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: Continue reading “East Pakistan 1971”

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