Mar 25 is Bangladesh’s National Genocide Day. In the early hours of this day in 1971, the Pakistan Army launched its infamous ‘Operation Searchlight’ to crush any aspiration for freedom harboured by the Bengalis. Ultimately, the bloodbath which began on that day culminated in a nine-month long bloody genocide, the likes of which had been witnessed by humanity perhaps only a few times in the last century.
While those in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) were well aware of the magnitude of the crimes being committed against them by the Pakistani Army and their local collaborators during the Liberation War, it was only following Bangladesh’s victory on Dec 16, 1971, that the full extent of the atrocities became known to the outside world.
In total, an estimated 3 million people were killed as a result of the genocide. While it has become fashionable for some nowadays to differ with this official death toll citing lack of proper academic surveys, spurred by comments from people like Sarmila Bose, Khaleda Zia or even David Bergman, the truth is that the number is actually quite reasonable. Apart from the oft-cited sources like the Pravda report from Jan 3, 1972, subsequently followed by the Father of the Nation’s endorsement in his interview with BBC’s David Frost on Jan 8, 1972, there is also a wealth of academic discussion and eyewitness accounts of foreign diplomats, aid workers and journalists on this topic, which should be taken into account by those who find it difficult to accept their founding narrative as espoused in the official sources of the State.
To cite a prominent work (which actually refers to a number of credible sources), let us consider what was stated by Donald Bealcher in his scholarly work ‘The Politics of Genocide Scholarship: The Case of Bangladesh’:
“A. Muhith, a Bangladeshi writer, estimated that about 3 million Bangladeshis were killed by the Pakistani army between March and December 1971. Rounaq Jahan also placed the number of dead in the range of about 3 million. In a book on democide, R. J. Rummel estimated that about 1.5 million people were killed in Bangladesh in 1971. Based on a survey that he acknowledged was incomplete, Kalyan Chaudhuri estimated the number of Bengalis killed as 1,247,000. Visiting Bangladesh in January of 1972, just over a month after India defeated Pakistan in a two-week war that began on 2 December 1971, journalist Sydney Schanberg reported that foreign diplomats and independent observers estimated a death toll ranging from at least several hundred thousand to more than a million people. Schanberg reported that these same observers indicated that, if one could calculate all deaths that could be attributed to the repression imposed by the Pakistani army, including deaths among both the roughly 10 million refugees who fled to India and those whose lives were disrupted inside East Pakistan, the total number of dead would very likely approach the 3 million total claimed by Bengali leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman”. [(2007) 41(5) Patterns of Prejudice 492]
Sexual violence, mostly rape, was a prominent feature of this genocide. So was abduction and the forced prostitution of Bengali women. It is believed that around 200,000-400,000 Bengali women and girls were raped during this period. However, there are even arguments that even this estimate maybe low. When Australian doctor Geoffrey Davis was brought to Dhaka by the UNFPA and WHO to assist with late-term abortions of raped women, at the end of the war, he believed the estimated figure for the number of Bengali women who were raped—200,000 to 400,000—was probably too low. About the arbitrary brutality of it, Susan Brownmiller wrote:
“Rape in Bangladesh had hardly been restricted to beauty…Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted … Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use… Some women may have been raped as many as eighty times in a night”.[ ‘Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape’ (1975), Page 83]
Apart from other hallmarks of this genocide such as forced conversions, arson, looting and property damage, forced displacement was a major feature. In May 1971, 1.5 million refugees sought asylum in India, by November 1971 that number had risen to nearly 10 million. This does not include the millions who were internally displaced between various regions of Bangladesh. In fact, Robert Payne states that the number of internally displaced stood at 30 million by the end of April 1971 [Robert Payne, ‘Massacre: The Tragedy at Bangladesh and the Phenomenon of Mass Slaughter Throughout History’ (1972), Page 48].
The aim and target of the genocide were also pretty clear. Anthony Mascarenhas in his famous article wrote: “The bone-crushing military operation has two distinctive features. One is what the authorities like to call the “cleansing process”; a euphemism for massacre. The other is the “rehabilitation effort.” This is a way of describing the moves to turn East Bengal into a docile colony of West Pakistan. These commonly used expressions and the repeated official references to “miscreants” and “infiltrators” are part of the charade which is being enacted for the benefit of the world. Strip away the propaganda, and the reality is colonisation-and killing.” [‘Genocide’ The Sunday Times (13 June, 1971)].
