Balkan Tragedy : A Re-enactment of the 1971 Genocide in Bangladesh.

By Jamal Hasan


The escalating human tragedy in Kosovo gives me a sense of deja vu.  All of a sudden, Kosovo has taken on the center stage of a tragic drama. Slobodan Milosevic turned Kosovo into a tinderbox a decade ago when he scrapped the region’s autonomy in response to demands from the xenophobic section of Serbians. And now a veritable fire rages uncontrollably in the region. Much the same had happened in the erstwhile province of East Pakistan when a racist military junta played a dirty trick on the region once too often by a “postponement” of the convening of the newly elected national assembly. It was the last straw for the East Pakistanis who had chaffed at their second class citizenship from the very day that the nation had come into being on 14th August, 1947.

There is an eerie resemblance between what is happening in Kosovo in 1999 and what happened in East Pakistan after March of 1971. There is only a difference in scale of the tragedy. Bengalis had to sacrifice three million lives before it could take its rightful place in the comity of nations. That is one million more than the total population of today’s Kosovo! More than ten million refugees had to flee to the safety of neighboring India to escape the brutality of the marauding soldiers from West Pakistan. The 1971 genocide in Bangladesh at the hands of Pakistani army is undoubtedly the worst that the world has witnessed since the days of Hitler.

Chaos can prevail whenever the ruling elite of a country deliberately pits one of its ethnic group against another in its bid to hold on to power. Hatred begets even more hatred. Mobs take over as law and order breaks down under the stress of ethnic conflict. Lot of innocent people pay a heavy price, even their lives, as the ruling elite deliberately instigates ethnic hatred in a bid to perpetuate its hold on power. Three years ago the present leadership of Yugoslavia committed vicious crimes against humanity. The Dayton Peace Accord had brought the oppressor to the peace table, but the Milosevic regime deliberately chose to continue with its  genocidal policy. The Yahya Khan  regime in 1971 had done much the same thing as it went on an unprecedented crime spree in the hope of  getting away with murder.

Apologists for the infamous military junta that ruled Pakistani in 1971 shed crocodile tears quite copiously for the “Biharis” who have been rotting in refugee camps in Bangladesh for over quarter of a century. The indignation of the apologists knows no bound as they explain away the military junta’s crimes against humanity as its attempt to curb acts of violence against “Biharis” in the supercharged ambiance of 1971. The very riots that were instigated by the rulers by playing off “Biharis” against the rest of the population become the raison d’etre for the merciless mass killings by the army. Systematic extermination of targeted sections of the population by the Pakistani soldiers is justified as a necessary evil. It is indeed  a travesty of the highest order that the apologists of the Pakistan’s military junta would even try to explain away the wanton murder of three million Bengali civilians as the justified reaction to random acts of violence by unruly mobs in isolated pockets of the country.

It is fully in keeping with  international law that the world is demanding war crime trials for the leading luminaries of a regime that has caused untold suffering among the Kosovars. But apologists of this regime have a way to play down its crimes that will ring familiar to observers of the 1971 tragedy in Bangladesh. The Yahya Khan regime always brought up the “Bihari” issue whenever it was challenged in any forum for its crimes in East Pakistan. It is no different in the Balkans. When Serbs systematically evicted, tortured and murdered the Bosnian Muslims, there were indeed instances of revenge killings. Muslim mobs did attack and kill innocent Serbs in isolated pockets of the region where the Serbs were in a minority. Serbian propaganda machine latches on to these isolated acts of mob violence to justify the ruthless and systematic campaign  to cleanse the land of all Muslims. And much like Pakistan’s ruling class, the rulers in Belgrade have not only exaggerated but even fabricated stories of brutality perpetrated by the Kosovars on the Serb minority.

Jinnah had campaigned for the founding of Pakistan as the homeland of the Muslims of the subcontinent. After the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, some Urdu-speaking Indians  migrated to East Pakistan where they settled down in segregated areas or enclaves. The important “Bihari” enclaves were in places like Syedpur, Shantahar or Mirpur, and Mohammadpur in greater Dacca.  Dictator Ayub Khan helped the community with special  dispensations like soft loans for houses and preferential recruitment for employment in railways, jute mills etc. The West Pakistan based ruling class used them as proxies to rule East Pakistan. The “Biharis” were encouraged to act as agents of the oligarchy that ruled the land from their safe haven in Karachi and Rawalpindi.

