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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The tragedy of East Pakistan: Killing fields of Bengal

It is said that history is written by the victor, but conflict sometimes does not identify a clear victor & both protagonists survive & in cases like that history bears double versions of events that are inherently opposed to each other. East Pakistan was a Pakistani province established in 1955 by the One Unit Policy

War and conflict have always been killers. Every war or even conflict at the ground level sees lots of human life lost which very tragically the participants consider collateral damage. The human side of it is ignored & more disappointingly used as a political propaganda tool. It is said that history is written by the victor, but conflict sometimes does not identify a clear victor & both protagonists survive & in cases like that history bears double versions of events that are inherently opposed to each other. East Pakistan was a Pakistani province established in 1955 by the One Unit Policy

Operation Searchlight was successful, but the aftermath led to the fall of Dhaka and the creation of an independent state Bangladesh. Violent creation of a country and that after a war lasting nine months by nature should have been bloody and that’s what it was. Bangladesh Government claimed genocide by the Pakistani side and claimed that 3 million East Pakistanis were killed by the Pakistanis. While the Pakistani side refuted the claim and a Commission called Hamoodur Rahman Commission headed by a judge opined that the deaths were in thousands. Obviously, both sides’ claim was exaggerated and under-counted by necessity.

Read more: The tragedy of East Pakistan: Operation searchlight, myth or reality?

None can prove it and so the numbers have always been controversial

The claim by Bangladesh of 3 million people killed was debunked by the Pakistani side and while Bangladesh showed instances of excesses done by the Pakistan side, they were never able to prove the scale of it. Similarly, the denial by the Pakistani side of minimum fatalities and the figure in thousands never did ring true. Both sides never produced any statistical evidence to support their claim, there were some talks of reparations and some activity of collecting evidence by the Bangladesh Government but that was not seriously followed up. Pakistan was basically just denying the massive scale of killing claimed by Bengalis and thus did not need to present any statistical evidence.

But surprisingly Pakistan did not insist on the killing statistics of non-Bengalis and Bengalis supporting Pakistan as well. The reluctance by both the countries to collect numerical statistics of people killed in an organized manner showed that both countries knew that their claims are hogwash and can only be used for political purposes, for creating bad blood and just accusing each other.

Moreover, In 1973 Shimla agreement signed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi and the subsequent signing of the Delhi agreement agreeing to the repatriation of Bangladeshi and Pakistani prisoners of war killed off any question of fixing responsibilities and thus the only thing left was using the stats for propaganda. Bangladesh did not insist on a trial of war crimes and the Pakistani delegate stated “ regret for any crimes that might have been committed”. Over the years neither the Pakistani nor Bangladesh government displayed any serious effort to numerically collect statistics.

However independent observers and people who lived through the tragedy of east Pakistan particularly those who were not biased and did not have a stake in the conflict has presented a disjointed yet comprehensive picture that can connect the dots to produce a picture that can be understood to realize what happened. The disjointed picture does not actually give a numerical guideline on fatalities but numerical statistics can sometimes just be statistics even if only thousands were killed which means a thousand too many people lost their lives. A single killing cannot be justified nor can be a thousand killings.

Read more: The tragedy of East Pakistan: Understanding the issue of free and fair elections

It was clear that Pakistan did implement operation searchlight which besides the killing of army personnel also included killings of non-military personnel as well. There were some claims by the Bangladesh Government of brain drain or killing of intellectuals which were well supported by evidence, though only the perpetrators can be controversial, it did happen is a fact. The two Paramilitary forces created by Jamaat E Islami followed the historical path taken by such forces and settled their own personal score, used their killing ability for profit gathering purposes and their semi-professional approach of half-cooked intelligence disbursement cost many lives.

The non-Bengali population faced the wrath of the Bengali population twice

Once before Operation Searchlight & during operation searchlight and the second time after the fall of Dhaka. The non-Bengali population lived in colonies and in many towns, their colonies were wiped out. The hatred created by irresponsible political leaders meant that people living together for many years turned against each other and killed each other.

While many stories of heroism and humanity can be quoted on both sides the truth of the matter was that both sides committed serious atrocities against each other with extreme cruelty. Pakistan bears more responsibility as Pakistan was acting against their own citizens in an internal conflict but the Bengali mob/ Mukti bahini returned the favor when the table turned. The score-settling that Al Shams and Al Badr did against the Bengalis was reciprocated by the Mukti Bahini after Dhaka Fall. The most unfortunate fact is that after the fall of Dhaka many Bengalis were killed for past support to Pakistan.

The history of the world shows that armies usually are killing machines, they are trained to kill. That’s their job description. That’s why armies are never asked to shoot to control a mob because police or paramilitary forces might shoot low to injure but an army will always shoot to kill. If we study the history of the world then we can see armies that are engaged in a conflict are always accused of war crimes. It’s only the degree that differs. There cannot be a single army that is engaged in putting down insurgency or in a war that does not commit excesses.

The German army, the Russian army, the USA army, the Japanese army all were accused of excesses during the second world war. The victor put the vanquished-on trial at Nuremberg but probably it could have been different if the tables were turned. The action of the army never puts a stamp of extremism on a nation. Even the most peace-loving Bengali army allegedly committed atrocities when taking action in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The Burmese army, supposedly peace-loving Buddhists, were accused of horrible killings of the Muslims in Burma. So, the action of the army or simply protagonists in a conflict never represent the character of a nation.

Read more: Forks in the Road: The fatal decision that precipitated a revolt in East Pakistan

Before Operation Searchlight the mob killings of thousands of non-Bengalis, the killing of Bengalis during Operation Searchlight, the brain drain or killing of intellectuals, the killings by razakars of people sympathetic to Bangladesh, and finally the killings of non-Bengalis after Dhaka fall and the killings of Bengali Pakistani supporter all are very unfortunate but that did happen. The most deplorable fact is that it’s one nation which did it to each other, one nation and usual people of one religion. None of them can claim immunity from an act against humanity. This is what happens when self-serving irresponsible so-called leaders create hatred and instigate people against each other. History is written in blood requires everyone to apologize but of course, none will.


The author has worked for Unilever for 25 years. He is a professional translator/interpreter of five languages and is also a certified computer trainer. He is currently living in Virginia, USA. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.