The Massacre of Bengali Intelligentsia during the Bangladesh Genocide of 1971
By Mridul Banik
According to Raphael Lemkin, genocide is killing a certain people with the intention of annihilating them entirely or partially. Greek word genos means ‘tribe’ or ‘race’ and the Latin word cide means ‘killing’. Intellectual genocide means the targeted killing of educated people, such as teachers, doctors, politicians and social workers. In Bangladesh, teachers, doctors, lawyers, students, engineers, researchers, films makers, musicians and people from other intellectual domains were systematically targeted and killed by the Pakistani army and their local collaborators, the Razakars and the Al-Badr organization, from 25 March 1971 to 31 January 1971 (Nishat 2022). That is called Bangladesh intellectuals’ genocide.
According to Mizanur Rahman, genocide is a crime against humanity. If even a single genocide goes unpunished then that is a threat to justice across the world, because what happened once can happen again and it can happen just anywhere. West Pakistan wanted to dominate East Pakistan in various way. It treated the Bengalis of East Pakistan as second-rate citizens. East Pakistan had a different culture, food, attire and language, though the same religion. West Pakistan tried to impose Urdu and their culture on the Bengalis of East Pakistan. Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared in 1948 that Urdu is the only language of Pakistan (both West and East). East Pakistan was humiliated by West Pakistani leaders in every respect. Hinduphobia was a major factor in the violence perpetrated by the Pakistani army in East Pakistan. Pakistan saw the Hindu influence over East Bengali society as pernicious. They feared that the Hindus who constituted a quarter of East Pakistan’s total population could dominate East Pakistan. Therefore, they thought of purging East Pakistan of its Hindu population. Pakistan discriminated against East Bengal economically and politically. They exploited East Bengal economically. Military, finance and all the other domains were dominated by West Pakistan despite the fact that East Pakistan was more populous. East Pakistan was regularly robbed of its agricultural produce by West Pakistan. West Pakistan refused to share profits with East Pakistan in a fair and legitimate manner. West Pakistan tried to arrest East Pakistan’s intellectual, economic and political growth. East Bengal received step-motherly treatment from the central government dominated by West Pakistan.
When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman exposed the exploitative nature of West Pakistan the conflict between Zulfiquar Ali Butto and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman reached its peak. In December 1970 Awami League won the national elections. As a result of this electoral victory the next prime minister of Pakistan was to be Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, but that did not happen because Bhutto refused to share power with Mujibur Rahman. On 25 March 1971 Operation Searchlight was launched by the Pakistani army to curb the Bengali nationalist movement. Sheikh Mujhibur Rahman was arrested and transferred to West Pakistan while General Tikka Khan was sent to Dhaka. In response to the military action Bengali freedom fighters organized themselves as a guerrilla group called Mukti Bhahini to resist Pakistani aggression.
In Bangladesh in 1971 occurred one of the worst genocides in history. This genocide lasted for nine months. There were massive atrocities that were committed during this genocide. The perpetrators refused to distinguish between civilians and freedom fighters. The genocide commenced with the massacre of intellectuals, including both tertiary level teachers and students. They were seen as a potential threat to Pakistan because of their opposition to the imposition of Urdu and their protest against Pakistan’s step-motherly treatment of its Bengali population. This language movement gradually evolved into a broader socio-political and economic movement for the emancipation of Bangladesh from Pakistani exploitation. Bengali students demanded provincial autonomy. But the West Pakistani leaders rejected this proposal.
The students of the University of Dhaka were the first to hoist the flag of independent Bangladesh. This incident on the one hand encouraged the Bengali people and further infuriated the West Pakistani leaders. Student vehemently opposed unfair election and post-election conspiracy. Thus the massacre started with the killing of students and teachers. The Pakistani army launched Operation Liquidation to kill Bengali intellectuals (Nishat 2022). On 25th March 1971 Pakistani army attacked the hostels of Dhaka university. They simultaneously targeted two hostels – Iqbal Hall and Jagannath Hall (Ahmed). Jagannath Hall was the hostel of non-Muslim students and Iqbal Hall was the hostel of Muslim student, members and supporters of East Pakistan Students League, the student’s wings of Awami League. The Pak army brutally killed the students of these two hostels of Dhaka University. On 30 March Pakistani army attacked Rokeya Hall, a girl’s hostel of Dhaka university. Pakistani soldiers raped the girls there and then shot them dead. Between 25 and 26 March 1971 over 1000 teachers were killed. They exterminated the intellectual class, especially the bearers of Bengali culture.
While the Bangladesh government declared that three million people were killed by Pakistani army, the Pakistan government claimed that only 26 thousand people died. Recent estimate is that approximately 200,000 women were raped by Pakistani army (Alamgir 2011). The killing, rape and destruction of civilians were pre-planned and deliberate. Pakistani army and their local collaborators, Razakars and the organizations Al-Badar and Al-Shams led many of the massacres. Golam Azam, the head of Jam’at-i-Islami played an important role in the killings. The racist agenda not only dehumanized the Bengali people but specifically targeted the Hindus among them. The West Pakistani army was the main perpetrator of Bangladesh genocide. There were basically two kinds of perpetrator – the regular West Pakistani soldiers and the paramilitary troops. Among the Razakars there was a mix of Biharis and Bengalis. During the later stage of the genocide, the oganizations Al Badr and Al Shams proved to be very notorious. They killed more than 1000 intellectuals towards the end of the war in early December (Pai 2008). The final phase of the genocide spanned from October to December. This phase is also known as scorched Earth. India declared war against Pakistan on 3rd December. The east command of Pakistani army was led by General Niazi while the joint India-Bangladesh forces were led by Jagjit Singh Aurora. It was evident to the Pakistani army that it would have to surrender. So, the Pakistani forces took the finial target by killing intellectuals – university professor, doctors, lawyers, engineers and other intellectuals at the hand of Pak army and Razakars, Al-badar. General Rao Farman Ali order the killing of Bengali intellectuals. Their targets changed time to time. Initially they targeted the Bengali Hindu masses, but by the middle of the war they started killing everybody who opposed Pakistan, irrespective of their religion. They raped women in massive numbers. In the last stage of war, they targeted the Bengali intelligentsia. In December 1971 Pakistani army and its collaborator ferreted out Bengali intellectuals, artists and cultural icons and killed them brutally. This intellectual genocide was meticulously planned. They made a list of the nation’s most prominent intellectuals just two days before surrender, to sabotage the nation building process of the new nation-state of Bangladesh. As a result, 990 teachers, 13 journalist, 50 doctors, 50 lawyers and 18 writers were brutally killed by Razakars, Al-Badr and the Pakistani army. This was the last attempt to cripple Bangladesh. It was systematic genocide, intelligentsia were taken from their residence and tortured and murdered. On 14 December Bengali philosophers, Journalists, professors, doctors, engineer, artists and writers were taken away from their homes to concentrations camps by Al-Badr, Razakars, Al-Shams, Santi Bahini and Pak army. They were kept in different camps like Mirpur, Mohammadpur, Nakhalpara, Rajarbagh and several other. On 14th December Major General Rao Farman Ali ordered the execution of these intellectuals. Mirpur and Rayerbazar were the main camps where these executions took place. Physician Abul Fazal Ziaur Rahman, Nurul Alam, Doctor Atiqur Rahman, Bengali writer Anwar Pasha, politician Dhirendranath Datta, English litterateur Jyotrimoy Guhathakurta, Bengali literary figure Munier Chowdhury, novelist Shahidullah Kaiser and Zahir Raihan and many other intellectuals were killed by the Pakistani army.
Suraiya Amina gave a statement that her father was taken by perpetrators on 14 December 1971 (Bangladesh Study Group 2009). Al-Baddar took her father and killed him with other intellectuals. Her father was a professor in the department of English of Dhaka university. The perpetrators also killed physicians, those who secretly helped and treating the injured freedom fighters. Farhad Hossain gave a statement that his father Dr. Shakhawat Hossain was a doctor and secretly treating injured liberation fighters. The agents of Pak army notified this activity of his father. As a result, the Pakistani army killed his father along with his colleagues on 5th Aprils 1971 (Bangladesh Study Group 2009). Al-Badr and Al Shams in collaboration with the Pakistani army aimed at cold blooded annihilation of the educated section and intellectuals of East Pakistan. The Razakars and the members of Al-Badr identified the intellectuals to be killed. Then they passed on that information to the Pakistan army. Finally, their collaborators took the intellectual to a particular camp and killed them there. All the victims seem to have been picked up from their homes in the 2nd week of December by Al-Badr and taken away in a micro bus (Bose 2011). Their bodies were found three or four days later at the Rayerbazar brick kiln. Some bodies were never found or identified. There are many questions that still remain unanswered such as why they chose Rayerbazar why the intellectuals were blindfolded when being taken away.
The perpetrators of intellectuals’ genocide were the Pakistani army and its collaborators – the Razakars and the organizations Al-Badr and Al-Shams. The Razakars were a local paramilitary group that helped the Pakistani army during operations and ensured uninterrupted food supplies to the military camp. The Al-Badr was a well-educated local militant group. This Al-Badr group played a vital role during the execution of intellectuals by the Pakistani army. The Razakars and the Al-Badr picked up the intellectuals from their homes.
