It is deemed mandatory to sift between apocryphal and canonicals, myths and realities, to break the aura of concocted and counterfeit fictitious tales of 1971. This is not only important to break Pakistan Army free from being put on trial for the acts it never committed but also to educate our brothers in Bangladesh and within Pakistan who appallingly have been fed with the fictitious and spurious tales of atrocities. Efforts are directed to malign and degrade the image of Pakistan Army amongst its own masses – the very support and recruitment base of the Army. In this context, Pakistan Army is subjected to musketry volleys of criticism where quivers of fabricated and concocted figures are emptied throughout the year, especially in the months of December.
Antoine-Henri Jomini believed that armies are faceless masses, armed and fed in mysterious ways whose behavior in the battle appears to reflect character of their race, their nation and their commanders. Armies are indeed subsets of their nations, and ‘national values’ are the traits that any nation and its army hold mutually inclusive. How good, bad or ugly its Army is, it simply reflects the nation from which it is carved out. When fabricated statistics of killings in East Pakistan are propagated and magnified out of proportion, it not only maligns Pakistan Army as an institution but also discredits Pakistani nation as a whole, reflecting who we are as a nation and what values and character we hold. Ironically, quite sizable proportion of our population including educated segments are not abreast with the facts regarding disintegration of Pakistan and find it convenient in resorting to borrowed knowledge easily available in short articles and video clips etc., some of which are devised to spread ‘disinformation’. In today’s warfare, not only geographical boundaries are to be defended tangibly but also the ideologies in subjective domain are to be safeguarded through a proactive role. Every citizen has to act as a soldier to counter the hostile narratives on social platforms to discredit the nation and its moorings. Since Pakistan is amongst the few countries created on ideology instead of common culture, language or race, therefore it is imperative to counter these ‘disinformation’ endeavors targeted towards our very mooring and symbol of ‘national integration’.
In all the probabilities, the touchiest part of 1971 conflict is the figure of 3 million killings, both for Pakistanis and Bengalis, the sensitivity of which is pronounced when it comes to Bengalis who have grown up with this figure. It is taught in their schools and imbedded in their poetry and culture, which indeed deepens their grievances against Pakistan. For Pakistanis, it is a scar of concocted allegations on their unblemished past questioning their credibility and prestige. However, its importance is amplified for both when it comes to “moving forward” as brother Muslim countries. It is incontrovertibly not possible to move forward if one group is nurtured on fabricated facts against the other; if the deep-rooted grievances are not cleared; if the myths and facts are not separated to view things with spectacles of objectivity rather than subjectivity and biases. There is no denial that killings never happened. During the partition of subcontinent, around two million people lost their lives, and around 1.5 million died during the eight years struggle of FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) against the French from 1954 to 1961. Ironically, the states involved in such protracted conflicts end up with stains of blood like killings in concentration camps by British Army in ‘Second Boer War’ (1899-1902), ‘Chinese civil war’ between Kuomintang’s government and Communist party of China (1927-1949), ‘Sinchon Massacre’ by South Koreans (1950), killings during Vietnam war including ‘My Lai Massacre’ by U.S. Army and killings of pro Americans ‘lakas’ by North Vietnamese after the departure of U.S. forces, killings in Bosnian war (1992-1995) including the infamous ‘Srebrenica Massacre’ and the list of such misfortunes is long. Civil wars which are protracted and ideological in nature are bound to have casualties. In the context of 1971 conflict, Hamood ur Rehman report states “…the latest statement supplied to us by the GHQ shows approximately 26,000 persons were killed during the action”. However, in order to have more objective analysis, evidence has to be taken from both Bengali and neutral observers.
