In a few months, up to three million Bengalis were killed. Yes, it was a genocide.
by Massimo Introvigne
In the previous articles, we saw how the attempt by the Western Pakistani establishment to prevent the Eastern Pakistani party Awami League, who had won the 1970 national elections with an absolute majority, to form a government led in March 1971 to a military expedition against East Pakistan, which in turn proclaimed independence as Bangladesh.
Since resistance was stronger and more effective than expected, West Pakistan sent more troops and armed local collaborator militias. From the documents that have surfaced in the fifty years after the events, we know that the (Western) Pakistani Army after April decided that whole segments of East Pakistan’s populations should be physically eliminated. They were the East Bengal officers, soldiers, and police officers who had not accepted to cooperate with the Pakistani Army; the leaders and members of the Awami League party; the students and professors in Bengali-language universities, together with artists and other intellectuals; and the male Hindus, while Hindu women were raped, forced into prostitution, or forcibly married to Western Pakistani soldiers and collaborators.
We will return to the Hindus in the next article, not without mentioning that Christians were targeted too. For example, in the village of Rangamatia, which was predominantly Catholic, 90% of the houses were burned, and 14 devotees were killed. The church was looted, as were Catholic and Protestant churches in other parts of East Pakistan.
The other categories consisted of Muslims, and what happened in 1971 was largely a massacre where Muslims killed other Muslims, although many Western Pakistanis believed that Islam in the East was tainted by elements of superstition and syncretism. Pakistani media claimed that only “insurgents” and “separatists” were targeted, however, as the civil war progressed, all able-bodied Bengali men were considered as potential insurgents.
Also regarded as rebels were those who tried to escape to India, although many had taken no political sides and only wanted to flee the horrors of the war. Perhaps the single worst massacre was perpetrated in Chuknagar, where some 10,000 refugees were gathered in May 1971 preparing to go to India. On May 10, all were killed, including women and children.
The establishment in West Pakistan remembered that the Bengali identity and language had been powerfully promoted by intellectuals and artists. They were systematically hunted and killed. Novelists, playwrights, journalists, musicians, and visual artists were slaughtered en masse, but the killings extended to professors of science, law, economics, and medicine. Even when they understood the war was lost, Western Pakistanis soldiers and collaborators continued to kill intellectuals, believing this would deprive the future independent Bangladesh of its cultural leaders. College students, who had been crucial for the movement promoting Bengali language, were also systematically killed.
The victims of the genocide were overwhelmingly males, and some historians call what happened a “gendercide” targeting men rather than women. This does not mean that women did not suffer. Between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women were raped. To their shame, fundamentalist Muslim scholars in West Pakistan declared that the “insurgent” women were a “war booty” for the Western Pakistani soldiers and their collaborators.
International observers who entered East Pakistan in the last months of the war confirmed that thousands of women had been taken to “military brothels” and forced into prostitution. Others were forced to marry soldiers from West Pakistan or collaborators. At the end of the war, many of them were pregnant, as the same Islamic scholars had suggested that after being impregnated by “good” Muslims they would produce a generation of better believers. Bangladeshi called them “birangona,” “brave women,” and celebrated them as patriotic heroines, in an effort to avoid the stigmatization raped women might have faced in local culture.
The now declassified reports from U.S. sources started using in mid-1971 the words “selective genocide,” although later they simply mentioned a “genocide.” Still today, there are those who deny that it was a genocide, because it was never the intention of West Pakistan to kill the whole Bengali-speaking population, and “only” some specific categories were targeted. However, these categories were a significant segment of the Eastern Pakistani population, and the scale of the killings fully justifies the label of “genocide” according to current standards.
How many were killed? The first answer is that nobody knows. Mass graves continue to be discovered in the 21st century in places for which no records of massacres exist. In contemporary Bangladesh, the number of three million has become a standard reference and part of the national narrative about the nation’s birth. It may be exaggerated, just as the (Western) Pakistan’s official count of 26,000 was, as we mentioned in a previous article, ridiculously low. Immediately after the war, CIA reports assessed Bengali victims at 200,000. The number is still repeated today, but it was before scholars produced demographic studies and more mass graves were unearthed. American professor Rudolph Joseph Rummel (1932–2014), a leading scholar of genocides, estimated the victims at 1.5 million.
Equally controversial is how many Bihari Muslims, i.e., Urdu-speaking immigrants from the Indian state of Bihar, were killed by Bengalis during and after the war, after they had sided with West Pakistan and formed one of the most ferocious anti-Bengali militias. Here again, there are mythical numbers: 500,000 victims according to Bihari sources, which seems demographically impossible, and 1,000 according to the first Bangladeshi accounts. Scholars long assessed the figure at 20,000, until Rummel suggested they may have been as many as 150,000.
More precise, although in turn not uncontroversial, figures are available for those who escaped to India and asked to be identified as refugees. They were around six millions in mid-1971, and eight millions after the war ended. One million and a half decided to remain in India, the others returned to Bangladesh after independence. It was largely because of the refugees that the world took notice of the genocide.