Why 27 March? - The Bengali Hindu Genocide Remembrance Day
The Liberation War of Bangladesh is often considered to have begun when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman held his famous speech on 7 March at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka. In his address to a gathering of around a million people, Mujib proclaimed: “This time the struggle is for our freedom. This time the struggle is for our independence.” In the pictures that were taken during his speech, one can see a tall shikhara of the Ramna Kali Mandir, towering over everyone and everything. Twenty days after Mujib’s speech at the Ramna Race Course, the Pakistan army attacked the temple and massacred all the Hindus there and in the vicinity of the temple. Dr. John E. Rohde from the United States Agency for International Development visited the area on 29 March. He had witnessed charred corpses of men, women and children who had been killed and burned. The Pakistani army had doused the temple with petrol and gunpowder and set it on fire. The priest of the Ramna Kali temple along with over hundred people and fifty cows were killed in the temple, and over another hundred were massacred in the adjacent Maa Anandamayi Ashram and the nearby houses.
This event was preceded by the Operation Searchlight on 25 March 1971, which was a relentless military crackdown on civilians. The Pakistan army attacked Dhaka University, hauled the professors and lecturers out of their rooms and executed them. The students were machine-gunned, and there were mass graves on campus. Diplomat Archer Blood and his staffers, who had witnessed one of the worst atrocities of the Cold War era, relayed as much information as possible to Washington D.C. Archer Blood’s consulate documented in horrific detail the slaughter of civilians, villages aflame, newspaper buildings being destroyed, and the specific targeting of the Hindu minority of East Pakistan. It is true, that the killings were indiscriminate at the beginning; there were both Hindu and Muslim intelligentsia, students and civilians among the dead. If the Pakistani establishment considered some people a threat to Pakistan, the army would eliminate them. After a certain point, it had become more apparent Pakistan was systematically targeting the Hindu minority, solely for their religious identity. It is no coincidence, based on all the evidence, countless witnesses’ and survivors’ accounts, that the Hindu minority community was especially targeted by the Pakistan army.
This fact should not even come as a surprise. Pakistan has had a policy of legally discriminating against its non-Muslim minorities, the most famous example being the Enemy Property Act, since the country’s inception. All bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan, regarding the rights of minorities, were outright ignored in Pakistan. On 19 April 1948, the Neogy-Ghulam Agreement was signed to ease the situation of minorities by putting up Minority Boards in each country. India strictly implemented the conditions of the aforementioned Agreement. What happened in Pakistan was described in the Memorandum of Congress Legislative party in East Bengal which was submitted to the Premier Nurul Amin in December 1949; “In Dacca alone three thousand Hindu houses had been requisitioned. The licences of Hindus holding firearms were cancelled and seized […] In the rural areas, forcible removal of crops, plucking of fruits from trees, cutting off bamboos and catching fish from the tanks belonging to Hindus had become most common. The attitude of Government officials and police towards the complaints from Hindus was completely indifferent and some district Magistrates openly preached against the Hindus. The Minority Boards agreed upon by the Neogy-Ghulam Pact were either not brought into existence or were not allowed to function. Local Boards and Municipalities where the Hindus held the majority of seats were arbitrarily suspended”.
