Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

Bangladesh: A Nation Divided? – Part 4

By Dr. Habib Siddiqui

How many people died in the civil war of 1971 in East Pakistan that culminated in the emergence of Bangladesh? Is the casualty figure even important?

No official record exists. Instead, what we have are conflicting claims on the two sides – the perpetrators and the victims - that are off by a factor of 100!

As has been noted in the Guardian, UK (May 23, 2011 -
: by Mr. Serajur Rahman, who was the deputy head of the BBC Bangla Program, when Sheikh Mujib arrived in London (after being released from Pakistan prison) on January 8, 1972 and was met at the Claridge Hotel by many Bangladeshis, he was informed there that based on information from various sources that up to "three lakh" (300,000) people might have died in the conflict. However, during his interview with journalist David Frost later, Sheikh Mujib was heard saying that "three millions of my people" were killed by the Pakistanis. That mention of the 3 million casualties would eventually become the official version in Bangladesh. As we have already noted the Hamoodur Rahman Commission (HCR) Report in Pakistan, in contrast, puts the figure at only 26,000.

This gross anomaly with the casualty figures reminds me of the response I wrote to al-Ittihad (a Quarterly Journal of Islamic Studies, published from the USA) back in December 1980 challenging its editor - M. Tariq Quraishi’s views on the split of Pakistan. In the July-September, 1980 issue, Mr. Quraishi, commenting on Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, had stated, “Mujibur Rahman’s honeymoon with his people was of short duration. Once his treason was exposed, he was assassinated.” I was then a graduate student at the University of California, and found the remark absurd. In my letter, published under the title “Who was the traitor?” (al-Ittihad, vol. 18, no. 2, 1981, pp. 45-6), I wrote, “Muslims would like to know the real reasons that brought the emergence of Bangladesh, not lies. The second largest Muslim country [Bangladesh] came into being not for the so-called ‘treason’ of Sk. Mujib. It was solely owing to the mass extermination of Bangalis (3 million people were killed, 0.2 million women were raped, 90% of these victims were Muslims) by the heinous un-Islamic forces of Pakistan’s Army to preserve the Yahya-Bhutto brand of Islam. Bangladesh would have stayed with Pakistan had her rulers respected the majority wish (i.e., transfer of power to the Awami League, which captured 160 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly election of 1970)…. During the first 25 days of March, hundreds of innocent people were killed in several cities of the then East Pakistan by the Pakistani forces. The time was ripe for Sk. Mujib to declare independence during this period, had he really wished. But he did not. He fell victim to Yahya’s satanic ‘time-buying’ phony talks. The result was the genocide of an un-prepared people by a minority. The very night of March 25, when the blood-thirsty Pakistan Army, under the satanic guidance of Generals Hamid and Tikka Khan started killing its ‘24-year twin-brothers,’ the unity of Pakistan was dead; a new generation of nationalist Bangladeshis was born, which eventually led to the emergence of Bangladesh…”

In his long response to my letter, Mr. Quraishi, quoted at length from Dr. Matiur Rahman’s book – Bangladesh Today – an indictment and a lament – trying to prove that the hegemonic tendency of India was at the root of the split and that one of the latter’s objectives was to “embitter relationship between east and west Pakistan so that any reconciliation between them would be rendered impossible. This last objective could be realized only by means of a civil war, in which each side would commit unforgivable atrocities, perpetrate crimes against humanity, which would continue to hurt them as memories long…” (al-Ittihad, op. cit., pp. 46-49)

While Dr. Rahman may be absolutely right about the intentions of India to see Pakistan divided, it would be foolish to overlook the culpability of West Pakistani leaders whose attitude towards East Pakistan had been anything but brotherly. To put it bluntly, it was colonial, which had only widened the gap between the two wings ensuring that the majority wing had no participation in the governance of the country. Pakistan’s colonial policy was simply unsustainable for a geographically divided third world country. And the 1970 election result was a rude awakening call for mending the broken fences; it was Pakistan’s last best hope to remain united. By refusing to address the disparity issue that was at the heart of East Pakistani grievances, Pakistani leaders played into the hands of India, giving a reality to their strategic dream of a dismembered Pakistan, which they hate to confess. They also forgot to learn from history that whenever any government becomes destructive of its people's inalienable rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, it has ceased its right to govern, and that people has every right to alter or abolish it.

