Memories and monstrous fables

Popular support for secession: The results of the December 1970 elections in East Pakistan are often taken to be incontrovertible evidence of overwhelming support for the creation of “Bangladesh”. The Awami League, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won 75% of the popular vote in East Pakistan and 160 out of 162 seats of the province. It was a verdict to silence all debate–or so it seems.

The Awami League’s popular mandate in terms of percentage of votes and seats won has obscured some other interesting numbers and other possible interpretations of the election results. If the election–widely acknowledged as the first free and fair one in the country–was regarded by Bengali East Pakistanis as essentially a referendum on such a major constitutional issue as secession, one would expect the voter turnout in East Pakistan to be relatively high. Yet, oddly, the voter turnout in East Pakistan is given only as 56%, lower than in the provinces of Punjab (66%) and Sind (58%) in West Pakistan, though higher than in North West Frontier Province (47%) and Balochistan (39%). It would appear that 44% of the East Pakistani electorate was too disinterested in the issues of the election to vote, or else had some disincentive to go out to vote.

Of those who did vote in East Pakistan, three-quarters voted for the Awami League, showing that the party had been highly successful in bringing out its vote on election day. As only 56% of the electorate voted, it meant that 42% of the total electorate voted for the Awami League. That is well short of a majority of the electorate, but still an impressive showing for the party. However, even the 42% vote in favour of the Awami League cannot be interpreted as a vote for secession. The relatively low turnout suggests that the electorate did not consider the election to be a referendum on such a major issue, and Sheikh Mujib did not present it as such during the campaign. Those who voted for him may have been expressing their alienation from the existing regime, in favour of change, redress of perceived discrimination and greater autonomy. Only an unknown fraction of them may have sought outright secession at that point.

Similarly, the 58% of the total electorate that did not vote for Sheikh Mujib–either by staying home or by voting for other parties–cannot be interpreted as having been in favour of the status quo. Many of them may have shared the grievances of other voters, but not regarded Sheikh Mujib and his party as the solution.

One of the most striking aspects of the Bangladeshi “liberation literature” is the pervasive presence of those termed “Razakars” or “collaborators”– Bengalis who cooperated with the regime in its quest to keep  the two wings of Pakistan united. The thirteen volumes of individual Bangladeshi reminiscences–“Smirti 1971” (Memoirs 1971) — and all the rest of the “pro-liberation” literature are replete with references to those among the Bengalis themselves who were on the side of the regime, in favour of the unity of Pakistan. They are presented in a very negative light–as those who did not respond to the call for freedom, who informed on the “freedom fighters”, captured them, guarded them, handed them over to the army or even killed them– but they are present in virtually every story, in every village and every neighbourhood.

Perhaps the politically active ‘Razakars’ were only a minority, but, as in the case of the active pro-liberation fighters, for every activist on either side of the political divide there were likely to be many others who quietly shared his belief, and a good part of the population that was not firmly on one side or the other. There is also a constant complaint in the Bangladeshi ‘liberation literature’ that the ‘collaborators’ were quickly rehabilitated in independent Bangladesh, rising to positions of power and influence. This suggests that failure to support actively the creation of Bangladesh, and even active opposition to the secession from Pakistan in 1971, were not ‘hanging offences’ as far as many Bangladeshis were concerned. Even those who shared the sense of alienation from West Pakistan may have balked at sudden and immediate secession from a ‘homeland’ they had created a mere twenty years before.