Exaggerated 3 Million and its Genesis
On December 23, 1971, an exaggerated figure of three million appeared in Purbodesh, a local daily newspaper of Dhaka. The figure was more of a speculation guided by phenomenological biases rather than any research work or concrete evidence. Later, a Russian newspaper Pravda quoted the same figure, throwing fire to the fuel in Bangladeshi media. This heretical figure became more pronounced when Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman on his return in 1972 quoted the same figure in his interview to David Frost, “Three million people have been killed. I believe there is no parallel in the history of world of such a colossal loss of life for struggle of freedom”. It is also believed in certain circles that the figure of three million was a ‘Freudian slip’ by Mujeebur Rehman, and that he actually meant three lakh1. According to another viewpoint, since this figure was given by Mujeebur Rehman, the founding father revered as ‘Banglabandhu’, it was considered sacred and inviolable and therefore, without much scrutiny and validity it was propagated amongst the masses. It also served the Bengali narrative of oppression and victimhood which became a plausible reason for attaining freedom. Furthermore, this figure is questionable since Mujeeb remained in confinement at Mianwali jail in West Pakistan for a period of almost nine months i.e., April to December 1971 and returned to Bangladesh on January 10, 1972. Even when Bhutto took over the Presidency of Pakistan on December 20, Mujeeb was brought to Islamabad and was kept in confinement for another 10 to 11 days, leaving him unaware of the state of affairs. It is believed that this over exaggerated figure was either fed to Mujeeb by Moscow or by Dehli, which already had played a key role in the dismemberment of Pakistan.
Negation of 3 Million Figure by Bengali Intelligentsia
By any stretch of wild imaginations and wooly headed pessimism, one cannot justify the exaggerated figure of three million. It’s a matter of simple calculations that if three million people were killed in nine months which makes 267 days between March 25 to December 16, then Pakistan Army was to kill each day an average of 11,236 people. Killing and disposing bodies of such a huge number of people is not possible. It is indeed unbelievable that an Army comprising barely five divisions, spread out in isolated penny pockets along the 1800 km hostile border, mired in braving out fire raids, artillery bombardments and above all surrounded by hostile population, could engage themselves in killing and burying more than 11000 Bengalis every day.
Following are the opinions of Bengali intellectuals on the figure of three million:
▪ Dr. Mu’min Chowdhury in his book, Behind the Myth of 3 Million has given an interesting statistic. As per him “According to government’s statistics, in 1971 East Pakistan had 69,774,000 people, 12,673,000 family households, 68,385 villages, and 4,472 unions. If either the imagined figures (referring to one and three million figure) were placed alongside the above demographic facts the following ratio of casualties should in reality be found: Hardly anyone in Bangladesh could relate his or her local knowledge of casualties to any of the above.”2
Negation of Three Million by Neutral Researchers
▪ The major impediment in construing a real figure are the lack of segregation in pro-Pakistan Bihari and Bengali population, killings by Mujeeb Bahini/Mukti Bahini and collateral damage during bombing by Indian and Pakistan Army. As per Sisson and Rose, authors of the book War and Secession, “It is still impossible to get anything like reliable estimates as how many of these were liberation fighters killed in combat, how many were Bihari Muslims and supporters of Pakistan killed by Bengali Muslims, and how many were killed by Pakistani, Indian and Mukti Bahini fire and bombing during hostilities”7
▪ The Peace Research Institute Oslo is a private research institution in peace and conflict studies based in Oslo, Norway. It was founded in 1959 by a group of Norwegian researchers led by Johan Galtung. It estimated total casualties to be around 58,000, (all inclusive) based on eyewitness accounts, media reports and other data obtained by research.8
▪ William Drummond was Professor of Journalism at Berkley. His career includes stints at Los Angeles Times where he was a local reporter, then bureau chief in New Delhi and Jerusalem, and later a Washington correspondent. He was appointed a ‘White House Fellow’ by then President Gerald R. Ford and later became Jimmy Carter’s associate press secretary. As per him, “Based on numerous trips around Bangladesh beginning in last December (1971) and on extensive discussion with many people at the village level as well as in Government, the figure of three million deaths is an exaggeration so gross as to be absurd… no more than 25000 people died”.9
▪ Oriana Fallaci was a renowned Italian journalist, author, and political interviewer. Fallaci became famous worldwide for her coverage of war and revolution, and the long, aggressive and revealing interviews she took with many world leaders during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. She narrates that when she went to interview Mujeeb, she was kept waiting for a few hours before she was called in. After entering the room, she saw Mujeeb sprawled all over the sofa with two ministers who were seated in the armchairs with their bellies in the air. To her surprise no one rose and no one greeted her. There was a long silence until Mujeeb gestured her to sit down. Fallaci further narrates, “I sat on a small corner of a sofa and opened up the tape recorder preparing the first question. But I did not have time for that, Mujeeb started to shout: “Hurry up”. Quick, understand? I have no time to waste, is that clear? The Pakistanis have killed three million people, is that clear? Yes three, three, three (how he arrived at that figure, I will never understand. The Indians speaking of victims, have never gone over one million figure). I said ‘Mr. Prime Minister….’ Mujeeb started to shout again, “They killed my women in front of their husbands and children, the husbands in front of their sons……’. She said, “Mr. Prime Minister, I would like….’. “Listen to her!” he said, “She would like! She would like. You have no right to want anything, understand? Is that clear?”10
It seems like the claims of total casualties by Bengalis and Indians oscillate on speculations, hearsay and above all phenomenological biases and vested interests. It is quoted between 300,000 to 3 million, 3 million is of course a foolhardy figure beyond the realm of rationality and simple mathematics. General Aroura ascribed it to one million. How he came up with this figure is not clear. In all probabilities, this hypothesis is made more so by guesswork and guesstimates as evident from the incident quoted by Sarmila Bose.
