In 1947 Britain partitioned India and designated the territories with a Muslim majority as a new country, Pakistan, which was geographically and ethnically split into two territories:
• West Pakistan (Northwest of India): The larger section of the new country, in which the capital city is located and in which 46% of the country’s residents live.
• East Pakistan (East Bengal- the region East of India in which there is a Muslim majority): The smaller section of the Muslim country but the more populous of the two with 54% of Pakistan’s residents.
The Muslim military elites who ruled West Pakistan viewed the Bengali Muslim residents of East Pakistan as insufficiently militaristic, insufficiently Muslim, and excessively influenced by Hindu Indian culture and by the local Bengali Hindu population (which comprised 13% of the population of East Pakistan and totaled about 10 million residents by 1971.)
Unlike the flourishing democracy in India (which was established in 1948 after the British partition) the new Pakistani regime imposed a military dictatorship, which regularly intervened in East Bengal in order to suppress the will of the public. The Western Pakistani regime dissolved the elected government in East Pakistan (Bengal) in 1954 and prevented elections for the next four years. In 1971 the army prevented the convening of the national Pakistani parliament.
From the beginning, the successive governments of West Pakistan were intent on purifying the population of East Pakistan (Bengal) from the hallmarks of Hindu culture and language. In the 60’s the regime imposed a ban and censorship of the transmission and distribution of poems written by the Nobel Prize-winning Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore, a personality of great importance in Bengal. Despite their shared Islamic beliefs, a sense of racial and historical superiority, which emphasized ethnic differences from the East Pakistanis (Bengals), was used to promote a West Pakistani culture based on prejudice, which emphasized the ethnic distinctiveness of the East Pakistanis (Bengals). In 1967 the Pakistani military dictator Ayub Khan declared that East Pakistanis (Bengals) remained “under the considerable influence of the Hindu culture and language” and therefore stressed that “all the oppressed and dominated races” (a clear and direct reference to the Bengals) naturally came to be oppressed due to their “historical evolution” as a race.
In West Pakistan as well, the military government was unstable. Mass demonstrations led to the downfall of Ayub Khan’s regime in 1969, which allowed the country to hold its first national elections a year later. Unexpectedly, the party that won the majority of votes was the Awami League, which supported the independence and separation of East Pakistan (Bengal) from the control of West Pakistan. The head of the Pakistani army, General Yahya Khan, intervened, both to suspend democracy and to deal with the source of the “threat”–the residents of East Pakistan (Bengal).
It is reported that on February 22nd 1971 Yahya Khan said the following to a group of generals: “We must kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of the palm of our hand.”Yahya appointed a new military governor for East Pakistan (Bengal), General Tikka Khan, who declared immediately after taking office that he would carry out a “final solution.” He even threatened to kill four million people in 48 hours.
The killings began on March 25th, 1971. The West Pakistan army, along with reinforcements, set out on a cleansing campaign targeting East Pakistani intellectuals and students, Bengals, Hindus, and urban workers. The military campaign against cities and towns not only led to large-scale civilian casualties, but also displaced 30 million people from cities into the countryside, while another 10 million East Pakistanis (Bengalis) fled to India.
The action provoked widespread resistance among the Bengali officers and soldiers and rendered the entire population hostile. Nevertheless the massacre continued. When asked the reason for the high number of murders, General Tikka Khan answered that “he is not concerned about the people; he is concerned about the land.” On May 14th Consul Archer Blood sent a telegram to Washington entitled “The Hindu Slaughter.” He wrote that “the army’s standard pattern in its operations is to have soldiers enter villages, question the citizens as to where the Hindus live, and execute the males.” Blood estimated the death toll to be in the thousands for the seven weeks after March 25th. On May 19th he informed Washington that “a young Western Pakistani officer (a fighter pilot by profession) admitted that the army is conducting a systematic killing of the Hindus.” The officer justified the actions, saying, “the Hindus are enemies and we must cleanse East Pakistan,” and that, “the killing is conducted under the auspices of jihad, a holy war.” Blood added that “in some instances Pakistani soldiers boasted that they came to East Pakistan to kill Hindus.”
Brutal murders continued through most of 1971, as Pakistani forces tried to reassert control over the area. Soldiers raped Bengali women and girls, while “cities and towns became devoid of young men.” Only towards the end of the year did the slaughter come to an end, due to an invasion by Indian forces to support the East Bengali underground.
A week before the Indians defeated the Pakistani army in East Bengal the Pakistani government resumed the massacre and waged another bloody battle purposefully aimed at innocent civilians. Soldiers burned villages and murdered their residents. In urban areas they murdered respected figures and influential intellectuals from the Hindu sector, presumably according to a list of names that was in the hands of the military governor. The number of victims in this final action is estimated to be between 300,000 and 1,000,000. Both Hindus and Muslims were murdered, most of them were rural Bengals.
After the Genocide:
Bangladesh paid a heavy price for its birth as an independent nation, while in Pakistan the people who committed the acts of mass murder were not punished. The armed forces and radical Islamic groups continued to control the Pakistani government in the decades following the genocide, and continue essentially to this today, while laying the groundwork for the possibility of carrying out additional acts of political and religious slaughter.