May 20, 1971: The Massacre of Bengali Hindus in Chuknagar
By Bramhi Dey
Soon after the independence of India from the British rule and the demarcation of independent dominions of India and Pakistan, the diversity of cultures, ethnicities and languages in these infant nation-states emerged as a threat to unity on certain occasions. While India tried to embrace the principle of ‘unity in diversity’, for Pakistan the pursuit of “one nation, one religion, one language’ emerged as the guiding principle. As a result of this the Bengali population of East Pakistan, because of their cultural, ethnic and linguistic differences from West Pakistan came to be looked down upon. Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on the Bengalis in East Pakistan which was strongly resisted by them. India initially hesitated in extending any support to the Bengalis in East-Pakistan in their struggle against their suppression by West Pakistan as it feared evoking Bengali nationalist aspirations leading to a demand from West Bengal to cede from the Indian Union to join East Pakistan as an independent state. India was reluctant to intervene also because it feared that it could be interpreted as a violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan given the fact that Pakistan insisted on the crisis in East Pakistan being seen as an internal matter of Pakistan and thus cause provocation to Pakistan. However, despite these initial reservations, there came a stage when India could no longer keep itself from extending military assistance and training to the Bangladesh liberation movement. Soon there broke out a war between India and Pakistan which created an extremely hazardous situation for the common people, now caught between an interstate and a civil war with a parallel genocide perpetrated upon them.
The Bengalis of East-Pakistan and their liberation force, which they called Muktijuddho-Bahini, fought for the liberation of their people and ultimately to voice their protests against the intolerable state that prevailed which made the people leave their homes and migrate to some other place, where they again had to reconstruct their lives. There was constant migration from East Pakistan to West Bengal since 1954 which gained massive proportions by 1971. The suffering, the sorrow and the distress of these Bengali migrants and refugees from East Pakistan became the subject of poignant poetry, fiction, and journalistic stories.
The horrors of 1971 commenced with operation Searchlight – a pre-planned mass killing of Bengalis by the Pakistani Army aimed at quelling the Bengali nationalist movement. Eventually, the Bengali Hindus came to be specifically targeted. Fearing for their lives, the Hindus started moving to India en masse, but not all succeeded in doing so. One such unfortunate group was the one massacred in Chuknagar.
Chuknagar was a small village in the Khulna subdivision of Dumuria Thana (police-station), where hāts (biweekly markets) were held. Villagers from the region and nearby areas gathered there to sell or buy goods. It emerged as a major trading centre connecting the neighbouring market areas of Khulna, Satkhira and Brigherhat sub-divisions (O’Malley 1908). Chuknagar is a low-valley place with abundant natural beauty and the river Bhadra flows through it. It is, in fact, a place surrounded by rivers on three sides, enhancing its connectivity by land and water transport and enormously contributing to its emergence as an economic hub.
The massacre at Chuknagar proves that that the perpetrators did not aim merely ethnic cleansing but had genocidal aspirations. Had it not been so they would not have targeted the Hindus in Chuknagar who were already on their way to leaving Bangladesh forever. They had long resisted Hindu presence in their midst and wanted to annihilate them. The perpetrators in Chuknagar as at most of the other sites of mass atrocities were Pakistani soldiers and/or Razzakars. Pakistani army’s Bihari allies were trained to hunt down Bengalis sympathetic to the Bangladesh liberation movement (Chaudhuri 1972).
The slaughtering of innocent people began in several areas of Bangladesh from March 1971 and Khulna was one of the districts that witnessed the worst kind of violence, the massacre at Chuknagar. The West Pakistani goons led by Razakars, whose ranks were filled by both Biharis and Muslim Bengali loyalists of Pakistan, were generally puppets desirous of being in the good books of Pakistani troops. They began torturing the locals and raiding shops. They even invaded the local police-stations where the Hindus were tortured. When the Hindus could not take it anymore, they decided to migrate to the adjacent state of West-Bengal. Hence, people from different areas followed different routes to reach Chuknagar with the help of paid guides or with the assistance of some Bengali freedom fighters (Mamoon 2011).
Extreme terror came to be unleashed by the end of April via acts of loot, vandalism, and harassment of women. As the horrors grew, Hindus from Daktop, Satkhira, Batiaghata, Dumuria and Bagerhat converged on Chuknagar in massive numbers by both land and river routes. With just their bare necessities, they began their treacherous journey to Chuknagar on 18th or 19th May. On their way, they halted to rest, cook and eat till they reached Chuknagar on the morning of 20th May, but unfortunately, around 10 or 11am, two-Pakistani raider trucks arrived and opened fire on these innocent people and within minutes whole Chuknagar burst into tears. The carnage left 10 thousand dead, as recorded by Mamoon Muntassir (2011), thousands of women violated and children orphaned. The old were spared.
Around 40 per cent of the population in Chuknagar was Hindu. Hence, there was greater surveillance of the Razakars there.
