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The forgotten genocide in Bangladesh

Unlike the Rwandan genocide, or the Holocaust, or the killings that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, the genocide in Bangladesh has largely slipped out of public awareness. During the nine-month-long Bangladesh War for Liberation the Pakistani military, which was supported by pro Pakistani Islamist militias, killed between 500,000 to 3 million people and subjected nearly 400,000 women to rape and sexual enslavement.


Bangladesh, as a nation, did not exist prior to 1971 because it was part of an area called “East Pakistan”. In 1947, the partition of British India split the subcontinent into the independent nations of India and Pakistan, each a home for their respective religious majorities, the Hindus and the Muslims. But the unwieldy logistics of this divide meant Pakistan included two chunks of land separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory.

West Pakistani elites saw their eastern countrymen as culturally and ethnically inferior, and an attempt to make Urdu the national language (less than 10 percent of the population in East Pakistan had a working knowledge of Urdu) was seen as further proof that East Pakistan's interests would be ignored by the government. West Pakistan also neglected to send adequate aid following the Bhola Cyclone that ravaged East Pakistan, and left close to 500,000 dead in 1970, which led to increasing sense of hostility and estrangement of the people in East Pakistan from West Pakistan.

In 1970 West Pakistan announced that the country would hold its first general elections since the country gained independence. The elections results saw 138 seats go to West Pakistan representatives and 162 to the more populous East Pakistan (which had about 20 million more inhabitants). While West Pakistan’s votes were split between different parties, an overwhelming majority of votes in East Pakistan went to those who campaigned on a platform of Bengali autonomy, The Awami League. Shocked by the results and what they meant for the stability of the country, West Pakistan's leader, General Yahya Khan, delayed calling the first meeting of the assembly and instituted martial law. This resulted in Riots and strikes which erupted across East Pakistan and civil disobedience which became driving force for the National Bangladeshian independence movement. Repression soon followed. Some 60-80,000 West Pakistani soldiers, who had been infiltrating East Pakistan for several months, began what would be known as Operation Searchlight, the targeted and purposeful massacre of Bengali civilians by Pakistani soldiers.

Pakistani soldiers torturing Bengalis. Operation Searchlight's plan was to murder East Pakistan's Bengali intellectual, cultural, and political elite, to indiscriminately murder the Hindu population and drive them into India, to destroy East Pakistan's economic base so to insure that it would be subordinate to West Pakistan, and to ultimately crush the Bengali nationalist movement for ever. In the first of many notorious war crimes, soldiers attacked Dhaka University, lining up and executing students and professors.

Their campaign of terror then moved into the countryside, where they battled local troops who had mutinied and local militias.

Over several months, the Pakistani Army conducted mass killings of young, able-bodied men. According to historian R.J. Rummel, “the Pakistan army [sought] out those especially likely to join the resistance — young boys. Sweeps were conducted of young men who were never seen again. Bodies of youths would be found in fields, floating down rivers, or near army camps” There was violence on all sides, with some fighting between Bengali factions (whose goals for independence or unity with West Pakistan differed), but it seems clear that Pakistani soldiers perpetrated most of the brutal attacks. In May 1971, 1.5 million refugees sought asylum in India; by November 1971 that number had risen to nearly 10 million. Archer Blood, the American ambassador to India, communicated the horrors to US officials. He sent a telegram to Washington where he deplored the US indifference and inaction at what he termed as an ongoing “genocide”. In his report he specifed what he was witnessing happening in Bangladesh:

“Here in Decca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak[istani] Military. Evidence continues to mount that the MLA authorities have list of AWAMI League supporters whom they are systematically eliminating by seeking them out in their homes and shooting them down. Moreover, with the support of the Pak[istani] Military, non-Bengali Muslims are systematically attacking poor people's quarters and murdering Bengalis and Hindu.”

Unfortunately, the United States refused to respond because of Pakistan’s status as a Cold War ally. President Nixon, who had a personal friendship with the then-President of Pakistan, Yahya Khan, regarded the genocide as a trivial matter, assuming a disinterested American public due to the race and religion of the victims. The world was alerted to the ongoing genocide by an article published On 13 June 1971, in the UK's Sunday Times which exposed the brutality and crimes of Pakistani Army in Bangladesh, but the world did not seem to care as there was no public outrage or demand to stop the massacres.

The massacre in Bangladesh came to an abrupt end when West Pakistan declared war on India in early December. By December 16, India forced Pakistan into unconditional surrender, and 90,000 Pakistani soldiers became prisoners of war. Bangladesh had achieved its independence—but at an incredibly high cost. To this day, Pakistan has continued to explicitly deny the genocide. While there is an academic consensus that the campaign of violence, rape and mass murder which was carried out mostly by the Pakistani army in 1971 was a genocide, Pakistan maintains that the deaths occurred in the context of “civil war and mass communal riots”, and that it is not to blame for the deaths, rape and destruction which happened in Bangladesh in 1971.

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