At the turn of that year, the riots escalated further into a full-fledged, country-wide carnage. The government of Pakistan was not just a mute spectator, but an active participant. When the massacres were going on, the District Magistrate of Barisal asked Member of Legislative Assembly Satindranath Sen to sign a declaration stating that there existed peace and normalcy in the district. He refused to sign it, after which he was arrested. On 18 February, Sen wrote to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, appraising him of the situation in Barisal, without any avail. On 11 March, Member of Legislative Assembly Suresh Chandra Biswas was arrested for addressing a public gathering where he protested against the arson on Hindus homes. On 16 March, the five Hindu members of the seven member non-official inquiry committee investigating into the Kalshira massacre were arrested. The Kalshira massacre began when four police constables raided the house of Joydev Brahma in the village of Kalshira in the district of Khulna, in search of some suspected communists. After the constables failed to find evidence, they tried to rape the wife of Joydev Brahma. In a desperate bid to save his wife, he attacked the constables, one of whom died on the spot. On the next day, the District Superintendent of Police arrived in Kalshira accompanied by armed police contingent and the Ansars (paramilitary force) and attacked Kalshira and other neighbouring Hindu villages mercilessly. Within a month of the massacre 30,000 Hindus fled from Khulna to India. The Kalshira massacre was just one of the many in that year. The 1950s riots were not riots but a state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing, which resulted in an exodus. That year, Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan signed a bilateral treaty between India and Pakistan, wherein “The Governments of India and Pakistan solemnly agree that each shall ensure, to the minorities throughout its territory, complete equality of citizenship, irrespective of religion, a full sense of security in respect of life, culture, property and personal honour, freedom of movement within each country and freedom of occupation, speech and worship, subject to law and morality.” The Pact also states that “Members of the minorities shall have equal opportunity with members of the majority community to participate in the public life of their country, to hold political or other office, and to serve in their country’s civil and armed forces. Both Governments declare these rights to be fundamental and undertake to enforce them effectively.”
The passage of the Enemy Property Act, and its consequential effects it had on the minority community, alone violated the Nehru-Liaquat pact.
In the following years, after the military junta under Ayub Khan came to power in Pakistan, the Hindu minority community’s sufferings increased especially due to the policies of Ayub Khan’s regime. The Pakistani government, press and radio began to publish and broadcast inflammatory speeches against India and Hindus, which affected the Hindu minority of Pakistan, through their purported association with India. These broadcastings included fabricated stories, exaggerated half-truths, or fake news, which never got corrected in the Pakistani mainstream media even after investigations showed otherwise. The effects of inflammatory speeches and fake news did have an all devastating effect on the Hindu minority, particularly in East Pakistan, most prominent examples being the 1962 Rajshahi massacres and the 1964 East Pakistan anti-Hindu genocide. Meanwhile, West Pakistan kept suppressing East Pakistan economically and politically. The Muslims of East Bengal who once supported Pakistan, found themselves neglected by West Pakistan. The rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who ironically used to be the mentee of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, one of the kingpins of the Great Calcutta Killings, was imminent.
When Mujib delivered his speech at Ramna Race Course, who would have known that the Hindu minority would bear the brunt of the Pakistani establishment’s and its local collaborators’ campaign of destruction? Who could have predicted the catastrophic consequences and the humanitarian crisis, that the sequence of events after that famous speech, resulted to? Diplomat Archer Blood and his colleagues and staff had reported to Washington D.C in real time what was happening, at the cost of their own careers. Gary J. Bass in his award winning book ‘The Blood Telegram’ discusses the dissent memo on the American policy during the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war sent by American Consul General Archer Blood. There are several instances where Diplomat Blood and his staff described in detail how the Pakistan army particularly targeted the Hindus, even when the Hindus were not part of any large armed resistance. Quoting one of the first signs of targeted massacres of Hindus, Blood and his staff noticed: “[Archer] Blood’s team could hear sporadic gunshots at night across the city. ‘Wanton acts of violence by military are continuing in Dacca,’ he cabled. He reported evidence of ethnic targeting, which bolstered his accusation of genocide: ‘Hindus undeniably special focus of army brutality.’ There were large fires and the sound of shots in Hindu neighborhoods. The army was rounding up remaining activists. ‘Atrocity tales rampant’, Blood cabled, from trusted eyewitnesses […] The consulate emphasized how Hindus were targeted. One of Blood’s senior staffers privately noted “evidence of selective singling out of Hindu professors for elimination, burning of Hindu settlements including 24 square block areas on edges of Old Dacca and village built around temple.… Also attack night of March 26 on Hindu dormitory at Dacca University resulting in at least 25 deaths. Although Pakistani forces had concentrated on Awami League activists, Hindus seem [to] bear the brunt of general reign of terror.”
