One of the goals of the West Pakistanis and their collaborators in 1971 was to exterminate the Hindu community by killing all males.
by Massimo Introvigne
The movement for having the Bengali language recognized as an official language of Pakistan together with Urdu, and for autonomy and later independence of East Pakistan as Bangladesh was largely led by Bengali-speaking Muslims. Yet, in the 1971 genocide, no community was targeted more mercilessly than the Hindus. Western Pakistanis continued to slaughter Hindus even after some of their generals had admonished that this would eventually trigger what (West) Pakistan had tried in all possible ways to avoid, an Indian military intervention.
It was not a simple mistake. The roots of the ideology considering the Eastern Pakistanis “inferior” or “bad” Muslim was, as we saw in previous articles, the accusation that they were “crypto-Hindus,” and had included in their religious practices Hindu elements that had tainted their faith.
This was due, it was argued, to the cultural influence of Hindus, and to the fact that Eastern Pakistani Muslims were both “unorthodox” and “secular,” in the sense that they did not have strong feelings causing a rigid separation with the Hindus. Reforming Bengali-speaking followers of Islam into “good” Muslims required the elimination of the Hindus.
Even the Western Pakistani generals were aware of the fact that it was impossible to kill all the Hindus who lived in East Pakistan, who were more than nine million. This was, however, not necessary. It was believed that after a percentage would have been killed, the others would flee to India.
The argument was correct, as in fact two third of the eight million refugees who escaped East Pakistan were Hindus. What the Western Pakistanis did not consider was that, faced with such an enormous influx of refugees, even the Indian politicians most reluctant to go to war would conclude that an armed conflict was an easier solution than accommodating in India the whole Hindu population of East Pakistan.
A disproportionate number of Hindus, however, were killed in 1971. In that year, Hindus were some 20% of the East Pakistan’s population, yet it was estimated that they might have been 50% of those killed. American leading scholar of genocides Rudolph Joseph Rummel (1932–2014), whose statistics we mentioned in the previous article, wrote that in the eyes of Western Pakistanis and their fundamentalist Muslim collaborators “the Hindus among the Bengalis were as Jews to the Nazis: scum and vermin that should best be exterminated.”
The parallel with the Nazi persecution of Jews is made even more appropriate by the fact that the Western Pakistani army compelled Hindus to have a yellow “H” painted on their homes, thus designating those who lived there as targets for extermination.
The (Western) Pakistani Army took pride in not killing Hindu women, only men, although when columns of refugees en route to India were attacked, as it happened in the Chuknagar massacre mentioned in the previous article of this series, women and children were killed as well. In addition to the 10,000 victims at Chuknagar, this also happened in Jathibhanga on April 23, 1971, when some 3,000 Hindu refugees were slaughtered.
In the very first days of the genocide, Western Pakistani troops entered the Shankharibazar area of Old Dhaka, where the Shankaris, Hindu jewelers specialized in producing conch shell bangles, lived, and went into a killing frenzy slaughtering more than 200 men, women, and children. Hindu women, however, in most cases were not killed but massively raped, forced into prostitution, or forcibly married to Western Pakistani soldiers and local collaborator militiamen, just as it happened to their Muslim Bengali counterparts.
How many Hindus were killed, and how many Hindu women were raped, depend on the general statistics of the genocide, a matter of controversy. 100,000 Hindu women raped and 700,000 Hindu men killed appear as a reasonable estimate, although the precise numbers will probably never be known.
Other casualties of the genocide included Hindu temples and libraries that were assaulted and looted, leading to the irreparable loss of ancient cultural treasures. One infamous example was the demolition of the Ramna Kali Mandir, a Kali temple in Dhaka that dated back to the Mughal Empire. The ashram of the Hindu saint Anandamayi Ma (1896–1982), who was within the temple’s premises, was also destroyed. 85 Hindus were killed in the attack.
After the war ended and the independence was proclaimed, the majority of the refugees returned to Bangladesh. They were encouraged by proclamations that, while Islam was the official religion, the state will be secular, religious liberty will be respected, and the fundamentalist Muslim organizations that had sided with West Pakistan in the war will be banned.
Their hopes were short-lived. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (1920–1975), the father of independent Bangladesh, believed in the possibility of a “secular Islam.” However, he was assassinated in 1975, and gradually Islamic fundamentalism reasserted itself as an important component of Bangladeshi politics and culture. Although the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, is Mujibur’s daughter, she has to mediate between different forces. The escalation of violence against Hindus in Bangladesh in October 2021 proves that the consequences of the genocide are still at work in Bangladeshi society.