The Agony of East Pakistan

Readers Digest, November 1971; pp.66-71

David Reed and John E. Frazer

Invaded and devastated by the army of its own government, this tortured land cries out for relief and for justice. If both are not granted still greater horrors may lie ahead

They come out of East Pakistan in endless columns, along trails stained with tears and blood. They are dressed in rags, robbed of everything they owned, the women raped, the children gaunt from hunger. They have been on the move for up to a month, hiding from Pakistan soldiers by day, slogging through flooded rice paddies at night. A vengeful army pursues them to the very border of India. Rifle and machine-gun fire crackles. The bedraggled columns scatter for cover. But soon they are moving again, streaming into India.

Sobbing violently, a middle-aged man says, “The soldiers took my two nephews. They kicked them with their boots, ducked them in an open sewer, then machine-gunned them. After that they took 50 to 60 young men of our village into a field and killed them with bayonets.” A woman who was shot in the leg clutches her daughter and says, “We were just about to cross the border when they started shooting at us. I don’t know what happened to my husband.” A ten-year-old boy, who lost an eye when an army patrol threw a grenade at him as he was tending cattle in a field, says, “Can anyone tell me what happened to my parents?”

Since late last March, when the Pakistan army launched this genocidal attack on the defenseless population of East Pakistan, more than eight million people have been driven from their native land. Millions more will surely follow. Moreover, the refugees have put grave strains on India, pushing India and West Pakistan to the brink of a war that could involve the two arch rivals of the communist world, the Soviet Union and China.

Return to Normal? While the horrors of the refugees are bad enough, something even more ghastIy is going on inside East Pakistan, also known as East Bengal. That land, scene of a devastating cyclone that claimed half a million lives last year,* is now being systematically ravaged by the Pakistan army. Diplomats and other foreigners in Dacca, East Pakistan’s capital, estimate that between a quarter- and a half-million civilians have been slaughtered since March. An American missionary in Dacca grits his teeth and says, “It’s murder-mass murder.”

The military junta that rules Pakistan has tried to cover up the atrocities, and maintains that East Bengal has largely returned to normal. But one of the authors of this article, who spent two weeks there last August, found evidence to the contrary on every hand. Touring three districts of East Bengal by car, he found not a single village or town that had not suffered at the hands of the troops. Many towns were half-empty, homes and shops looted’ and bummed, peopIe either dead, driven into exile or hiding in the countryside.

Perhaps a third of Dacca’s population is gone; its economy is crippled and its people are so terrified that no one ventures outdoors at night. Not far from Dacca, a missionary said, “The soldiers killed 249 people in our village. Fortunately for the wounded, high-powered bullets right through them, so the doctors didn’t have to probe.”

A farmer in a refugee camp along the Indian side of the border (?): “The headmaster of our school sitting on the veranda of his home, grading examination papers, when the soldiers dragged him out on the road and cut his throat.” Told (?) another refugee, “The soldiers found the doctor in our village to dig his own grave; then they shot him. The doctor in a border hospital pointed to a woman who had been raped repeatedly by the troops in the presence of her four children after the soldier had killed her husband.

Rule by Minority. The roo(?) disaster in Pakistan reach back (? Britain’s withdrawal from its Indian empire in 1947. Because India’s Muslim minority feared domination of the Hindu majority, a new IsIamic state called Pakistan was carved out of predominantly Muslim areas of Indian subcontinent. Muslims in the northwest became West Pakistan. Although East Bengal separated from West Pakistan by more than 1000 miles of Indian territory, it was included in the state, as East Pakistan, because people were mostly Muslims, there are profound differences between the two Pakistans. They have different languages. The people of the west, mostly Punjabis, are tall, light-skinned. Their land is (?) arid. East Pakistan, by contrast in tropical, peopled mostly by Bengalis, a small, dark-skinned people.