Bass writes how US official Desaix Myers had written a desolate letter home to his friends lamenting what he had seen in a small, impoverished Hindu village in the countryside. The army had “lined up people from their houses, shot down the lines, killing close to six hundred.” The people in nearby villages heard the gunfire and fled. The rice mills were burned to charcoal, the rice to ash. The handful of villagers who had returned told their stories through sobs. Bass also writes how and why Archer Blood, diplomat Scott Butcher, and journalist Sydney Schanberg arrived at the conclusion that the brutal crackdown on the people of East Pakistan had two facets; one was the racial prejudice that the West Pakistan had against the East Pakistani Muslims, and the other one was the fact that “there was mounting evidence that among the Bengalis, the Hindu minority was doubly marked out for persecution. From the first few days of the crackdown, Blood had noticed this. Many of the West Pakistanis seemed to blame Bengali nationalism and secessionism on the Hindus, even though the Bengali Muslims had overwhelmingly supported the Awami League.”
Senior Pakistani officers have admitted in a postwar judicial inquiry that there were verbal instructions to “eliminate the Hindus”. The Inquiry states that the Chief of Army Staff and Chief of General Staff were often noticed jokingly asking as to how many Hindus have been killed. One lieutenant colonel testified that Lieutenant General A. A. K. Niazi, who became the chief martial law administrator in East Pakistan and head of the army’s Eastern Command, asked as to how many Hindus they had killed.
The White House was aware of this fact. Nixon and Kissinger were very much aware of the situation. Kissinger was looking for massacres committed by ‘East Pakistani secessionists’, to generate a moral equivalence that would exonerate Yahya. However, around the same time Blood had said: “We were also harboring, all of us were harboring, Bengalis, mostly Hindu Bengalis, who were trying to flee mostly by taking refuge with our own servants. Our servants would give them refuge. All of us were doing this. I had a message from Washington saying that they had heard we were doing this and to knock it off. I told them we were doing it and would continue to do it. We could not turn these people away. They were not political refugees. They were just poor, very low-class people, mostly Hindus, who were very much afraid that they would be killed solely because they were Hindu.”
To Blood’s relief, Kenneth Keating, the US ambassador to India and a moderate Republican, had taken notice of Blood’s cables. Keating, after learning the situation in Dacca from his colleagues, cabled to Washington that he was “deeply shocked at massacre by Pakistani military in East Pakistan”, and urged the US government to denounce the crackdown. On June 15, he personally confronted both Nixon and Kissinger in Oval Office, and told how the “indiscriminate” killing had become almost entirely a matter of genocide killing the Hindus.
Nixon later privately called Keating a traitor. Keating was well connected so sacking him proved to be difficult. However, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recalled Blood from his position and demoted him. Nixon and Kissinger had relied on West Pakistan for diplomatic openings to China in order to counter the power of the Soviet Union, and accusations of genocide were putting the United States and their policies in a bad light. Indeed, the United States had supplied Pakistan with between $1.5 billion and $2 billion worth of military equipment. The U.S also provided a large chunk of Pakistan’s air force, which was crucial for shuttling soldiers from West to East Pakistan. The U.S also provided a submarine and a fleet tanker, and established three modern air bases, a naval dockyard at Karachi, and a Chittagong base. Archer Blood had written in detail how Pakistan was using American artillery to crush the civilians. This was inconvenient for Washington D.C since the last thing the White House wanted was to hear that its ally, which was fiercely anti-communist albeit a military junta, was committing a genocide with American weapons.
After the war in 1972, the U.S government officials admitted that they didn’t believe the magnitude of the killings, labeling Blood’s telegram alarmist. Edward Kennedy, then a young Democratic senator representing Massachusetts, was one of the few American politicians who decried the atrocities in East Pakistan and Nixon’s policies. In August 1971, he visited the refugee camps along the Indian border from West Bengal to Tripura, and was overwhelmed by the suffering of the refugees. This brings us to India.
