"Kill three million of them," said President Yahya Khan at the February conference, "and the rest will eat out of our hands." [...]
I am a child of genocide. Bangladeshis of my generation who have survived the slaughter of 1971 owe our lives and our freedom to those who resisted and the three million who were murdered for speaking the wrong language or for belonging to the wrong religion.
This is the story of the birth of a nation and the death of millions. This is the story of a nation and a people coming to the aid of another. This is also the story of American hubris and American compassion.
Thirty-five years ago today, on December 16, 1971, the Pakistan Army unconditionally surrendered to the Indian Army at the Dhaka Race Course in Bangladesh. With the stroke of a pen, Bangladesh was born.
In 1971, Bangladesh, then called East Pakistan, was part of a geographical monstrosity created by the British in 1947. Pakistan, as created by the British, consisted of West Pakistan and East Pakistan, separated by the vast expanse of the Indian land mass in the middle. East and West Pakistan spoke different languages and were culturally distinct. East Pakistan accounted for the majority of Pakistan’s population, yet it was economically exploited and politically marginalized by West Pakistan. Bengalis, the people of East Pakistan, were also persecuted for speaking their native language and for being either Muslims who had converted from Hinduism or for being Hindus. Pakistan, translated as "The Land of the Pure", was intolerant of Bengalis because they were not ‘pure" Muslims.
The tension between East and West Pakistan began to boil over in 1970 after West Pakistan’s minimal response to the devastation wreaked by the cyclone of 1970 in East Pakistan. Nearly half a million Bengalis died as a result of the cyclone and the indifferent response by the Pakistani government. In the midst of the tension, the Pakistani military rulers decided to hold the first democratic elections in Pakistan’s history. The Awami League, representing Bengalis in East Pakistan, won the majority of seats in the National Assembly. However, the military leadership of West Pakistan refused to allow the Awami League to form a government.
The siege of East Pakistan by the Pakistani Army had begun. War was now inevitable. On March 7, 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League, gave a speech at the Dhaka Race Course that mobilized the Bengali nation for resistance. He began the speech with a call to arms:
The struggle this time is for emancipation! The struggle this time is for independence!
On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani Army launched Operation Searchlight to "eliminate" the Awami League and its supporters in East Pakistan. The goal was to "crush" the will of the Bengalis. The killing began shortly after 10 p.m. In the first 48 hours the orgy of killing had ravaged Dhaka city. The Hindu population of Dhaka took the brunt of the slaughter. Dhaka University was targeted and Hindu students were gunned down. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was arrested and the rest of the Awami League leadership went into hiding. The genocide had just begun:
On February 22, 1971 the generals in West Pakistan took a decision to crush the Awami League and its supporters. It was recognized from the first that a campaign of genocide would be necessary to eradicate the threat: "Kill three million of them," said President Yahya Khan at the February conference, "and the rest will eat out of our hands." (Robert Payne, Massacre , p. 50.) On March 25 the genocide was launched. The university in Dacca was attacked and students exterminated in their hundreds. Death squads roamed the streets of Dacca, killing some 7,000 people in a single night. It was only the beginning. "Within a week, half the population of Dacca had fled, and at least 30,000 people had been killed. Chittagong, too, had lost half its population. All over East Pakistan people were taking flight, and it was estimated that in April some thirty million people [!] were wandering helplessly across East Pakistan to escape the grasp of the military." (Payne, Massacre, p. 48.) Ten million refugees fled to India, overwhelming that country’s resources and spurring the eventual Indian military intervention. (The population of Bangladesh/East Pakistan at the outbreak of the genocide was about 75 million.)
The will of the Bengali people was not broken on the night of March 25, 1971. On the contrary, while Dhaka burned so burned the illusion of a united Pakistan.
At 7:45 pm on March 27, 1971 Major Ziaur Rahman, leader of a rebel army unit in East Pakistan, broadcast Bangladesh’s independence on behalf of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. With the following words, the armed resistance to the Pakistan army began:
This is Shadhin Bangla Betar Kendro [Free Bangla Radio]. I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangobondhu Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that the independent People’s Republic of Bangladesh has been established. At his direction, I have taken command as the temporary Head of the Republic. In the name of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I call upon all Bengalis to rise against the attack by the West Pakistani Army. We shall fight to the last to free our Motherland. By the grace of Allah, victory is ours. Joy Bangla.
Major Zia’s broadcast from a small radio station in Chittagong, Bangladesh was picked up by a Japanese ship in the Bay of Bengal. It was later rebroadcast by Radio Australia and the BBC.