Date(s) of the war: the date of the start of full-fledged war between India and Pakistan in 1971 is a contested issue. The date popularly given out is 3 December, the one announced by India, but this is merely the date the war spread to include the western sector. In a sense India’s involvement in the war may be taken to be from March, and its involvement in the politics of the province perhaps from even earlier. Numerous Bangladeshi pro-liberation accounts blithely recount close contact and coordination with Indian authorities prior to the military action taken by the Pakistani regime, as well as Indian involvement and casualties in ‘actions’ in East Pakistan throughout the year. Many of the Pakistani officers I spoke to described Indian penetration of the territory as pervasive. ‘The big operations are always done by the Indians’, reported  The Guardian on 18 September 1971, after an ethnic Bengali, who blended in with the local population and needed no translation, visited the training camps of the Mukti Bahini in India and crossed into East Pakistan with a guide on his own. Of the couple of hundred Bengali ‘volunteers’ who were said to be in the border area he visited, only six had been given any training at all and only three had taken part in any operation.

The start-date of the open all-out war in East Pakistan turns out not to have been 3 December after all. General Niazi, the Eastern Commander of the Pakistan Army, was irritated enough by claims of a ‘lightning campaign’ by India to devote a separation section in his book to the subject, entitled ‘The Date of the War’: ‘On the night of 20/21 November 1971, the Indian Army attacked East Pakistan from all directions’. General Niazi is of course an interested party in this debate, but his assertion is supported by the work of the American scholars Sisson and Rose. They conclude that India decided in favour of eventual direct military intervention as early as April 1971, and then devised a phased strategy. ‘The American government was correct in its assessment that India had already decided to launch a military operation in East Pakistan when Mrs. Gandhi came to Washington in early November pretending that she was still seeking a peaceful solution’.

However, the initial phase of Indian assistance to the rebel forces from East Pakistan failed in the sense that ‘the newly organised Mukti Bahini had not been able to prevent the Pakistani army from regaining control over all the major urban centres on the East Pakistani-Indian border and even establishing a tenuous authority in most of the rural areas. The next phase in Indian tactics, from July to mid October, involved both much more intensive training of the Mukti Bahini and direct involvement in Mukti Bahini activities by Indian military personnel . . . The Mukti Bahini campaign, with some disguised Indian involvement’ was directed at strategic targets. Indian artillery was used in support.

In the next phase from mid-October to 20 November, according to Sisson and Rose, Indian artillery was used more extensively and Indian military forces, tanks and air power were also used. ‘Indian units were withdrawn to Indian territory once their objectives had been brought under the control of the Mukti Bahini–though at times this was only for short periods, as, to the irritation of the Indians, the Mukti Bahini forces rarely held their ground when the Pakistani army launched a counterattack’.

‘After the night of 21 November, however, the tactics changed in one significant way–Indian forces did not withdraw. From 21 to 25 November several Indian army divisions, divided into smaller tactical units, launched simultaneous military actions on all of the key border regions of East Pakistan, and from all directions, with both armoured and air support’

As for the date of 3 December, Sisson and Rose wrote, ‘The Government of India was greatly relieved and pleasantly surprised when Pakistan, after temporising in its responses to the Indian military intervention in East Pakistan for nearly two weeks, ordered the Pakistani air force in West Pakistan to strike at major Indian air installations in northwestern India on 3 December’. The inaction of two weeks contradicted the Pakistani strategic doctrine that the defence of the East lay in the West. In a even more bizarre move, as Genera Niazi has confirmed, when the Pakistani regime finally launched the attack in the Western sector on 3 December it did so without consulting or informing it’s Eastern command which was already fighting a war in the East.

Prisoners of war: one of the most notable ‘numbers’ of 1971 in circulation is the assertion that ‘93,000 Pakistani soldiers’ were taken prisoner by India at the end of the war. The statement has been repeated, virtually unchallenged in practically every form of publication. It is a number about which one expects a certain precision–after all the number of POWs in India had to be an exact figure, not an approximation. Yet it turns out that 93,000 soldiers were not, in fact, taken prisoner.

In March 1971, the number of West Pakistani troops in East Pakistan was reported to be 12,000. More forces were brought in to cope with the crisis and Lt. Gen. A.A. K. Niazi, Commander of the Eastern Command in 1971 from April to December wrote: ‘The total fighting strength available to me was forty-five thousand–34,000 from the army, plus 11,000 from CAF and West Pakistan civilian police and armed non-combatants’. Out of the 34,000 regular troops, 23,000 were infantry, the rest being armour, artillery, engineers, signals and other ancillary units.

