The non-implementation of the verdict of the 7 December 1970 general elections, the first in Pakistan, in which the Awami League won a majority, led to a country-wide Bengali nationalist and self-determination movement beginning March 1971. While Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had given a call for a “non-violent, non-cooperation movement”, in execution there was large-scale mob violence against the non-Bengalis and Urdu-speaking Bihari Muslims, and the administration of the East Pakistan province was brought to a standstill.
Instead of restoring the rule of law and implementing the electoral verdict, the infuriated West Pakistan-dominated government decided to teach the Bengalis a lesson. A brutal genocidal crackdown — Operation Searchlight — began on the night of 25/26 March 1971, which continued till 14 December 1971. Members/supporters of the Awami League, intellectuals, Bengali personnel of armed forces/paramilitary units, and the Hindu population were the targets of the genocide.
This genocidal ethnic and religious cleansing created the circumstances for the eventual dismemberment of Pakistan. It is a shame that, barring some civilian collaborators who have been belatedly brought to justice in Bangladesh, the officers and soldiers of the Pakistani army who perpetrated the heinous crime have remained unpunished despite being identified.
International laws on war crimes
Article 6 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines ‘Genocide’ as ‘the intentional mass-scale killing, with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ Article 8 of the same statute defines ‘War Crimes’ as ‘grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, which apart treatment of Prisoners of War, include the intentional killing of civilians, their torture, rape, enforced pregnancy, inhuman treatment or wilful causing of great suffering and injury and destruction of civilian property.’
Keeping in view the above, there should be no doubt that the Pakistan Army and its collaborators were guilty of genocide and war crimes. Apart from denial, the defense of Pakistan has been that its army was acting ‘under the orders of the legitimate government in aid of civil authority to control an insurrection’. However, it is well established that even in such situations, Geneva Conventions and other international humanitarian laws and laws on human rights are applicable. Further, the Nuremberg Principles lay down that soldiers are accountable for the execution of ‘illegal orders’ that violate international humanitarian laws.
The heralders of Bangladesh genocide
All foreign journalists in Dacca had been quarantined in a hotel. However, Indian newspapers gave detailed accounts of what was happening in East Bengal. As early as 31 March 1971, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called out the genocide. However, it was three notable individuals who took the genocide to the conscience of the world.
Archer Kent Blood, the then head of the United States Consulate in Dhaka, sent a series of telegrams to Washington, commencing with the one on 27 March — “Here in Decca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak[istani] Military.” He, along with 20 members of his staff, also sent a “dissent telegram” via the State Department’s Dissent Channel on 6 April 1971 — “ Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. …. we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state.”
Another bold journalist, Simon Dring, who managed to stay on in Dacca for a few days and wrote an article — ‘Tanks crush revolt in Pakistan’ in the Daily Telegraph. He wrote about the first 24 hours: “It is impossible to accurately assess what all this has so far cost in terms of innocent human lives. But reports began filtering in from the outlying areas — Chittagong, Comilla, and Jessore — put the figure, including Dacca, in the region of 15,000 dead. Only the horror of the military action can be properly gauged — the students dead in their beds, the butchers in the markets killed behind their stalls, the women and children roasted alive in their houses, the Pakistanis of Hindu religion taken out and shot en masse, the bazaars and shopping areas razed by fire and the Pakistani flag that now flies over every building in the capital.”
However, the most graphic and poignant account that shook the conscience of the world and left a deep impact on Indira Gandhi, was given by Pakistani journalist — Anthony Mascarenhas in The Sunday Times on 13 June 1971. Being a Pakistani, he was allowed to accompany the Pakistani Army columns to tout the official version. The article simply titled ‘Genocide’ is blood-chilling.
Scale of violence
As per Bangladesh sources, three million people lost their lives, ten million fled across the border to India as refugees, and around 2,50,000 women were raped, including 25 thousand who became pregnant.
Others have assessed a much lower figure of 5,00,000 being killed, labelling the figure of three million as Bangladesh’s ‘national narrative’. The Central Intelligence Agency assessed that 2,00,000 civilians had been killed. Given the fact that 10 million refugees took shelter in India out of a population of 65 million, it is reasonable to assess that between 5,00,000 and a million people were killed.
According to Australian doctor Geoffrey Davis, who was brought to Dhaka by the United Nations to assist with late-term abortions of raped women at the end of the war, said that the reported estimates of 2,00,000 to 4,00,000 — for the number of Bengali women who were raped — was probably too low.
Lt General A. A. K. Niazi in his book, Betrayal of East Pakistan, compares Lt Gen Tikka Khan to Hulagu Khan and Genghis Khan. This aspect was also discussed in the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report too which obviously rubbished the claim.
Genocide and war crimes have repercussions for the entire international community. State actors must be held accountable and not allowed to get away with such heinous crimes. Unfortunately, so far, Pakistan has gotten away with it.
Bangladesh had made its intent very clear — to try the Pakistani army personnel for war crimes. Since the Pakistani Army had surrendered to the Indian Army, the 93,000 Prisoners of War (PoW) were moved to India. Both India and Bangladesh had identified 195 personnel, including senior officers, to be tried for war crimes. Pakistan’s new Prime Minister then, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, had released Rahman but promptly interred all Bengali personnel of the armed forces and civil services still in Pakistan and threatened to try them for treason. He also held to ransom nearly four lakh Bengali civilians stranded in West Pakistan.
Pakistan also linked the issue of the 195 war criminals with recognition of Bangladesh as a sovereign state rather than treating it like a breakaway province. The Chinese veto in the United Nations also hung like the sword of Damocles. Simla Agreement was signed on 2 July 1972 for future peace. Subsequently, an agreement was signed between India and Pakistan for the return of the PoWs apart from the 195 war criminals.
Despite being a very emotional issue in Bangladesh, realpolitik prevailed. The three countries — Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan — signed the Agreement of Prisoners of War and Civilian Internees on 9 April 1974. The understanding was that the war criminal will be tried in Pakistan. Alas, it never happened and the victims have been denied full closure. It is for Bangladesh to marshal international opinion and move the International Criminal Court. If Nazi war criminals can still be tried, why not the Pakistani War Criminals?
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)