Liberation of Bangladesh, 1971: ‘Genocide’

The story of a newspaper report that changed the world opinion and continues to embarrass Pakistan

Representative image
Representative image

Ashis Ray

On 13 June 1971, Sunday Times in London ran a one-word headline in its lead story on the front page: it screamed ‘GENOCIDE’.

It proceeded to narrate: ‘West Pakistan’s Army has been systematically massacring thousands of civilians in East Pakistan since the end of March. This is the horrifying reality behind the news blackout imposed by President Yahya Khan’s government since the end of March. This is the reason why more than five million refugees have streamed out of East Pakistan into India, risking cholera and famine.’

‘The curtain of silence,’ it went on to say, ‘is broken today for the first time by Anthony Mascarenhas, the Sunday Times correspondent in Pakistan. He has seen what the Pakistan army has been doing. He has left Pakistan to tell the world.’

Furthermore: ‘The army has not merely been killing supporters of the idea of Bangla Desh, an independent East Bengal. It has deliberately been massacring others, Hindus and Bengali Muslims. Hindus have been shot and beaten to death with clubs simply because they are Hindus. Villages have been burned.’

Two weeks after a couple of divisions of the Pakistani army were deployed in its eastern wing to deal with the Bengali, the martial law regime in Islamabad flew in eight Pakistani journalists there to give people in West Pakistan a reassuring picture of a return to normalcy in East Pakistan. One of them was Mascarenhas, who while representing the Sunday Times was assistant editor at Karachi’s Morning News.

On 18 May 1971, he unexpectedly arrived at the Sunday Times office in London. He told the editor Harold Evans he wanted to write a story: the truth about why five million people had fled to India from East Pakistan. There was no way this can be carried by Morning News. He made it plain that once the story appeared, there was no going back to Pakistan for him. So, his condition was, it could only be printed after he had brought his wife and children out of the country.

Evans agreed. Mascarenhas returned to Karachi. After 10 days a telegram was received at the private address of a Sunday Times executive. It said: ‘Export formalities completed. Shipment begins Monday.’ The Pakistani authorities had granted permission to Mascarenhas’ family to go abroad, but forbade him to do so. He, however, managed to escape.

In a three-page expose, he detailed what was an eye-witness account. Here are segments from his piece:

‘Abdul Bari had run out of luck. Like thousands of other people in East Bengal, he had made the mistake – the fatal mistake – of running within sight of a Pakistan army patrol.

He was 24 years old, a slight man surrounded by soldiers. He was trembling, because he was about to be shot.

“Normally we would have killed him as he ran,” I was informed chattily by Major Rathore, the G-2 Ops of the the 9th Division, as we stood on the outskirts of a tiny village near Mudafarganj, about 20 miles south of Comilla. “But we are checking him out for your sake. You are new here and I see you have a squeamish stomach.”

“Why kill him?” I asked with mounting concern.

“Because he might be a Hindu or he might be a rebel, perhaps a student or an Awami Leaguer. They know we are sorting them out and they betray themselves by running.”

“But why are you killing them? And why pick on the Hindus?” I persisted.

“Must I remind you,” Rathore said severely, “how they have tried to destroy Pakistan? Now under the cover of the fighting we have an excellent opportunity of finishing them off.”

“For God’s sake don’t shoot,” I cried. “He’s unarmed. He’s only a villager.”

Rathore gave me a dirty look and fired a warning burst.

As the man sank to a crouch in the lush carpet of green, two jawans were already on their way to drag him in.

The thud of a rifle butt across the shoulders preceded the questioning.

“Who are you?”

“Mercy, Sahib! My name is Abdul Bari. I am a tailor from the New Market in Dacca.”

“Don’t lie to me. You’re a Hindu. Why were you running?”

Liberation of Bangladesh, 1971: ‘Genocide’

“It’s almost curfew time, Sahib, and I was going to my village.”

“Tell me the truth. Why were you running?”

Before the man could answer he was quickly frisked for weapons by a jawan (a soldier) while another quickly snatched away his lungi. The skinny body that was bared revealed traces of circumcision, which is obligatory for Muslims.

At least it could be plainly seen that Bari was not a Hindu.

The interrogation proceeded.

“Tell me, why were you running?”

By this time Bari, wild-eyed and trembling violently, could not answer. He buckled at the knees.

“He looks like a fauji, sir,” volunteered one jawan as Bari was hauled to his feet. (Fauji is the Urdu word for soldier; the army uses it for the Bengali rebels it is hounding.)

“Could be,” I heard Rathore mutter grimly.

Abdul Bari was clouted several times with the butt end of a rifle, then ominously pushed against a wall. Mercifully his screams brought a young head peeping from the shadows of a nearby hut. Bari shouted something in Bengali. The head vanished. Moments later a bearded old man came haltingly from the hut. Rathore pounced on him.

