Thursday, June 20, 2024

A Genocide Forgotten: The Women Victims of East Pakistan

Washington, DC – On March 8, year after year, the world prepares to celebrate International Women’s Day to commemorate the all-round achievements of women and demand gender equality and reproductive rights. This day marks unequivocal opposition to violence and abuse against women, and participants introduce resolutions to end this endemic, leaving no stone unturned.

The horror of another war is unfolding in Europe, as Russia invades Ukraine, with severe effects on vulnerable women and children trapped in the crossfire. While it is indeed hard to witness the killings of innocent civilians for no rhyme or reason, there is at least hope as the United States of America has taken the side of the victims and stands on the right side of history.

Yet, fifty years ago in South Asia, there was another brutal war in which the government of the day in the USA had chosen the wrong side. Sadly, even today, the US government has failed to acknowledge the genocide against the Bengalis by the Pakistan army from March 25 to December 16, 1971, during the liberation struggle of Bangladesh. An estimated ten million people became homeless immigrants after fleeing to neighboring India. Thirty million more were internally displaced, around three million Bengali nationalists were killed, and over 300,000 women became victims of rape and forced pregnancy. Most of the rape victims have left for their heavenly abode in the past fifty years due to humiliation, disease, and old age. However, the living few are still awaiting justice, hoping that the world, led by the USA would one day recognize the genocide of Bangladeshis by the Pakistani army and start a trial against the perpetrators of a war crime. Or is it too much to ask for?

The Pakistani army initiated a choreographed annihilation of Bengalis when the Awami League party of East Pakistan led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman decisively won the 1970 elections and expressed its right to form the government of united Pakistan. A slighted Military Junta of West Pakistan annulled the election results, fearing the prospect of handing over the reins to what they perceived as inferior ‘Kala’ (Black) Bengalis. The East Pakistanis were also accused of being half Muslims as they assimilated many Hindu practices in their daily lives. Moreover, there was added tension related to Bengali language assertions, demanding the right to use mother tongue at the cost of Urdu language, which the West Pakistani elite had promoted since the time of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the creator of Pakistan in 1947.

In his book “Blood Telegram,” Author Gary J. Bass has given an exhaustive account of what transpired in the inner circles of President Richard Nixon, including his discussions with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and how saner counseling by own diplomats was silenced. Soon after the reports of the Pakistan army’s atrocities started pouring in, Archer Blood, the US Counsel General in Dhaka, and Kenneth Keating, the US Ambassador to India, called on the Nixon administration to “promptly, publicly and prominently deplore this brutality.” But Nixon stonewalled Keating and recalled Archer Blood from Dhaka. Gary Bass draws up a severe indictment of Nixon and Kissinger, holding them responsible for “significant complicity in the slaughter of the Bengalis and rape of women.” He writes, “In the dark annals of modern cruelty, it ranks as bloodier than Bosnia and by some accounts in the same rough league as Rwanda.”

Before his recall, Consul General Blood did not support the further shipment of arms to the Pakistani military that was used to massacre the Bengali population. He requested the State Department to press for a political solution to the crisis in East Pakistan as the only way out. He reported on the brutal crackdown on the unarmed civilians by the Pakistani military forces on the night of March 25, 1971, with machine guns and tanks in the strongest of words. His reports included accounts of civilian deaths, arson attacks, rape of women, looting, etc., collected through his sources and Bengali friends. Telegram after telegram was directly dispatched to the State Department, bypassing the Rawalpindi-based US Ambassador, despite the warning by the latter of severe consequences for Blood’s actions. One of Blood’s cables even used the term “selective genocide.” In Blood’s words, his cables were met with “deafening silence.”

The barrage of war crime reporting notwithstanding, what were the compulsions of President Nixon to ignore the rape of hapless Bengali women by the Pakistani army? If only the USA had ordered its long-trusted friend Pakistan to stop the barbaric acts, a generation of Bengalis would have been spared the scars of war. But President Nixon and Henry Kissinger indulged Pakistani President Yahya Khan to reach out to Zhou Enlai, the first premier of Communist China (October 1949 to January 1976). As Gary Bass observes, “Pakistan President Yahya Khan had a green light for his killing campaign. At the White House, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger knew that a fierce assault was starting but made no move to stop or slow it.” Instead, in May 1971, Kissinger told Robert Mcnamara, the former Defense Secretary who was also running the World Bank to “provide economic support to Pakistan and Yahya Khan for the next three months.”