How did 34,000 army personnel plus 11,000 civilian police and other armed personnel, a total of 45,000 men, more than double into ‘93,000 soldiers’ who were reported taken prisoner by India in December? According to General Niazi:

The strength of the Pakistani Army was 34,000 troops; Rangers, scouts, militia and civil police came to 11,000, thus the grand total came to 45,000. If we in include naval and air force detachments and all those in uniform and entitled to free rations, e.g., HQ, MLA, depots, training institutes, workshops, factories, nurses and lady doctors, non-combatants like barbers, cooks, shoemakers, and sweepers, even then the total comes to 55,000 and not 96,000 or 100,000. The remaining were civilian officials, civilian staff and women and children.

So it appears that while the total figure in Indian custody is about right, to state that ’93, 000 soldiers’ were taken prisoner is wrong, and creates confusion by greatly inflating the Pakistani fighting force in East Pakistan.

There were other numbers related to prisoners of war that usually go unnoticed–the numbers of Pakistani  POWs held by India since early 1971. Lt. Ataullah Shah of 27 Baluch, who was captured in Kushtia and handed over to India in early April, told me that he saw sixty to eighty West Pakistani officers and other ranks already in custody when he was moved to Panagarh. Among Pakistani prisoners in India since March were the commanding officer of 4 East Bengal Regiment, Lt. Col. Khizr Hayat, and other West Pakistani officers of that unit, who had not been killed by the rebel Bengali second-in -command Major Khaled Musharraf, but taken in custody and handed over to India. Twenty-five West Pakistani trainees in the Sarda police academy in Rajshahi were captured and handed over to the Indian Border Security Force on 11 April according to villagers in Thanapara.

 ‘Genocide of three million’: the ultimate word-number combination
The ultimate ‘word number’ combination of the 1971 war is the assertion by Bangladeshi nationalists, believed by people around the world including Indians and many Pakistanis, that the Pakistan army committed ‘genocide’ of three million Bengalis’ during 1971. In the dominant narrative of the 1971 war, the Pakistan Army in this context is assumed to be entirely made up of West Pakistani personnel and the victims are assumed to be ethnic Bengalis, the majority inhabitants of the rebel province. The ‘three million’ allegedly killed are referred to usually as ‘innocent Bengalis’ suggesting that they were non-combatants, killed solely on the basis of their ethno-linguistic identity.

I started the research for this study from the premise, as it was embedded in the narrative with which I had grown up and was part of my own memories of 1971 as a child in Calcutta. I expected the figure of ‘three million’ to be an approximation, but a ballpark figure. I assumed that it was an estimate based on some form of accounting of the established realities on the ground.

Examination of the available material on the 1971 war in both Bengali and English showed that while the allegation of ‘genocide’ of ‘three million Bengalis’ is often made–in books, articles newspapers, films and websites– it is not based on any accounting or survey on the ground. Sisson and Rose state that the figure of three million dead was put out by India, while some Bangladeshi sources say it was the figure announced on the return to Dhaka by Sheikh Mujib, who in turn had been ‘told’ that was the death toll when he emerged from nine months in prison in West Pakistan. It is unclear who ‘told’ Sheikh Mujib this and on what basis. However, Sheikh Mujib’s public announcement of ‘three million dead’ after his return to the newly created Bangladesh was reported in the media.  For instance, on 11 January 1972 in The Times, Peter Hazelhurst reported from Dhaka on Mujib’s emotional home-coming: in his first public rally in independent Bangladesh, Mujib is reported to have said, ‘I have discovered that they had killed three million of my people’.

There are reports that having publicly stated that three million Bengalis had been killed– on the basis of what he had apparently been ‘told’ after his release from imprisonment–Sheikh Mujib tried to establish the necessary evidence for it by setting up a committee of inquiry in January 1972. No further information appears to be available on the work of the inquiry committee or its findings. None of the popular assertions of three million Bengalis allegedly killed by the army cites any official report.

