Due to my father’s posting in the Bangladesh Mission to the European Union in Brussels, Belgium, I had a chance to visit many places around Europe. When I first went to Belgium I did not know about genocide. I first learned of the word when we went to the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam in 2015. As I grew, I dived deeper into the subject of genocide through various classes. In Grade 4-5 we learned about genocides such as the Rwandan genocide where an unprecedented 800,000 people were killed within a matter of 100 days or the Cambodian genocide based around the twisted ideology of year zero. But, first and foremost we grow up learning about the holocaust where some six million Jews were killed within six years. Yet never once did I hear about Bangladesh’s genocide.
In 2017 the embassy of Bangladesh as per practice had invited all diplomats and their families. During this specific gathering, they talked about the genocide that took place in 1971. Though I had grown up learning about our Liberation War in all its glory, this was the first time I heard the term genocide being affiliated with the war. In 2019 when I was in Grade 6, all students were told to prepare a project based on any subject they were interested in. I chose the genocide of Bangladesh. It was during this time I gained a good understanding of the topic of genocide and how it fit into Bangladesh’s Liberation War.
During national day celebrations at the Bangladesh mission, a frequent guest was Barrister Ziauddin Ahmed who was an expert on the topic. I learnt many things from his speeches. Moreover, various books given by my parents became the chief sources of information.
In 2019 when I was in Grade 6, all students were told to prepare a project based on any subject they were interested in. I chose the genocide of Bangladesh. It was during this time I gained a good understanding of the topic of genocide and how it fit into Bangladesh’s Liberation War
The first question that arose within my project was the definition of genocide. I came to learn that the definition of genocide was fixed in the international genocide convention of 1948 Article 2. According to it, genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on a group’s conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within a group, Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
After the Liberation War of 1971, the government of Bangladesh enacted the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act 1973 to try the war criminals of 1971. When I interviewed him as part of my class project, Ziauddin uncle told me that the government of Bangladesh tried to widen the scope of the International Genocide Convention of 1948 Article 2 by enacting the new law that incorporated political groups in the definition of genocide.
In order to fully understand the extent of what the Pakistani Army did and what caused the massive uproar which caused a nine-month bloody war, we have to look into the background of the crisis. This leads us to 1947 when the Indian subcontinent was divided into two independent states based on religion e.g. India and Pakistan. Pakistan comprised of two territories, the East and West Pakistan which were separated by 1000 miles of hostile Indian land. Due to the distance, their language and culture were different the only commonality that could be found between them was religion. As a result, there had always been a lack of trust between the inhabitants of these lands. East Pakistanis believed they were not fairly represented in political, economic, and cultural life.
The tension between these two sparked almost immediately after the independence of Pakistan when West Pakistani ruling elites attempted to declare Urdu as the sole state language ignoring Bangla, the majority language of Pakistan as well as East Pakistan. In 1952 the problem was somewhat resolved after several students in East Pakistan sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue Bengali.
Although the majority of the population of Pakistan comes from East Pakistan, they have no political influence because most of the elites, high-ranking civil servants, and military officers came from West Pakistan. A large segment of the country’s exports originated from jute grown in East Pakistan. Nevertheless, they received only 35 per cent of the money spent on the country’s development projects. In 1970 a cyclone and floods devastated East Pakistan. The death toll is estimated to go from 250,000 to 500,000. Bengalis found that the central government’s response was inadequate.
In 1970, Awami League led by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won the general election on the basis of the six points popularly known as the road map of the autonomy of Bangladesh. While Awami League won 167 out of 169 seats in East Pakistan its nearest competitor Pakistan Peoples’ Party got 88 seats in West Pakistan. Still, the president of Pakistan General Yahya, and West Pakistani ruling elites refused to hand over the power to Awami League. Rather they planned a brutal military crackdown named Operation Searchlight.
After the brutal massacre on 25 of March, Bengalis were outraged. On 26 March Bangabandhu declared independence and a nine-month-long war of independence began. During the war approximately three million Bangladeshis were killed, 200,000 women were abused and 10 million Bengalis took refuge in India due to the genocide committed by the West Pakistani military junta. On 16 December Bangladesh was finally liberated.
