces in strong points all around the country, with a relatively small force in Dhaka itself. On paper, the plan was to resist the Indians at these strong points as long as possible, then fall back in good order to defend the Dhaka bowl when unable to hold out any longer in the various fortresses. Both aspects of this plan proved fallacious. The Indians, showing unusual initiative and elan, bypassed most of the “strong points” and headed straight for Dhaka at a speed that the Pakistani planners had not anticipated. They completely ruled the skies and made large scale daytime movement impossible. Their advancing troops and the IAF (and a hostile local population) successfully prevented any orderly retreat towards Dhaka. The net result was that the Pakistani army was unable to concentrate the troops it had planned to have available for the defense of Dhaka.  Meanwhile, the whole “defense of the East is in the West” plan had fizzled out completely. Unlike in 1965, the IAF outperformed the PAF, whose commander (Air Marshal Rahim Khan) is on the record as being mostly concerned with saving his best assets for the future (not a bad decision, but hardly conducive to saving East Pakistan) and except in Chambh (where General Iftikhar managed to capture the town against superior forces, but was killed midway through the war), there was hardly any serious advance and instead a fair amount of (mostly empty) terrain was lost in Sindh and Southern Punjab. It is now also known that India had been told by the “great powers” that West Pakistan and Pakistani Kashmir would not be allowed to fall, so their main objective in the West was to hold tight while their forces in the East won the war there. In this they were completely successful.

After the war, General Jacob (chief of staff of the Indian Eastern command) made much of how he got Niazi to surrender Dhaka when “only 3000 Indian troops had reached it and there were 30,000 Pakistani troops there”. His aggressive self-promotion and the inherent attractiveness (for an Indian audience) of a story where India’s Jewish General got Pakistan’s Punjabi loudmouth to surrender even though he could have fought on, has made this a part of the popular lore of the 1971 war, but the fact is that by 14th December the Pakistani high command had lost all hope and fighting spirit and were in any case about to be overwhelmed by an Indian army that had made it to Dhaka faster than anyone expected, while the Pakistani army had failed to fall back for the defense of the city as they had planned. General Rao Farman Ali (who had always been lukewarm about the entire military crackdown) was the first man ready to surrender. Meanwhile, General Rahim Khan had abandoned his division (which had failed to fall back to defend Dhaka and was in disarray) and ran away to Burma that night in a helicopter (Colonel Bokhari and his fellow pilots in army aviation had done a stellar job throughout the war and capped it off by escaping with their helicopters to Burma, in a long night-time flight carrying nurses and wounded men, and one escaping general). General Rahim Khan was recommended for court martial (for deserting his troops) by the Hamood ur Rahman inquiry commission but instead ended up becoming Secretary General defense (the top civilian official in the defense ministry) under General Zia. Such are the rewards of failure and desertion in Pakistan, if you are senior enough and shameless enough. Meanwhile,the defense of Dhaka was in shambles and most of the “30,000 troops” there were support personnel and civilians, not regular troops organized and ready to defend prepared lines. The surrender was inevitable. It is possible that the public ritual (especially the guard of honor provided to the victorious General Arora by General Niazi’s troops) could have been avoided, but given the mental state of the high command, even that is unlikely, Jacob or no Jacob.

Niazi, once he had decided to surrender, regained his usual bonhomie and was seen sitting with General Nagra (the first Indian commander to enter Dhaka with his forces) and exchanging dirty jokes. He was also in a remarkably good mood at a lunch (complete with silverware) that he provided the victorious Indian generals and their staff on the day of the surrender.

Throughout the war, Kissinger (and his boss Nixon, but the initiative was led by Kissinger) made every effort to avoid a catastrophic Pakistani defeat, including practically begging Chinese representative Huang Hua to get China to intervene militarily on Pakistan’s behalf. It was not the USA, but China that proved smart enough to avoid getting involved. Kissinger, in conversations recorded in the oval office, was even willing to consider nuclear war over this issue! Ironically, today the US gets no thanks from Pakistan for going above and beyond the call of duty in that war, while China gets no blame for sitting it out completely and showing zero enthusiasm for any adventurous move to save East Pakistan (very sensibly so).

There is a school of thought that says that the Pakistani generals knew all along that they were going to lose East Pakistan and even actively encouraged this outcome because they regarded it as a liability. While it is true that in many ways Pakistan became more defensible and a more concentrated opponent of India as a result of 1971, I personally doubt that they were capable of thinking that far ahead. My current assumption is that they really thought they could control the province via a ruthless military crackdown and that Indian military superiority in the East would not be enough to overwhelm their defenses before diplomatic pressure and perhaps Chinese intervention would provide at least a face-saving exit. That it did not happen that way was because the Indians performed better than expected, the defense of Dhaka never got organized the way it was imagined on paper, Indira Gandhi had strong nerves and enough Soviet backing to withstand American diplomatic pressure, and the great powers did not in the end intervene militarily. Pakistan surrendered in the East due to all these factors, and not because General Jacob was such a great negotiator.

After the surrender in East Pakistan, the Yahya Khan Junta tried to hang on in West Pakistan, but faced a near-revolt within the army and ended up giving up power to Bhutto. But all that some other day.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh there were several massacres of Biharis and collaborators, see for example this article. 

For a good (brief) summary of how the Indian military operation succeeded, see here.

This is a Bangladeshi movie about 1971. Ignore the propaganda parts (resistance was not as extensive as shown, attacks like the ones shown against a West Pakistani party were neither common nor that effective, not in Dhaka, though later in the year there was a fair amount of sabotage and (frequently non-fatal, but still effective at creating hunted atmosphere) sniper attacks outside the main cities), but captures the atmosphere well in many other respects..

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

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6 years ago

Minor correction: East Bengal Regiment (EBR) had five battalions in East Pakistan.

Killings of disarmed EBR men, though disproportionate, was an act of revenge for mutiny by some of its units. Some EBR units were involved in atrocities against Punjabi officers. Brian Cloughley’s book quotes a journalist Salik who reported that 2nd EBR killed family members of Punjabi officers.

P. Rao
P. Rao
6 years ago

I was in college during the 1971 conflict between India and Pakistan. Brings back memories. What I read here is on par with my remembrance of things. Thanks for being coherent and factual.

6 years ago

Great work Omar. Would you have an estimate of what percentage of Bengali deaths were Hindus?

I wonder if there is a case for a targeted elimination of Hindus in East Pakistan by the army, that goes beyond “teach them a lesson for siding with the enemy”. As you pointed out very well, all of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India have reasons to suppress any such effort.

Xerxes the Magian
6 years ago
Reply to  Rahul

Very good article by Omar and this hidden genocide of Hindu Bengalis is particularly striking..

6 years ago

Omar, do you have any recommendations for books on the liberation war / third Indopak war? I have access to Sarmila Bose’s Dead Reckoning, but I don’t want to start by reading a revisionist take.

Also, do you have any insight into the Pak Army strategy through 1971? Did they really think the best way to win over east Pakistanis, after having annulled an election, was to massacre Hindus? It seems ridiculous. Were they just irrational bigots?

Brown Pundits