Dr. Rahman’s claims that Sheikh Mujib refused to accept premiership of united Pakistan and that “Each concession extracted from Yahya Khan was used as a springboard for the next demand” seem too ludicrous to be taken seriously. As reviewed earlier, General Yahya Khan wanted to retain power while Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto wanted to attain it. The transfer of power to Sheikh Mujib was not part of that formula; the powerful civilian-military clique in Larkana and Islamabad had no wish to transfer power to Mujib. Had they done so, Pakistan would have survived and remained united. My view on this matter has not changed in the last four decades and has been echoed recently by B. Z. Khasru and many other researchers. In his book, Myths and Facts of Bangladesh Liberation War: How India, U.S., China and the USSR shaped the outcome, Khasru shows that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had a tacit preference to let East Pakistan secede (and leave West Pakistan to be governed by him) than be the subject to a weak federation ruled by Bengalis. Bhutto preferred power over unity of Pakistan. Yahya Khan’s allusion to Mujib as the future PM of Pakistan was more to scare the politicians in West Pakistan and the army to unite behind him than to hand-over power.

As to the casualty figure, Mr. Quraishi commented, “Again the figure of three million Bengalis killed by the Pakistani troops, as alleged by you, is an echo of the infamies created India and her anti-Islamic troupe.” He went on to write, “No wonder even the subsequent government in Bangladesh, despite its venom, could not corroborate it. Mr. Matiur Rahman quotes William Drummond of the Guardian, London, June 6, 1972: ‘My judgment, based on numerous trips around Bangladesh and extensive discussions with many people at the village level as well as in the government, is that the three million deaths is an exaggeration so gross as to be absurd. Since the third week of March (1972), when the inspector general’s office in Bangladesh home ministry began its field investigations, there have been about 2,000 complaints from citizens about the deaths at the hands of the Pakistan Army.’” (Op. cit., p. 48; William Drummond, The Missing Millions, The Guardian, London, 6 June, 1972.)

As to the matter of allegations relating to rape of Bangladeshi women, the HRC Report said, “The falsity of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's repeated allegation that Pakistani troops had raped 200,000 Bengali girls in 1971 was borne out when the abortion team he had commissioned from Britain in early 1972 found that its workload involved the termination of only a hundred or more pregnancies.”

One can understand why raped victims would not come forward because of the social stigma that they might face in a conservative Muslim society like Bangladesh. One can also disagree with the HRC Report, accusing it to be highly biased to save the neck or skin of the war criminals of the Pakistan military apparatus. But, what about the Guardian’s William Drummond? Can he be accused of twisting facts? I was somewhat dumbfounded by such citations of which I had no knowledge. I needed to do my homework and check the veracity of claims and counterclaims on either side from both available and reliable sources.

It is true that within the days of his return to Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had asked the Awami League workers and elected members of the 1970 election to collect detailed reports on genocide, arson and looting committed by the Pakistani Army in Bangladesh and to submit those data to the Awami League Office within 15 days. (The Bangladesh Observer, January 16, 1972) He also formally instituted a 12-member Inquiry Committee on January 29, 1972. However, the Government of Bangladesh never said a word about officially receiving the report, which was, as per the original Gazette notification, due on or before 30 April 1972 or what happened to the Inquiry Committee's work.

In January 1972 Sheikh Mujib also announced a compensation scheme for the families of those who had been killed at the hands of the Pakistan Army and their collaborators. Under the scheme, every victim's family was promised TK 2,000 (taka) as compensation. A media campaign was started to encourage victim's families to apply for the compensation. However, as per Ministry of Finance, Government of Bangladesh, only 72,000 claims were received. The relatives of 50,000 victims were awarded the declared sum of money. [Behind the Myth of Three million by M. Abdul Mu'min Chowdhury, p. 29]

In Chittagong, during the military occupation, one of our female Bengali tenants was abducted by Urdu-speaking Razakars. After the liberation, several women, once kept as sex slaves of the military, were reportedly rescued from various army camps. Some of the victims even included wives of fleeing Bengali officers and soldiers who had joined the liberation war. They were given the honorific title of Birangana (or heroine) to alleviate any social stigma that they might face in the society, and the government tried to provide incentives for their repatriation into the society.

Regrettably, no further Bangladesh government initiative was launched to record the casualty figures about the dead or raped victims of the 1971 War of Liberation in Bangladesh.

In late June of 2005 the Office of the Historian of the United States Department of State held a two-day conference on U.S. policy in South Asia between 1961 and 1972. 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 Mobin 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. A 2008 study in the British Medical Journal concluded that 269,000 civilians were killed by all sides in the war.

In her recently published book “Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War,” Dr. Sarmila Bose (who is a senior research associate at Oxford University) has also challenged the Bangladesh government’s official figures on death casualty and rape victims. She estimates that during the conflict of 1971 a total of somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 combatants and non-combatants perished on all sides. She also raises troubling questions about veracity – a massacre said to have killed 8,000 Hindus probably killed only 16 at most – as well as its effect.