It was at the instigation of the rulers that the “Biharis” refused to assimilate. They thought  it beneath their dignity to learn the language of the land they had settled in, preferring instead to continue with the “imperial language,” Urdu, which had already become the language in the corridors of power even in West Pakistan. The Urdu-speakers were no more than 1% of the population. But imperial arrogance led to its imposition on the native subjects in every corner of Pakistan.

The situation in Kosovo is very similar.  Serb minority in Kosovo is no more than 10% of the population. But the Serbs, as proud members of the ruling ethnic group, never bothered to learn Albanian, the language of the subject people. The “Biharis” in East Pakistan, likewise, disdained the language of the natives. They were brainwashed into becoming the cat’s paw for Pakistan’s ruling oligarchy. Inevitably, and tragically, they got singed when the ruling junta used them to retrieve chestnuts from the fire. What is worse, the “Biharis” were discarded unceremoniously like the rind of a squeezed lemon once they were no longer useful to the rulers in Islamabad. A quarter million of the hapless “Biharis” have been rotting in refugee camps in Bangladesh for the last 27 years as successive rulers in Pakistan feigned lack of funds to repatriate them to the country of their choice.

At this point it is relevant to present this writer’s personal experience in 1971. Residents of Dhaka started fleeing the city soon after the 25th March crackdown by the Pak army.  This writer was among them. He fled towards Tangail via Mirpur which was  a big Bihari settlement. The day was 30th March, 1971. The writer and  his family,  packed in  two cars, were driving towards Savar.  As the first car approached Mirpur bridge, not far from the movie theater, it was accosted by a mob of “Biharis.” It was sheer luck that both the cars managed to speed away from the mob. But not before we had witnessed the horrifying sight of arson and carnage. Burnt down  cars were lying all around. It is unlikely that Bengalis who were in those cars had survived the mob violence. We must have been among the lucky few who survived our passage through Mirpur on that day.

A few weeks ago, I came across an article  by a Pakistani on the Internet. It gave a grotesque account of decomposed bodies of “Biharis” unearthed by Pakistani soldiers in Shantahar. The account was a riposte to a discussion on the 1971 mass murders in Bangladesh. It was an attempt to prove that Bengalis had nobody but themselves to blame for the genocide. Quite a few Pakistanis and even some Bengalis will never tire of this line of blaming the victims for the crimes. To them, the crimes of 1971 were nothing more than the inevitable response to those that challenged their cherished ideology of religious apartheid. The carnage is seen as a clash of history where to be on its right side one must accept the primacy of Urdu and Pakistani brand of Islam under the aegis of West Pakistan’s ruling class. 

A similar disinformation campaign on behalf of the rulers in Belgrade have swung into action. The Serbs are being portrayed as the eternal martyrs in the cause of making Europe safe from Islam. In this exclusionist view, you must accept the primacy of “European” and Christian values  to be the righteous on the right side of history. Systematic ethnic cleansing in Kosovo by Belgrade’s ruling elite is being portrayed as a necessary step to counter “certain brutalities” committed by  displaced Kosovar-Albanians on the Serbs who constitute a beleaguered minority. It is East Pakistan all over again. I am not in the least surprised, for this is how the oppressor’s disinformation campaign has always operated.

In the early days of the liberation war in Bangladesh, there were instances of sporadic violence  by unruly Bengali mobs against the “Biharis.”. Chittagong was one of the places where the “Biharis” suffered significant casualties. That mob rampage in Chittagong in the immediate aftermath of Pak army’s crackdown will for ever be a blot in the history  of the nation’s struggle for freedom.

There isn’t a Bengali patriot who will condone what happened to the “Biharis.” To the army junta, however, this tragedy was a heaven-sent bounty. It would provide them with a rationale to justify the mass murders perpetrated by the Pakistani soldiers over the next nine months. It mattered little that the Pak army, at the same time, instigated “Bihari” mobs to wreak terrible vengeance on the Bengalis in the outskirts of Chittagong in places like  Pahartali and Shitakunda. In a particularly grisly “incident, ” a train full of Bengalis were mercilessly slaughtered. This happened when the Pakistani rulers had already consolidated their grip on most of East Pakistan after the 25th March crackdown.

