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Updated: May 2, 2022

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In this essay, I summarize two books on the Bangladesh Liberation War—1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh[i] by Srinath Raghavan and 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India[ii] by Anam Zakaria. While the former focuses on the larger geo-political context of the war, the latter focuses on the stories and memories of individuals who experienced the war firsthand. Zakaria’s book explores how people’s personal memories of the war interact with the dominant narratives in their country; Raghavan points out the global implications of the war, before and after its start.

Bengali Disillusionment

Pakistan had been ruled by a quasi-military dictatorship since 1958 under President General Ayub Khan. He had abolished direct elections to the parliament and in 1962 changed the government structure to an indirectly elected presidential system. Under him, the Pakistani economy improved, averaging a GDP growth of around 6 per cent each year. He also brought forth the Green Revolution in Pakistan in the 1960s. But despite the healthy economic growth the wealth was distributed quite unequally, leading to discontent. In 1968, Dr. Khadija Haq, the then Chief Economist of the Planning Commission wrote that 22 families in the country controlled about 66 per cent of the industries and 87 per cent of the banking and insurance sector. The disparity between the West and East was even higher. It is important to remember that East Pakistan made up 55 per cent of the Pakistani population. It was not a minor province. [iii]

Most of the lucrative commodities in Pakistan, like jute, were produced in the East wing. The foreign exchange earned on the sale of these products, however, overwhelmingly went towards enriching West Pakistan. About 70 per cent of industries were in the West. The few factories and industries in the East would not often hire Bengalis but rather bring over migrants from the West wing. About 80 per cent of the foreign aid received by Pakistan was also spent on the Western wing.

When the capital was shifted from Karachi to the newly made Islamabad, many Bengalis thought that it was their toil that constructed the bureaucratic abode in which they were underrepresented. Bengalis only made up around 15 per cent of the central bureaucracy. Sheikh Mujib, visiting the new capital for the first time, is believed to have said ‘I can smell jute on the streets of Islamabad’.

Many economists came to see this hegemony of West over East as a colonial one. The impoverished colony would grow the commodities, the profits of which would be used to spur industrial growth and the manufacture of consumer goods in the metropole. The colony would then be forced to purchase these consumer products at exorbitant prices.

The Bengalis were also underrepresented in the Pakistan military, barely comprising 10 per cent of the total strength. They were stereotyped as a non-martial race, first by the British after the Mutiny in 1857 and then by the West Pakistani Punjabis. Bengalis continued to be seen as effeminate, in need of paternalistic discipline by the valiant and patriarchal Punjabis. Zakaria quotes the author of The Blood Telegram, Gary Bass: ‘Some West Pakistanis scorned Bengalis—even the Muslim majority—as weak and debased by too much exposure to Hindus amongst them. As one of Yahya’s own ministers noted, the junta “looked down” upon the “non-martial Bengalis” as “Muslims converted from the lower caste Hindus”.’[iv]

Another reason for Bengali discontent was the imposition of Urdu as a national language. This was done despite the fact that a majority of the country’s population spoke Bengali and only a tiny minority spoke Urdu. Zakaria notes that the Punjabi hegemony in Pakistani politics did not result in an imposition of the Punjabi language in the rest of the country. Instead, they sought a national culture that would not only dominate over the regions but also distinguish Pakistani Punjabiness from Indian Punjabiness. The imposition of Urdu (which was not spoken in any of the provinces) as a national language needs to be seen in that provincial light.

As an example of the statist narrative of 1971 in Pakistan, Zakaria quotes from Mian Afrasiab Mehdi Hashmi Qureshi’s book 1971: Fact and Fiction, in which the author writes that: ‘It was Dhirendranath Datta, a Hindu parliamentarian . . . who raised the issue of Bangla [in the Constituent Assembly in 1948]’.[v] Hashmi then goes on to question Datta’s loyalty and patriotism. He tries to discredit the Bengali language movement by arguing that it originated under Hindu influence. Dhirendranath Datta had argued for Bengali to be made one of the national languages along with Urdu and English, in the Constituent Assembly in February 1948. He argued:

‘Even, Sir, in the Eastern Pakistan where the people numbering four crores and forty lakhs speak the Bengalee language, the common man, even if he goes to a post office and wants . . . a money order form finds that the money order is printed in Urdu language . . . not printed in Bangalee language . . . or it is printed in English.[ . . . .]The poor cultivator, Sir, sells a certain plot of land or a poor cultivator purchases a plot of land and goes to the stamp vendor and pays him money but cannot say whether he has received the value of the money . . . the value of the stamp, Sir, is written not in Bengalee but . . . in Urdu and English . . . These are the difficulties experienced by the common man of our State. The language of the State should be such which can be understood by the common man of the State.’[vi]