The claim of three million dead or variations thereof was repeated in South Asian and Western academia and media for decades without verification. In an early comment on the war appended to her study of the alienation of East Pakistan, Rounaq Jahan wrote of ‘savage brutalities of the Pakistan army and the genocidal nature of their killings’, and stated, ‘Between one and three million people were reportedly killed during the nine-month struggle‘. No source or reference was cited for the figures. Thirty years later, in a single reference to the 1971 conflict in East Pakistan in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Samantha Power asserted, ‘Beginning in March 1971, . . . Pakistani troops killed between one and two million Bengalis and raped some 200,000 girls and women’. No source or reference was cited for this assertion. As Sisson and Rose commented, ‘India had of course, a good case to make in terms of Pakistani atrocities in East Pakistan, and it found the foreign press incredibly gullible in accepting, without effort at verifying, the substantial exaggeration that were appended to the list of horror stories from Dhaka’.

While the ‘three million’ figure has been repeated without substantiation by many, the occasional outside observer did notice the rather conspicuous gap between claims and actual evidence. In a report published in The Guardian entitled ‘The Missing Millions’ on 6 June 1972, William Drummond 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 repetitions such a claim gains a validity of its own and gradually evolved 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’.

In a striking parallel to Kissinger’s comments in April 1971 about Bengali claims of a thousand bodies in graves when fewer than twenty bodies could be found, Drummond wrote in June 1972, ‘Of course, there are ‘mass graves’ all over Bangladesh. But nobody, not even the most rabid Pakistani-hater has yet asserted that all these mass graves account for more than about 1,000 victims. Furthermore, because a body is found in a mass grave does not necessarily mean that the victim was killed by the Pakistani Army’.

As the earlier chapters indicate, my own experience in Bangladesh was very similar with claims of dead in various incidents wildly exceeding anything that could be reasonably supported by evidence on the ground. ‘Killing fields’ and ‘mass graves’ were claimed to be everywhere, but none was forensically exhumed an examined in a transparent manner, not even the one in Dhaka University. Moreover, as Drummond pointed out in 1972, the findings of someone’s remains cannot clarify unless scientifically demonstrated, whether the person was a Bengali or a non-Bengali, combatant or non-combatant, whether death took place in the 1971 war, or whether it was caused by the Pakistan Army. Ironically, as Drummond also points out, the Pakistan Army did kill, but the Bangladeshi claims were ‘blown wholly out of proportion’, undermining their credibility. Drummond reported that field investigations by the Home Ministry of Bangladesh in 1972 had turned up about 2000 complaints of deaths at the hands of the Pakistan Army.

Under the circumstances, the number ‘three million’ appears to be nothing more than gigantic rumour. Until and unless credible accounting can be produced to substantiate it, scholars and commentators must cease reporting it. Also, until and unless casualty figures estimated on the basis of some form of credible and transparent accounting are released from official archives of the concerned governments, no other number can be offered as the estimate of the dead.

On the Pakistani side, the Hamoodur Rehman Commission, set up after the war by the new government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to inquire into Pakistan’s defeat in the war, did  submit a report, de-classified parts of which were published in Pakistan. The Hamoodur Rehman Commission’s comment on the claim of three million dead is as follows: ‘According to the Bangladesh authorities, the Pakistan Army was responsible for killing three million Bengalis and raping 200,000 East Pakistani women. It does not need any elaborate argument to see that these figures are obviously highly exaggerated. So much damage could not have been caused by the entire strength of the Pakistan Army then stationed in East Pakistan, even if it had nothing else to do’.

Calling the claims by Dhaka ‘altogether fantastic and fanciful‘, the Commission presented its own estimate of the dead: ‘. . . the latest statement supplied to us by the GHQ shows approximately 26,000 persons killed during the action by the Pakistan Army. This figure is based on the situation reports submitted from time to time by the Eastern Command to General Headquarters’.