After the killing of one Hindu Biswas family and several other violent incidents the people in the countryside there had been living with the constant fear ‘Khan Sena’, as the West-Pakistan troops were called in the colloquial language. They were aware of how big a threat the Pakistani troops were (Tripathi 2014). The people were advised to somehow cross the border as on the other-side, mother Indira-Gandhi would embrace them whole-heartedly and would provide accommodation, medical and minimum necessities. Somehow the plans of Hindus to escape Chuknagar reached the ear of Razakars and on the bright sunny day of 20th May when the people in Chuknagar were engaged in raising funds to aid themselves across borders, negotiating with agents, fire was opened upon them by Pakistani troops (Tripathi 2014).
There is a documentary on a girl, now married, who was left orphaned by this carnage on 20th May. She was found feeding on her dead mother’s breast. It only goes to underscore the gravity of this horrific tragedy. Ershad Ali, one of the natives, could not stop himself from saving the child even if his father had just been shot dead. He took the child to his Hindu friend and both of them brought up this child, Sundari Dasi, as named by Ershad Ali (Ahmad 2022).
Here arises the question as to why Ershad Ali’s father was shot when the targets were Hindus. This is explained by the fact that though the perpetrators wanted to specifically kill Hindus they did not mind killing anybody who came between them and their Hindu targets (Mokammel 2021). Ershad Ali narrates how he walked through the corpses of Hindus he had grown with as he carried the little baby to safety in his arms. The river flowing alongside had turned red with the blood of corpses floating in it.
There were ponds surrounding the river, where people would sink themselves with their children to hide, but they would be shot by Razakars as soon as they raised their heads above the water level to breath. People hiding upon trees fell like leaves when shot at (Tripathi 2014). Even when several hours open firing ended the perpetrators continued to abuse the people around. The locals were compelled to clear the dead bodies.
The few who survived the massacre returned to only find their homes ransacked and looted (Bose 2011). Nitai Gayen was one of the freedom fighters of 1971 liberation war, who arrived in Chuknagar from Khulna with his family. He lost eight members of his family in the massacre there, which lasted from 11 in the morning to 5 in the evening. He miraculously survived (Ahmad 2022).
It is suspected that there was somebody among the local Hindus or Muslims who informed the perpetrators about the plan of Hindus to crossover to India from Chuknagar on 20th May. Another question is why the number of Hindus crossing the international border from Chuknagar swelled all of a sudden on 20th May when this had been going on for the past fortnight. It raises suspicions of it being a meticulously pre-planned massacre. According to the testimony of Muhammad Wajed Ali, a boatman and his brother Sher Ali, who made a lot of money by looting the bags and pockets of those corpses which they were assigned to dispose into the river later that day, the perpetrators were all Bihari-militias. Taradasi Bairagi, another eye wutness called the perpetrators ‘bairer-miyan-ra’, that is Muslims from elsewhere (Bose 2011). Several people said it was because of a dispute in price negotiation that one boatman named Bihari Khan of Khayeghat indirectly informed the troops of seeing the Hindus in large numbers escaping to the other side of the border (Mamun 2011). There still persists confusion about the number of people massacred that day but it is widely believed that the number stands at ten thousand. A memorial, Chuknagar Shohid Smritishoudho, stands today in Chuknagar, Khulna of Bangladesh devoted to the victims of this massacre (SBS 2022).
There are many instances in history of people being killed in spite of their having chosen exile. Some believe that without somebody persuading the people to gather in Chuknagar on 20th May, this massacre could not have been possible. However, what went behind the scene remains a mystery. Now 20th May is observed as a day to remember the victims of a single-day massacre at ‘Chuknagar’ in which 10 thousand were killed.
O’ Malley, L.S.S. (1908) Bengal District Gazetters, Khulna. Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Book.
Chaudhuri, Kalyan (1972). Genocide in Bangladesh. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
Bose, Sarmila (2011). Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War. London: Hurst and Co.
SBS.(2002) “51st Chuknagar genocide day’ observed in Khulna.” Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, 21 May, https://www.bssnews.net/district/62057.
Tripathi, Salil (2014) The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War And Its Unquiet Legacy. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company.
Mamoon, Muntassir (2011) 1971: Chuknagar Genocide. Translated from Bangla (Bengali) by Priscilla Raj. Dhaka: The University Press Ltd.
Istiak, Ahmad and Roy, Dipankar. (2022) “Chuknagar: A sea of blood.” The Daily Star, May 28, https://www.thedailystar.net/news/news/chuknagar-sea-blood-3027756?amp.
Mokammel, Tanvir (2021). “Interview of some survivors of Chuknagar genocide.” Youtube interview video, September 23, 1: 13: 17, https://youtu.be/fLivWf7jKrc.
Bramhi Dey is a postgraduate student in History at Presidency University, Kolkata. She received her secondary education at St. Mary’s Higher Secondary School and earned the degree of BA from Acharya Brojendra Nath Seal College, both in her hometown, Cooch-Behar, West Bengal. She comes from a family that had to flee from the Mymmensingh district of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) to India in 1950 due to the anti-Hindu violence there.
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