Guernica by Pablo Picasso
Referring to his detention a few weeks ago, the former prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, said: “This [repression] did not work then [in the run-up to Bangladesh’s creation]. It will not work now.” While Imran Khan did not use the word genocide, his statements alluded to the violence perpetrated by the Pakistani establishment in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) in 1971.
Over the years, there have been demands that Pakistan should apologize for the crimes against humanity it committed against the people of Bangladesh. Further, in October last year, on the sidelines of the 51st Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations (UN) reiterated the demand that the UN without any further delay should recognize the Genocide of 1971 committed by the Pakistani Army. She emphasized that the time is right for the world to acknowledge and recognize the Genocide of 1971 in Bangladesh, lest it may become a forgotten chapter in history. Yet, even after 50 years of independence of Bangladesh—which was born out of a reprehensible bloodbath—no formal apology or convincing acknowledgement has been meted out to its people.
The relations between Bangladesh and Pakistan have been stained by the Liberation War of 1971 and the Genocide that accompanied it. The people of East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) were subjected to systemic discrimination, and consequently, they pressed for self-determination. The leadership in West Pakistan (present Pakistan), instead of going for a democratic resolution, adopted a violent approach to address the demands for justice in East Pakistan. The Pakistan military launched Operation Searchlight, which proved to be the last nail in the coffin of a united Pakistan. They further launched a massive crackdown on the Bengali nationalists that led to a war with India followed by their subsequent humiliation and surrender. According to Bangladeshi sources, around three million people lost their lives, and millions more became homeless in the war.
The first detailed report about the Genocide of 1971 was published by Anthony Mascarenhas, a well-known Pakistani journalist, in the UK’s The Sunday Times, on June 13, 1971. Mascarenhas, in his famous report, titled “Genocide”, provided startling details about the genocide. He wrote:
“I saw Hindus hunted from village to village and door to door, shot off-hand after a cursory ‘short arm inspection’ showed they were uncircumcised. I have heard the screams of men bludgeoned to death in the compound of the Circuit House in Comilla. I have seen truckloads of other human targets and those who had the humanity to try to help them hauled off for disposal under cover of darkness and curfew”.
K. Blood, the US consul general in Dhaka in 1971, who disagreed with his country’s handling of the Bangladesh struggle, also reported how bare female bodies in Dhaka University’s Rokeya Hall were found hanging from ceiling fans with bits of rope. They were apparently raped, shot, and hung by heels by the fans. According to the genocide researcher RJ Rummel, the “willing executioners” were fuelled by abiding anti-Bengali racism, especially against the Hindu minority. Bengalis were often compared with monkeys and chickens, and the soldiers were free to kill. Noted researcher Robert Payne, in his book “Massacre: The Tragedy of Bangladesh”, quoted a senior Pakistan Army general as saying, “Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands”. And as rightly noted by Time Magazine, as early as August 2, 1971, the Genocide of 1971 was “the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland”.
Pakistan, on the other hand, contends that it had every right to defend its independence and territorial integrity and that it was the Bengali separatists in league with India who were responsible for the atrocities and bloodshed of 1971. The Pakistani state erroneously argues that both parties carried out extra-judicial killings, and therefore expecting an uncontested apology from Pakistan alone is unreasonable. A recent documentary, “Separation of East Pakistan: The Untold Story” by Javed Jabbar, tries to vindicate Yahya Khan and insists that the military operation in East Pakistan was necessary because the Mukti Bahini trained and armed by India had begun to target non-Bengalis and Pakistan security forces. However, targeting millions of civilians is not a proportionate response and cannot be qualified as a reasonable policy response. Mention may be made here of the book “Dead Reckoning” by Sarmila Bose, which questions the veracity of the Bangladeshi claim about the millions of deaths, injuries and rapes during the civil war in East Pakistan. Nevertheless, the numerous news reports, testimonies, diplomatic cases, and other documents demonstrate that the genocide was nothing but a reality that had taken place.
The role of the UN, in this regard, is important. It reported that, among the genocides of human history, the highest number of people killed in a short span of time was in Bangladesh in 1971. An average of 6,000 to 12,000 people were killed every single day. This is the highest daily average in the history of genocides. Yet, the world body has been consistently silent on formally recognizing the Genocide of 1971, even though it has, in recent years, accorded recognition to the Armenian genocide and also acted decisively on the Bosnian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides. The UN recognition is important for the victims’ families as well as for the aggrieved nation that is now 51 years old and also an important member of the UN. An acknowledgement of the Genocide of 1971 is something that Bangladesh expects as homage to the victims and a step towards realizing justice for its war victims from the world community.
On December 31, 2021, the very last day of Bangladesh’s golden jubilee celebration, the US-based Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention issued a statement detailing the genocide of Bengalis. The Lemkin Institute stated that:
“Given the lack of a broad international recognition of the crime, the Lemkin Institute calls upon (the) international community, including the United Nations, to urgently recognize the Bengali genocide as a way to pay tribute to the victims and to hold (the) perpetrators accountable”.
It also called upon the international community to pressure Pakistan to work with Bangladesh in its search for truth and justice. But it is only a hope that such a statement by the renowned genocide prevention institute would remove the inertia of the UN and pave the way for many more similar international bodies to come forward to recognize the Genocide of 1971. Even the Pakistani state, after 51 years, has not tendered a formal apology to Bangladesh for the crimes committed by its army. It has not put on trial the 195 war criminals identified by Bangladesh in 1972 as the principal perpetrators. On the contrary, one can find the Pakistani state adopting a conscious policy of selective remembering through textbooks, museum exhibits and mainstream narratives that tend to distort and erase history by forgetting the past.
The reluctance of the UN to recognize the Genocide of 1971 and Pakistan’s hesitant and intermittent willingness to own up to the past does not qualify as justice to the war victims of 1971. It rather appears to be extending a mere lip service towards the aggrieved community. Therefore, an apology by the Pakistani government for the Genocide in 1971, and acknowledgement from the UN and the world community of the crimes against humanity, can only be counted as a first step in the process of seeking justice for the victims. The fact that a former prime minister of Pakistan has referred to the crimes of Pakistani establishment in Bangladesh, demonstrates that historical memories cannot be wished away. For Bangladesh, given its fast changing social and political context, it becomes all the more important that the trauma of 1971 is address through symbolic acts and also through processes that deliver substantive justice.
Srimanti Sarkar is Assistant
Professor in the Department of
Political Science, West Bengal