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1971: War On Mass Murder

1971: War On Mass Murder

The genocide committed by Pakistan on Bangladeshis was unmatched since the Nazi holocaust. On the 50th year of this crime, Pakistan must apologise.

Killing Fields

This year we celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the war for liberation of Bangladesh and India’s spectacular victory against Pakistan. It is also the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. But we must not forget that this was a war against Pakistan’s genocide on the people of erstwhile East Pakistan. According to estimates, three lakhs to three million Bangladeshis were killed in the massacres by the Pakistan Army, and 10 million were forced to flee to India.Desc­­ribing the 23 years of West Pak­is­tan’s tyranny over East Pakistan, She­ikh Mujibur Rahman had, in 1971, cal­­led it a period of “continual lamentation and repeated bloodshed”.

The oppressive tendency of the West was manifest right from Pakistan’s ind­ependence. The Pakistan Constitution Order, 1947, authorised the Governor General, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to appoint ministers, allot portfolios, disregard the advice of ministers and declare emergency. The 23 years of oppression was designed to crush Bengalis—politically, educationally, culturally, economically and psychologically.

The political-military leadership of West Pakistan denied the East represe­n­tation proportionate to its populat­ion. The ‘principle of parity’ in the Pak­­istani Constitu­tion of 1956 and 1962 invalidated the overall majo­rity of Bengalis in united Pakistan.

In education, there were deliberate attempts to lower standards. Jinnah refused to accept Bengali as a national language. There were riots in the 1950’s over Pakistan’s decision to accord national language status only to Urdu. Only in 1954 was Bengali recognised as a state language.

Economically, East Pakistan contributed 50 per cent, and at times even 70 per cent, of the total foreign exports of Pakistan. Of the total foreign aid, excluding American aid, East Pakistan got a mere 4 per cent, while West Pakistan got 96 per cent. Of the American aid, 66 per cent went to West Pakistan. The boom in industries and agriculture in West Pakistan was achieved by exploiting the East.

Even the dignity and pride of Bengalis were not spared. As Padmashri Lt Col Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir, Muktijoddha from Bangladesh recalls, the West Pakistanis referred to them as ‘Abduls’, meaning ‘servant’.

Despite all the tyranny and terror, the political leadership of East Pakistan, including the Awami League, tried for long to get their dues democratically, as part of united Pakistan. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League won a landslide victory in the December 1970 general elections, securing 160 of the 162 seats in East Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s party won 81 of the 138 seats in West Pakistan. But neither the military dictatorship nor the political leadership in West Pakistan was prepared to share power with East Pakistan.

In January 1971, Yahya Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto met at Larkana, Bhutto’s hometown. In what came to be known as the Larkana Conspiracy, the two hatched a plan to block Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League from forming a government. Plans for a military crackdown to crush legitimate political aspirations of East Pakistan were prepared in Islamabad.

Lt Gen Tikka Khan was identified as the Martial Law Administrator for East Pakistan. According to Lt Col Quazi Sajjad Ali Zahir, who served as an officer in the Pakistan Army’s elite Para Brigade, before defecting to join the liberation war, Tikka Khan was specially chosen bec­ause of his “credentials” (sic) of conducting a genocide in Balochistan. Major Generals Khadim Hussain Raja and Rao Farman Ali, drafted the plan for Op Search­light, the military crackdown to crush the Bengali nationalist movement. Pakistani tanks and troops began arriving in Dhaka by end February 1971. The number of troops in E. Pakistan quadrupled, from 14,000 to 60,000.

On March 1, 1971, an indefinite postponement of the National Assembly session was announced. In response, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman called for a strike on March 2 in Dhaka, and a strike all over Bangladesh on March 3. The army opened fire on demonstrators in Dhaka. On March 7, Tikka Khan took over as the Martial Law Administrator and governor of East Pakistan, the same day on which Sheikh Mujib gave the call for freedom from Pakistan.

By the third week of March, the situation deteriorated, as the import of Sheikh Mujib’s clarion call for freedom from the tyrannical rule of Pakistan sank into the minds of the people. Personnel of the East Pakistan Rifles, the police and many personnel of the armed forces decided to rise against the Pakistani establishment. Yahya attempted games of treachery. On the one hand he gave the impression that he would handle the situation politically, by suggesting withdrawal of the martial law, and framing two separate constitutions for Bangladesh and Pakistan. On the other, the ‘H hour’ for Op Searchlight was set at 0100 hours, March 26.

At 11 am on March 25, Lt Gen Tikka Khan issued instructions in four words—“Khadim, it is tonight”—unl­ea­shing the worst genocide of modern times. March 25 is commemorated in Bangladesh as the ‘Bengali Genocide Day’. Pakistan used Sabre jets to strafe Bangladeshis, while rocket launchers, recoilless rifles and mortars were fired on university campuses, schools, offi­ces and hospitals. No one was spared.  

Rape was used by the Pakistani military as a weapon of war. Soldiers were indoctrinated to believe that it was not ‘gunah’ (sin) to kill/rape Bangladeshis because they were ‘munafiq’. The Ides of March were unforgiving—bringing mayhem, murder and melancholy.

The genocide resulted in a massive influx of refugees from East Pakistan to India—the number of refugees touched 10 million in just about four months. By June 1971, the 509 refugee camps set up along the border were finding it impossible to cope with the scale of migration. Large camps run centrally by retired Indian military personnel were established in eight states across India.  This involved managing habitat, water-supply, food supplies and healthcare for millions.

By September 1971, India was spending Rs 28 million a day on refugees. To cope with the strain on the Indian economy, three ordinances were promulgated to raise revenue through special tax on railway fares, newspapers and postal articles. India launched a stringent economic drive to cut down expenses on non-essential and luxury items. India reached out to global leaders to impress upon them  the gravity of the situation, to little avail. By November, it was clear that there was no place for internatio­nal mediation. The solution was for Pak­i­­stan to release Sheikh Mujib and then resume negotiations with Awami League.

In Pakistan’s assessment, with the Soviet Union firmly behind India, UN intervention was unlikely to succeed. On December 3, 1971, Pakistan launched preemptive air strikes on Indian air bases along the western front. This was more than enough reason for India to take the war into East Pakistan.

Speaking to the nation on December 4, 1971, PM Indira Gandhi said, “Since last March we have borne the heaviest of burdens...in preventing annihilation of an entire people…. Today, the war in Bangladesh has become a war on India.” It was a war against Pakistan’s genocide. With air dominance provided by the IAF and a de facto naval blockade, the Indian Army, supported by BSF, and the Mukti Bahini as the force multiplier, executed a ‘lightning campaign’. Dhaka fell in less than 13 days. By  December 16-17, at least 92,208 West Pakistani soldiers, sailors, airmen, paramilitary personnel and civilians surrendered to India in East Pakistan. Bangladesh was finally liberated. From that war-ravaged state, Bangladesh has risen in the last 50 years. Today, its annual growth exc­eeds that of Pakistan by approximately 2.5 percentage points annually.

In this 50th year, as India and Bangladesh celebrate victory and liberation, we must reflect on a genocide described as a “holocaust unmatched since Hitler”, call for perpetrators to be tried for war crimes and for Pakistan to ack­nowledge its monumental folly and apologise for it.  

(Views expressed are personal)


The author is member of the National Security Advisory Board; director, School of Military Studies, Strategy and Logistics, and former Deputy Chief of Army Staff

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