As the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Bangladesh draws near, what also draws near is the 50th anniversary of a genocide so gruesome that it ought not to be allowed to slide into oblivion.
To begin at the beginning, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not part of the deception — he was the deception. Having won only 85 seats, Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had been a runner-up in the elections of December 1970, losing to the Awami League’s 167 seats. In the political stalemate due to then-West Pakistan’s attempt to modify the people’s mandate, Bhutto’s presence in Dhaka, on 25 March 1971 for “talks” with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (the legitimate Prime Minister-Elect for the whole of Pakistan), probably lulled Awami leaders into thinking that “the 26th would be just another Friday, like every other Friday before it”.
Although it was almost an open secret that the thousands of crew-cut youth who had been arriving in civil clothes onboard civil flights, day after day for over a month, were actually soldiers, the Pakistan Army troops in Dhaka had always behaved with deference and remarkable restraint towards Sheikh Mujib – at least on the surface. Despite martial law being in force, the Pakistan Army had withdrawn into their cantonments on 3 March, with nearly no indication that they would not continue to remain there. The sporadic clashes were largely attributed to the eagerness of free agents. After all, Awami supporters were also creating civil nuisance by going on strikes, blocking roads, etc.
So, even after his face-to-face talks with Pakistan’s military ruler Yahya Khan had failed, Sheikh Mujib’s call to his people, “to prepare themselves for an all-out struggle”, was still only a call for non-violent civil resistance. While Yahya left Dhaka, Bhutto stayed to ostensibly ‘continue the talks’ that he had come for. A wily deception.
An H-Hour of 01:00 am on the 26th and the arrest of Mujibur Rahman had already been green-signalled at 11:00 am on 25 March, but Bhutto’s presence had successfully crafted the impression that ‘talks would go on’, creating the belief that the night would be peaceful, and the days ahead conducive for democratic protests through civil disobedience.
Evening of 25 March. The iconic clock of St Thomas had just struck 10, its chimes soothing. But soldiers, many with shawls to hide their insignia, started streaming into the telephone exchanges, radio and TV Stations, teleprinter and telegraph offices, and also around the InterContinental hotel in Dhaka. Even as the last of the city’s busybodies were getting ready for bed, the stroke of 10, that night, was the sign for the Pakistan Army to effectively blockade any foreign journalists who hadn’t already been expelled or left the country on their own, to stop every means of communication, and to quietly encircle Sheikh Mujib’s residence. All of this took them just over an hour. Killings, thus far, remained purposeful – limited to what was necessary to take over control of the communication.
By 30 minutes to midnight, all that changed. The H-Hour had apparently been advanced. And the true purpose of Operation Searchlight harshly shone forth: to kill and show. Each kill had to be a signal to the other Bengalis, and Pakistanis went out of their way to make it so.
Sheikh Mujib was fortunate in a way, he didn’t have to personally witness all these killings, for at about 1:30 am on the morning of 26 March, he was abducted from his home, flown to Rawalpindi and then taken to solitary confinement in West Pakistan. But his people suffered. The armed soldiers of East Pakistan Rifles, and the armed constables of the local police, were not spared either, if they were Bengalis.
Even the name for their operation was apt. A searchlight can be used either to ‘search for’ or to ‘illuminate’. This operation met both aims. Search out every person suspected of being a politician, a student leader, a teacher of Bangla, or a cultural activist. Don’t hide the deaths, but emphasise the gruesome details of these deaths as symbols and signals to illuminate the choices before people who didn’t kowtow. It was macabre.
“The killing began shortly after 10 pm,” says Mashuqur Rahman, describing the demons of 1971, “in the first 48 hours the orgy of killing had ravaged Dhaka city…… (but)….. the genocide had just begun”.
The intensity of the genocide in Bangladesh surpassed that of the Holocaust. The Nazis had cruelly notched a monthly average of over 80,000 innocent lives between 1941 and 1945, but the Pakistan Army broke the Nazi speed-record five times over in 1971, with their savage murders averaging about 400,000 Bengalis each month, not counting their rapes and other unspeakable atrocities. The ‘Gear 5’ intensity of the Pakistani Genocide stands out — the Pakistanis had committed approximately three million murders in nine months, and more than 200,000 rapes.
