The adoption of a resolution by parliament on the observance of 25 March as Genocide Day raises the very critical question of the significance of the day. That question has nothing to do with the platitudinous or the emotional, though platitudes and emotions are always necessary components of the human experience everywhere. But now that we officially have and from here on will have March 25 as an annual remembrance of the early minutes and killings that the Pakistan occupation army resorted to, it is important that we do the remembering in all its details.

How do we recall the horrors of 25 March 1971? To what degree do we recollect the terror we as a nation were subjected to by an organized army even as we waited for a peaceful, pragmatic resolution to the political crisis which overtook the state of Pakistan between the first general election in its history and the repudiation of the results of the election by the civil-military complex based in what was known till then as West Pakistan?

Some initial facts need revisiting as we proceed to the solemnity associated with Genocide Day. On the evening of 25 March 1971, President Yahya Khan, without calling a formal end to the negotiations his team and that of Pakistan People’s Party Chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been taking part in, left Dhaka stealthily for Karachi. Prior to his departure, he informed General Tikka Khan, the zonal martial law administrator, that military operations were to commence that night but not before he had landed safely in Karachi. Tikka Khan passed on the message to the man entrusted with the inauguration of what would come to be known, euphemistically, as Operation Searchlight. “Khadim, it is tonight”, General Tikka Khan told General Khadim Hussain Raja.

The minutes ticked away as the leadership of the Awami League, the party which had won the election but which was deprived of assuming power in Islamabad, quietly made its way out of a city increasingly getting enveloped in gloom. But Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, despite all attempts at persuading him to go underground, remained firm in his decision not to flee. All through his political career, he had always been ready to be taken into custody because of his innate constitutionalism. At his residence in Dhanmondi, one waited for the soldiers. They came, took him first to the under-construction national assembly building, later to be home to Bangladesh’s parliament, made him wait as one of their officers informed Tikka Khan on walkie talkie of the Big Bird in their grip. Should they bring him before Tikka? The general’s response was crisp — and rude. “I don’t want to see his face”, he said. Mujib was then taken to Adamjee Cantonment College, where he was to be lodged for a few days before being flown out to prison and trial in West Pakistan.

Across Dhaka, the bloodletting commenced, especially in the Dhaka University area. Students’ residential halls and the homes of teachers known for their Bengali nationalistic sentiments were the earliest of targets as the night progressed. At Jagannath Hall of the university, scores of students were mown down by the soldiers. The American journalist Sydney Schanberg, who along with other foreign newsmen, had been herded into the Intercontinental Hotel and would subsequently be flown out of Dhaka, remembered the horrors of the night only too well. As Gary J. Bass notes in his revealing ‘The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan’, “They” — Schanberg and other foreign journalists — “could see flames from Dacca University, which was a mile and a half away, where, Schanberg says, the army seemed to be shooting artillery.” In Schanberg’s words again, “They started shooting at students coming from the university, up the road about a mile. They were singing patriotic songs in Bengali. And then the army opened up. We couldn’t tell when they hit the ground if they were ducking or killed.”

For Scott Butcher, political officer at the American consulate, the genocide was well underway on 25 March. He too remembered being a witness, from his home in Dhanmondi, to a burning city. He remembered: “We could hear rhythmic firing which sounded like executions. One time a jeep with machine guns went roaring down our street. We could hear them firing off some rounds.”

The murder of Bengalis had been a coolly and insensitively prepared affair. The army went into preparatory work on the genocide as early as February 1971 when, as Dr. M.A. Hasan notes in ‘Beyond Denial: The Evidence of a Genocide’, “On February 22nd 1971, General Yahya, General Hamid, General Pirzada, General Mitha, General Tikka Khan and General Iftekhar Janjua set down the operational plans for the genocide. This diabolical club was given the code-name, Operation Searchlight.”

Writing in London’s Daily Telegraph on 30 March (Tanks Crush Revolt in Pakistan: 7,000 Slaughtered, Homes Burned), Simon Dring (who had evaded being bundled out of Dhaka by the army by hiding on the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel and who later made a quick tour of the city before making it to West Pakistan) wrote: “After 24 hours of ruthless, cold-blooded shelling by the Pakistan Army, as many as 7,000 people are dead, large areas have been leveled and East Pakistan’s fight for independence has been brutally put to an end.”