In her book, Sarmila Bose quoted an interesting paragraph from the book of Sisson and Rose. It states that “India set the number of victims of Pakistani atrocities at three million, and this is still the figure usually cited. We interviewed two Indian officials who had held responsible positions on the issue of Bangladesh in 1971. When questioned about actual number of deaths in Bangladesh in 1971 attributable to civil war, one replied about 300,000. Then he received a disapproving glance from his colleague, he changed it to 500,000.”11
One of the two other accounts on which Pakistan is often put on trial is Pakistan Army’s operation in Dhaka University (Operation Searchlight). In 1971, the militant wing of Awami League had virtually taken over Dhaka University. A. S. M. A. Rab, the militant leader of East Pakistan Student League (EPSL) and his general secretary Shah Jehan Seraj, held a rally on March 2 in the arts faculty of Dhaka University where for the first time Bangladesh flag was raised. Mr. Rab aroused emotions against the Army and asked them to treat West Pakistani-Non Bengali Army as invaders and eliminate such forces. Radical groups on the ground of Dhaka University started training students for firearms. Jagannath Hall was barricaded and surrounded by barbed wire and within its parameter Mukti Jogdas (freedom fighters) received their training using service rifles. The university area harbored most of the armed dissidents and had become a stronghold of rebellious students, professors and other intellectuals. This den and cradle of indoctrination and subversion against the state and its forces provoked political and military activities, leading to Operation Searchlight on its campus. 18 Punjab which was part of 57 Infantry Brigade was given the task to clear the university under the command of Brigadier Arbab. It was a daunting task as it involved fighting in the buildup area. The battalion was given the support of tanks and artillery in a hope that the rumbling and shock actions of tanks and artillery guns near the university would break the will of militant students and make them give up. But that was not to be. On the night of 25 and 26 March, the escalating situation compelled launching of full-fledged military operation in which machine guns, mortars, R-R and even tanks had to come into action to compel the secessionists. The official casualty in the military action rendered 66 Bengali extremists dead and 31 injured. 4 soldiers of Pakistan Army lost their lives defending Pakistan against militants who chose to play in the hands of the enemies of Pakistan. General Arbab puts the figure of dead at 167. One cannot deny the probability of overreaction by the Pakistani troops as acknowledged by General Arbab, then Commander 57 Brigade. As per Lt Gen Retd Kamal Matti-ud-Din, “Arbab’s soldiers had been taunted, insulted, spat at for the last one month.” However, another Brig Taj Abbasi shared with media that instead of thousands there were 70 to 80 militants who carried arms and chose to fight Pakistan Army.
The second account which Army is subjected to, is the killings of Bengali intellectuals. In this context, Mr. Zahir Raihan, a Bangladeshi writer and film director, showed the audacity of forming and heading ‘the Buddhijibi Nidhan Tayithanusandhn Committee’ (the fact-finding committee on the killing of intellectuals). In January 1972, Mr. Zahir was kidnapped in Dhaka in broad daylight and was never seen again. Mr. Zahir who was a Marxist and didn’t believe that intellectuals found murdered in Dhaka on the eve of December 1971 (including his brother), could’ve been killed at the behest of Pakistan Army. There’s no doubt that he was killed by those who couldn’t risk being exposed of their concocted propaganda against Pakistan Army. It also served as a warning to all doubting the Awami League’s narrative of victimhood.