In response, Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan, implying that the demand for Bengali was secessionist, said: ‘The object[ive] of this amendment is to create a rift between the people of Pakistan. The object[ive] of this amendment is to take away from the Mussalmans the unifying force that brings them together.’ Liaqat’s reaction sparked protests and strikes in Bangladesh. A month later, Jinnah himself made a speech in Dhaka University, defending Urdu as the national language:

‘The State language, therefore, must obviously be Urdu, a language that has been nurtured by a hundred million Muslims of this subcontinent, a language understood throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan, and above all, a language which, more than any other provincial language, embodies the best that is in Islamic culture and Muslim tradition, and is nearest to the language used in other Islamic countries.’[vii]

It was on the Ramna Race Course ground (now the Suhrawardy ground) that Jinnah made this speech. This was the same ground on which Pakistan would sign the surrender documents 23 years later, giving birth to Bangladesh.

The Pakistani government would also attempt to ‘islamize’ Bengali since it is derived from Sanskrit, which was seen as quintessentially Hindu. Education boards also recommended changing the script to the Perso-Arabic script. Some scholars think that besides these reasons, Jinnah’s advisors also did not want educated East Bengalis to gain power in Pakistan. Zakaria writes, ‘Hindu elite domination had simply been replaced with West Pakistani domination.’[viii]

These remarks by the West Pakistani political class simply fueled the protests for years to come. On 21 February 1952, the police in Dhaka fired at the pro–Bengali demonstrators. The date is commemorated today as Language Martyrs’ Day in Bangladesh. After a great deal of agitation, the Pakistani government would only declare Bengali as a state language in 1956. However, this did not represent a genuine shift in the West’s attitude. Zakaria mentions what the Pakistani scholar Tariq Rahman told her in an interview:

‘Even when Bengali was declared a national language, it continued to only be used there (in East Pakistan) and not here (in West Pakistan), so it wasn’t national in that sense. And when West Pakistanis went to East Pakistan, they never learnt Bangla. And if they did, they spoke it like Englishmen, arrogant Englishmen [. . . .] Obviously the Bengalis didn’t like this. If you speak their language only to give them commands, it means you are treating them like servants.’[ix]

The government would also go on to ban the works of Rabindranath Tagore, who was widely read and celebrated in East Pakistan. Tagore would go on to become a symbol of Bengali nationalism and his song ‘Amar Sonar Bangla’ would become Bangladesh’s national anthem. Ironically, Tagore was a harsh critic of nationalism, seeing it as dangerously parochial.

The Protests and Elections

The economic disparities, both between East and West and between rich and poor, along with other local reasons, led to mass protests in the late 1960s against Ayub’s regime. These protests took place all over the country in both wings. Students and politicians demanded a return to the parliamentary system and greater autonomy for the provinces.

In 1966, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, months away from becoming the president of the Awami Muslim League—a major East Pakistan party, put forth a list of six demands for greater autonomy for the East. These included a federal parliament, decentralized central government, different currencies/reserves for the West and the East wings, decentralized tax system, proportional distribution of foreign exchange between both the wings and a paramilitary force for the East.

These demands further energized the student movements, especially when Mujib was arrested soon after and implicated in an alleged conspiracy with India. This arrest led to the Bengalis giving him the title of Bangabandhu, and indeed Mujib, upon his release, would state that the Eastern wing would now be called Bangladesh. This was not a call for independence. It is unclear as to whether Mujib at this time wanted independence for Bangladesh, unlike the students whose demands were more radical.

The six point demands, which were probably negotiable early on in the movement, would become the absolute minimum demanded by the student movements as they took greater control of the struggle. The students released their own 11 point agenda—far more nationalistic and socialist than what Mujib would have been comfortable with at the time. [x]

Pro-democracy student protests in 1968 ultimately led to Ayub’s downfall. He was replaced by another military general who took over the presidency: General Yahya Khan. It is important to note that students were protesting all over the world against repressive regimes in 1968—in the US against the Vietnam War, in the USSR against the Czechoslovakian invasion, in China with the Cultural Revolution, in France against de Gaulle, the Zenkyoto in Japan. Perhaps, it was only in Pakistan and in France that students were successful in bringing about the regime change.

The new president Yahya Khan called for direct elections in 1970 for a Constituent Assembly that would draft a new constitution for the republic.