The brutality was exercised at the university halls and at the Central Shaheed Minar, the symbol of Bengali nationalist militancy. The entire structure was blown up in the early hours of the genocide and a few bricks placed on the rubble, marking off the hallowed place as a mosque. The army had made up its mind: Islam had to be ‘reasserted’ in the rebellious province. That entailed destroying anything which pointed to things not Muslim in character or structure. The Kali Mandir, a powerful symbol of Hindu religiosity located in the Race Course, was blown to pieces. The soldiers then went after the Hindus around the temple, mowing them down furiously.

The offices of the People newspaper, behind Sakura restaurant slightly away from the Intercontinental, were put to the torch by the army. Z.A. Bhutto, who would not be escorted in safety to a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight for Karachi until the morning, watched from his suite in the hotel the flames leaping up high… and then higher. He would cheerfully tell the media, on arriving at Karachi airport, “Thank God, Pakistan has been saved.”

In Dhaka, targeted killings by the army went on — on the campus of the university, in the old part of the city, at the police lines in Rajarbagh and at the headquarters of the East Pakistan Rifles (EPR) in Peelkhana. As 26 March dawned, soldiers barged into the home of the venerable academic, philosophy teacher Gobindo Chandra Dev, and shot the life out of him. They killed a teacher of mathematics at Dhaka University. They shot Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, a scholar and respected teacher of English literature at the university, leaving him writing in agony for a number of days before the life went out of him. From his quarters on the campus, from a safe corner of the window, the academic Nurul Ula secretly recorded on his movie camera the killing of students in a field by the army. As Simon Dring reported, “Caught completely by surprise, some 200 students were killed in Iqbal Hall, headquarters of the militantly anti-government students’ union. . . two days later the bodies were still smouldering in their burnt out rooms. . .”

Loren Jenkins filed a report for Newsweek: “From our windows in Dacca’s modern Intercontinental Hotel, we watched a jeepful of soldiers roll up to a shopping centre and, taking aim with a heavy machine-gun, open fire on a crowd. . . some fifteen young Bengalis appeared in the street about 200 yards away and shouted defiantly at the soldiers. The youths seemed to be empty-handed, but the soldiers turned the machine-gun on them anyway.”

Time magazine, in its 5 April 1971 report (Pakistan: Toppling over the Brink), saw the situation thus: “In Dacca, army tanks and truckloads of troops with fixed bayonets came clattering out of their suburban base, shouting ‘Victory to Allah’ and ‘Victory to Pakistan.’”

As night gave way to day, the genocide expanded in scope and ferocity. On Elephant Road, Lt. Commander Muazzam, once an accused in the Agartala case, was dragged out of his home and murdered by Pakistan’s soldiers. In the cantonment, officers of the Pakistan army, led by Tikka Khan, enjoyed a hearty breakfast that included fruits, ‘fresh from West Pakistan’.

Brigadier A.R. Siddiqi, in charge of the army’s inter-services public relations (ISPR), writes of 26 March in ‘East Pakistan: The Endgame: An Onlooker’s Journal 1969-1971’: “Between the day before and now, Dhaka had moved from the path of protest to the road of death and disaster. The truckloads of slogan-chanting young protestors with bloodshot eyes, thirsting for revenge — now seemed to belong to some distant past . . . Dhaka was a ghost city; a monstrous skull with flies buzzing in and out of empty eye sockets.”

Siddiqi drove across sections of the city, coming up against bodies of Bengalis sprawled on the streets. On the evening of 26 March, as Yahya Khan went on the air denouncing Bangabandhu, Pakistan’s information secretary Roedad Khan, then in Dhaka, looked pleased. Siddiqi recalls, “Roedad’s face beamed as the president denounced Mujib as a ‘traitor’ and declared that the man ‘would not go unpunished’. ‘Yar iman taza hogia,’ (my faith stands revived), he said.”

All night long on 25-26 March the killings went on. All day on 26 March the horrors kept piling up.

Scott Butcher remembered it all, related it all to Gary Bass: “I saw bodies rotting in the fields . . . I saw a decomposing body left in a main street, obviously left there as an example.”

The genocide went on, relentlessly.

This is the story that must now go out to the world, to the United Nations, to Amnesty International, to Human Rights Watch. They need to be told that back in 1971 it was not a civil war which tore Pakistan apart — it was a war for Bengali freedom in light of the perfidy of the Yahya Khan junta. They need to be enlightened with the hard truth as it came to pass on 25 March and the days thereafter.

Above all, the world must now be told why Genocide Day matters for this land of Bengali-speaking people. It matters — because it preserves collective memory against forgetting — because it makes us wonder about the long, tortuous path history must travel before the onset of twilight. It matters — because it taught us long ago the meaning of steely resilience.

Syed Badrul Ahsanis a columnist.

