TIME April 12, 1971; pp. 23-24
THERE is Do doubt,” said a foreign diplomat in East Pakistan last week,” ‘that the word massacre applies to the situation.” Said another Western official: “It’s a veritable bloodbath. The troops have been utterly merciless.”
As Round 1 of Pakistan’s bitter civil war ended last week, the winner-predictably-was the tough West Pakistan army, which has a powerful force of 80,000 Punjabi and Pathan soldiers on duty in rebellious East Pakistan. Reports coming out of the East (via diplomats, frightened refugees and clandestine broadcasts) varied wildly. Estimates of the total dead ran as high as 300,000. A figure of 10,000 to 15,000 is accepted by several Western governments, but no one can be sure of anything except that untold thousands perished.
Mass Graves. Opposed only by bands of Bengali peasants armed with stones and bamboo sticks, tanks rolled through Dacca, the East’s capital, blowing houses to bits. At the university, soldiers slaughtered students inside the British Council building. ..It was like Genghis Khan,’ said a shocked Western official who witnessed the scene. Near Dacca’s marketplace, Urdu-speaking government soldiers ordered Bengali-speaking towns-people to surrender, then gunned them down when they failed to comply. Bodies lay in mass graves at the university, in the Old City, and near the municipal dump.
During rebel attacks on Chittagong, Pakistani naval vessels shelled the port, setting fire to harbor installations. At Jessore, in the southwest, angry Bengalis were said to have hacked alleged government spies to death with staves and spears. Journalists at the Petrapole checkpoint on the Indian border found five bodies and a human head near the frontier post-the remains, apparently, of a group of West Pakistanis who had tried to escape. At week’s end there were reports that East Bengali rebels were maintaining a precarious hold on Jessore and perhaps Chittagong. But in Dacca and most other cities, the rebels had been routed.
The army’s quick victory, however, did not mean that the 58 million West Pakistanis could go on dominating the 78 million Bengalis of East Pakistan indefinitely. The second round may well be a different story. It could be fought out In paddies and jungles and along river banks for months or even years.
Completing the Rupture. The civil war erupted as a result of a victory that was too sweeping, a mandate that was too strong. Four months ago, Pakistan’s President, Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, held elections for a constituent assembly to end twelve years of martial law. Though he is a Pathan from the West. Yahya was determined to be fair to the Bengalis. He assigned a majority of the assembly seats to Pakistan’s more populous eastern wing, which has been separated from the West by 1,000 miles of India since the partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947.
To everyone’s astonishment, Sheik Mujibur Rahmari and his Awami League won 167 of the 169 seats assigned to the Bengalis, a clear majority in the 313 seat assembly. “I do not want to break Pakistan,” Mujib told TIME shortly before the final rupture two weeks ago. “But we Bengalis must have autonomy so that we are not treated like a colony of the western wing.” Yahya resisted Mujib’s demands for regional autonomy and a withdrawal of troops. Mujib responded by insisting on an immediate end to martial law. Soon the break was complete. Reportedly seized in his Dacca residence at the outset of fighting and flown to West Pakistan, Mujib will probably be tried for treason.
All Normal. West Pakistanis have been told little about the fighting. ALL NORMAL IN EAST was a typical newspaper headline in Karachi last week. Still, they seemed solidly behind Yahya’s tough stand. “We can’t have our flag defiled, our soldiers spat at, our nationality brought into disrepute,” said Pakistan Government Information Chief Khalid Ali. “Mujib in the end had no love of Pakistan.”
Aware that many foreigners were sympathetic to the Bengalis, Yahya permitted the official news agency to indulge in an orgy of paranoia. “Western press reports prove that a deep conspiracy has been hatched by the Indo-Israeli axis against the integrity of Pakistan and the Islamic basis of her ideology,” said the agency.
The Indian government did in fact contribute to the Pakistanis’ anxiety. Although New Delhi denied that India was supplying arms to the Bengali rebels, the Indian Parliament passed a unanimous resolution denouncing the “carnage” in East Pakistan. India’s enthusiasm is hardly surprising, in view of its longstanding feud with the West Pakistanis and the brief but bloody war of 1965 over Kashmir. But Western governments urged New Delhi to restrain itself so as not to provoke West pakistan into making an impulsive response.
Hit and Run. For the time being, West Pakistan’s army can probably maintain its hold on Dacca and the other cities of the East. But it can hardly hope to control 55,000 sq. mi. of countryside and a hostile population indefinitely. The kind of Bengali terrorism that forced the British raj to move the capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 may well manifest itself again in a growing war of hit-and-run sabotage and arson. In modern times, the East Bengalis have been best known to foreigners as mild-mannered peasants, clerks and shopkeepers, perhaps the least martial people on the subcontinent. But in their support of Bangla Desh (Bengal State), they have displayed a fighting spirit that could spell lasting turmoil for those who want Pakistan to remain united. As Mujib often asked his followers rhetorically: “Can bullets suppress 78 million people?”