In these general elections that took place in December 1970 Sheikh Mujib’s party, the Awami League, won a clear majority with 160 seats out of 300. The next biggest winner was the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The PPP won 81 seats out of 300. The disparity was that the Awami League did not win a single seat in West Pakistan while the PPP did not win any in the East. Even though the Awami League should have been called to lead the Assembly, the absence of a bi-wing party triggered a political crisis in the coming winter.

The Constituent Assembly was supposed to convene on 1 March 1971. In the preceding three months, several discussions were held between the Awami League and the PPP about a new power sharing arrangement, whereby the latter would be given more power than it electorally deserved. These undemocratic demands from the West wing and the PPP further provoked student protests. However, the Awami League was still willing to negotiate with the PPP and Yahya.

Most scholars believe that Bhutto and Yahya were colluding and conspiring together. [xi] The discussions with Mujib were just a convenient smokescreen for the Pakistan Army to prepare for an invasion of East Pakistan. They were trying to muster enough troops in the East wing. This process was taking longer than usual because Pakistan was banned from using Indian airspace due to a hijack that took place in January 1971. Yahya would not have wanted to hand over the keys to the government to a party dominant in the East wing, which would likely strip away military and Punjabi hegemony.

Things came to a head when on 1 March 1971, President Yahya postponed the convening of the newly elected Constituent Assembly that was due two days later. That same week, on 7 March, Mujib delivered a historic speech attended by lakhs of his supporters. He called for a general strike until the government met his demands. The speech was ambiguous in its declaration of independence. Mujib might still have hoped at this stage to be the Prime Minister of the whole of Pakistan but the younger generation was more steadfast in their desire for independence. Nevertheless, it sparked a popular revolution. Perhaps, this was because most of the youth studying in the universities were born after Partition. They were not as personally attached to the Pakistan movement as their parents and grandparents were.

Zakaria observes that to this day, 1947 and Partition are not given much importance in Bangladesh. Instead, 15 August has another significance there—Mujib was assassinated on the same date in 1975. Today people in Bangladesh defend their demand for Pakistan in 1947 by arguing that it was for economic and political rights rather than for a communal and Islamic national identity. They argue that Partition allowed them to escape the stranglehold of Hindu–dominated markets and Hindu zamindars who owned most of the land. Although it is to be remembered that some of the worst riots of 1947 took place in Bengal, Calcutta and Noakhali, it was in East Bengal in 1906 that the Muslim League was created. The League won overwhelming Muslim support there in the 1946 elections. People in Bangladesh emphasize that were it not for East Bengali support, there would have been no Pakistan. This heightens the sense of betrayal they feel against the latter.

Indian Intervention and the Cold War Context

The perception of India was markedly different in the East wing when compared to the West. During the 1965 war, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had expected the Indians to attack East Pakistan. Bhutto’s plan was to block the Chicken’s Neck at Siliguri and thus to isolate troops in the Indian North East. Bhutto had hoped that China would sense an opportunity and attack from the north, leaving the Indians spread thin on two frontiers. The Indians however did not attack East Pakistan. Many Bangladeshis interviewed by Zakaria said that India’s decision to leave the Eastern frontier alone created sympathy and gratitude among the Bengalis.[xii] They started viewing India as a friendly nation, as opposed to the Western half.

Anticipating foul play by the military, Mujib had approached the American and Indian governments for aid in the early months of 1971. The Nixon administration was not interested in aiding Mujib and in fact saw the military hegemony as their ally. Tensions were simmering between China and the Soviet Union during the late 1960s, with a short skirmish being fought in ’69 over a border dispute. The Americans thus had a window of opportunity to build better relations with the Chinese, which would allow them to save face while pulling out of the Vietnam War. They saw Pakistan as an ideal gateway to build these ties. The Americans would end up aiding the Pakistan Army in the war.

The Indian government, headed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, was initially ambivalent about aiding Mujib’s cause in East Pakistan. They preferred Mujib over Bhutto as the PM since East Pakistani politicians were not seen to be as tough as their Western counterparts on issues like the Kashmir border dispute. Thus, the best-case scenario from India’s point of view was Mujib as the PM of united Pakistan rather than independent Bangladesh. The myth that it was India’s intention all along to ‘drown the two-nation theory in the Bay of Bengal’ is a convenient post-facto narrative of the Indian state. [xiii]

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs expected that Bhutto and Mujib would eventually come to some resolution with Mujib as PM. But the Indian intelligence community thought otherwise, anticipating a military takeover in East Pakistan.

