The facts regarding Bangladesh Genocide are incontrovertible. Between 25 March and 16 December in 1971, the Pakistan occupation army in Bangladesh put as many as 3,000,000 Bengalis to in what was a well-planned policy of genocide. In the process, no fewer than 200,000 Bengali women were raped and villages and towns put to the torch. Ten million Bengalis fled to neighbouring India.
All across Bangladesh, fifty-two years after the emergence of the country through a war of liberation, scores upon scores of killing fields draw attention to the atrocities Pakistan’s soldiers subjected Bengalis to, in their attempt to cleanse the country of all traces of Bengali nationalism through the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide. The killings were organised and directed by the top brass of the army and were aimed at a liquidation of Hindus as well as Muslims in what till 25 March 1971 had been the restive eastern province of the state of Pakistan.
Even as we speak, ever newer killing fields are being discovered in Bangladesh, prompting the families of those whose remains are being recovered and identified after such a long stretch of time to justifiably demand that the perpetrators of the crime be brought to justice. It makes sense, as it always has, to ask that the tragedy which laid Bengali lives low in 1971 be accorded international recognition as a genocide. As that question is being raised again, it would be well to recall the sheer cruelty with which senior Pakistani army officers presided over the killings.
1971 Bangladesh Genocide: Pakistan’s Design
General Tikka Khan ordered, in the instructions of General Yahya Khan, the army into action on the night of 25 March. The killing operations were carried out by military formations under the command of General Khadim Hussain Raja. The early hours of the genocide commenced with the murder of academics and students of Dhaka University as also people across the city. No fewer than 7,000 Bengalis were murdered in that initial phase of the killings.
At a point during the period of the mass killings, and before the Pakistan army surrendered to a joint command of India-Bangladesh forces in late 1971, General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, in outrageous manner, made it known that his soldiers, away from their families in (West) Pakistan, were in need of carnal pleasure. Hence the rape of Bengali women. His comment, in jeering fashion, of bringing about a generational change in Bengali society (hum un ke nasl badal denge) through his soldiers molesting Bengali women remains unforgotten.
More than five decades after the crime of genocide was perpetrated in Bangladesh, it is fitting and proper that the international community remind itself that what the people of Bangladesh went through in 1971 must be acknowledged and placed on record.
US Recognition of Genocides
The unacceptable reality is that while the killings, in recent times, in Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have been recognised as genocide, while the US administration of President Joe Biden has loudly referred to the Armenian genocide, while the Chinese attitude to its Uighur population is described as a genocide and while the International Criminal Court issues a warrant of arrest against Russian President Vladimir Putin over what it calls the genocide of Ukrainians, the genocide Bengalis were subjected to has remained forgotten or sidelined.
And yet there are chinks of hope that have been generated in recent times. This hope springs from the United States, where successive administrations since 1971 have maintained a studious silence on the Bangladesh genocide. But it is silence, first clamped by the Nixon administration at the height of the Bengali war of liberation in 1971, which needs to be broken. It is being broken, in encouraging phases, by the efforts of individuals and organisations in the US, measures which call for increased emphasis on the part of the international community in order to bring the Bangladesh genocide to the fore.
1971 Bangladesh Genocide: USA’s role
It is of critical importance that the dark legacy set in motion by President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a position adopted despite the sympathy of the American people for Bengalis in 1971 across the board, be recalled. Obsessed with thoughts of soliciting Pakistani assistance in its moves toward an opening to China, the Nixon administration deliberately ignored the messages of desperation, sent from Dhaka by US Consul Archer K. Blood vis-à-vis the atrocities committed by the Pakistan army. It did nothing by way of pressuring the Yahya Khan junta into putting an end to the killings and going for a political solution to the problems created by the state of Pakistan.
It is a shame that even as such American politicians as Senator Edward Kennedy highlighted the nature of the genocide in Bangladesh; and even as the killings were ceaselessly projected in the international media, the White House saw little reason to confront the Pakistanis with the dire reports of the violence let loose by their soldiers in Bangladesh.