Mascarenhas also wrote of the primary targets, who were: i) The Bengali military men of the East Bengal Regiment, the East Pakistan Rifles, police and paramilitary Ansars and Mujahids.; ii)The Hindus iii) The Awami Leaguers — all office bearers and volunteers down to the lowest link in the chain of command; iv) The students and v) Bengali intellectuals. Of course, it transpired that the Pakistan Army were no less brutal to anyone else who stood in the way of eliminating their primary targets. As Rounaq Jahan wrote: ‘Though Hindus were especially targeted, the majority of the victims were Bengali Muslims/ordinary villagers and slum dwellers/who were caught unprepared during the Pakistani army’s sweeping spree of wanton killing, rape, and destruction.’ [Jahan, Rounaq. “Genocide in Bangladesh”, Century of Genocide ed. Samuel et al, (2009) Page 299]
The fact that a genocide of such a magnitude is yet to be widely recognised internationally is shocking but unsurprising. Such a lack of recognition stems mainly from three main factors:
First, politics at home. Following the assassination of the leader of the independence movement and the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on Aug 15, 1975, all processes initiated to ensure justice for the crimes of 1971 came to an abrupt halt. Many were even reversed. This includes the judicial process to try local collaborators of the Pakistan Army accused of specific crimes like murder, rape, looting arson etc under the Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order 1972, via International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 and international efforts to ensure the trials of the 195 Pakistani Army officials in Pakistan by their own judicial mechanisms [Which the Pakistan Government agreed to arrange via a statement issued in the last week of April 1973, reported in Pakistan Affairs, May 1, 1973. cited in Burke (1971), Page 1040; See also ‘India to release 90,000 Pakistanis in peace accord’, The New York Times, (Aug 29, 1973)].
Before Pakistan reneged on its promise to try the said 195 PoWs handed over to them, Bangladesh had enacted the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act 1973 to hold their trials, a claim it had to vanquish as a result of coercion from Pakistan and threats to hold similar trials against Bengalis stranded in Pakistan and not repatriating the stranded Biharis from Bangladesh and upon the understanding that they will face trials in Pakistan [See, ‘Bhutto Threatens to Try Bengalis Held in Pakistan’, The New York Times, May 29, 1973].
For the next several decades, not only were the known local collaborating war criminals not punished, they were in fact rehabilitated and even elevated to the cabinet and other important government positions by successive governments in Bangladesh, while no diplomatic efforts were pursued to seek global recognition of the 1971 genocide diplomatically. This should be contrasted with the Cambodian Genocide under the Khmer Rouge, which received a lot of publicity, primarily due to the fact that successive governments following the fall of the genocidal regime in Cambodia were more than willing to expose the extent of the crimes which were committed against their people including through the formation of Tribunals to try mass atrocities.
Second, politics abroad. The shameful silent role played by key world players during the genocide such as the UN or USA, almost tantamount to support through acquiescence, continued for decades afterwards. It was not that the US was not aware of the full extent of the atrocities. The Nixon-Kissinger administration was being briefed accurately by US diplomats in Dhaka. For instance, the famous blood telegram of US diplomat Archer K Blood appealed:
“… Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities … we have not chosen to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately, the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state … We, as professional public servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interest here can be defined and our policies redirected…” [Quoted in Lawrence Lifschultz, ‘Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution’, London: Zed Press 1979, 158].
We now know from various declassified US documents and academic literature on the topic that cold-war realities of that time motivated USA to remain wilfully disinterested despite having full knowledge of the situation. The Nixon-Kissinger duo was more interested in opening up back channels of communications with their communist rival China using Pakistan as an intermediary, as opposed to spend their time and efforts for the slaughter of Bengalis in Bangladesh, a political backwater not worthy of their consideration.
Third, a lack of academic and media interest and materials. Whether for the political realities of home and abroad or for some other reason/s, very few books, scholarly journal articles or newspaper features have been published and even fewer video documentaries and movies have been made on the topic of the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide, thereby keeping the subject away from popular and academic attention. Even the movement against war criminals spearheaded by Jahanara Imam in the early 90s could not muster enough interest of international media on this issue.
The three factors taken together produced a situation where the side representing the victims were silent, the sides with power to recognise the suffering of the victims could not be bothered, and an almost complete lack of knowledge of the world at large due to the silence, deliberate or not, of the international media and intelligentsia.