Faced with this situation, the Indian government decided to take a middle path. The Indian Army began to train and arm Bengali militias which would eventually form the Mukti Bahini in April 1971. The government did not want to openly support Mujib’s struggle, for if it failed, they would at the very least have a major diplomatic crisis at hand. Before intervening officially, they needed the backing and assurance of the Soviet Union since Pakistan was backed by the Americans.

The Indian government was also apprehensive about the Maoists making inroads into an unstable East Pakistan. Since the Naxalbari movement in the late 1960s, the Indian government was fighting armed peasant struggles that were believed to be backed by the Chinese government. The Maoist threat on the Eastern front thus became another reason why the Indian government decided not to stay neutral.

By the end of March 1971, when the Pakistani military’s takeover was well underway, refugees started crossing the border and pouring into Indian territory. The magnitude of the refugee crisis was such that towards the end of the war the state of Tripura’s population had doubled. Assam and West Bengal were overwhelmed with refugees too, triggering social and political crises that have survived to this day. All in all, the number of refugees that crossed over is said to be around 10 million.

Faced with this, the Gandhi administration decided to garner international support by highlighting the humanitarian crisis. The Indian government highlighted that on the one hand, they did not have the means to shelter so many refugees and on the other hand, they couldn’t deport them to an unstable East Pakistan, thus pressuring the international community and USSR to back the Indian case when they would intervene. The Soviets would give their support to India in August 1971, when both the countries signed the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation.

The apex of Cold War tensions was reached in December 1971 when the Americans (backing India) and the Soviets (backing Pakistan) both sent nuclear armed fleets to the Bay of Bengal. Many scholars believe that this show of force led both India and Pakistan to develop their own nuclear programs.

Operation Searchlight

On the night of 25 March 1971, a few days after Yahya had postponed the convening of the assembly for the second time, the Pakistan Army launched Operation Searchlight to take the East wing by force. Their first offensive was against the students and teachers of Dhaka University. Meghna Guhathakurta, a Bangladeshi academic, recounts how her father Jyotirmoy, a professor at the University, was murdered:

‘I was sleeping when my father woke me up and asked me to go lie down on the floor in the other room. We could hear shots being fired. He assumed that it was the students at Dhaka University, eager to show their spirit to Bhutto, who was in town. By now, Sheikh Mujib had called for people to be prepared with whatever they had, and so whenever night came, students would parade with their arms, shooting something or the other with hunting rifles. But this night the noise was too much. I remember my mother peeked out of the window and saw a convoy of army jeeps enter the campus. She turned to us and said, “The army has come”. Even then, we thought that all they would do was to take away the rifles and force the students back to their classes . . . or arrest the professors at the most. And so when they entered our home, my mother went to get my father; he was going to be arrested, we thought. She handed him his Panjabi and told him, “They have come to take you”[ . . . ]. Suddenly, we heard shots and ran outside, finding Maniruzzaman and the others lying in a pool of blood. The women in their family were trying to get them to drink water. One of the women told my mother, “They have also shot your husband! I gave him water, he’s calling your name.” In that moment, the world collapsed around me . . . . We took a pitcher of water and ran out of the back door, finding my father lying on his back. He was conscious. He said, “They (the army) asked my name and then they asked me my religion. I said I am a Hindu. After that, they gave the order to shoot me.” ’[xiv]

Unable to be taken to a hospital due to the military curfew, he received medical care a whole day later on 27 March. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta would succumb to his injuries on 30 March.

After the atrocities of the night of 25 March, Mujib would declare Independence the next day.

On 20 May 1971, anywhere between 6 to 10 thousand India–bound refugees were massacred by the Pakistani army in Chuknagar, near Khulna. Many of these victims were Hindus. Zakaria interviewed one of the survivors, Ershad, who was working as a farmer there. His father told him to run back home when he saw the Army approaching.