Apologists for Pakistan’s military junta deliberately and calculatingly explain away the systematic genocide by the established government of the land as a justifiable reprisal for mob violence in isolated pockets of the country. And, unfortunately, such apologists are not limited to Pakistan. They can be found even in Bangladesh among ideologues who saw 16th December, 1971 not as a day of victory but as a day of defeat. Some of them had openly sided with the blood thirsty regime to the point of lobbying on its behalf in foreign lands and even in the corridors of the United Nations even as their compatriots were being mercilessly slaughtered and raped in the killing fields of Bangladesh. Others had maintained “strict neutrality” and a discrete silence even in the safety and comfort of well paying jobs in America and other western nations. These Quislings, to this day, will moan the brutalities inflicted on “Biharis” and collaborators even as they pointedly evade any word of condemnation for the military junta that murdered more people than the entire population of Kosovo.

If a person cannot love his neighbor whom he sees every day, he cannot possibly love God whom he has never seen. Yet such a person will never tire of justifying his contempt for his neighbor under the guise of regard for his God. Bangladesh knows of professors who have not a word of condemnation to spare for the crimes of the Pakistani army on the night of 25th March, 1971 in the Dacca University campus. These Quislings could condone the wholesale slaughter of their colleagues because it was perpetrated in the name of making Pakistan safe from the enemies of Islam. To this day they find it difficult to even acknowledge, let alone condemn, the slaughter of the innocents that started on that “Kal Ratri” of  March 25, 1971. On that black night the marauding soldiers, implementing  a blue print for eliminating “enemies” that had been prepared by their commanders, went to the Dacca University Teachers Quarter to finish off  members of the teaching staff  in order to save Pakistan!

It was a diabolical plan where people were selectively targeted for elimination to reduce the Bengalis to a subject race. Such selective murders continued till the very end. General Tikka Khan had been brutally frank from the very beginning. He said in no uncertain terms that he wanted the land in East Pakistan but didn’t care a damn for its people. The wholesale murder of Bengali intellectuals was part of a systematic attempt to annihilate a nation. It  made a complete mockery of the expected norm in a post-Nuremburg world.

Dusan, a Serb pro-democracy activist was featured in a recent article in the New York Times (31st March, 1999).  Dusan, like most of his compatriots,  is against NATO’s bombing mission in Kosovo and Serbia. He complained that the world is demonizing Serbia to justify aggression against a sovereign country fighting internal insurgency. Doesn’t his refrain ring a bell? Back in 1971,  supporters of Pakistan’s military junta had advanced exactly the same argument.To them the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh was nothing more than a regional insurgency in a sovereign nation. The Bengali freedom fighters were merely a group of insurgents fighting against the established government of the country.  The Pakistani army was doing its duty by fighting for the integrity of Pakistan. To this day Pakistan’s ruling elite bitterly blames India for tearing Pakistan asunder to cut Pakistan down to size. Belgrade’s ruling elite must now blame NATO  for cutting Yugoslavia to size. After all, it is so much easier to blame the rest of the world for misdeeds of one’s own.

In the early days of the war in the Balkans, the cities of Srebrenica and Mostar came to epitomize the evils of ethnic cleansing. The Serb majority, in an inhuman display of intolerance, emptied the two cities of all Bosnian Muslims. Once again there was a sense of deja vu for those that had followed the 1971 tragedy in East Pakistan. The Pakistani army systematically and ruthlessly eliminated Bengalis from “Bihari” majority enclaves like the one in Syedpur. Such state sponsored ethnic cleansing in East Pakistan was immoral in 1971. And it is just as immoral in Bosnia-Herzegovina today.

There can be no crime worse than a deliberate attempt at ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the established government. Perpetrators of such a heinous crime must be brought to justice at all costs.  The International War Crime Tribunal in the Hague should set up precedents to make the world a safer place than it has been till now. The crimes of 1971 were particularly vicious. All Bengalis suffered but the Hindu Bengali suffered disproportionately more than his Muslim compatriots. The Hindus were specially targeted for elimination by the rulers in West Pakistan. It was their “final solution” to make Pakistan safe for Islam.