The Hamoodur Rehman Commission thought the estimate of 26,000 dead might be biased, but based upwards: ‘It is possible that even these figures may contain an  element of exaggeration, as the lower formations may have tended to magnify their own achievement in quelling the rebellion’. The Commission accepted the figure of 26, 000 dead as ‘reasonably correct’, given the ‘absence of any other reliable data’ and on account of ‘the fact that the reports were sent from East Pakistan to GHQ at a time when the army officers in East Pakistan could have no notion whatsoever of any accountability in this behalf’.

On the basis of the claims made by the two sides of the Pakistan civil war, therefore, we are left with a range of war-dead between 26,000, the figure based on situation reports of the Pakistan Army submitted to the Pakistan inquiry commission, and the Bangladesh/Indian claim of three million, based on – nothing. A meaningless range by any standards, as it is rendered farcical by the elimination of the three million figure as an assertion without any accountable basis.

In the course of their systematic research on the 1971 conflict, Sisson and Rose attempted to tackle the question of how many ha actually died in he war. They wrote:

India set the number of victims of Pakistani atrocities as three million, and this is still the figure usually cited. We interviewed two Indian officials who had held responsible positions on the issue of Bangladesh in 1971. When questioned about the actual number of deaths in Bangladesh in 1971 attributable to the civil war one replied ‘about 300,000’. Then when he received a disapproving glance from his colleague, he changed this to ‘300,000 to 500,000’.

The impression left by this exchange is that the Indian officials were still citing figures off the top of their heads without any supporting accounting basis, and that their  motivation was still to cite as large a number as possible. By this logic that official’s initial figure of 300,000 was also an ‘exaggerated’ figure, but not large enough for the disapproving colleague, hence the further inflation to a possible 500,000. Neither figure is supported by any accounting on the ground, nor must both necessarily be rejected.

Sisson and Rose raise another important consideration with regard to the number of dead (whatever the figure might be) : . . . it is still impossible to get anything like reliable estimates as to:

1. How many of these were ‘liberation fighters’ killed in combat?
2. How many were Bihari Muslims and supporters of Pakistan killed by Bengali Muslims?
3. How many were killed by Pakistani, Indian, or Mukti Bahini fire and bombing during hostilities?

One thing is clear– the atrocities did not just go one way, though Bengali Muslims and Hindus were certainly the main victims’.

Indeed as the earlier chapters have shown, many of the dead during the conflict were non-Bengalis victims of Bengali ethnic hatred. Of the corpses reported littering the land and clogging up the rivers, many would have been Biharis–this would be especially true where the victims were men, women and children, as Bengali mobs appear to have killed non-Bengali indiscriminately while the Pakistan Army appeared to target adult Bengali men. There is no reliable breakdown of the casualties into Bengali and non- Bengali. It is also hard to distinguish between combatant and non-combatant casualties as so many combatants on the Bangladeshi side were civilians (or in civilian attire). While some non-combatant civilians were killed in deliberate massacres recounted in incidents in this study, many civilians also perished in crossfire or bombings. Realistically, it is no longer possible to apportion the dead reliably into any categories–Bengali or non-Bengali, combatant or non-combatant, deliberate targeting or so-called ‘collateral damage’.

Some of the instances of inflation ( or deflation) captured by this study indicate the scale of the problem of numbers. The White Paper of the Pakistan government listed gruesome cases of brutalisation and murder by Bengali nationalists and claimed that more than 100,000 men, women and children had been killed by Bengalis during the ‘Awami League reign of terror’ started on 1 March 1971. It would be logical to assume that the White Paper might tend to inflate the number of victims of Bengali nationalist violence, just as Bengali nationalists’ claims of the number of victims of the Pakistan Army are exaggerated. However, as the case-studies of Khulna in Chapter 4 and Chapter 8 demonstrate, non-Bengali  men, women and children massacred by Bengali nationalists ran into thousands of casualties per incident. Hence the total number of dead among the ‘Bihari’ population would easily run into tens of thousands.