‘We could hear the firing from inside. It continued for hours. Eventually, my mother asked me to go find my father and to see if anyone else we knew needed help, if anybody was still alive. When I came out, I saw my father’s body. It was then that I saw Shundari. She was only a few months old, sucking on her dead mother’s breast. I cried, “Is anybody alive? Whose baby is this?” But no one was alive . . .’[xv]

Ershad rescued the baby and would later arrange for her adoption with a Hindu family. He continued to bear the child’s expenses. However, the family could not afford to take care of her after she turned 14 and she was married off. When she was 7 she learnt of the massacre that killed her parents and that Ershad had saved her life. The woman, Rajkumari Shundari, was present with Ershad while he was being interviewed by Zakaria. After being married off, she continued to struggle to make a living, working as a day labourer or as domestic help. Shundari told Zakaria she wondered if her fate would have been different if her parents were not killed at Chuknagar. At the end of the interview she tells Zakaria: ‘My parents died and they will never come back. But so many years later, Pakistanis have come to ask about me, so there is some consolation. But will Pakistan pay me compensation for all that I lost? That’s my question. I am still suffering . . .’.[xvi]

Dhirendranath Datta, who made the initial demand for Bengali in 1948, was killed in the 1971 military operation by the Pakistan Army. He was 85 years old. On the night of 29 March, the army raided his house and took him and a few other family members away to meet their death. Zakaria interviewed his granddaughter Aroma Datta, in front of whom these events transpired. She says:

‘After Liaquat Ali Khan gave that statement (in the Constituent Assembly in February 1948), the members of the Assembly told him, "Datta, you’ll have to pay for what you said". Apparently those are the same words that were repeated before he was killed. First, his son was shot in front of him, and then they shot him in the legs before killing him. They never handed over the bodies. He became part of the missing population of 1971. It was all planned.’ [xvii]

Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani journalist, was invited by the Pakistani regime for a 10-day tour of East Pakistan during the war in June 1971. He was asked to report on the atrocities committed by the Bengalis on the Biharis. Instead, he published this in the Sunday Times in the UK:

‘Thousands of families of unfortunate Muslims, many of them refugees from Bihar who chose Pakistan at the time of the partition riots in 1947 were mercilessly wiped out. Women were raped, or had their breasts torn out with specially fashioned knives. Children did not escape the horror: the lucky ones were killed with their parents; but many thousands of others must go through what life remains for them with eyes gouged out and limbs roughly amputated. More than 20,000 bodies of nonBengalis have been found in the main towns, such as Chittagong, Khulna and Jessore. The real toll, I was told everywhere in East Bengal, may have been as high as 1,00,000; for thousands of non-Bengalis have vanished without a trace. The Government of Pakistan has let the world know about that first horror. What it has suppressed is the second and worse horror which followed when its own army took over the killing. West Pakistani officials privately calculate that altogether both sides have killed 2,50,000 people, not counting those who have died of famine and disease [. . . . ] “We are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing of two million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years,” I was repeatedly told by senior military and civil officers in Dacca and Comilla. The West Pakistan Army in East Bengal is doing exactly that with a terrifying thoroughness . . . THIS IS GENOCIDE conducted with amazing casualness.’[xviii]

Many of the refugees pouring into India were from the Hindu community, which was being massacred by the Pakistan Army. In his book The Blood Telegram, Gary Bass quotes Archer Blood, then American Consulate General at Dhaka, as writing to his superiors:

‘ "[G]enocide" applies fully to naked, calculated and widespread selection of Hindus for special treatment . . . from the outset various members of the American community have witnessed either burning down of Hindu villagers, Hindu enclaves in Dacca and shooting of Hindus attempting [to] escape carnage, or have witnessed after-effects which [are] visible throughout Dacca today.' He further explained that 'the Pakistani military evidently did not make distinctions between Indians and Pakistani Hindus, treating both as enemies.' Such anti–Hindu sentiments, according to Blood, were lingering and widespread.[xix]

The Pakistan Army, anticipating Indian aggression, launched airstrikes against eleven Indian air stations on 3 December 1971. This triggered the long-anticipated war between the two nations. The Indian Army officially entered East Pakistan shortly after. Their aim was to help the Mukti Bahini and other Bengali militias supporting Mujib expand their control over enough territory in East Pakistan for the provisional Bangladesh government to declare independence and sovereignty over the land. On 6 December, the Indian government officially recognized Bangladesh.

Upon realizing the inevitability of their defeat, paramilitary collaborators of the Pakistan Army like Al-Badr, are said to have indiscriminately killed many Bengalis, expressly targeting professionals and intellectuals with a desire to rid the new nation of an intelligentsia. In Bangladesh, 14 December is observed as Martyred Intellectuals Day in remembrance.

On 16 December, the Pakistan Army surrendered. However, months and in some cases years after the Instrument of Surrender was signed, Bangladesh still failed to gain international recognition as a nation. China, an ally of Pakistan, vetoed Bangladesh’s inclusion in the UN. Due to this, they were unable to receive foreign aid just after the devastation. Things only improved for Bangladesh when they agreed to repatriate Pakistan Prisoners of War, who were alleged by the Bengalis to be war criminals. The fact that they could not bring these war criminals to justice is still politically relevant in both Bangladesh and Pakistan today.