Dr. Bose says that both Pakistan and Bangladesh are still “imprisoned by wartime partisan myths". She has also recorded cases of Bengalis committing "appalling atrocities" against the Biharis and other pro-Pakistani elements during and soon after independence. "In the ethnic violence unleashed in the name of Bengali nationalism, non-Bengali men, women and children were slaughtered," Dr. Bose says, arguing such atrocities took place in the towns of Chittagong, Khulna, Santahar and Jessore during and after the 10-month war. "Non-Bengali victims of ethnic killings by Bengalis numbered hundreds or even thousands per incident... men, women and children were massacred on the basis of ethnicity and the killings were executed with shocking bestiality."

In his book - Death By Government,Professor Rudolph J. Rummel estimates that perhaps 150,000 Biharis were murdered by the vengeful victors in a “brutal bloodletting following the expulsion of the Pakistani army” after 16 December, 1971. (p. 334) Qutubuddin Aziz’s book "Blood and Tears" contains the harrowing tales of inhuman crimes committed on the Biharis, West Pakistanis and pro-Pakistani Bengalis living in East Pakistan during that period. Quoting various citations, he estimates that between 100,000 and 500,000 Urdu-speaking and pro-Pakistani Bengalis (e.g., Razakars) might have been killed by the Bengali militants.

Again all such claims on any side are only guess works, and nothing more.

As a teenager back then, I can only testify to the things that I witnessed or heard from reliable sources. In 1972 when my cadet college reconvened, I was sad to learn about the death of some of our cadets and instructors – Bengali and Urdu-speaking. Eight of our students and 10 staff members got killed, and 4 were missing (after the war). That is like 5% of the entire cadet college population! While such a small sample cannot be generalized to mimic the entire population in Bangladesh, it does underscore the enormity of xenophobic violence on all sides.

Cadet Shah Abdul Momin (Hitlu) was one of the first freedom fighters to die in Bogra on March 29, fighting against the military. Cadet Hannan Ashraf, a 12-year Urdu-speaking student, was killed along with his parents by local Bangalis in Thakurgaon in March. Being away from home his older brother cadet Hasnat miraculously survived. Many Urdu-speaking cadets never returned and some later settled in Pakistan. I don’t blame them for making that decision. We, as a nation, have failed to safeguard their lives and properties!

There was wanton violence on both sides from March to December of 1971. With rapidly changing events, the former tormentors had become victims and vice-versa. And being caught in the middle, many innocent lives were unnecessarily lost.

My friend, cadet Tazeem Hasan’s older brother – Shameem bhai - a Chittagong Medical College student then, who was affiliated with the Students’ League (the student wing of Mujib’s Awami League), was saved by his mother in what she described as a tug-of-war between her and some Bihari Razakars trying to snatch him away. Later, however, Shameem bhai was picked up from the college campus by pro-Pakistan members of the Al-Badr paramilitary forces and taken to the Fayes Lake area to be shot at. Fortunately, after much torture, they decided not to kill him and instead handed him over to Salauddin Qader Chowdhury, son of F.Q. Chowdhury (ex- Speaker of the Pakistan National Assembly), in their Goods Hill house, possibly to extract information about the Mukti Bahini. There Shameem bhai was tortured inhumanly and then handed over to the military who took him to the Circuit House, which by then has become a torture house for torturing pro-liberation forces. For three days, he was hung upside down from the ceiling and beaten mercilessly, and then handed over to the prison authorities where he stayed until being released after Bangladesh got liberated. As I hinted earlier, there were many Bengali students like him that suffered serious injuries under detention, and many were killed, too.

The railway colonies in the Pahartali and Tiger Pass/Dewan Hat area of Chittagong city were notorious venues for xenophobic crimes. Many low-income Urdu speaking employees of the East Pakistan Railway had traditionally lived there. Before liberation, some Bangladeshi youths were killed and tortured there by the Urdu-speaking Razakars. After 16 December, I heard that the Urdu-speaking people living there were targeted by some members of the Mukti Bahini for their alleged Razakar activities. And this, in spite of the government directives not to take law into their hands!

Oddly, soon after 16 December, there seemed to be a mushrooming of a new brand of armed Mukti Bahini (the so-called 16th Division) – who during the 9-month long liberation war did not shoot a single bullet against the Pakistan military! As opportunists, they were taking advantage of the new reality. They appeared more zealous than the real Mukti-Bahini in some of the post-liberation period vendetta against the pro-Pakistani elements still living inside Bangladesh.

In certain parts of the newly liberated Bangladesh there were reported incidents of forcible and unlawful possession and occupation of properties, once owned by the Urdu-speaking people. In our neighborhood, a “16th division Mukti Bahini” hijacked the car of Mr. Baig, a very nice Urdu-speaking gentleman, who had done his utmost to save our entire community from any Pakistani inflicted harm. But after the war, we could not save his property! Those rifle or gun totting 16th Division guys were irresponsibly trigger-happy!

