The Past has yet to Leave the Present: Genocide in Bangladesh

The Past has yet to Leave the Present: Genocide in Bangladesh

. 6 min read

In late September 2022, protests swelled in New York right outside the United Nations Headquarters. Activists raised their concerns regarding the recognition of the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971. Approximately 3 million people endured fatality throughout its entirety: 8 months, 2 weeks, and 6 days. With the addition of sexual violence, religious intolerance, and ethnic cleansing, the genocide has had a significant impact on Bangladesh at large. While the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971 is in the past, its effects still resonate in the present, and genocide in Bangladesh is a persistent problem. An urgency for recognition also necessitates an all encompassing awareness—both of the past and the present.

Revisiting the Past of the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971

Nearing the end of the British Period in 1947 was the partition of the Asian subcontinent into India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan (modern day Bangladesh). West Pakistan was deemed to be the more predominant, governing side. Accordingly, East Pakistan was exploited for resources, money, and labor to support West Pakistan.

Empty stomach frail and barely Clothed, 1971. Raghu Rai Foundation

Unwilling to endure such subjugation, East Pakistan called for separation. With the newly elected Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, civilians were empowered to take on the mission of claiming independence for their country: Bangladesh.

The president of West Pakistan, Yahya Khan, a former Pakistani army officer and the serving Chief Martial Law Administrator, was alarmed by their resistance.  Cooperating with the then United States President, Richard Nixon, he turned to authoritarian military tactics. The initiation of Operation Searchlight on March 25, 1971 marked the start of genocide in Bangladesh. Started as a mission to maintain autocratic Pakistani governance over the self-determination driven Bangladeshis, the operation intended to capture activists, intellectuals, and troopers. However, they were not the only victims. Humanitarian crisis broke loose as millions of civilians endured the violent realities of displacement, financial instability, trauma, and death.

Pakistan’s leaders also aimed to enforce Islamic unification of the west and the east. Due to differences between Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, intolerance spread from a multitude of aspects. Pakistan was predominantly an Islamic, Urdu speaking region; meanwhile, Bangladesh was both a Hindu and Islamic, Bangla speaking region. As the Pakistani leaders, or the then Muslim League, determined, these apparent differences made Bangladeshis undesirable and inferior, especially given the Pakistani agenda to create an Islamic nation. Consequently, the Bangla language—which relates more to Hinduism and Sanskrit—was deemed undesirable, and those who were Hindu were the primary targets. Fearing the dangers of war, over 10 million Bangladeshis fled.

Refugees coming into India, 1971. Raghu Rai Foundation

Meanwhile, there were some civilians, protestors, leaders, and freedom fighters who remained, enduring the full brutality of the search and destroy mission. Pakistani forces used brutal methods to ensure the massacre of men. Women were not spared; over 200,000 were raped and assaulted by Pakistani forces. Destroying villages also became part of the strategy to ensure civilians could not escape oppression. Consul General Archer Kent Blood wrote to the State Department and the White House of the United States in opposition of US involvement, specifically in military aid to Pakistan. In support of the indicated “likely losers”, authorities ignored his warnings of “moral bankruptcy”, “repressive measures and bloodshed”.

Nonetheless, Blood’s prediction of the “good will of the Awami League” held to be true. Even at the face of genocide, Bangladeshi civilians still managed to lead with pride, mobilize movements, and obstruct Pakistani progress.

Students preparing for active involvement in war, 1970. Photographed by Rashid Talukder/NPR

By the start of December, 1971, Pakistani forces began retaliation, killing approximately 1,000 intellectual and influential Bangladeshis. However, on December 16, 1971, West Pakistan’s military forces abruptly surrendered when tensions between India and West Pakistan reached a breaking point.

As a result, Bangladesh was finally liberated. বিজয় দিবস, or Bijoy Dibosh, is now the day of celebration for Bangladesh independence and victory. It’s also a day to recognize the suffering and deaths of millions: the cost of freedom.

Genocide: Unforgotten, Reoccurring, and Unacceptable

The past cannot only be remembered by Bangladeshis while the rest of the world forgets its occurrence. There have been multiple attempts for the United Nations to recognize the genocide of Bangladeshis. In Geneva, Sanchita Haque, the Deputy Permanent Representative, recently demanded recognition of the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971, an attempt to hold the Pakistani Army accountable for its past cruelties and casualties. As the United Nations (UN) is in charge of both the prevention and the punishment of genocidal crime, the UN could take actions to address Haque’s concerns. This would not only account for one of history’s most tragic events, but would also reaffirm tolerance of differences amongst peoples as the past has yet to leave us.

Although no longer fueled by Pakistan, intracountry religious genocide of Hindus persists as the population of Hindu Bangladeshis continues to decline dramatically. While the percentage was approximately 20 in 1971, only 8.9 percent of the current Bangladeshi population consists of Hindus according to the India Times. Perpetrators are those who endorse Islamic extremism, many of whom even engage in domestic terrorism.

Protest following the attack on temples in October, 2021. Photographed by Munir Uz Zaman/ Getty Image

The Hindu American Foundation reports that 11.3 million Hindus have fled Bangladesh due to religious persecution and intolerance between 1964 and 2013. An additional 230,000 continue leaving annually, furthering the Hindu Bangladeshi diaspora.

From increasing proselytization through social media platforms to endorsing militancy through communal religious practices, Islamic extremists are encouraging intercommunal violence: forced conversions, sexual assaults, abduction, and suicide bombings. Although the targeted victims are Hindus and other non-Muslims (such as Buddhists and Christians), Muslims (such Ahmadis and Sufis) also struggle with internal conflict as extremists use coercive tactics in the name of religious obligations to recruit and endanger more moderate Muslims.

The severity of religiously motivated crimes have sparked fear among all Hindu communities in Bangladesh even in times of celebration. দুর্গা পূজা, or Durga Puja, is an annual multi-day Hindu festival usually filled with the joyous sounds of the dhak and the colors of sindur khela, or vermillion game.

Durga idol at Dhaka’s Dhakeshwari Temple, 2022. Photographed by Mahmud Hossain Opu/ Dhaka Tribune

In late October, 2021, pujas across Bangladesh were affected due to the killing of Hindus, destruction of temples, and other targeted crimes. Even with thousands charged and detained, the aftershock of such devastating events triggered Hindus globally. Now, a year after the incident, Hindu Bangladeshis are still suffering from the trauma. Many reported to news channels across Bangladesh that they are fearful and praying that they will not be in tears for their lost loved ones like the year before. Achintya Das Titu, the president of Cumilla metropolitan Puja Udjapan Committee, specifically highlighted the trauma and fear that persists in ProthomAlo, stating, “puja will be celebrated amidst amped up security”.

To assure safety of this year’s celebrations, Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh spoke up at the start of October. As Indian Narrative reports, she wished for the safety and welfare of “all citizens, including Hindus”. Although it’s a powerful message, its effectiveness depends on the actions and accountability.

Acceptance, Tolerance, and Embracement of Difference

On October 14, 2022, Representative Steve Chabot and his cosponsors introduced Resolution 1430 “Recognizing the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971” to the the US House of Representatives. The legislation would “recall and document crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide”.  As Resolution 1430 waits at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the urgency for action intensifies.  

Bangladesh—a country founded by solidarity—has been shredded by hatred. Even if the times have changed, the intolerance and violence of 1971 have evidently remained.  This repetition of history proves that there is much to be communally cognizant of, much to globally hold accountability for, and much to locally embrace changes within. It is more than just recognition: it is genocide prevention.