The warring parties do not necessarily minimise how many they killed. Both sides have the incentive to claim to have inflicted higher casualties on the ‘enemy’, to inflate their own ‘achievements’. The weeks following the start of the military action witnessed serious blood- letting with heavy casualties on both sides. As Chapter 4 has shown, about 144 members of the Pakistan armed forces were killed by Bengali attackers in Kushtia in a protracted battle and subsequent ambushes. However, the claim that pro-liberation fighters caught unawares at Satiarchora in Tangail inflicted a loss of 200-250 soldiers in a matter of minutes before being crushed seems highly exaggerated.

An Associated Press photographer, who evaded deportation from Dhaka for a couple of days after the start of the military action on 25-26 March reported that 200 students were reported killed in Iqbal Hall (in Dhaka University). As discussed in Chapter 3, one of the key army officers in charge of the operation in Dhaka that night told me that the number of dead at Iqbal Hall was twelve and that at Jagganath Hall was thirty two. From the witness accounts discussed in that chapter it appears that the casualty figure at the university might range from around seventy, including those forced to carry the corpses and shot afterwards, to 300 as claimed by the commanding officer of the regiment executing the action at the university. The university memorial lists 149 war-dead for the whole year, contradicting the initial press report.

Similarly as discussed in Chapter 4, the army attack on Shankharipara, a Hindu area in old Dhaka, on 26 March left 14-15 men and one child dead according to eye-witnesses and survivors whom I interviewed: but a prominent Pakistani journalist reported that 8,000 people had been killed there. The evidence assembled in Chapter 6 on the killing of Hindu refugees at Chuknagar indicates that a large-scale massacre– perhaps with hundreds dead–occurred there on 20 May. This is still not enough for some locals and Bangladeshi academics, who aspire to establish the incident as the ‘biggest mass killing’ of the year, by claiming–implausibly–that 10,000 people were killed there by a platoon o soldiers with just their personal weapons in a morning’s operation.

From the available evidence discussed in this study, it appears possible to estimate with reasonable confidence that at least 50,000-100,000 people perished in the conflict in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971, including combatants and non-combatants, Bengalis and non-Bengali’s, Hindus and Muslims, Indians and Pakistanis. Casualty figures crossing one hundred thousand are within the realm of the possible, but beyond that one enters a world of meaningless speculation.

A culture of victim hood and violence

Regardless of the number of dead, whether the deaths during the 1971 conflict were ‘genocidal’ in nature is a separate question. The crime of ‘genocide’ is not based on the numbers killed, but on whether the victims were targeted on the basis of nationality, ethnicity, race or religion. The international community defined ‘genocide’ in the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948, according to which:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed  with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnically, racial or religious group, as such:

1. Killing members of the group
2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
5. Forcibly transferring children or the group to another group

The allegation that the Pakistan Army killed Bengalis in a ‘genocidal’ manner runs into several problems. To begin with, virtually all of the population of about seventy million in East Pakistan was Bengali. Defining the ‘target’ population as ‘Bengali’ therefore is non-starter. As the rebels fighting for an independent Bangladesh were Bengalis in an overwhelmingly Bengali province, it is hardly a surprise that those killed by the Pakistan Army in its bid to put down the rebellion would be Bengalis.

As the instances in this study show, the Pakistan Army was clearly not killing all Bengalis even in the worst instances of massacres such as those at Thanapara, Chuknagar and Boroitola. There appears to have been the pattern of targeting adult men while sparing women and children, starting with the military action in Dhaka University on 25-26 March through the duration of the conflict. In Dhaka University, non-Bengali male staff members were also killed. Nor were all adult Bengali men the target of army action. Some Bengali men were active supporters of the regime– termed ‘Razakars’ by the pro-liberation Bengalis. Many others were not active on either side and the vast majority of such men survived the war, even if they were picked up and interrogated along with real insurgents such as the Dhaka guerrilla groups. However, Hindu men appear to have been more likely to be presumed to be insurgents solely on the basis of their religion.