In early 1971, when the crises broke out, Pakistan acted as the interlocutor to facilitate exchanges between the US and China when the relations between the two countries were virtually non-existent. In April 1971, the same month that the Blood telegram’s unwelcome report on the Pakistan army’s atrocities arrived, Nixon received his eagerly awaited invitation from the Chinese. By the time the crisis in East Pakistan reached a peak, the US had conducted a number of highly secret exchanges with China and was on the verge of achieving a breakthrough. While Nixon boasted that it would be a “great watershed in history, clearly the greatest since WW II,” Kissinger ranked it even higher, as “the greatest since Civil War.” The Pakistani channel of talks between the United States and China would have collapsed had the US publicly condemned human rights violations, and atrocities by the Pakistan army against the people of East Pakistan, acknowledged Kissinger in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of The Atlantic. The mediation of Pakistan ultimately resulted in the visit of President Nixon to China between February 21-28, 1972, at the cost of death, rape, and destruction in Bangladesh.

Jessica Lee Rehman of California University, in a Case Study in 2012, termed rape in 1971 in Bangladesh as an instance of religious terrorism. She said, “The Pakistan Army is an Islamic institution, its soldiers are warriors of God and …they rape in God’s name. Therefore the raping of girls and women, the forced bodily transgressions, and the mutilations are considered to be a triumph for good.” Bengalis were deemed to have inherited Hindu features which were reasons enough to brand them as heretical targets for savage activities.

Time magazine reported on 563 girls who had been kidnapped and held by the Pakistan military; all of them were between three and five months pregnant when the military began to release them. These women were forcibly used as sex objects of the Pakistani army. Jenneke Arens, a Dutch author who lived in Bangladesh from 1973 to 1975 for her research work, described the rape of Hindu minority women by the Pakistani military as a deliberate attempt to destroy an ethnic group since many of those assaulted were raped, murdered, and then bayoneted in the genitalia.

The Pakistani army committed mass rape of Bengali women because the army intended to destroy their faith, social position, and self-esteem. Adam Jones, a political scientist, has said that one of the reasons for the mass rapes was to undermine Bengali society through the “dishonoring” of Bengali women and that some women were raped until they died. Amita Malik, reporting from Bangladesh following the Pakistan armed forces surrender, wrote that one West Pakistani soldier said: “We are going. But we are leaving our seed behind”.

In the immediate aftermath of the Liberation War, one pressing problem was the very high number of unwanted pregnancies of rape victims. Dr. Geoffrey Davis, an Australian doctor and abortion specialist at a rehabilitation center in Dhaka, reported 170,000 abortions of pregnancies caused by the rapes and the births of 30,000 war babies during the first three months of 1972. Davis estimated that there had been about 5,000 cases of self-induced abortions. He also said that he heard of numerous infanticides and suicides by victims during his work. His estimate of the total number of rape victims was 400,000, twice as high as the official estimate of 200,000 cited by the Bangladeshi government. Most of the victims also contracted sexually transmitted infections. Many suffered from feelings of intense shame and humiliation and were ostracized by their families and communities. Many committed suicide, were even killed by their husbands or relatives, or murdered their half-Pakistani babies themselves to escape ignominy. Some women were so scared to go back home after being held captive in Pakistani rape camps that they begged their Pakistani captors to take them back to West Pakistan with them.

In her 1975 book “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape,” American writer Susan Brownmiller compared the rapes of Bangladesh with the rapes of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers at Nanjing in 1937-38. The 1992-95 Bosnian war saw one-tenth the number of rapes than the Bangladesh war. The rapes of Bosnian women forced the world to recognize rape as “an instrument of terror,” as a crime against humanity. But so far, no one has been held to account for the sexual violence against Bangladeshi women in 1971.

For too long, the American people were kept in the dark about the rogue Pakistan army atrocities in East Pakistan, until August 1, 1971, when George Harrison organized the Concert for Bangladesh with his Indian friend and musician Ravi Shankar at Madison Square Garden, New York to aid victims of war. The concert also introduced the new country “Bangladesh” to the world for the first time, even before it was born on December 16 that year.

In war anomie, where morals and reason become the first casualties, aspiring for gender equality would perhaps be a tall order. But what monstrousness induces treating women’s bodies as a field of war? Why should a war between countries or civil wars be fought over the bodies and wombs of women? The stories of Bengali women being tied to trees and gang-raped, organs hacked off, dumped in mass graves, and being held in Pakistani rape camps are all testimony to the atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army with the full knowledge and connivance of the then US Government which only wanted to use Pakistan to reach China. Nixon and Kissinger were not burdened with an excessively moralistic view of foreign policy and turned a blind eye. But why have the many post-war administrations that followed, both Democratic and Republican, violated American ideals of democracy and human rights to this day? These are the questions that the Bangladeshis have started raising from America and the world community. Some renowned think tanks such as Lemkin Institute and Genocide Watch have recognized what occurred in Bangladesh in 1971 as genocide. It is high time that the USA lived up to its reputation as the harbinger of a better value system and a global world order and recognized the Bangladeshi genocide perpetrated by the world’s foremost terror-sponsoring country and impose sanctions on Pakistan.

Author profile
Priya Saha
Executive Director at Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities

Priya Saha is the Executive Director of Human Rights Congress for Bangladesh Minorities (HRCBM). HRCBM is an NGO in Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

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