In the book Behind the Myth of 3 Million, Dr. M. Abdul Mu’min Chowdhury writes a lapidary paragraph which explains it all: “While Indians professed to having trained 130,000 freedom fighters, 33,00,000 actually claimed that distinction and obtained certificates by all manner of means to prove that they were bona fide. Those who couldn’t make such claim because of age, domicile, or some such reason, became seers, soothsayers, or at the very least sufferers for Bangladesh. All of them sang and swore. Indeed, what better target for swearing could there be, other than ‘abnormal Pakistan’ and the ‘abominable Pakistan Army’ ”.12
As already mentioned, Mujeebur Rehman announced a compensation scheme for the families of those who were killed in the conflict. As per the Ministry of Finance of Bangladesh, only 72,000 claims were received, and 50,000 victims were awarded the compensations. In view of above quoted paragraph of Dr. Mumin, after the termination of conflict, many claimed to be the freedom fighters and those who could not fit into the requisites of freedom fighters labelled themselves as sufferers. Therefore, the fake claimants for compensations can’t be ruled out. This is further accentuated by the fact that after the war, the overall economic condition of masses was depleted and such compensations were much needed by anyone and everyone to address one’s economic conditions.
Conclusions on 3 Million
There are various versions on the death toll of 1971 War. Mujeeb ascribed it to be 3 million, General Aurora tagged it to be 1 million, General Tikka admitted it to be 34,000, missionaries in East Pakistan labeled it to be around 30,000, and Hamood ur Rehman’s report states it to be approximately 26,000. The dictates of rationality confine it to be between 30,000 to 50,000 at max, including Pakistan and Indian soldiers, rebels (Mukti Bahinis, Mujeeb Bahinis etc), pro Pakistan segments (Bengalis and Biharis), and civilians. The figure of ‘3 million’ is for sure out of proportion, which is a concerted endeavor, suiting many:
▪ It provided a moral justification to extra state actors like India and the erstwhile Soviet Union who interfered in the domestic issues of another sovereign country.
▪ It was needed to align ‘Pro Pakistan Bengali’ elements and ‘neutral segments’ inside the newly created state.
▪ It supported overall Bengali narrative of victimhood and Indian stance of being the liberators.
▪ Since the figure was devised by none other than ‘Banglabandhu’, to doubt this sacred but exaggerated figure meant dishonoring the sacrifices of the nation for attainment of freedom i.e., falling short of being a ‘patriotic’. Therefore, in oral history, folktales, and poetry this fabricated figure remained in the limelight, getting attention on every Independence Day. It was repeated so many times that it was gradually accepted as ‘the whole truth, nothing but the truth’ with unquestioning faith.
While summarizing, I will quote Mr. Peter Gill, who served as foreign correspondent for Daily Telegraph, London in South Asia and the Middle East and dealt with important subjects including Pakistan-India War in 1971, “The Pak Soldiery in the East during 1971 was suppressing the rebellion, and not in occupation of a foreign country. Sheikh Mujeeb’s wild figure of 3 million Bengalis killed during those 10 terrible months is at least 20 times too high if not 50 to 60.”
There is dire need to establish a joint fact-finding committee having intellectuals and intelligentsia hailing from both countries to ascertain correct figures, a sine-qua-non for finding new avenues of brotherhood from the present cul-de-sac.
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1. Opinion expressed by Dhaka Based British Journalist David Bergman, quoted by by Mr. Afrasiab in his Book “Facts and Fiction”, p 14.
2. M. Abdul Mu'min Chowdhury, Behind the Myth of Three Million.
3. Opinion expressed by Dhaka Based British Journalist David Bergman, quoted by by Mr. Afrasiab in his Book “Facts and Fiction”, p 14.
4. [Jauhuri, Tirish Lakher Telesmat (The Riddle of Thirty Lakh) p 64, A. M. Chowdhury op cit: 29] 1971 Facts and Figures, p 14.
5. Dead Reckoning, p 177.
6. Yahya Mirza, Interview with Abdul Muhaimin; The Tarokalok, Dhaka, March 1, 1990.
7. John Richard Sisson and Leo E. Rose, War and Secession: Pakistan, India, and the Creation of Bangladesh.
8. 1971 Facts and Figures, p 17.
9. Views shared by William Drummond in Los Angeles Times of June 1972, 1971 Facts and Figures, p 17.
10. 1971 Facts and Figures, p 22.
11. Dinner at residence of Pak Ambassodor Jamshed Marker in Washington DC on 9 December 1987, 1971 Facts and Figures, p 23.
12. 1971 Facts and Figures, p 21.
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