The Bengalis have long complained bitterly that the Punjabis in the west have treated them as colonial subjects. East Pakistan’s population before the massacres stood at 70 million, as compared with 58 million in the west, but the capital, Islamabad, is in West Pakistan. East Pakistan has accounted for 50 percent or more of Pakistan’s export earnings, chiefly from the production of jute, but the Bengalis claim that the west kept most of the money for its own development. West Pakistanis, moreover, took 80 percent of the jobs in the civil service, 90 percent of the posts in the armed forces.

Although efforts were made in the post-I947 years, democratic institutions never really took root in Pakistan, and in 1958 the military seized power .Then, last year, in a notable effort to return the country to civilian rule, Pakistan’s president, Gen. Yahya Khan, scheduled an election for December. Voters would select a national assembly that would frame a constitution and then assume the role of a parliament. That election set in motion the train of events leading to the present tragedy.

In the election campaign in East Pakistan, the Bengalis were electrified by the message of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, a 51-year-old political moderate who was leader of the Awami, or People’s League. Mujib, as he was popularly known, had spent nearly ten years as a political prisoner of the West Pakistan authorities. Now he campaigned on a program of autonomy for East Bengal which, he told cheering crowds, would shake off the hated domination of Islamabad. The central government could continue to control foreign affairs and defense for all Pakistan, but East Pakistan would govern itself internally and the bulk of its money as it saw fit.

Mujib’s People’s League won a landslide victory, capturing a clear majority in the 313-seat assembly. It not only would play the key role in the drafting of the constitution, but would form the next government for all of Pakistan. Elation swept East Pakistan. Neighboring India rejoiced, too. Mujib was known to be friendly to India. If he took over as Prime Minister of all Pakistan, relations with India would, it was hoped, improve.

“Bomber of Baluchistan.” But on March 1, Yahya, under mounting pressure from politicians in West Pakistan, postponed the opening of the national assembly, which had been set for two days later. The Bengalis, feeling that they were being robbed of their legitimate victory, exploded in riots and demonstrations. Mujib calmed his people, cautioned them against violence; and though he still held out for autonomy, something like a parallel government now existed. On March 23-Pakistan’s Independence Day-Mujib flew a new flag, the green, red and yellow banner of Bangla Desh (the Bengal nation) from his home. The West Pakistanis feared that the East was about to secede, and warned that no government could tolerate such a move.

At this point, a cold-eyed general named Tikka Khan arrived in Dacca to take command of West Pakistan troops stationed there. Tikka had won for himself the nick name “Bomber of Baluchistan” for having suppressed a tribal revolt in Baluchistan province by indiscriminate air and artillery strikes against civilians. Shortly after Tikka’s arrival, Yahya flew to Dacca for talks with Mujib. All the while, West Pakistan soldiers in civilian clothing were being flown into Dacca. On the afternoon of March 25, Yahya, having broken off the talks with Mujib, returned to West Pakistan. At II o’clock that evening, Tikka Khan was unleashed.

Suddenly, all of Dacca rocked with explosions. Troops opened fire with artillery on the city; tanks rumbled through the streets, gunning down anything that moved. The dormitories of the university, a stronghold of Bengali nationalism, were riddled by machine-gun fire. The invading soldiers went on a rampage in the old city, a particular political stronghold of Mujib, breaking down doors, dragging people into the street and shooting them. Shops were looted and burned. The barracks of the pro-Mujib Bengali police were gutted by tank cannon Troops burst into a telephone exchange and killed 40 persons on duty.

Special West Pakistan army squads had lists of people-professors, doctors, businessmen and other community leaders-whom they dragged off to army headquarters. Most have never been seen again. Although Mujib’s follower urged him to go into hiding, Mujib refused. Tikka’s troops took him off to imprisonment and an uncertain fate in West Pakistan.

With Dacca in ruins, Tikka sent his troops into the countryside, in each town the ghastly pattern was repeated. Anyone associated with the People’s League was killed. Young men, Muslim and Hindu alike, were rounded up and murdered. In almost every town, refugees report, women were raped.