Away from America, at significant global councils such as the United Nations, while the crisis exacerbated by the outbreak of direct military conflict between India and Pakistan in early December 1971 was deliberated upon, little or no mention was made of the genocide that Bengalis were yet being put through. Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, the special representative of the Bangladesh government (formed in Mujibnagar in April 1971), was not permitted to address the UN General Assembly in September 1971.
More than a half century on, it becomes the moral responsibility of the global community and especially of the United States to correct the grievous wrong that has been done to Bangladesh’s people. The correction entails an official acknowledgement by the Biden administration, seeing that it has after a century termed the Armenian genocide for what it was, that the Pakistan army went into an orgy of killings in Bangladesh in 1971. There are the pointers that will, and should assist, Washington in coming to terms with the reality of what happened to Bengalis in the year the Nixon-Kissinger team chose to look away from all the blood and gore in Bangladesh and towards an opening to Mao Zedong’s China.
Bangladesh Genocide: Positive Developments
Back in 2016, Lorraine Boissoneault, writing in Smithsonian Magazine (The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget) diligently traced the dark history of the killings by Pakistan in Bangladesh.
Not long ago, the US-based Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention and Genocide Watch, to the satisfaction of those who seek justice for 1971, recognised the atrocities of Pakistan’s soldiers in Bangladesh as genocide. It was, in more ways than one, a definitive step toward bringing the history of the ‘forgotten’ genocide before the US administration. Add to that a similar recognition of the 1971 genocide by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS).
In October last year, the introduction of a resolution in the US House of Representatives by Congressmen Ro Khanna and Steve Chabot, calling on the President of the United States to recognise the atrocities committed by Pakistan’s forces in Bangladesh as a genocide was a defining move in the campaign for the global community to place the atrocities Bengalis were subjected to on record and officially condemned.
And just last week, the European Bangladesh Forum (EBF), meeting in London and building on its earlier initiatives on the subject, brought together scholars from Belgium, Germany, Pakistan, the Netherlands and other countries to stress the need for an official global acknowledgement of the 1971 genocide.
Correcting Historic Wrongs
The United States owes it to its conscience, to its people, to correct the lapses in policy making in 1971. The Nixon administration accorded formal recognition to Bangladesh’s sovereign status in early 1972. Once Bangladesh made its entry into the United Nations in September 1974, the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman travelled to New York, where he addressed the UN General Assembly.
Prior to returning home, he met President Gerald Ford at the White House in Washington. In late October of the year, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited Dhaka, where he engaged in talks with Bangabandhu and Foreign Minister Kamal Hossain.
In these fifty-plus years, relations between Bangladesh and the United States have scaled increasingly greater heights in a number of areas, with economic cooperation being an important segment in the links. On a number of global issues, Dhaka and Washington have evinced a common approach. Of course, there have been some hiccups along the way, but on balance the two countries have been on an even keel in their interactive pursuit of diplomacy. All the more reason why the Biden administration needs to take a long, hard look at 1971, go over the policies that ought not to have been there and so put things in their proper perspective.
And that will happen when the US ends its silence on 1971 and formally, and without ambiguity, condemns the men who organised and perpetrated, in flagrant violation of international law, the genocide of a people. Those people were citizens of Bangladesh. Their descendants, the present generation of Bengalis, wait for justice to be done, for the Pakistan army whose malice and organised brutality put an end to the lives of 3,000,000 Bengalis to be condemned in the US and around the globe.
The wheels of justice ought to begin rolling, with the US administration taking a much-needed first step. The rest of the world will follow.
About the Author
Syed Badrul Ahsan is the Chief Editorial Adviser of The Confluence; a journalist and author. He previously served as the Press Minister at the High Commission of Bangladesh, London and authored a biography on the Founder of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman entitled From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.