Taking advantage of the almost total breakdown of the law and order situation soon after 16 December, some of the Bengalis were hunting for the Urdu-speaking people, still stranded in Bangladesh, for sheer greed, if not for tit-for-tat revenge. Out of fear for their lives and those of the loved ones, many of the wealthy Urdu-speaking people fled Bangladesh, and many took shelter in the Red Cross camps. Many of them wanted to sell off their properties and possessions for a very small fraction of the market price. Most of their homes were later taken over by the Bangladesh government and put under Mukti Joddha (Freedom Fighter) Trust to cater for the needs of the family members of the freedom fighters – dead or alive.

My cousin Reena’s family who’s married to a bi-lingual Muslim from Calcutta did not feel safe in Bangladesh. Her husband, Abdul Mannan, was the Assistant Regional Director of Radio Pakistan, Chittagong. He was instrumental in transmitting Sheikh Mujib’s March 7 historic speech from Ramna Park when government directives were against any such transmission. And yet, he, his siblings and parents, living in Chittagong, felt insecure. They later settled in Rawalpindi.

In his book ‘Ami Bijoy Dekhechi’ (I Have Seen Victory), journalist M.R. Akhtar Mukul, who ran the Shwadhin Bangla Betar Kendra (Free Bangladesh Radio Center), stated: “For three days in Shantahar medieval fiendish killings have been carried out. Now the town cannot be entered into, because of the stench from the dead bodies.” He continued, “The non-Bengalis from Jaipurhat-Pachbibi area who have been fleeing towards Dhaka through Bogra were finished off here on the bank of the river. Women and children have been kept unharmed in a homestead.”

A Urdu-speaking friend of mine, Dr. Jawaid Ahsan (who was a fellow cadet then) said that he had personally witnessed the killing of scores of Biharis by Bengali vigilantes in the early days of the civil war. However, he and his family members were unharmed in their neighborhood in Rangpur. Ian Jack has also noted in theGuardian that Bengali jute mill workers in Khulna slaughtered large numbers – probably thousands - of their fellow Urdu-speaking workers on 28 March 1971. (As I have noted earlier, soon after the Pakistan military had moved in Khulna, my cousin Munna was picked up and he vanished; possibly killed by the Biharis.) After liberation,“Bengali mill workers repeated their original atrocity of the previous year and sent thousands more non-Bengalis into the rivers,” notes Ian Jack. [Guardian, 20 May, 2011]

The matter of the killings of the Bihari Muslims and Razakars was brought up by Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in her interview of Sheikh Mujib. She mentioned how on December 18, two days after Bangladesh had achieved independence, in Dhaka Stadium she had witnessed the Liberation War hero Kader Siddique (Bagha Siddique) lynching the presumed ‘Razakars’ with bayonets while their hands and legs remained fastened with ropes. “He had bullets loaded in his guns, he could have had shot them to death.” Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib did not believe her and abruptly stopped the interview.

The greatest casualty in war times is always the truth. And that is what seems to have happened with Bangladesh/East Pakistan liberation/civil war of 1971. It is conceivable that while Bangladesh authorities exaggerated the casualty figures of their Bangladeshi victims to draw sympathy to their cause, they discounted the casualty figures of those Urdu-speaking and pro-Pakistani residents. Similarly, the lower estimates provided by the HRC Report seem aimed at arresting anti-Pakistan feelings and possibly exonerating the war crimes of their planners.

History emerges only slowly from the passion-filled context of contemporary events. Forty-two years have passed by since Bangladesh earned her independence. I think we are now better placed to look at this dark chapter in history objectively and dispassionately. It is, therefore, high time to set up a joint Bangladesh-Pakistan commission to investigate and prepare a report on this highly controversial issue around the 1971 casualty figures.

Whatever the true figures are, there is no denying that Pakistan government’s actions in 1971 in the then East Pakistan were utterly criminal and inexcusable by any book, something that was also admitted in the HRC Report, recommending court martials for several top generals. Their actions should fall under war crimes and can’t be whitewashed. The soldiers that they brought in from West Pakistan were brainwashed to justify their violent actions against the Bengalis –who were different in identity – in language, diet, dress and customs.

And if journalist Anthony Mascarenhas can be believed, he reported that senior military officers in East Pakistan had told him that they were seeking a "final solution", determined "to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing 2 million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years." [Genocide, Sunday Times, London, 18 June, 1971] In their heinous crimes it did not matter that 90% of their victims shared the same religion as they did.

Ultimately, of course, neither the numbers nor the labels would matter. What matters is the pragmatic wisdom that political problems should not and cannot be solved through the barrel of a gun.

>>>> To be continued…

- Asian Tribune -

Bangladesh: A Nation Divided? – Part 4
diconary view
Share this