As the Pakistani military crackdown in East Pakistan began, the United States, under President Richard Nixon and his future Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, chose to side with the military rulers of Pakistan in a policy that came to be known as "The Tilt". Richard Nixon chose to turn a blind eye to the genocide in Bangladesh and ordered the United States government to covertly support the Pakistani crackdown with arms and intelligence in defiance of the United States Congress. Nixon’s position was succinctly captured in a handwritten note that stated: "To all hands. Don’t squeeze Yahya at this time – RMN."
The U.S. consulate in Dhaka, however, laid bare the atrocities that Nixon chose to pay for and support. Consul General Archer Blood would become a Bangladeshi hero in defiance of his government. On March 28, 1971, Blood sent a telegram to the Secretary of State entitled "Selective Genocide":
1. Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak Military. Evidence continues to mount that the MLA authorities have list of Awami League supporters whom they are systematically eliminating by seeking them out in their homes and shooting them down
2. Among those marked for extinction in addition to the A.L. hierarchy are student leaders and university faculty. In this second category we have reports that Fazlur Rahman head of the philosophy department and a Hindu, M. Abedin, head of the department of history, have been killed. Razzak of the political science department is rumored dead. Also on the list are the bulk of MNA’s elect and number of MPA’s.
3. Moreover, with the support of the Pak[istani] Military. non-Bengali Muslims are systematically attacking poor people’s quarters and murdering Bengalis and Hindus. The streets of Dacca are aflood with hindus and others seeking to get out of Dacca. Many bengalis have sought refuge in homes of Americans, most of whom are extending shelter.
5. Full horror of Pak military atrocities will come to light sooner of later. I, therefore, question continued advisability of present USG [U.S. government] posture of pretending to believe GOP [government of Pakistan] false assertions and denying, for understood reasons, that this office is communicating detailed account of events in East Pakistan. We should be expressing our shock, at least privately to GOP, at this wave of terror directed against their own countrymen by Pak military. I, of course, would have to be identified as source of information and presumably GOP would ask me to leave. I do not believe safety of American community would be threatened as a consequence, but our communication capability would be compromised.
On March 29, 1971 the American Ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating, sent a telegram to the Secretary of State with similar concerns:
Am deeply shocked at massacre by Pakistani military in east Pakistan, appalled at possibility these atrocities are being committed with American equipment, and greatly concerned at United States vulnerability to damaging allegations of association with reign of military terror. I believe USG: (A) should promptly, publicly and prominently deplore this brutality, (B) should privately lay it on line with GOP and so advise GOI [government of India], and (C) should announce unilateral abrogation of one-time exception military supply agreement, and suspension of all military deliveries under 1967 restrictive policy (spare parts, ammo, non-lethal, etc.). It most important these actions be taken now, prior to inevitable and imminent emergence of horrible truths and prior to communist initiatives to exploit situation. This is time when principles make best politics.
The Nixon administration, however, did not heed Ambassador Keating’s advice or warning. The United States continued to support Pakistan until the very end.
On March 30, 1971 Blood sent another telegram noting the killing of students and faculty at Dhaka University:
American serving with FAO in East Pakistan visited Congen March 30 to report on tour of Dacca University March 27. Was told weapons students had at Iqbal Hall served only to infuriate army. Students either shot down in rooms or mowed down when they came out of building in groups. Saw tightly packed pile of approximately twenty five corpses. Was told this was last batch of bodies remaining, others having been disposed of by army. While there, empty army truck arrived to remove bodies. Major atrocity recounted to him took place at Kokeya Girls’ Hall, where building set ablaze and girls machine-gunned as they fled building. (USIS local who lives nearby confirms girls gunned down.) Girls had no weapons, forty killed. Attacks aimed at eliminating female student leadership, since army apparently told girl student activists resided there. Estimated 1,000 persons, mostly students, but including faculty members resident in dorms, killed. He claimed university contacts who conducted him on tour had been noted for their reliability for information in past. Told all university files burned by army in what appeared be purposeful move.
On March 31, 1971 Blood sent a telegram summing up the goal of the Pakistan military:
1. We are still hard put to estimate number of casualties that have occurred and are continuing to occur as result of military crackdown. The most conservative estimate of number of students killed in university is 500 and has ranged as high as 1,000. Police sources indicate that from 600-800 East Pakistani police were killed in Dacca during the really hard fighting on night of the 25th. The number of casualties in the old city where army troops burned Hindu and Bengali areas and shot occupants as they came tumbling out is also difficult to estimate. Most observers put these casualties in the range of 2,000 to 4,000. At this juncture, then, we would estimate that perhaps as many as 4,000 to 6,000 people thus far have lost their lives as a result of military action. We have no information of military casualties but we gather some occurred during encounter with police who were well dug in at police lines.
2. It seems clear that the whole objective of the West Pak army apparently was and is to hit hard and terrorize population into submission. All evidence suggests they have been fairly successful.
