NEW DELHI – It is exactly 40 years since the Pakistani military regime of Yahya Khan initiated “Operation Searchlight” in March 1971. That military expedition was but the latest in a series of pogroms carried out to intimidate the restive population of what was then called East Pakistan – today’s independent Bangladesh. What followed was one of the worst massacres in human history, now all but forgotten by the international community.
Pakistan was created by the partition of British India in 1947, but its territory was divided into two enclaves separated by hundreds of miles. While they shared a religion, Islam, there were major cultural and linguistic differences between East and West Pakistan.
In the east, there was a strong sense of being Bengali, and a sizeable Hindu minority continued to live in the province. There was, moreover, strong resentment that political power lay in the hands of western-based politicians and generals who were blatantly insensitive to Bengali demands. It seemed to many that, with the creation of Pakistan, East Pakistan had merely exchanged one form of colonialism for another. And, as Bengali demands for autonomy gained momentum, the response became more repressive.
In November 1970, tropical cyclone “Bhola” struck East Pakistan, killing between 300,000 and 500,000 people. Bhola is still considered one of the worst natural disasters on record, and the military dictatorship’s lukewarm relief efforts incensed the Bengali population.
So, when Pakistan’s military leaders finally allowed elections in late December 1970, East Pakistan voted overwhelmingly for the Bengali-nationalist Awami League, which won 167 of 169 seats in the province. Since East Pakistan was more populous than West Pakistan, the election’s outcome raised the prospect that the Bengalis would now rule the country as whole. This was not palatable to the Punjabi-dominated military brass or to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of West Pakistan’s largest political party. The elections were “canceled,” and East Pakistan erupted in open revolt.
Yahya Khan responded by sending in the troops. The result was a genocide in which as many as three million people, particularly minorities and intellectuals, were killed. Dhaka University’s residential halls were particularly targeted. Up to 700 students were killed in a single attack on Jagannath Hall. Several well-known professors, both Hindu and Muslim, were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of women were systematically raped in the countryside. By September 1971, ten million refugees had poured into eastern India.
The world knew what was happening. Time magazine’s August 2, 1971, issue quoted a United States official saying, “This is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland.” The article goes on to describe the streams of refugees:
“Over the rivers and down the highways and along countless jungle paths, the population of East Pakistan continues to hemorrhage into India: an endless unorganized flow of refugees with a few tin kettles, cardboard boxes, and ragged clothes piled on their heads, carrying their sick children and their old. They pad along barefooted, with the mud sucking at their heels in the wet parts. They are silent, except for a child whimpering now and then, but their faces tell the story. Many are sick and covered with sores. Others have cholera, and when they die by the roadside there is no one to bury them.”
The international community’s response to the massacres was shameful. We now have copies of desperate cables sent by diplomat Archer Blood and his colleagues at the US consulate in Dacca (now Dhaka) pleading with the US government to stop supporting a military regime that was carrying out genocide. Instead, President Richard Nixon concentrated on intimidating Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi into staying out. He would even send the US Seventh Fleet to cow her. Fortunately, Gandhi held her nerve and began to prepare for war.
Strengthened by promises of support from the US and China, Pakistan’s military commanders ordered pre-emptive air strikes against India on December 3, 1971. The Indian response was swift and sharp. With support from the civilian population, as well as from the Mukti Bahini, an irregular army of Bengali rebels, the Indian army swept into East Pakistan. Nixon was too bogged down in Vietnam to do more than issue threats. On December 16, the Pakistanis signed the instrument of surrender in Dacca. Bangladesh was born.
Having acquiesced in the genocide, the international community has conveniently forgotten it, and no Pakistani official has ever been brought to justice. On the contrary, many of the perpetrators later held senior government positions. It is as if the Nuremberg trials never happened after WWII. As the world watches Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi slaughter his own people, we should remember the human cost of international indifference.
Sanjeev Sanyal is the author of The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise after a Thousand Years of Decline.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.