The Biharis

Zakaria notes that high school textbooks on Pakistan Studies don’t focus on the 1971 war as much as they do on the 1965 war. When they do address the causes of 1971, they understate the discontent and grievances of the East Pakistani population in the decades after Partition. The textbooks make it seem as if the Bengalis remained unsatisfied even after West Pakistan ‘conceded’ most of their demands. The violence and casualties in the decade-long struggle for the Bengali language are not mentioned. Instead, the focus is on India’s aggressive strategy to break up Pakistan and the disloyal character of Hindus:

‘Firstly, that the province had a very big Hindu population, which, unlike West Pakistan Hindus, had deep pro−India sympathies. Secondly, that these Hindus were economically well-off and well educated. In many schools, colleges and universities Hindu teachers outnumbered Muslim teachers. These institutions with the passage of time virtually turned into nurseries for breeding anti-Pakistan and secessionist intelligentsia.’[xx]

The mass killings and refugee exodus during the military Operation Searchlight between 25 March and 16 December 1971 are not touched upon. Instead, the violence perpetrated by the Bengalis on the non−Bengali Biharis in the weeks preceding the Operation is selectively highlighted and stated as a justification for military action.

The Bihari Urdu speaking community in the East was mostly made up of people who had migrated there for business or those Muslims who fled from Bihar during the Partition riots. They were long seen as being economically dominant over the mostly agrarian Bengalis and preferred over the latter for government jobs and military posts. They were also thought to be pro–Pakistan during and after the war, and indeed the ruling classes thought of the Biharis as more ‘loyal’ compared to the ‘semi–Hindu’ Bengalis. Many were later accused of helping and collaborating with the Pakistan Army and other paramilitary forces. When Yahya did not transfer power to Mujib after the elections and kept postponing the Assembly, many Bihari homes and families were attacked as revenge.

Zakaria interviewed Ansar, a West Pakistani living in Chittagong during the war. Ansar’s father went missing on 23 March, suspected to have been murdered, and his mother was raped by men of the Mukti Bahini. Recounting his escape from the area in a Pakistan Army jeep, he says:

‘When we got into the jeep, the man (who was West Pakistani) kept insisting, “Bahir mat dekhna, bahir mat dekhna”. Maine socha pata nahi kyun keh raha hai, magar thak-thak awazein aa rahi thi (the man kept saying, “Don’t look outside, don’t look outside.” I didn’t understand why he was saying that, but I could hear sounds of “thak-thak”). It was only later that I realized we were driving over bodies. That’s where that sound was coming from. There was no other way (of getting around) as the bodies were everywhere . . .’[xxi]

Biharis left behind by the Pakistan Army after 1971 had to face violence and persecution at the hands of the Bengalis. They were rendered stateless refugees, staying in crowded camps, until the Bangladesh Supreme Court extended citizenship to them in 2008. Many Biharis, especially the older generation, feel betrayed by the Pakistan Army for leaving them behind. On the other hand, Bengalis in Pakistan are frequently harassed by the government. Their digitized citizenship cards are routinely denied on the grounds that they are illegal immigrants.

Conveniently, the Bangladeshi statist narrative forgets the violence against the non−Bengalis that took place before and after the war, just as the Pakistani narrative seems blind to the genocide of Bengalis that took place during the war.

Many people also remember how they were saved by members of the other community but memories of kindness are often overshadowed by those of grief and pain. As an example, Zakaria narrates an incident Ansar told her about:

He mentioned an incident involving a Pakistani officer and his wife. ‘The Mukti Bahini had killed the officer and locked up his wife,’ he said. Pregnant, she was forced to deliver inside the lock-up. Her elder daughter, who was with her when her husband was shot, had gone missing too. Having lost both husband and daughter, and the fact that she was in labour, the woman was in bad shape when a Bengali friend of the officer’s came to rescue her. A few days later, her elder daughter too returned. It turned out that the Pakistani officer’s Bengali batman had taken her to his village in Comilla to keep her safe from all the frenzy and violence. One Bengali had saved her life, another of her daughter’s. When the Pakistan Army arrived to take her back, they began to shoot at the Bengalis. At that point, it was the officer’s wife who insisted that the army let them go. ‘Inko na maro (don’t kill them)’, she pleaded, ‘they saved us’.[xxii]

Zakaria writes that it is often the youth, who were born after the war, that have a more seething hatred for people from the other country. This is probably because they have never interacted with folks across the border and thus cannot humanize them, like the older generations can. Every impression of someone from the other side of the border is tainted with cultural memories of genocide or treason.