And most Western countries looked the other way.
Had India not intervened; had Pakistan been allowed to continue the killings for six years as the Nazis had, there would have been 24 million Bangalis dead, and the Lord knows how many more women violated.
Though the Nuremberg Trials had in no way offset what the European Jews had suffered, they had at least attempted to bring many of the Nazis to justice for murdering an estimated six million Jews.
It is one of the deepest shames of the Seventies, that the Pakistani officers responsible for the murder of nearly three million Bengalis could not be tried for their crimes. India, which had proclaimed East Pakistan a free nation, had to set free 93,000 prisoners of war (PoWs) in order to obtain the release of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose presence was central to the fledgling nation of Bangladesh. Blackstone’s ratio of ten criminals to one innocent, has perhaps never in history been skewed on a grander scale.
The role of the media
From Governor General Tikka Khan, the infamous ‘Butcher of Bengal’, or his successor General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi, to the soldiers who made beauty their booty (to paraphrase Andrew Jackson) – everyone escaped trial.
But, even if so many criminals got away, what ensured that their crimes pierced the world’s conscience? To quote Walter Lippmann, “News and (the) truth are not the same thing”. Indeed, when it comes to news about India, Western media often chooses authors and journalists who tell their readers what they wish to hear. That becomes news. That news becomes cited history, through the sheer perversity of ‘pervasity’ (even if it’s not a real word). Western media is so pervasive that history cannot be written by the victors unless they happen to be from the West.
The news in the West may never have resembled the whole truth even in the 1971 War, had it not been for a few brave souls, thanks to whom the truth of the genocide got through to the Western media, and changed the colour of the “News” as being reported there.
Who are these heroes?
Foremost among them is Archer Kent Blood, who, as the Head of the United States Consulate in Dhaka, sent a series of cables to Washington, commencing with the one on 27 March, which read, “Here in Decca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak Military….”.
On 6 April 1971, he sent a ‘dissent cable’ (later dubbed ‘The Blood Telegram’) to the US Secretary of State William P. Rogers, which read: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak dominated government and to lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy,… But 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. Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional civil servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected in order to salvage our nation’s position as a moral leader of the free world….”. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger didn’t react, but the Blood Telegram found its way into the press, and the ‘truth’ suddenly became the ‘news’ in the US.
The moment of convergence came in the British media too. First, a small snippet by Simon Dring appeared on the front page of The Daily Telegraph on 30 March 1971. Dring had gone underground just before the murders began, and collected evidence of the atrocities at great risk to himself, but his article failed to really alter the tone of reporting in Western media. Even though the BBC subsequently carried a broadcast made on the 27th of March 1971 by Major Ziaur Rahman from a small clandestine radio station in Chittagong (reading out Mujibur’s declaration of Bangladeshi independence), it had mostly been interpreted as the justification for a Pakistani crackdown rather than the right way around.
The defining change came when Pakistani journalist Neville Anthony Mascarenhas, penned his article, “Genocide“, in The Sunday Times on 13 June 1971. He had originally been embedded by the Pakistan government with the Pakistani forces in East Pakistan in order to report favourably, but was so disturbed by what he saw that he escaped to the United Kingdom. His article on the Bangladesh genocide has been credited by the BBC as having “exposed for the first time the scale of the Pakistan army’s brutal campaign …”, and indeed even “impelled India to look at a military option to resolve the humanitarian crisis”.
As the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of Bangladesh draws near, what also draws near is the 50th anniversary of a genocide so gruesome that it ill behoves humanity to ever forget it.
It would only be a befitting tribute to the millions of Bengali lives lost in the Pakistani genocide of 1971, that in the year 2021, the Indian government appropriately honours the names of three good men: the Late Archer Blood, the Late Anthony Mascarenhas, and Simon Dring, for their courage of conviction and honesty.
Thanks to them, news came much nearer to the truth.
The contents of this article are the personal views of the author and do not represent official position of the Indian Navy or the Government of India.
Commodore Hari Krishnan is currently Director of the Indian Navy’s Centre for Ethics, Leadership and Behavioural Studies, and has earlier headed the Directorate for Strategy at Naval Headquarters.
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