Finally on April 6, 1971 Archer Blood sent a telegram known as the "Blood Telegram". It was signed by 29 American government officials and strongly dissented from the American government policy toward Pakistan. The telegram was entitled "Dissent from U.S. Policy Toward East Pakistan":
1. Aware of the task force proposals on "openess’, in the foreign service, and with the conviction that U.S. policy related to recent developments in East Pakistan serves neither our moral interests broadly defined nor our national interests narrowly defined, numorous officers of Amcongen Dacca, USAID Dacca and USIS Dacca consider it their duty to register strong dissent with fundamental aspects of this policy. 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 likely and derservedly negative international public relations impact against them. Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy, ironically at a time when the USSR sent President Yahya a message defending democracy, comdemning arrest of leader of democratically elected majority party (incidentally pro-West) and calling for end to repressive measures and bloodshed. In our most recent policy paper for Pakistan, our interests in Pakistan were defined as primarily humanitarian, rather than strategic. 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 internal matter of a soverign state. Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional public 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.
I believe the most likely eventual outcome of the struggle underway in East Pakistan is a Bengali victory and the consequent establishment of an independent Bangla Desh. At the moment we possess the good will of the Awami League. We would be foolish to forfeit this asset by pursuing a rigid policy of one-sided support to the likely loser. [Emphasis added by me.]
For his dissent from Richard Nixon’s and Henry Kissinger’s policy, Archer Blood was recalled to Washington. To millions of Bengalis Archer Blood remains a hero. He died September 3, 2004 at his home in Fort Collins, Colorado. Joe Gallaway, himself an American treasure, paid tribute to Archer Blood as an American Hero.
The Pakistani military atrocities spread across all of East Pakistan after the initial assault on Dhaka. Bengalis fled the country in millions to escape the killings. A guerilla army formed under the leadership of rebel military officers and organized student activists. This guerilla army, known as the Mukti Juddha in Bengali, fought a war of attrition with the Pakistani army until December, 1971. The Pakistani army was constantly harassed by the Bangladeshi resistance. In response the Pakistani army slaughtered more Bengalis. Bangladesh received substantial miltary, diplomatic and moral support from India during the war. India sheltered and housed over 10 million Bangladeshi refugees and successfully lobbied at the United Nations against the Pakistani and American alliance. On December 3, 1971 India formally joined the war on behalf of Bangladesh. In less than two weeks the Indian army overran the isolated and demoralized Pakistani army.
The Pakistan army, on the verge of defeat, was determined to wipe out Bengali culture in one final act of barbarism. On December 14, 1971, the Pakistan army unleased the paramilitary units al-Badr and al-Shams to exterminate Bengali intellectuals. The goal was to find and kill Bengali political thinkers, educators, scientists, poets, doctors, lawyers, journalists and other intellectuals. The al-Badr and al-Shams fanned out with lists of names to find and execute the core of the Bengali intellectuals. The intellectuals were arrested and taken to Rayerbazar, a marshy area in Dhaka city. There, they were gunned down with their eyes blindfolded and their hands tied behind their backs. Over 1000 dead intellectuals were slaughtered in Dhaka city alone on the night of December 14.
On December 16, 1971 the Pakistani army in Bangladesh formally surrendered. At the cost of three million dead the nation of Bangladesh was born. It was the most concentrated act of genocide of the Twentieth Century. Thirty-five years after the birth of the nation, many have forgotten the sacrifices of those who are no longer with us. But for those of us who survived, for our parents who kept us safe through the months of terror, there is no erasing the horrors of 1971.
We, the children of genocide, on this day remember our fallen. Those who died are remembered in silent black and white pictures hanging on practically every Bangladeshi’s home. The pictures are usually of someone young, a boy or a girl, a brother or a sister, who was killed in a ditch, or maybe in their home, whose body was either found floating in a river or a pond, or who simply "disappeared". We, the children of genocide, understand the true nature of war. There is no glory in it – only inhumanity and death. Only loved ones not with us, only images of terror as army boots kick down your door in the middle of the night, only the warmth of a mother’s arms as planes come in for another strafing run.
I am scarred by the legacy of 1971. I despise war. I cannot understand why anyone would launch a war of choice. Those who have never suffered war cannot fathom its evils. My wish for the reader who has not suffered war is that war is never visited upon you. In 1971 the people of Bangladesh fought to survive, we fought the extermination of our society. They slaughtered millions of us yet they did not prevail. The end of the war was a forgone conclusion at the very beginning. Having launched the war, Pakistan was condemned to lose it. Yet, they killed three million before they finally accepted defeat. Why?
So, today I say "Joi Bangla". The phrase means "Victory for Bangla". Ours was a victory over extermination. Never forget.