Atrocities against Women

It is estimated that anywhere between 1 to 4 lakh women were raped during the war. These numbers are as contested as the number of casualties. A colonel who served in the war told Zakaria in an interview that ‘soldiers would converge in the mess in the evenings, asking each other the ‘score’—the number of women they had raped that day’[xxiii].

After traumatic disruptions such as wars and partitions, women’s experiences, especially of sexual assault, are often silenced by their own community in order to protect their sense of ‘honour’. In order to prevent this social ostracization, the Bangladeshi government recognized the rape victims and survivors of the war as ‘Birangonas’ (war heroines). However, this title does not always protect them from being shamed by the community. In fact, many communities do not ostracize rape survivors until their tragic past is made public.

That being said, the Bangladeshi government has done little for the Bihari women who faced Bengali aggression and were raped during the war. They are not seen as victims by the state’s narrative of 1971. Even Pakistan’s statist narrative only speaks of the rape of Bihari women as a justification for revenge. Individual personal memories and accounts are eclipsed by the anger provoked by statistics. Zakaria quotes an interview with a Bihari rape survivor from a book by Yasmin Saikia: [xxiv]

‘Don’t ask me who killed whom, who raped whom, what was the religion, ethnic, or linguistic background of the people who died in the war. The victims in the war were the women of this country—mothers who lost children, sisters who lost their brothers, wives who lost their husbands, women who lost everything, their honour and dignity. In the war, men victimized women.’[xxv]

The Aftermath

The Bangladesh Liberation War was also one of the first major incidents after WWII to garner humanitarian support all over the world. In November 1971, the American poet Allen Ginsburg would write:

‘Millions of babies watching the skies

Bellies swollen, with big round eyes

On Jessore Road—long bamboo huts

No place to shit but sand channel ruts . . .’[xxvi]

The war also provoked new debates about the importance of human rights over state sovereignty.

Sheikh Mujib was assassinated four years after independence in 1975. This was shortly followed by a coup that resulted in General Ziaur Rahman coming to power as president in 1977. Ziaur created the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 1978, which became the main opposition to the Awami League. Many see the BNP as being pro–Pakistan and anti–Liberation. The BNP lifted the ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami and subsequently formed coalition governments with it. The Jamaat is a party that had supported the Pakistan Army in 1971 and was banned by the Awami League after the war. Ironically, the Jamaat had opposed the creation of Pakistan in 1947. It is believed that the pro–Pakistan forces that would go on to form the BNP played a part in Mujib’s assassination. Many think that the BNP began the islamization of Bangladeshi politics, turning it away from its secular constitutional vision. [xxvii]

Textbooks published under the BNP’s reigns paint Ziaur Rahman as the hero of Independence by noting that he was the one who read out the Declaration of Independence. The fact that Mujib was under arrest at that time and thus could not read it himself finds no mention. Textbooks during these years also do not explicitly mention that it was the Pakistan Army that Bangladesh was fighting. They also do not mention India’s intervention in the war.

It should be noted that Mujib’s popularity had taken a hit in the years between Independence and his assassination. The paramilitary force he formed to maintain law and order was accused of gross human rights violations. He declared an emergency in 1974, abolished the parliamentary system for a presidential system and would eventually change that to a one-party system before his death, banning all other political parties. Today, however, Mujib is mostly remembered as Bangabandhu, especially during Awami League reigns.

The BNP’s domination ended in the 1990s with the Awami League coming back to power. Growing demands to bring the alleged war criminals and collaborators to justice, many of whom bagged positions of power in the BNP years, led to the creation of the Gono Adalat in 1992—a civilian controlled court led by Jahanara Imam. In 2008, the Awami League government formed the International Crimes Tribunal.

The number of people killed in the war is a deeply contested issue. The Bangladesh government claims that there were 30 lakh killings, strongly terming it genocide, while the Pakistani government claims that the figure is around 26,000. In this context, these numbers have become political symbols for different ideologies. In 2016, the Bangladeshi government began drafting a law based on the European Holocaust denying laws, which would criminalize the denial or undermining of the war crimes committed during 1971. Many scholars and academics feel that this law will stymie rigorous research on the war. [xxviii]

The International Crimes Tribunal Act was first passed in 1973 to convict those who had committed rape, arson or murder during the war. Those who had ideologically supported Pakistan during the war were given amnesty. Around 1,100 people were arrested and would face trial. After Mujib’s assassination however, the trials came to a halt and the accused were released. Many of them became politically influential in the BNP years.