4 Responses to “Genocide Day: As it was in March 1971”

  1. Shelley Shahabuddin

    Soon after midnight, I woke up with a terrifying sound so deafening that I never heard before or after in my life of 75 years. As a resident Physician, I was on the 4th floor of a tall building in Mitford Hospital. My first thought was that this was the last day on Earth (Kiyamot). After a few minutes, I tried to understand. I came out of my room and saw a huge fire reaching the sky from the direction of Noyabazar. This Bazar housed many wholesalers of paper & timber. That fire blazed for 3 days and night. No fire brigade was allowed. How many people slept and died in that inferno, was never found or published. Throughout the nine months, I saw many other terrifying things that was never published. Other people definitely have their stories. Our children needs to know them all. I write them. But only my children read them.
    And to this day, I never read anything that could realistically describe our constant terror and anxiety every day of those nine month. Nine months in Hell! Many of our generation is suffering from a National PTSD.

  2. Anwar A. Khan

    This piece is a collage of significant events in the history of genocide. Told in an almost diary format, it weaves together an overview of genocide. In the way each entry, catches a sense of choice and the human capacity to do good or evil. A fascinating read. Well researched and with personal insight creating a captivating blend of peeling away layers to get to the truth. Reads almost like a diary, which gives a very personal feel on such a subject-matter. I do hope brining light to the subject of genocide will help our global society strive for action. This is a great contribution by the writer on the subject of men-made mass extinction onslaught perpetrated by the dreaded and abandon like Pakistan’s military in Bangladesh in 1971.

    The Devil from the Hell was unleashed – to massacre a whole race. They are called the Pakistanis. Secretly, they planned a massacre in mass scale. Their legacy is a new damned word in the dictionary – “Genocide”. In 1971, the brilliant Bengali intellectuals were killed first. Thus they cut the head of a nation to kill the body left defenseless. Blood of Bangladesh’s people run like rivers. Tears of the country’s mothers run like creeks, as their angels were slaughtered, in front of their eyes. They begged to be shot, to escape the unimaginable pain and agony. Young girls jumped to their deaths into the open rivers/ponds to escape rape and torture. They died of hunger and thirst; they were burnt alive, they were thrown into the jungles which became their graves. You can still hear the echoes of their last cries; deportation and deprivation, and extermination by all and any means. To erase a race from the face of the earth like it never existed. Those who did this were not human, but wild beasts from the Hell. They had no heart and no head, just hands, bayonets and guns to kill, rape, and ravage. No one was spared from the rage of this Evil.

  3. M. Emad

    Dacca (Dhaka) city descent into hell on the night of 25-26 March in 1971. I was a junior class student and I lived with my family in old-Dacca city. Sadar Ghat/Islampur area about 1.5 miles west to our two-storied house. Schools were closed since early March. I remember a tense/uncertainty/anxiety atmosphere in the last few days before 25th. TV was new at our home (one year) and like most nights I fall asleep while watching the television. Around mid-night I was awakened and found the elders were in my room, they were extremely tense/ worried/ restless, talking in low voice. I could hear gunshots, screams from distance.

    With others I went to the roof. In old-Dacca city Pakistan Military already in their ‘action’ for 30-60 minutes — from roof, I saw the whole Western and North-Western sky turned red (Sadar Ghat/ Northern bank of Buri-Ganga river/ Laxmibazar/ Kotowali/ Sakhari Bazar/ Tanti Bazar/ Islampur/ Nawabpur/ French Road/ English Road/ Bangshal/ West part of Dholai Khal Road etc direction). In the West, with the red sky background, gun fires, horrific screams, and about 30-80 foot tall flames in many places.
    Similarly, fire, tracer bullets, magnesium flares in the North-West (Dacca University –Engineering University – Peelkhana – Azimpur – Palassy – Dhanmondi etc direction) and Northern sky (Rajarbagh Police HQ – Fakirapul – Kamlapur Rail Station etc areas).
    Telephone was dead. We were worried for our relatives, mother was crying. At that night elders could only guess about those ‘unfortunate’ places and people [‘. . . Oi-jey notun agun lagaichey . . . oita Rajarbagh hoitey parey ‘. . . (. . . new fire . . . that could be Rajarbagh . . .)] And I had no idea that I was witnessing a part of the Pakistan Army’s evil ‘Operation Searchlight’ (Bangladesh Genocide).
    My father — who was in Calcutta from 1944 to 1948, supported the ‘Pakistan movement’ and seen 1947 Calcutta riots — was in a complete shock. After 20-30 minutes father asked us to come inside for the fear of stray bullets.

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