Operation Searchlight: Initiation of the 1971 Genocide

We owe our independence to these Genocide victims, freedom fighters, and supporters around the globe. The Genocide victims gave their today for our better tomorrow.

by Pradip Kumar Dutta

The Bangladesh National Assembly has declared March 25th as National Genocide Remembrance Day. Rightly so, albeit late, we could, as a nation, start officially paying tribute to the victims of the 1971 Genocide. It is for their supreme sacrifice and the valiant fighting spirit of our indomitable freedom fighters, assisted by India and the Socialist bloc countries, that we proudly stand as an independent nation on the world map. By now, we are faring much better than our former partners in most socioeconomic and political indicators of a modern state.

Pakistani Soldier checking genitals of a Bengali civilian

Since the passage of the bill by our lawmakers, we have been observing the day. But let us ask ourselves, are we doing enough? Some programs are formally chalked out in some of our government offices. Some foreign missions also devote some time to the issue in their Independence Day programs. Besides, a clarion call is made to citizens to observe a complete blackout for one minute throughout the country at 9 pm on March 25th to symbolize the dark events of the Genocide, starting with Operation Searchlight at approximately that hour. Symbolic lighting of candles on that evening is also observed to show respect and remembrance for the victims of the Genocide. I don’t want to hurt the sentiments of anyone, but I would like to mention that whatever we have done so far is utterly insufficient.

We owe our independence to these Genocide victims, freedom fighters, and supporters around the globe. The Genocide victims gave their today for our better tomorrow.

Let’s first discuss who the Genocide victims were. It is often mentioned that our three million martyrs are the genocide victims. In Bangla, there is a tendency to mix up mass killing (gono hatya) with Genocide. Our three million martyrs are, of course, the prime victims of the 1971 Genocide. But there are more. Lest we forget, let me mention them. There were between two to four hundred thousand of our mothers and sisters who were mercilessly physically violated during the nine months of Genocide. Some enemy generals were on record boasting about changing our race by producing true Pakistanis in our ladies’ wombs. Ten million Bangalees were forced to leave all their properties and belongings behind, to be looted, burnt, and destroyed, seeking asylum in nearby India. There, they had to survive in inhuman and unhygienic conditions in shanties under utter duress. Of course, the Indian government, led by the great leader Ms. Indira Gandhi, supported our Muktibahini (freedom fighters) and refugees to the best of her capacity. Still, the suffering was huge. International NGOs and the Bangladeshi diaspora abroad also rose to the occasion, and the Socialist world accorded moral support. On the other hand, the leaders of the Western world and the newly emerging communist power China supported the Pak military goons. The UN too could not act to stop the Genocide. Cholera, other infectious diseases, exhaustion, malnutrition, hunger, death during improper childbirth without medical support have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the camps and among the refugees in transit. All the miseries described above and the resultant deaths come under Genocide. In fact, the 1948 UN Genocide Convention has defined Genocide and fixed it as a criminal offense. Genocide is defined in the convention as an intent or steps taken to destroy in part or whole a group of people. The group may be national, racial, religious, or ethnic. The Convention was passed unanimously in the UN General Assembly, and it came into effect in 1951 after 20 plus countries ratified it in their own parliaments. By now, close to 150 countries have done so. Incidentally, both Bangladesh and Pakistan are signatories to the Convention. So, Pakistan is bound to abide by the provisions of the Convention.

To underscore our self-esteem, to achieve our national right, and to honor our Genocide victims, we must achieve international recognition of the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide. After the criminal killing of Bangabandhu, the efforts to this end slackened. Fortunately, in recent years, civil society organizations, pro-liberation war forces, Bangladeshi Diaspora organizations, and the Government have again brought the demand to light. I would not say that the efforts put in are extreme; still, whatever has been done so far has started bringing results. Extraordinary efforts by some young and enthusiastic genocide scholars and activists have worked miracles. Seniors too supported them, and so far, we have succeeded in getting recognition of the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide perpetrated by Pakistan from four renowned international organizations working worldwide on the subject. They are the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention, Genocide Watch, the International Coalition for Sites of Conscience, and, most importantly, the International Association of Genocide Scholars. We also raised the issue with UNHRC through our Diaspora-friendly organization BASUG of The Netherlands. Conferences and seminars are being held regularly at home and abroad under the auspices of our Diaspora organizations, civil society organizations, the government, and even some foreign NGOs working on human rights. During the current ICJ proceedings of the Palestinian genocide case brought forward by South Africa, the Bangladesh Genocide has been cited as an example.

Now, in our opinion, all efforts by different organizations should be compiled and coordinated by the Bangladesh Government, and it should work out a definite and resolute line of action as to how to proceed to get the required recognition from the UN, different other international bodies, and, most importantly, different governments. I have encountered the question of what the Recognition will give after such a long time. Well, recognition of Genocides does not come easily. Armenians had to fight for more than a hundred years to achieve the recognition of the Ottoman genocide against them. That too partially yet. Many genocides have gone into oblivion without ever being recognized or talked about. Expeditions of Chengiz Khan were genocides. Holodomor in Ukraine was a genocide. There were genocides in Indonesia, Timor, Biafra, and Katanga. Nobody talks about them anymore. They are forgotten genocides. But there are success stories as well. Rwandan, Cambodian, Bosnian genocides could draw international attention pretty quickly, and actions were taken by the world bodies. The case on Rohingya genocide and Palestine genocide is being heard by ICJ. We cannot afford to let the 1971 Bangladesh Genocide be forgotten. We have a lot of unsettled business with Pakistan.

Let me give a brief on what we will gain by achieving international recognition of the 1971 genocide. 1) Pakistan’s leadership will be under pressure to offer an unconditional apology for the Genocide. This will be the first victory. It will bring some solace to the Genocide victims and their families. They will feel that their sacrifice had not gone in vain. It will bring back dignity to them as Genocide victims. 2) As a signatory to the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, Pakistan will be bound to bring the perpetrators to justice. It may very well start with the surviving members of the accused list of 195 that Bangladesh was prepared to try, but Pakistan took the responsibility under the tripartite Delhi agreement. That will again satisfy the Bangladesh government, Genocide victims, and

their families of justice received. 3) Reparations to genocide victims will be on the agenda. 4) Pakistan will have to take back its citizens who are still living in Bangladesh and willing to go back to Pakistan. 5) Bangladesh will be in a position to negotiate its due share of the national exchequer as of 1971.

Both the people of Bangladesh and Pakistan require closure to this long-standing issue. Once it is resolved, we can move forward together for development. Unless the issue is taken up in all seriousness and resolved once and for all, we cannot be at rest. Our martyrs will never forgive us. Bangladeshi civil society organizations imbued with the spirit of the 1971 War of Liberation, all freedom-loving progressive citizens, Bangladeshi diaspora organizations, and the Government of Bangladesh should act in unison and be firm on the issue of international recognition of the 1971 Genocide.

Our Honorable Minister of Foreign Affairs has very recently announced that a special cell will be opened in his Ministry to coordinate the issue. In fact, firm resolve from the side of the government is a must to pursue the issue, and it is the government that will have to raise the issue in the international forum. We all should remain rock-solid behind the Government. Together, we shall have to reach the goal to make the Genocide Remembrance Day meaningful and thus show proper respect to our Genocide victims.

The writer is a Masters in Engineering. He writes regularly in Bangladesh newspapers on history, heritage, travelling, human rights and environmental issues.