“Do you know this man?”

“Yes, Sahib. He is Abdul Bari.”

“Is he a fauji?”

“No, Sahib, he is a tailor from Dacca.”

“Tell me the truth.”

“Khuda Kassam (God’s oath), Sahib, he is a tailor.” There was a sudden silence. Rathore looked abashed as I told him “For God’s sake let him go. What more proof do you want of his innocence?”

But the jawans were apparently unconvinced and kept milling around Bari. It was only after I had once more interceded on his behalf that Rathore ordered Bari to be released. By that time, he was a crumpled, speechless heap of terror. But his life had been saved.

Others had not been as fortunate.

For six days I travelled with the officers of the 9th Division headquartered at Comilla. I witnessed at close quarters the extent of the killing. I saw Hindus, hunted from village to village and door to door, shot off-hand after a cursory “short-arm inspection” showed they were uncircumcised.

I have heard the screams of men bludgeoned to death in the compound of the Circuit House (civil administrative headquarters) in Comilla. I have seen truckloads of other human targets and those who had the humanity to try to help them hauled off “for disposal” under the cover of darkness and curfew. I have witnessed the brutality of “kill and burn missions” as the army units, after clearing out the rebels, pursued the pogrom in the towns and the villages.

I have seen whole villages devastated by “punitive action”.

And in the officers’ mess at night, I have listened incredulously as otherwise brave and honourable men proudly chewed over the day’s kill. “How many did you get?”

The answers are seared in my memory.

Captain Azmat of the Baluch Regiment had two claims to fame according to the mess banter. One was his job as ADC to Major-Gen Shaukat Raza, commanding officer of the 9th Division. The other was thrust on him by his colleagues’ ragging.

Azmat, it transpired, was the only officer in the group who had not made a “kill”. Major Bashir needled him mercilessly.

“Come on Azmat,” Bashir told him one night, “we are going to make a man of you. Tomorrow we will see how you can make them run. It’s so easy.”

To underscore the point Bashir went into one of his long spiels. Apart from his duties as SSO, Bashir was also “education officer” at Headquarters. He was the only Punjabi officer I found who could speak Bengali fluently. By general agreement Bashir was also a selftaught bore who gloried in the sound of his own voice.

A darhiwala (bearded man), we were told, had come to see Bashir that morning to inquire about his brother, a prominent Awami League organiser of Comilla who had been netted by the army some days earlier.

Dhor gaya, Bashir said he told him: “he has run away.” The old man couldn’t comprehend how his brother could have “escaped” on a broken leg. Neither could I. So Major Bashir, with a broad wink, enlightened me.

The record would show Dhor gaya: “shot while escaping”.

Major Iftikhar was one of several officers assigned to kill and burn missions. They moved in after the rebels had been cleared by the army with the freedom to comb-out and destroy Hindus and “miscreants” (the official jargon for rebels) and to burn down everything in the areas from which the army had been fired at.

This lanky Punjabi officer liked to talk about his job. Riding with Iftikhar to the Circuit House in Comilla on another occasion he told me about his latest exploit.

“We got an old one,” he said. “The bastard had grown a beard and was posing as a devout Muslim. Even called himself Abdul Mannan. But we gave him a medical inspection and the game was up.”

Iftikhar continued: “I wanted to finish him there and then, but my men told me such a bastard deserved three shots. So, I gave him one on the balls, then one in the stomach. Then I finished him off with a shot in the head.”

“We are determined to cleanse East Pakistan once and for all of the threat of secession, even if it means killing off two million people and ruling the province as a colony for 30 years,” I was repeatedly told by senior military and civil officers in Dacca and Comilla.’

The Sunday Times emphasised: ‘We have been able to check his story in great detail with other refugees in a position to have had a wide knowledge of events in East Bengal as a whole, and with objective diplomatic sources.’

The sensational article rendered western governments–who in the Cold War were almost entirely pro-Pakistan– speechless. It lent a powerful arrow to India’s diplomatic bow, which it previously didn’t possess.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s attention was drawn to Mascarenhas’ effort. It strengthened her resolve to find a just solution. In August 1971, India signed a strategic ‘Friendship’ treaty with the Soviet Union, which guaranteed her diplomatic and military support.

Ultimately an estimated 12 million refugees poured into India from East Pakistan– onethird of them Muslims. Yet, the United States President Richard Nixon was unsympathetic to Mrs. Gandhi’s plea.

As India embarked on liberating East Pakistan and giving birth to Bangladesh, Nixon despatched the US 7th Fleet into the Bay of Bengal in a bid to unnerve India. A Soviet fleet tailed the American navy into the Bay to checkmate the US.

Mascarenhas passed away prematurely in 1986. His surviving widow and children live in London.

(Ashis Ray thanks the archvies of the News International UK for its co-operation. He can be followed on Twitter @ashiscray)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines