Exploding Myths about 1971 – Part 1: The 3 Million Massacred Delusion
by Dr. Junaid Ahmad
Let us think for a few moments about the implications of believing in a massacre of 3 million Bengali Muslims at the hands of the Pakistani armed forces in 1971. Is such a massacre even possible, or conscionable – to believe that the Pakistan armed forces were capable of perpetrating, on their own country folk, a genocide so heinous that it would put Leopold II at shame and draw cheers from the Nazis defies common rationality. It simply did not happen, and there is ample proof that it did not.
The notorious Dr. Joseph Goebbels has been credited with saying something along the lines of; “if you tell the same lie enough times, people will believe it; and the bigger the lie, the better.” This quote truly encapsulates the designs of the Bangladeshi establishment in their efforts to control the 1971 narrative at the expense of Pakistan and her armed forces. Recently, the debate over the killing of 3 million Bengalis by the Pakistan Army during the 1971 insurgency resurfaced. I have been following the proceedings in the Bangladeshi parliament and on 16 February, after an emotive session on the newly launched book – “Creation of Bangladesh: Myths Exploded”, PM Hasina Wajid once again reaffirmed to her cabinet that indeed Pakistan perpetrated a genocide of biblical proportions on the Bengali people in 1971. Many present nodded and cheered in agreement and continued to libel the Pakistani government and the author for presenting facts that challenged a range of myths that the Bangladeshi establishment default to when crying victim. The Bangladeshi PM then decided to formally register her protest against Pakistan and the author. She also plans to declare March 25 – “Genocide Day” – to remind her electorate that indeed a great wrong was done to the Bangladeshi people at the hands of the Pakistan armed forces on that fateful day in 1971. Absolutely nothing could be further from the truth.
Pakistan is at an important juncture in world history; taking steps towards self-sufficiency and sustainable and inclusive human and economic development. We really cannot afford to have shaming myths hanging over us anymore. The time now couldn’t be any better to dispel once and for all the myth of 3 million Bengalis killed – it really must be eradicated for good from the Pakistani people’s collective conscience. It has cast a wound so unbelievably deep and hamstrung our politics that to move forward and away from it since has been, I would argue, impossible. No civilized people having been blamed and shamed for a massacre of 3 million innocent could simply forget and move on. However, we must now.
A myth has been repeated ad nauseam over the years by various Bangladeshi and Indian political personalities to undermine and shame Pakistan and its armed forces. Let’s be very clear, the historical roots of this myth of 3 million is based on an editorial piece published on 23rd December, 1971 titled Enemy Occupations by Pravda – the mouthpiece of the now defunct USSR. This hit piece on Pakistan claimed that 3 million Bengalis had been killed in the war of 1971. This “figure”, which was not based on any body counts, expert testimonies or photo/video evidence, got further legitimacy after it was endorsed by Mujib ur-Rahman in his interview with BBC’s David Frost on 18th January, 1972. Eye witnesses reported that Mujib ur-Rahman, during this interview, was heavily intoxicated. Whether this impaired his judgment, I will leave that conclusion to the reader.
Here is the first testimony from Serajur Reman, the former deputy head of the BBC Bangla Programme in the UK contesting Mujib ur-Rahman’s claim. In a letter to The Guardian on 24th May, 2011 he wrote, “On 8th January 1972, I was the first Bangladeshi to meet independent leader Shiekh Mujib-ur-Reman after his release from Pakistan …. I [Serajur Rehman] explained that no accurate figure of the causalities was available but our estimate, based on information from various sources, was that up to “Three lakh” (300,000) died in the conflict. To my surprise and horror, he told David Frost later that “three million of my people “were killed by the Pakistanis. Whether he mistranslated “lakh” as “million” or his confused state of mind was responsible, I don’t know, but many Bangladeshis still believe a figure of three million is unrealistic and incredible”.
Sayyid Karim, Bangladesh’s first foreign secretary, as reported by David Bergman, a Bangladesh based British Journalist in 2011, wrote, “As for the number of Bengalis killed in the course of the liberation war, the figure of 3 million mentioned by Mujib to David Frost in January 1972, was a gross overstatement. This figure was picked up by him from an article in ‘Pravda’ the organ of the communist party of the Soviet Union”.
In order to cherry pick proof for the plucked-out-of-thin-air 3 million figure, Mujeeb ur-Rahman constituted a Commission on 29th January, 1972 to locate mass graves or other verifiable evidence. Chowdhary Abdul Mumin in his book Behind the Myth of Three Million, published in 1973, reported that this Commission comprised of representatives from the BD Army, Border Security Force, Rangers, Police and Civil Administration. Despite their best efforts, this Commission completely failed to locate any mass graves or other evidence of any kind. The Commission conjured up a figure of a maximum 56,743 deaths as a result of the 1971 insurgency. This obviously was far less than the 3 million being held up by Bangladeshi politicians to cry victim. As a result, Mujeeb ur-Rahman showed great displeasure at the Commission’s findings and disbanded them, stating, “I have declared three million dead, and your report could not come up with three scores thousands! What report you have prepared? Keep your report to yourself. What I have said once shall prevail”. With this information, we can safely draw our conclusions; this was a man wanting to gain power and legitimacy by creating collective delusions – or myths.
Western independent sources too solidly rubbish this 3 million figure. The Peace Research Institute in Norway along with Uppsala University of Sweden in their findings in 1972, estimated that about 58,000 people died in 1971. In addition to this, in June 1972, William Durmmond in the LA Times reported that “……. the figure of 3 million deaths is an exaggeration so gross as to be absurd …… no more than 25,000 people died.” On March 1st, 1973, Swedish journalist Ingvar Oja reported in Dagens Nyheter, the largest daily of Stockholm: “The allegation regarding the killing of 3 million people is highly exaggerated, not more than 50,000 people died in East Pakistan”. Sarmila Bose the famous Bengali Indian writer and Research Associate at Oxford University, in her book, Dead Reckoning in 2011, writes “…. the number 3 million appears to be not more than a gigantic rumor”. She estimated that around 50,000 – 100,000 people including Bengalis, Beharis and West Pakistanis may have perished in the conflict in East Pakistan.
Even senior Indian military officials have not accepted the 3 million dead figure. Mohammad Tajamul Hussain, noted Bangladeshi journalist/writer in his book “Bangladesh, Victims of Black Propaganda Intrigue and Indian Hegemony” quotes the Indian Army Chief, General Manekshaw during 1971 that “the figure of 3 million killed in 1971 and 200,000 women alleged to have been violated seem fictitious, baseless and far removed from the truth”.
In addition to the above myth of 3 million killed, Pakistan Army is also accused of raping more than 200,000 Bengali women. This too is a false figure which has been widely condemned. The gross inaccuracy of this allegation was borne out when an abortion team from Britain in early 1972 found that its workload involved the termination of only a hundred or slightly more pregnancies. The figure was also denounced by Australian Research Analyst Bin D Costa. He argued, “the figure of 200,000 women raped by the Pakistani Army in 1971 is considered to be too high”. Likewise, US Congressman Charles Wilson, who was eulogized in the Hollywood movie Charlie Wilson’s War, on December 9, 1987 stated, “to say that Pakistan army massacred its own 3 million Bengali people and dishonored 200,000 Bengali women, to me is an allegation so gross that it goes beyond human imagination.”
The repeated claims of 3 million killed and the rape of 200,000 Bengali women were stopped after a tripartite agreement between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh in April 1974. During the regimes of Gen Zia-ur-Rehman, Gen Husain, Mohammad Ershad and later Khaleda Zia, the Bangladesh government was more pragmatic and made friendly overtures to Pakistan. However, the present government of Awami League continues to use the simple lie of 3 million killed to hatemonger if not to evoke the baser emotions of its electorate to cultivate support and also to court favors from India.
Even basic arithmetic, which seems to be beyond the grasp of the Bangladeshi establishment, shows the unabashed absurdity of the 3 million killed and 200,000 women raped myths. To illustrate, perhaps at the expense of disgusting my readers, the Army action in East Pakistan started on 26 March and lasted till 16th December, 1971 – a total of 262 days. This implies that about 11,450 Bengalis would need to have been picked-up, killed and buried every day. When compared to the 2nd World War for instance, the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany in 6 years comes to only 2,740 killed every day – markedly less. Both the figures of the daily killings are fantastically preposterous and defy common sense.
The fall of East Pakistan was a deeply painful episode for an entire generation of East and West Pakistanis. To channel that pain in the manner that the Awami League in Bangladesh continues to do for courting favors from its powerful neighbor and to keep their electorate emotionally charged, borders on criminality. They really ought to have the sense to see that no other reasonable individual, institution or government (besides India ofcourse) takes their myths seriously. Not even Wikipedia. I feel a degree of confidence that no intelligent Bangladeshis do either. What the Awami League needs to do, is to base their politics on real and meaningful issues that their populace faces – stark poverty, a justice deficit and an institutional corruption of the most nefarious type. Be reasonable PM Hasina Wajid, stop lying to yourself and your people and move on.
All originals and references cited are available to inspect in my book “Creation of Bangladesh: Myths Exploded”. I hope readers will tune in next week for Part 2 of my 5 part series on myths surrounding 1971. Part 2 next week will contain a frontal lobotomy on another myth: the cowardly Pakistan army surrendering 93,000 personnel in Bangladesh – the largest ever mass surrender in perhaps all human history.