Genocide in Bangladesh, 1971

Summary

The mass killings in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1971 vie with the annihilation of the Soviet POWs, the holocaust against the Jews, and the genocide in Rwanda as the most concentrated act of genocide in the twentieth century. In an attempt to crush forces seeking independence for East Pakistan, the West Pakistani military regime unleashed a systematic campaign of mass murder which aimed at killing millions of Bengalis, and likely succeeded in doing so.

The background

East and West Pakistan were forged in the cauldron of independence for the Indian sub-continent, ruled for two hundred years by the British. Despite the attempts of Mahatma Gandhi and others to prevent division along religious and ethnic lines, the departing British and various Indian politicians pressed for the creation of two states, one Hindu-dominated (India), the other Muslim-dominated (Pakistan). The partition of India in 1947 was one of the great tragedies of the century. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in sectarian violence and military clashes, as Hindus fled to India and Muslims to Pakistan -- though large minorities remained in each country.

The arrangement proved highly unstable, leading to three major wars between India and Pakistan, and very nearly a fourth fullscale conflict in 1998-99. (Kashmir, divided by a ceasefire line after the first war in 1947, became one of the world's most intractable trouble-spots.) Not the least of the difficulties was the fact that the new state of Pakistan consisted of two "wings," divided by hundreds of miles of Indian territory and a gulf of ethnic identification. Over the decades, particularly after Pakistani democracy was stifled by a military dictatorship (1958), the relationship between East and West became progressively more corrupt and neo-colonial in character, and opposition to West Pakistani domination grew among the Bengali population.

Catastrophic floods struck Bangladesh in August 1970, and the regime was widely seen as having botched (or ignored) its relief duties. The disaster gave further impetus to the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The League demanded regional autonomy for East Pakistan, and an end to military rule. In national elections held in December, the League won an overwhelming victory across Bengali territory.

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 [1972], 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.)

On April 10, the surviving leadership of the Awami League declared Bangladesh independent. The Mukhta Bahini (liberation forces) were mobilized to confront the West Pakistani army. They did so with increasing skill and effectiveness, utilizing their knowledge of the terrain and ability to blend with the civilian population in classic guerrilla fashion. By the end of the war, the tide had turned, and vast areas of Bangladesh had been liberated by the popular resistance.
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