Sunday, February 5, 2012


Happy Birthday Bangladesh –  Musings On The Nation's 40th Anniversary
I have been sharing with you some of my experiences and impressions during the month I spent in Bangladesh some thirty-six years ago, but I have only briefly touched on the historical context in which those experiences took shape.  This is the perfect time to correct that oversight because this month Bangladesh celebrates its 40th anniversary as a sovereign nation.  

The country was barely  three years old when I arrived there in 1975 to work on a documentary.  Signs of the high price Bangladesh had paid for its independence were everywhere.  I saw it in the gaunt, weary faces of the refugees at Tongee; in the rampant poverty and the war-scarred, deserted buildings strewn throughout the countryside; in the inordinate number of widows and orphans we found everywhere we went.  But it was not until I watched and read the BBC retrospective last week on the birth of Bangladesh that I fully grasped the scope of the tragedy that occurred when the breach between East and West Pakistan  erupted into war, and the two disparate areas, forcibly bonded into a single nation for political and religious reasons, were torn apart. Given our nation's current relationship with Pakistan, I think it is instructive to look back at what happened in that region 40 years ago, and the role our nation played (or didn't play) in this shameful piece of history.

From the very beginning, the partitioning by the British of the Punjab and Bengal regions of India into the  single nation of West and East Pakistan was ill-conceived.  The logic for the creation of Pakistan, from the British perspective, was this:  It was clear that Hindus and Muslims would never get along,  so the only way to insure the successful transition of India to an independent, self-governing part of the Empire was to partition the overwhelmingly Muslim areas of the country into a separate nation 

The fact that Punjab and Bengal were on opposite sides of India was dismissed, as was the dissimilarity between the two areas.  Bengal, which became East Pakistan, was an agricultural area where the predominate language was Bangla; Punjab, which became West Pakistan, was industrialized, urban and more sophisticated politically, and Urdu was the predominant language. 

Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, is primarily an agrarian society, and was
easily manipulated and controlled by  the more industrialized West Pakistan.

It is not surprising, therefore, that West Pakistan was quickly able to amass the majority of the political power in the new nation.  And since East Pakistan had to depend on West Pakistan to process its major crop, jute, it did not take West Pakistan long to gain control of East Pakistan's agricultural output.  As one man told me during my visit, West Pakistan used East Pakistan as its bread basket and, in his words, “raped the region of its resources.” As a result, West Pakistan grew richer while East Pakistan grew poorer.
There were other problems.  When a massive typhoon struck East Pakistan,  West Pakistan turned a blind eye to the devastated area's pleas for help.  But the real breach erupted over language. When the Pakistan government decreed that Urdu would become the national language for all Pakistan and forbade the use of Bangla, the Bangla-speaking Bengalis decided they had had enough.  It was time for them to assert their cultural identity. Their efforts to reinstate the Bangla language soon erupted into a full blown battle for self-governance. 
When an election in 1971 ended up favoring East Pakistan, Pakistan’s President postponed opening the National Assembly.  Riots and strikes broke out in East Pakistan, and the area unilaterally proclaimed itself an independent state. West Pakistan responded by sending troops to quell the rebellion.  

At a meeting of the military top brass, General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan set the tone of the campaign. "Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands," he told the group. On March 25th, 1971, the Pakistan army, with the support of political and religious militias, unleashed Operation Searchlight  on East Pakistan. Bengali members of the military services were disarmed and killed and students and the intelligentsia systematically liquidated.  Able-bodied Bengali males were  picked up and gunned down. In the six months that followed General Yahay Khan's goal was reached, at least according to Bangladeshi authorities who say that during the one-sided war three million people were killed.  (The Pakistanis contest that number, placing the figure at closer to 200,000.)

In December of 2002 the George Washington University's National Security Archive published a collection of declassified documents between US embassy officials, United States Information Service centers in Dhaka and India, and officials in Washington DC.  Those documents reveal that US officials working in diplomatic institutions within Bangladesh called the events they were witnessing or had knowledge of  selective genocide  The Blood Telegram   In spite of this, President Nixon refused to interfere with what he said was an internal Pakistan matter.  
This was not a war of soldiers fighting soldiers or armed rebels.  This was a war against an unarmed civilian population.  Students, professionals and intellectuals were the first victims. Defenseless women were tortured, raped and killed.  The exact number is subject to debate, but Bangladeshi sources site a figure of 200,000 women raped, giving birth to thousands of war babies. The Pakistan Army kept Bengali women as sex-slaves inside the Dhaka Cantonment. Many of the girls were captured from Dhaka University and private homes.  As I learned when I was there, even though they were victims, the raped young women who managed to survive became outcasts from society and often their own families.  In the Muslim culture, they were considered unclean, and therefore unsuitable for marriage.  And 40 years ago marriage was essential for a woman's survival in Bangladesh.
According to a Time magazine report  August 2nd, 1971, "The Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Pakistani military's hatred." But all the violence against the Bengalis were not committed by the West Pakistan military.  There was extensive  sectarian violence perpetrated against Bengali minorities by Hindu-hating Bengali nationalists. One of the saddest stories I came across during my trip bore witness to this.

I was on my way to Tongee with Dr. Coddington when we passed an obviously once grand building in ruins.   I asked Dr. Coddington what it was. He said it has been the home and hospital of a much beloved Hindu doctor who used to serve the area—Hindus and Muslims alike.  One night, during the madness of the war, Dr. Coddington said, a gang of Bengali Muslims attacked the building and brutally slaughtered the doctor, his family, and the hospital staff.  The irony  of this tragedy is that in feeding their irrational hatred of Hindus, these men deprived themselves and all the other people in the area of a  caring, compassionate doctor and the only medical care available in the region.  

But back to the war.  West Pakistan  failed to gather international support, and found itself fighting a lone battle with only the United States providing any external help. (The United States and China were the only two Countries that supported West Pakistan.) Still, with little substantive resistance from the defenseless population of East Pakistan it looked as though nothing could stop the aggressors.

As the war continued, eight to ten million Bengali refugees fled  to India. Alarmed by the massive influx of refugees, India decided to enter the war, but it was not until the Pakistani Air Force made a preemptive attack on Indian forces that Indian troops finally crossed the border.  Suddenly the Pakistani army found itself being attacked from the east by the Indian army, the north and east by guerrillas, and from all quarters by East Pakistan's civilian population. Once India entered the war, it was all over in eleven days, and the world's 139th country officially came into existence. It is interesting to note that the only objection came from China...and that while the United States finally recognized the new nation, it was the last country to do so.

Forty years later the scars of that war are still raw.  A few years ago another mass grave was found, rekindling the anger in Bangladesh towards Pakistan and the people in their own country who have failed to  pursue justice for the millions killed and maimed in what most of the world, albeit many with reluctance, admit was a genocide.  

As for our country, forty years ago, fully aware of the genocide that was taking place, our government chose to make an expedient rather than moral decision on what should be done.  It was not the first time, nor the last time we acted in such a manner, but given our complex relation with Pakistan over the past forty years, I wonder if those responsible for that decision would still feel it was justified. My brother says that I am not a realist.  The world just doesn't work the way I would like it to.  He  is probably right.  But I keep hoping that some day this country which I dearly love will grow up, and become the kind of  nation most of its citizens think it is.      
 Next time: Saying Good bye to Bangladesh.

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