Soldiers across ranks and files of the Pakistani army allegedly shared similar views as their president. A Pakistani captain said that they could kill anyone for anything and was not accountable to anyone
The next big step in my project was proving that genocide took place during our Liberation War. To do this I had to focus on two major parts which were discrimination and destroying a specific group based on their religion, race, ethnicity, etc. In my research I found that during the Liberation War of Bangladesh, the Hindu community and Awami League supporters who were perceived to be influenced by Hindu culture was targeted by the occupying army. However, it has been discussed before that most of the Bengalis were the supporters of the Awami League at the time of the alleged genocide. A Pakistani military officer Lt. Col. Aziz Ahmed Khan reported that in May 1971 there was a written order to kill Hindus and that General Niazi would ask troops how many Hindus they had killed.
The president of Pakistan Yahya Khan, who ordered the genocide reportedly said “Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands.” Soldiers across ranks and files of the Pakistani army allegedly shared similar views as their president. A Pakistani captain said that they could kill anyone for anything and was not accountable to anyone.
According to the International Commission of Jurists in the war of 1971, the civilians were murdered brutally which included women and children. The Pakistani army also massacred the poorest and the weakest members of the community. They attempted to ethnically cleanse or exterminate the Hindu community. Occupying forces and their collaborators arrested, tortured, and killed Awami League and other pro-liberation activists, students, professionals, businessmen, and the leaders in the Bengali community. They abused women and set fire to settlements such as villages or towns.
They didn’t hold back in terms of discrimination either, According to Ziauddin Ahmed, the Bengalis were classified as an inferior race by the Pakistani junta. During the war of liberation in 1971, occupying forces marked the houses of Bengalis by writing ‘Bengali’ on the wall. The junta believed that they were a superior marshal race and that the Bengalis were not good soldiers. They also believed that the Bengalis were not good Muslims and to make matters worse, they were dark-skinned.
A Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas was told by an officer that the war was between pure and impure because in their views Bengalis might have Muslim names and called themselves Muslim, they were, in fact, Hindu at heart. The Pakistani junta thought that they were sorting bad Muslims out and only true Muslims would be left. Moreover, those Muslims would be taught Urdu to be pure.
Former president of Pakistan Ayub Khan wrote in his memoirs, “East Bengalis…have all the inhibitions of downtrodden races … their popular complexes, exclusiveness and … defensive aggressiveness … emerges from this historical background.”
Similar views of Bengalis were shared by Lt. Gen. Niazi who was leading the invading Pakistani troops. He said that Bangladesh was a low-lying land of low-lying people.
Through our Liberation War genocide for sure, but I could not help but ask Ziauddin uncle why it didn’t gain recognition. He said that it was mainly due to three reasons, e.g. Cold War politics, the Middle Eastern perspective on the issue and the amount of funding.
During the Liberation War of Bangladesh, Pakistan was an important mediator for an alliance between the US and China. The National Security Advisor to the US president Nixon, Henry Kissinger, was engaged in secret meetings with China. China was an important ally of the US against the Soviet Union. Some people dared talk against the government such as a group of American diplomats led by Archer Kent Blood who saw this as genocide and started protesting against the US administration’s denial. He sent a telegram to which Nixon reacted furiously and consequently Archer K Blood was removed from his post.
Since Pakistan was called the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the Middle-Eastern Muslim countries considered the liberation war as a plot that would destroy the fellow Islamic Republic.
Ziauddin said that since Bangladesh was a poor country it couldn’t spend enough money to keep the topic alive in the international media. Moreover, after the brutal assassination of its founder president Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his close associates who lead the Liberation War, Bangladesh plunged into the US-backed pro-Pakistani military autocracy. Due to the inaction of the military rulers of Bangladesh, the topic eventually lost international interest.
However, it is inspiring that after a long time nowadays some Bengali individuals and organisations are working to gain recognition of the genocide of 1971. Ziauddin Ahmed suggested that the government of Bangladesh commemorate the genocide internally. Declaring the 25 March 'National Genocide Day' is the right move in that direction. The government and social organisations need to provide financial support to activist groups and researchers. There must be well-coordinated media campaigns internationally. Finally, small projects on genocide awareness can be adopted so that those can contribute to the bigger picture.
* Sheikh Shafqat Mahbub is a student of Class 7, Cosmo School, Dhaka