The Bengalis Strike Back. Meanwhile, from Islamabad, Yahya whipped off decrees banning the People’s League and postponing the national assembly indefinitely. The new constitution, he declared, would be drafted not by the assembly, but rather by a committee that would handpicked by him. Autonomy for East Bengal was rejected; Islamabad’s rule would continue.

Yahya also imposed strict censor ship on the press: even today the people of West Pakistan have little idea of what is going on in the East. Tikka Khan was appointed governor of East Pakistan, which he ruled with the grace of a Nazi gauleiter in Occupied Europe until he was replaced in August.

Bangla Desh, however, has not been crushed. Surviving Bengali troops and police have formed the nucleus of the Mukti Bahini, or Liberation Army. There is no dearth of volunteers, and it is an open secret that India, which surrounds East Pakistan on three sides, is giving arms, training and encouragement to the Mukti Bahini guerrillas. Operating all along the 1350-mile border, these irregulars stab deeply into East Pakistan. Bombs explode nightly in the capital, and West Pakistan army and patrols are ambushed on country roads. The railway that links Chittagong, the main port, with Dacca has been severed.

Bangla Desh is paying a fearsome price for resistance. After each Mukti Bahini raid, the West Pakistan army, now bolstered to around 70,000 men, levels surrounding villages as “collective punishment.” And each retaliation sets off another column of refugees for India.

The Indian government is making every effort to care for these piteous people, but the influx is so staggering that new miseries await them there. For instance, in one of more than a thousand squalid refugee camps in India, 150,000 people live in straw hovels surrounded by mud and *****. There are few latrines, and the stench is such that people cover their faces with cloth. Because of the vast numbers, refugees have to wait in line for as long as ten hours for their food rations – ¾ pound of rice a day per adult, plus some lentils, vegetables when available, and a little salt and cooking oil.

The children suffer the most. Many are beginning to look like the starving children of Biafra, their ribs protruding, their stomachs distended. Almost all suffer from malnutrition or dysentery. Life-giving milk and other protein foods are available in some of the camps, but the crush is so great that many children never get any. A doctor at a border hospital says, “The children die so quickly that we don’t have time to treat them.”

Anger in India. India, itself one of the poorest and most overcrowded countries on earth, groans – under the burden. Although she has made some important gains in population control in the past six years, her population has now increased enormously. The United States and other foreign governments have responded generously with cash and food (America has given $40 million in food, $30.5 million in cash); yet the cost of supporting the Pakistanis may run to more than a billion dollars a year-nearly a seventh of the annual budget of India’s central government. India cannot give the refugees jobs, because millions of her own people are unemployed. Even the meager rations of the refugees, which cost 13 cents a day, are a point of friction: some 50 million Indians subsist on substantially less.

Many Indians angrily point out that they are being forced to pick up the bill for Pakistan’s atrocities against its own people. Some are urging that India take East Pakistan by military force so as to enable the refugees to return. India’s Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, so far has resisted these pressures-yet danger of war runs high. Such a war might well assume beyond-the-borders proportions. India has a new alliance with the Soviet Union; the Pakistan government has grown increasingly close to China.

Within East Bengal itself, a new horror looms: an acute threat of mass starvation, Even in normal times, the area must import part of its rice supply. Now it will be difficult, if not impossible, to move the rice from the small river ports to all of the outlying areas. In 1943, two to three million Bengalis died in a famine. There is every reason to fear it will be worse this time.

What can be done about this festering disaster ? Many Bengalis see a solution in independence won by guerrilla warfare. There is a chance of success, but also the certainty of much more bloodshed. It would be far better for the United States and other nations to bring pressure to bear on Islamabad to work out a political solution acceptable to the Bengalis and thus to defuse the present explosive situation and stave off a major war in the subcontinent. This done, the refugee columns would be set in motion once more-on a peaceful journey back to their homeland.

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