Hence the available evidence indicates that Pakistan Army committed political killings, where the victims were suspected to be secessionists in cahoots with the arch enemy India and thus ‘traitorous’. Extra-judicial political killings in non-combat situations, however, brutal and deserving condemnation, do not fit the UN definition of ‘genocide’, whether in East Pakistan in 1971 or in other instances of large-scale political killings elsewhere in the world. However,  to identify their targets–secessionist rebels–in situations other than straight combat, the Pakistan army used proxies, or ‘profiling’ as it is called in current usage: sometimes the proxy might have been political affiliation ( membership of the Awami League, for instance), but at other times the proxies appear to have been age (adult), gender (male) and religion (Hindu). It is the latter proxies, in particular the disproportionate probability of being presumed to be an insurgent on the basis of religion–Hinduism–that led the army into killings that may have been ‘political’ in motivation, but could be termed ‘genocidal’ by their nature.

Yet many Hindus were also left unharmed by the Pakistan army during 1971. As the witness accounts in Chapter 6 show, many Hindu refugees were leaving their villages and fleeing to India not because of any action of the army, but because they could no longer bear the persecution by their Bengali Muslim neighbours. Much of the harassment of Hindus by their fellow-Bengalis appears to have been non- political, motivated by material greed. The intimidation, killing and hounding out of Hindus–whether by the army or by Bengali Muslims–amounted to what has later come to be termed ‘ethnic cleansing’.

While Pakistan Army’s political killings turned ‘genocidal’ when religious ‘profiling’ was used for the selection of victims, the killing of non-Bengalis–Biharis and West Pakistanis–by Bengalis was clearly ‘genocide’ under the UN definition. As many instances in this study show, many Bengalis Muslims in East Pakistan committed ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-Bengali Muslims and Bengali and non-Bengali Hindus, as the victim were targeted on the basis of ethnicity or religion.

The ‘liberators literature’ of Bangladesh repeatedly uses the words ‘genocide’, ‘holocaust’, or ‘concentration camp’ in their depiction of 1971 in blissful disregard of the need to provide substantiation, in an obvious attempt to benefit from the association with the horrors of Nazi Germany. The need for ‘millions’ dead appears to have become part of a morbid competition with six million Jews to obtain the attention and sympathy of the international community. The persistent cultivation of a ‘victim culture’ glides effortlessly through allegations of exploitation by West Pakistan, ‘genocide’ in 1971, neglect by an uncaring world and further exploitation by India, the erstwhile liberators.

It is important to emphasise that there is no comparison between the 1971 conflict in East Pakistan and the real Holocaust–the systematic extermination of millions of European Jews, other minorities and political dissidents by the Nazis and their allies during the Second World War. Such careless references are an insult to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust as well as the casualties of the 1971 conflict, who do not require their suffering to be grossly exaggerated or distorted in order to be taken seriously.

When the Pakistan Army came for Sheikh Mujib on the night of 25-26 March 1971 he was apprehensive; the soldiers arrested and imprisoned him, accusing him of treason. When soldiers of the Bangladesh Army came for Sheikh Mujib on 15 August 1975 he went to meet them as they were his own people; they killed him and all his extended family present, including his wife, two daughters-in-law, and three sons, the youngest a child of ten.

Ultimately, neither the numbers nor the labels matter. What matters is the nature of the conflict, which was fundamentally a complex and violent struggle for power among several different  parties with a terrible human toll. The war of 1971 left a land of violence, with a legacy of intolerance of difference and a tendency to respond to political opposition with intimidation, brutalization and extermination.

By courtesy: Dead Reckoning by Sarmila Bose, Columbia University Press New York 2011