India was aware of the fact that Hindus were the primary targets of the Pakistan army, and that the vast majority of the refugees, who had started to stream into India, were Hindus. According to official figures, there were nearly ten million refugees in India, by the month of December. By an official reckoning, nearly 90 percent of the refugees were Hindus. As Bass writes, this skew was the inevitable consequence of Pakistani targeting of Hindus in East Pakistan. The refugee crisis was so colossal in the border states of West Bengal, Tripura and Assam that India could not cope with the mounting demand of providing food, medical care and shelter to the brutalized population. The Indira Gandhi government expected the international community to help with a major part of the expenses. The Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations, Samar Sen, requested international aid. In May 1971, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadruddin Aga Khan, made it clear that it would be unrealistic to expect the UN to bear full responsibility for the financial burden. Nevertheless, an appeal for assistance was launched, which resulted in a pledge for a measly US$70 million in aid.
At the same time, the government of India had other concerns; principal secretary of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, P. N Haksar, noted that the refugees would cause social and religious tension in volatile states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura, which had been absorbing waves of refugees ever since after Partition, and were already poverty-stricken. The Indian government worked hard to hide the reality from its own people. Delegate Swaran Singh candidly told a meeting of Indian diplomats in London that India should avoid making the 1971 war into an Indo-Pakistan or Hindu-Muslim conflict. Singh also stated that the government should emphasize that there are Buddhists and Christians besides the Muslims among the refugees, who had felt the brunt of repression. The government of India was afraid that the plain truth would spiral India into vengeful communal violence. There was most likely another reason too; the Indira Gandhi-led government had made it very clear that India would not allow the refugees to settle in India, so if the truth of the nature of the 1971 war had gotten out to the public, India would be compelled to accept the refugees permanently. Hence why Indira Gandhi’s government quietly tried to link these camps to the Awami League authorities, which Bass calls ‘social engineering, in the Indian secular way’. After the war ended, Indira Gandhi and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman signed an agreement which stated that refugees were to be sent back. India also considered it as its interest to save the incarcerated Mujib. In return for Pakistan having spared the life of Mujib, India ordered the release of all 93,000 Pakistani POWs under the Shimla Agreement. Thus, unceremoniously, the genocide of Bengali Hindus of East Bengal got swept under the carpet, and then it got ‘secularised’. Millions of lives, the injustices that had its roots in the years before 1971, never got a separate recognition.
To describe the experiences of a Hindu in East Pakistan in 1971, it really did not come as a surprise when the Operation Searchlight and the crackdown on secessionists, Awami League supporters, etc. happened, that the Hindu community would quickly become the primary target, solely for their religious identity. A Hindu never had to be politically active, Awami League or Sheikh Mujibur Rahman supporter or a part of armed resistance, in order to be killed by the Pakistan army or its local collaborators. There have been witness accounts of Hindus trying to take shelter at their Muslim neighbors homes when the army started to march to the country side, and getting told to go elsewhere because the army would kill them too if they found out that they were sheltering Hindus. There have even been cases where Hindus took shelter at Christian neighborhoods, where the church would provide crosses to wear, so that if the Pakistan army had come to search, they would think that they were not Hindus. None of what happened in 1971, happened in a vacuum. It is, therefore, important that a change happens now. This year, it will be fifty years from the 1971 genocide. The generation that has lived through the war is aging. A large part of the ordeals and trauma of the Bengali Hindu community is being denied by not officially acknowledging and commemorating our history properly. Why did 27th of March get chosen? There are a couple of reasons: Bangladesh has already declared the 25th of March as a Genocide remembrance day, because that was the day when the Operation Searchlight took place. It is a remembrance day for all those who were killed in the war. The second reason is that there still is no specific recognition of the fact that the Bengali Hindu community faced a genocide solely because of our religious identity. The 27th of March was the day when the iconic Ramna Kali temple got demolished into rubble by the Pakistan army, and from that day on it became clear that the Pakistan army’s and its collaborators’ primary target were Hindu civilians. Today, the Ramna Race Course is known as Suhrawardy Udayan, and there is a structure called ‘Mausoleum of three leaders’, in the honor of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, A.K Fazlul Huq and Khwaja Nazimuddin, all of whom were instrumental in creating Pakistan. The symbolism around the day and the place makes 27th a poignant yet appropriate date for the Bengali Hindu Genocide Remembrance Day.