The new International Crimes Tribunal has come under criticism from several quarters. The rules and procedures on evidence and witness testimony are thought to be inadequate. Many thinkers oppose the use of the death penalty. Many also feel that the court is wielded as a political tool. One of the major criticisms is that it only concerns itself with war crimes committed between 25 March and 16 December, leaving out the periods before and after the war when non–Bengalis are believed to have been most vulnerable. Indeed, no one has yet been convicted for committing crimes against the non–Bengalis.


Zakaria writes that monuments commemorating 1971 on the streets of Dhaka don’t only feature soldiers in battle ‘but rather ordinary women and men trying to secure their freedom—a soldier pulling a woman, her pallu falling off, dragging her as she resists, men and women clutching each other’s hands, staunchly looking up in defiance, men and women standing armed in defence, raising the Bangladeshi flag, a woman wearing a sari, carrying a body.’[xxix]

This shows that the Bangladeshis see 1971 as their people’s war rather than a bilateral conflict between India and Pakistan. Even the Instrument of Surrender, which gave birth to their nation, evokes bittersweet memories of their struggle being reduced to this bilateral strife. Only one representative of Bangladesh, Captain A.K. Khandker, was present at the Surrender ceremony. He is absent from most photographs taken during the ceremony. Zakaria quotes the Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam:

‘After intervening in the war, the Indian Army did what armies do—they behaved like victorious soldiers. Pakistan did not surrender to Bangladesh—the treaty signed on 16 December 1971 was between an Indian general and a Pakistani general. Suddenly the war that Bangladeshi freedom fighters had been waging became yet another skirmish between the two elder children of partition. And those same freedom fighters were forced to surrender their arms to the Indian troops. It was a symbolic wound that would fester. The bear-hug began to feel like a stranglehold.’[xxx]

At the same time, the violence in living memory is not allowed to fade away. In a museum she visits at Khulna, Zakaria sees:

[P]hotographs of vultures picking on the bodies of Bengali men and women, images of dead children, their eyes popping out, their legs bitten off by animals. Alongside, there were glass boxes, holding clothes worn by people before they were killed, their belongings by their side, their diaries and pens. Later, he told me of how heart surgeons’ hearts were pulled out, how writers’ fingers were chopped off, how eye doctors’ eyes were gouged out, and how sacks full of eyeballs were found after the war. He showed me an old boiler, in which he said the limbs of Bengalis were burnt and told me that the circuit house we were staying at in Khulna was used to interrogate and kill Bengalis, before throwing their bodies in a nearby river.[xxxi]


Author’s note: The books mentioned below by Srinath Raghavan and Anam Zakaria were accessed by the author in digital (epub) format. Therefore no page numbers have been mentioned. To locate any quoted excerpts from this document taken from either book, please insert a segment of the quote in the search bar of the epub file of the relevant text after downloading.


[i] Srinath Raghavan,1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (Harvard, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013) (Ebook). [ii] Anam Zakaria,1971: A People's History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India (New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2019) (Ebook). [iii] Raghavan, 1971. [iv] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [v] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [vi] M. Waheeduzzaman Manik,‘Shaheed Dhirendranath Datta: Making of the Bengali language movement’, Daily Star (21 February 2014) (available at:; last accessed on 9 December 2021). [vii] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [viii] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [ix] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [x] Raghavan, 1971. [xi] Raghavan, 1971. [xii] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xiii] Raghavan, 1971. [xiv] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xv] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xvi] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xvii] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xviii] Mark Dummett, ‘Bangladesh war: The article that changed history’, BBC News (16 December 2011) (available at:; last accessed on 9 December 2021). [xix] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xx] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xxi] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xxii] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xxiii] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xxiv] Yasmin Saikia, Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh: Remembering 1971 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011). [xxv] Zakaria, 1971: A People's History. [xxvi] Allen Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg Collected Poems, 1947–1997 (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006) (ebook) [xxvii] Raghavan,1971. [xxviii] Raghavan,1971. [xxix] Zakaria,1971: A People's History. [xxx] Zakaria,1971: A People's History. [xxxi] Zakaria,1971: A People's History.



Activity 1: Select any one incident that was part of the Bangladesh Liberation War, and narrate/write it as an eye witness including your own feelings as you see this happen.

Activity 2: Write a letter/email to a friend who has asked you your opinion on the Bangladesh Liberation War in which you explain the causes from both sides, keeping a neutral stance.


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