The Process of Genocide
First the intellectuals were picked up, kidnapped, blindfolded in their homes; secondly, they were transferred in the Al-badr torture camp. Finally, the intellectuals were sent to Rayer Bazar slaughterhouse and Mirpur graveyard and killed brutally. In December 1971, two incidents made the whole Dhaka city panick. The first one was organising meeting with jeep and threatening freedom aspiring people by the Al-badar and Razakar. The other one was a letter sent to many Bengali educationists, artists, writers, doctors, journalists, dramatists, teachers, and politicians. In it, they were advised to get ready for death. One such letter threatened journalist Sirajuddin Husain. According of Husain’s son, at 3 A.M on December10, 1971, some assailants held their house owner at gun point and forced him to open the door. Then he saw some seven to eight youths holding five rifles rushing into the room. Then they shouted, ‘Hands up’. They caught his father. They blindfolded him and took him with them to a car (Hasnattayef 2016). Neither at Mirpur killing field nor at Rayer Bazar Sirajuddin Husain’s body was found. Munier Choudhury was a professor at Dhaka university. His body was not found either. Major General Rao Farman Ali’s notebook contained a list of twenty members of the Bengali intelligentsia among whom eleven were abducted and killed on 14 December. Professor Munier Choudhury mentioned in the list. According to Choudhury’s brother, he opened the door and saw his brother being taken out. Some assailants gently wished him Salamu-alakim and asked him to come with them to Dhanmondi police station for a moment. When Choudhury refused to go, then a youth pointed a gun at his back and ordered him to go. Panna Kaiser could not find her husband Shahidullah Kaiser’s body. Kaiser said that the Al-Badar group pulled her husband towards veranda from the dark room. The perpetrators had masked their faces. At this moment her sister came running from the adjacent room. She pulled down the hood of one abductor, who was Khaleque Majumder. On 14 Decembe,r Al-Badr head commander Ashrafuzzaman Khan abducted and killed six teachers and one doctor of Dhaka university. This perpetrator abducted Gyasuddin Ahmed from Mushin Hall. They found him near the water pump and took him blind folded with the gate-keeper’s towel. They took him away in a microbus. This very same microbus picked up Dr. Fazul Mohi, Dr. Munier Choudhury, Dr. Serajul Haque, and Golam Mortuza one by one.
Denial of Genocide
The final stage of any genocide is its denial by the perpetrator. It is true for the Bangladesh genocide as well. After end of war Hamoodur Rahman Commission was set up in 1972 for investigating the war crimes. This commission accused Major General Rao Farman Ali as mastermind of the killing of intellectuals. But he denied the allegation. However, a page from the diary of Rao was found in the governor house. It contained a list of Dhaka university teachers marked for murder. Rao Farman Ali alleged that that intellectuals’ genocide was conducted by Al-Badr.
Al-Badr was a radical military group that assisted Pakistan army in the killing of intellectuals. Al-Badr directly supervised and controlled by Rao Farman Ali. The aim of this group was executing the massacre of intellectuals. According to Mofidul Hoque, the Al-Badr group was made up of well-educated men and yet their style of operation was barbaric. The list of intellectuals was made by Rao Farman Ali. The existence of the list was proved and confirmed by a Pakistani journalist Altaf Gauhar. The Pakistan government also denied the genocide. Rao Farman Ali never faced any trail regarding this genocide. Rather he sent on to serve as petroleum minister and national security advisor during the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq.
Impact of the Intellectuals’ Genocide
As a result of the intellectuals’ genocide the new nation of Bangladesh in its early phase often felt as if it was without a guardian. It created a great vacuum. According to Mofidul Haque, the killing of intellectuals was a tremendous loss to Bangladesh. Had those intellectuals not been killed Bangladesh would have been even richer in terms culture and literature and would have achieved more in the domain of education and other intellectual pursuits.
Michael Nicholson used the term eliticide, which denotes the killing of educated persons or leadership of an ethnic group. After the discovery of Rao Farman Ali’s diary, it was proved beyond any doubt that it was an organised and well-coordinated genocide from the beginning to the end, involving the abduction and mass murder of the intelligentsia. The mass murder of intellectuals was not related to winning or losing the war, but it was linked to the hatred for Bengalis.
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The present author’s interview with Mr. Hoque, Mofidul in 2023. He is one of the founding trustees of the Liberation War Museum, Dhaka and the Director of its Centre for the Study of Genocide and Justice.
Mridul Banik is a Post-Graduate student of History at Presidency University, Kolkata. His academic interests include studies on mass violence, migration, the social history of minority & marginalized communities of Bengal, and microhistory. He has researched the socio-economic-religious aspects of the Matua community and now working on socio-cultural aspects of the Dalit women of Bengal. He holds a first-class Bachelor’s degree in History from Presidency University, Kolkata.
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