It is interesting that the Yahya Khan regime took a leaf out of the Nazi regime in Hitler’s Germany to identify those that must be eliminated for the “final solution.” A religious ritual became the basis of separating out the victims. Any male without a foreskin became destined for the gas chamber in Hitler’s Germany. And any male with a foreskin faced the bullet or had his throat slit in Yahya Khan’s Pakistan.

The Yahya Khan regime made no secret of its goal to eliminate the Hindus. Not even the most notable among them were spared. Dhiren Dutta, a member of parliament during the early days of Pakistan was picked up from his home and shot dead on the spot in front of horrified relatives and neighbors. Ranada Prasad Saha, a notable philanthropist was killed instantly as soon as the Pak army came to town. The octogenarian owner of  the Kundeswari Ausadhaloy in Chittagong was similarly eliminated without much ado. These victims were caught unawares. As prominent citizens it had never occurred to them that the army of their country could be so ruthless.

The International War Crime Tribunal had indicted Zeljiko Raznatovic, the  Serbian militia leader known as Arkan. Other Serb leaders have been forewarned that they would be accountable for violence against civilians in Kosovo. But not even a single Pakistani general has been indicted till now for the crimes of 1971. General Rao Farman Ali Khan, for example, had masterminded the murder of Bengali intellectuals. It was he who had prepared the list of the intellectuals who were targeted for elimination. It is truly unfortunate that criminals like Rao Farman Ali got away with murder. T

he ethnically cleansed cities like Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina reminds this writer of Dacca, Bangladesh  in 1971. My family and I had fled from Dacca on 30th March. In September of 1971, I went to take a look at my abandoned house in the historical Indira Road in the Farmgate area. The five or six months since my departure had completely changed the ambiance of the area. I felt as if I was part of an episode from “Twilight Zone.” There was hardly a shop in the area that was not owned by a Urdu speaker. The shops  proudly displayed the store signs in Urdu. There were quite a few Bihari  gunmen patrolling the street rechristened as Anarkali Road. I am convinced that if the war had not ended in December, Dacca would have turned into another ethnically cleansed Srebrenica.

After  Bangladesh became independent, hundreds of thousands Bengalis were left stranded  in the former west wing of Pakistan. The new regime in Pakistan used them as hostages to obstruct justice. Bangladesh government had drawn up specific charges against 195 Pakistani army officers to try them for war crimes. Pakistan was against any war crime trial. It warned that Bengalis in Pakistan would have to pay a heavy price if Bangladesh went ahead with the trials. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto openly declared that he would try Bengali military officers (who were interned in different camps  under subhuman conditions) and civil servants stranded in Pakistan for treason if Bangladesh went ahead with the trial of the 195 officers.

A central government employee’s plight will give the readers some idea of the desperate situation faced by the Bengalis in Pakistan after 16th December, 1971. Bengalis could quickly sense the heightened animosity. This civil servant was living in Hyderabad, Pakistan. After December of 1971, he and  his family was subjected to constant harassment by the neighbors. Then they discovered that someone under the stealth of night had painted a sinister mark on their doorstep. It was an eerie reminder of the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany.  That was the turning point in their life. They abandoned every thing, including the recently bought brand new car, and headed towards Afghanistan. They had to trek through tough hilly terrains to reach the safety of Kabul. The smugglers had to be paid a fortune for the  safe passage. Today’s Kosovo is no different. People are paying all they have to get out of the land before the Serbs finish them off.

In a careful and sweeping warning to the Yugoslav commanders, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook declared recently: “Anyone who carried out atrocities against the civilian population, anyone who gives orders for them to carry it out, or is complicity in those orders being given, and anyone who fails to prevent such orders or to prevent those orders being carried out – anyone in those categories is liable to face indictment before the international war crimes tribunal”.

Active members of the Pakistani military junta of 1971 like General A.M. Yahya Khan (posthumously), General Abdul Hamid Khan,  Lt. General Gul Hassan Khan, Lt. General Tikka Khan, Lt. General A.O. Mitha, Lt. General A.A.K. Niazi, Major General Rao Farman Ali Khan, Major General Khadim Hussain Raja and Brigadier Z.A. Khan fit the profiles of  war criminals. They should be brought to trial. We will not be forgiven by future generations if we fail to have them tried for their heinous crimes.

Jamal Hasan writes from Washington DC.His email address is  This essay was first published in April, 1999.


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