In East Pakistan in 1971: A ‘forgotten’ genocide

A statement by the U.S.-based Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention has drawn attention to the atrocities perpetrated by Pakistani soldiers and their collaborators in 1971 in what was then East Pakistan and will hopefully prod the U.N. into breaking its silence on the matter.

Published : Jan 30, 2022 06:00 IST

At an event in Dhaka to celebrate 50 years of independence, on December 16, 2021.

At an event in Dhaka to celebrate 50 years of independence, on December 16, 2021.

Bangladesh celebrated 50 years of independence in 2021. The celebrations reminded the newer generations of the patriotism of those who fought a heroic war against the marauding Pakistani army, which killed an estimated three million people, raped roughly 3,00,000 women, besides setting houses on fire and causing enormous destruction to infrastructure. The occasion also reminded Bengalis of the mass exodus of 10 million people to India in order to escape military atrocities. This was one of the largest refugee crises in the 20th century.

These well-documented human tragedies will never be forgotten by Bengalis as most families either lost loved ones or suffered the brunt of the military madness in other ways. Bangladesh observes March 25 as “Genocide Day”.

In an exercise code-named “Operation Searchlight”, the Pakistani Army on the night of March 25, 1971, began a brutal massacre that lasted for nine long months. Yet, the United Nations has not recognised either the genocide or the rapes perpetrated by Pakistani soldiers. There have been consistent efforts by various Bangladeshi governments, families of victims and human rights groups to secure U.N. recognition of the 1971 genocide, but to no avail.

The U.N., in recent years, has accorded recognition to the Armenian genocide, and also acted decisively on the Bosnian, Cambodian and Rwandan genocides. Yet it has been silent on the way the Pakistani army and its armed goons massacred the people of East Pakistan in 1971.

On December 31, 2021, the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention based in the United States came out with a statement detailing the massacre of 1971. The institute is named after Raphael Lemkin, a great scholar best known for coining the term “genocide”; he initiated the historic U.N. Genocide Convention. The Lemkin Institute carried out a research into the 1971 tragedy after Tawheed Reza Noor, son of Sirajuddin Hossain, one of Bangladesh’s top intellectuals martyred during the liberation war, approached it on the issue. (Notably, Bangladesh observes December 14 as Martyred Intellectuals Day as most of the top secular intellectuals, including Sirajuddin Hossain, were murdered on that day.)

The first report

The first detailed report on the atrocities was published by a well-known Pakistani journalist, Anthony Mascarenhas, in London’s Sunday Times , on June 13, 1971. Mascarenhas was among a group of Pakistani journalists invited by the government to write in favour of the military actions. He fled to London to report what he had actually seen. In his famous report titled “Genocide”, he wrote: “I saw Hindus hunted from village to village and door to door, shot off-hand after a cursory ‘short arm inspection’ showed they were un-circumcised. I have heard the screams of men bludgeoned to death in the compound of the Circuit House in Comilla. I have seen truckloads of other human targets and those who had the humanity to try to help them hauled off for disposal under the cover of darkness and curfew.”

On August 2, 1971, Time magazine published details of massacre. It quoted a senior United States official as saying, “it is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland.” Genocide researcher Professor R.J. Rummel said: “These ‘willing executioners’ were fuelled by an abiding anti-Bengali racism, especially against the Hindu minority. Bengalis were often compared with monkeys and chicken …. And the soldiers were free to kill at will.”

Also read: A war and liberation

Narrating the atrocities in Dhaka University, the U.S. Consulate in Dhaka reported that naked female bodies were found “hanging from ceiling fans with bits of rope” in the university’s Rokeya Hall; the women had been “raped, shot, and hung by heels”.

Remarkably, the U.N. could not act decisively to stop the tragedy, although the then Secretary General, U. Thant, remarked on June 3, 1971: “The happenings in East Pakistan constitute one of the most tragic episodes in human history. Of course, it is for future historians to gather facts and make their own evaluations, but it has been a very terrible blot on a page of human history.”

Apart from the other heinous crimes committed by Pakistani soldiers and their fanatic cohorts, thousands of women were made to suffer. In some cases, according to studies, young women were taken from camp to camp to be used as comfort girls. Physical torture such as severing of breasts and mutilation of private parts have been reported. Sometimes women were kept hanging upside down from trees until they died. Tens of thousands of dead bodies, both male and female, with their hands and legs tied in the back, floating on ponds and rivers were a common sight across the country.

Lemkin Institute’s account

The Lemkin Institute statement, although it has come very late, is a welcome development. It is the first such public statement by a global genocide research institute. The institute, which analysed the historical background of the genocide, observed that the Pakistani ruling coterie did not perceive Bengalis, who happened to constitute the majority in Pakistan, as “true Muslims”.

The statement stated: “The genocidal policies of the postcolonial era became expressed in extreme and mass physical violence throughout the entire process of the Liberation War, from its very beginning, when West Pakistan implemented ‘Operation Searchlight’, to the end of the war, when West Pakistan, facing defeat, proceeded to kill thousands of Bengali intellectuals.”

The statement also said: “The atrocities committed by the Pakistan army and the local collaborators—such as Razakars, Al-badrs and Al shams—included a systematic policy of sexual violence against Bengalis, a majority of them Bengali Hindu women and girls, involving vicious gang rapes, life force atrocities, sexual slavery, sexual torture, and forced maternity.” The institute further stated: “Given the lack of a broad international recognition of the crime, the Lemkin Institute calls upon international community, including the United Nations, to urgently recognise the Bengali genocide as a way to pay tribute to the victims and to hold perpetrators accountable.” It also called upon the international community to pressure Pakistan to work with Bangladesh in its search for truth and justice.” The statement will hopefully pave the way for other international bodies to come forward and urge the U.N. to end its silence.

Also read: History intertwined in lessons from liberation

The British physician Dr Geoffrey Davis, who worked in Bangladesh on the World Health Organisation’s request, estimated that the commonly cited figures of killings and rapes were “very conservative” compared with the real numbers. Rape was indeed carried out in a systematic way with the aim to change the race of Bengalis. The noted researcher Robert Pyne in his book Massacre : The Tragedy of Bangladesh quoted a senior Pakistani General as saying: “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.” A report of an international body said in 1981: “Among the genocides of human history, the highest number of people killed in lower span of time is in Bangladesh in 1971. An average of 6,000 to 12,000 people were killed every single day.... This is the highest daily average in the history of genocides.”

In 1971, the Cold War was still on. While Moscow supported the people of Bangladesh, Washington stood in support of Pakistan.

Pakistan, even after 50 years, has not apologised to Bangladesh for the crimes committed by its army. It has not also tried the 195 war criminals identified by Bangladesh in 1972. The Justice Hamoodur Rahman Commission of Pakistan recommended taking effective action to punish those prisoners of war who were responsible for committing the atrocities in former East Pakistan. The listed war criminals were subsequently repatriated to Pakistan along with other POWs after the Tripartite Agreement signed between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in April 1974. But they did not face criminal charges. Bangladesh contends that the clemency mentioned in the Trilateral Agreement never implied that the principal perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide would continue to enjoy impunity. International laws provide ample scope for Bangladesh to try the Pakistani POWs.

U.N. recognition of what happened in 1971 is important for the families of the victims. It is also important for the world body to protect its mandate by granting this recognition. Such recognition is a pledge against the recurrence of such crimes in future.

Haroon Habib is a Bangladesh Liberation War veteran and writer and researcher. He can be reached at

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