It was only after the constitution of the International Crimes Tribunal following the 2008 election victory of Awami League that the issue of the crimes of 1971 received renewed attention of the world, including the big players. However, unfortunately, rather than use the opportunity to shed light on one of the cruelest episodes of human sufferings of the 20th century, the international media and intelligentsia was all too willing to play into the hands of Jamaat-e-Islami’s well-funded international lobbying and PR campaigns against Bangladesh’s justice process.
It is in this backdrop that the March 2017 decision by the Bangladesh Parliament to announce Mar 25 as being our Genocide Remembrance Day represents a significant development in the right direction. However, this is where the difficult task of securing international recognition actually starts. It should be remembered that politics at home may now be congenial for such efforts under the Awami League Government, but the second and third factors identified above, will presumably continue to persist. In Bangladesh’s political reality, it is anybody’s guess how long such focus on genocide recognition will persist if there is a change of administration however.
Such a challenge also represents opportunities. We should not only be looking at the United Nations for recognition, but I would argue equally gear towards other countries for bilateral engagement resulting in recognition. This is because our situation is not analogous to the comparatively recent genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda or Muslims in Bosnia, which were, due to a plethora of reasons, right on the TV screens of millions and thereby widely known and acknowledged. Neither can we compare our situation to the Holocaust during World War II, where the key world players themselves, being the victors, ensured that the atrocities were widely covered to expose the Nazi horrors, coupled with Jewish efforts since then to keep the memory of the victims of the ‘final solution’ alive through concerted means.
One of the best examples in hand for such efforts, comparable to our case, comes from Armenia, who have for decades lobbied and engaged with numerous countries of the world for recognition of their own genocide. Their efforts have not gone in vain, and as of of 2017, governments and parliaments of 29 countries, as well as 48 states out of 50 of the United States, have formally recognised the Armenian Genocide, committed against them the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
But such recognition did not come easily or readily for them. As Harut Sassounian writes: ‘Tens of thousands of Armenians in communities throughout the world held protest marches, wrote letters to government officials and petitioned international organizations’ [‘Genocide Recognition and a Quest for Justice, 32 Loy. L.A. Int’l & Comp. L. Rev. 115 (2010)].
Groups such as International Crimes Strategy Forum (ICSF) are using all means at their disposal to help in the task of securing international recognition of our genocide. I have also been informed that the Government of Bangladesh, particularly the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has also been active in this regard, so is the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In fact, the Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself unequivocally called for global recognition of our genocide in her speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017.
However, those who aspire to see our genocide being globally recognised, should perhaps brace themselves for the fact that this is a long-drawn process which would require concerted efforts by a large group of organisations and persons over a long period of time. Thus, there is scope to do more in addition to the existing efforts by the Government and civil society organisations. In this regard, I would like to reiterate the 7-prong strategy as suggested by the ICSF on Mar 25 2017, which is primarily directed at the Bangladesh government:
1. Engaging with the Indian government regarding access to war-time military records;
2. Actively engaging with the international organisations for acknowledgement of 1971 atrocities as genocide and international crimes;
3. Engaging with other foreign governments and entities with shared, strategic, or mutually advantageous interests involving recognition of 1971 genocide;
4. Implementing ‘genocide risk education’ in Bangladesh and making it part of the national educational curriculum;
5. Preserving important sites relating to the Liberation War of 1971, and properly investing in their development and maintenance;
6. Investing in steps for knowledge base development relating to 1971 history beginning with archiving and digitising documents and making them easily accessible;
7. Extending support to citizens’ initiatives across the world relating to 1971.
To summarise, from the government’s side, securing international recognition of the 1971 genocide has to be made a foreign policy priority as well as a national priority at par with its other activities regarding the Liberation War. It should be noted however, that this task is not only difficult but almost impossible for the government to achieve alone. They need support from all, including from academics, journalists, writers, intellectuals, students, civil society organisations, cultural organisations, experts of international crimes etc. But most importantly, from the expatriate Bangladeshis living in different parts of the world. The Armenian efforts for recognition throughout the years has demonstrated how crucial the role of expatriates can be in such matters. In July 2017, some of us from ICSF were fortunate enough to meet and engage with an enthusiastic bunch of expatriate Bangladeshis living in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra cities of Australia who are willing to work voluntarily to secure recognition of our genocide from their local and federal governments and parliaments.
We learnt, with some measure of hope, that with the right orientation and motivation, these expatriate Bangladeshis can become our greatest asset in the quest for securing international recognition of the 1971 genocide. It is time, we utilised their potential to the fullest.