16th December revives the gruesome memories of an important event in subcontinental history. For some of us memories are personal but most of us know about the fall-out of the events of 1971 from history books. The civil war that broke out in March 1971 lasted for almost nine months and broke our country into two, taking the lives of tens and may be of hundreds of thousand people, Bengali and otherwise. The number of the victims killed has never been finally and satisfactorily established, no doubt some gruesome atrocities have been committed. Today we dedicated this article to those who lost their lives in East Pakistan.
The violence in 1971 has had lasting impact not only on the political landscape of our country but on the psyche of our society as well as on that of the Bangladeshis. No real rehabilitation has taken place between Pakistan and Bangladesh and that is why Pakistan finds itself accused by both Bangladesh and India of having been solely responsible for all the death and destruction in the war alone. So far Pakistani academia and politicians have not done much to contradict this accusation effectively.]
The central accusation that Bangladesh and India launched right after the end of the war which they are upholding until today is of accusing the Pakistani Army of systematic genocide by killing three million Bengalis. The war did take a heavy toll on the East Pakistani population, however the way these events have been depicted in the nationalist history writing of Bangladesh as well as in Indian history writing is utterly exaggerated and disproportionate and needs further investigation. Rather for political reasons than for the search of truth the Bangladeshi and the Indian governments have been repeating this unbelievable canard about the number of civilian victims of the war.
Why do numbers matter so much when even a single civilian killed or woman raped in a war is inexcusable. However the numbers do matter, because they make the difference between seeing the war as a tragedy and seeing it as a terrible crime, indeed as a genocide. Let us start with examining the allegation that the Pakistan Army has been committing genocide in East Pakistan by killing about 3 million Bengalis during the war.
Extensive killings did take place in 1971 in East Pakistan and not all the bodies have yet been recovered, the number of the killed could not have been even close to three million. This number seems to have been brought up by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in a speech that he gave on arrival from jail in Pakistan via London in January 1972. Sheikh Mujib had been held in prison for almost all of the war in West Pakistan and did not have an idea what exactly had been going on in East Pakistan during his detention. Still he had brought the number up. Already soon after that several sources started contradicting this number as impossible, among them William Drummond in a report published in The Guardian in 1972 wrote ‘This figure of three million deaths, which the Sheikh has repeated several times since he returned to Bangladesh in early January, has been carried uncritically in sections of the world press. Through repetition of such a claim it gains a validity of its own and gradually evolves from assertion to fact needing no attribution. My judgement based on numerous trips around Bangladesh and extensive discussions with many people at the village level as well as in the government, is that the three million deaths figure is an exaggeration so gross as to be absurd”. Moreover, as Drummond pointed out in 1972, the finding of someone’s remains cannot clarify, unless scientifically demonstrated, whether the person was Bengali or non-Bengali, combatant or non-combatant, whether the death took place in 1971 or whether it was caused by the Pakistan Army. So from where did Shaikh Mujibur Rahman get this number of three million? Certainly he was briefed by his comrades in London and one of the explanations is that in the process of translating an estimated three lakhs into English it became three million, a number that was later never revised in order to placate the atrocities that had taken place.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was aware of the missing creditability of his claims; as a matter of fact he did try to prove that number by instituting in January 1972 an inquiry committee that on the basis of information that had to be provided by Awami League members in the different districts should calculate and prove the number of deaths and submit the report by April 1972. But other than expected by Mujib and his government the report duly submitted in April was not able to prove the exaggerated numbers and was because of that never published. Choudhury M. Abdul Mu’min Chowdhury, a native of Sylhet and a Bengali nationalist who as a teacher at Dhaka University actively participated in the separatist cause, had to leave Bangladesh in 1973 for London in order to be able to speak out and tell his story of what went on during that war from his perspective. In his book BEHIND THE MYTH OF THREE MILLION he mentions that a draft of the report that had leaked out showed an overall casualty figure of 56,743. He further writes that “When a copy of this draft report was shown to the Prime Minister, “he lost his temper and threw it on the floor, saying in angry voice ‘I have declared three million dead, and your report could not come up with three score thousand! What report you have prepared? Keep your report to yourself. What I have said once shall prevail.“ Today it amounts to high treason in Bangladesh to doubt this number of three million.
There is another source of information about the possible number of victims as well. In January 1972 Mujib also announced a compensation scheme for the families of those who had been killed at the hands of the Pakistan Army and their collaborators. Under the scheme, every victim’s family was promised TK 2,000 as compensation but only 72,000 claims were ever received. Even if we consider that some undeserving also were compensated and that some families had lost more than only one member the estimated number of killed would never come close to even half a million and it would include all killings including those by the razakars, Indians, the Awami League itself.
Also the genocide claim cannot be upheld. Genocide is defined as the systematic elimination of all or a significant part of a racial, ethnic, religious, cultural or national group. The Pakistan Army never decided to kill all Bengalis. At the very most they targeted adult men who were proven or suspected of anti-Pakistani activities. Not always women and children were spared. The Pakistan Army was fighting a secessionist movement can be accused of committing political killings, not attempting genocide by trying to exterminate the whole Bengali community.
Together with genocide the claim of rape and sexual abuse of Bengali women during the civil war in 1971 by the Pakistan Army has been made repeatedly and is upheld until today by Bangladesh; the numbers that are quoted are that about 200.000 to 400.000 women that allegedly have been raped or sexually abused. Again, there is no doubt that rape and sexual abuse has taken place during the war and are to be deplored but the numbers seem grossly exaggerated. For an army of little over 34,000 men to rape on this scale in eight or nine months (while fighting insurgency, guerrilla war and an invasion by India), it would have meant that each would-be-perpetrator would have had to commit rape at an incredible rate.
While war and civil war always include violence, the atrocities committed during the nine months in 1971 were neither a decided war strategy nor a one-sided occurrence. It was initiated by the emotional break-down of established psychological and societal limits fired by disparate nationalist theories and feelings. The enduring silence about what happened in East Pakistan in 1971 by political circles and for political reasons in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India is not only preventing forgiveness to be sought and obtained by the people involved on all sides but it is hampering the process of historical rehabilitation between the countries and nations involved and in the subcontinent as such. As soon as in 2021 it will be 50 years, half a century, that this war has taken place and disrupted the country that had come into existence in 1947. Now would be a worthy occasion for Pakistan to start a meaningful re-evaluation of this crucial event in our national history.
(Ikram Sehgal is a defense and security analyst and Dr Bettina Robotka is formerly of Department of South Asian Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin. Extracts are quoted from the book being published by OUP on 1971).