The Horrifying & Systematic Rape of Bangladeshis in 1971

Jayantha Somasundaram, from two-part series in The Island, 22 & 29  December 2021, entitled “Victory in the East”

“I have given you independence, now go and preserve it.”  Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

In the aftermath of the 1857 Indian Mutiny, when over 50 percent of the 130,000 Indian Sepoys joined the uprising against the British East India Company, the theory of ‘martial races’ was developed by Lord Roberts of Kandahar, Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army 1885-1893. Thereafter it was believed that the best recruits would be drawn from British India’s north-west. “The Punjabi Muslims headed the list, followed by the Sikhs, the Gurkhas, the Rajputs and others claiming Kshatriya ancestry,” claims G.S. Bhargava in Their Finest Hour, a record of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War. “Brahmins and Bengalis, including Muslims were out. In the south, while Tamils were tolerated, the Telugus, the Coogis and the Moplahs were not encouraged to join the army.”

This history is important, not only to understand the composition of the Indian and Pakistani armed forces, even after 1947, but to comprehend the racialised prism through which military recruitment was perused as well as the caste-based preconceptions through which military capability was understood. Therefore the Pakistani armed forces, staffed mainly by Punjabi Muslims, was seen as inherently superior, compared to the Bengali Mukti Bahini.







Commanding Officer of Pakistan Army forces in East Pakistan, Lt. Gen A. A. K. Niazi, signing the instrument of surrender on December 16, 1971 in the presence of Lt. Gen. Arora

When Bangladesh seceded, only a single division of the Pakistan Army was stationed in East Bengal, but by year end there were three. The Army’s attempts to quell the independence struggle in the east ultimately led to 10 million Bengalis fleeing to India. Both in rural Bangladesh and in their refugee camps across the Indian border, the Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) took shape. It was trained, armed and supported by India. By the time the Indian Army entered Bangladesh on 4th December 1971, the Mukti Bahini were already 50,000 strong.

The Pakistan Army was mainly made up of recruits from West Pakistan because of a mindset going back to British colonial times which held that the “Bengalis…had not been considered one of the ‘martial races,’” as explained by Peter Tsouras in Changing Orders: The Evolution of the World’s Armies, 1945 to the Present.

Despite the intensity of the Civil War in Bangladesh and the impossible burden of ten million refugees, New Delhi bided its time, waiting for the onset of winter. Then they could transfer four out of the ten Mountain Divisions from the Himalayas to the Bangladesh front, confident that its snowbound passes would preclude any Chinese intervention in support of Pakistan across the Himalayas. These redeployed units took their positions alongside four fresh Indian Divisions, and together they confronted four Pakistani Divisions. The Pakistanis moreover, were already tied down in a debilitating guerrilla war at the hands of the Mukti Bahini while simultaneously attempting to defend the long East Pakistan border which was totally surrounded by Indian territory.

In April 1971 when the Indian Cabinet had discussed the prospect of war over the instability in East Bengal, Chief of Army Staff General Sam Manekshaw reported that the Army was not ready and needed time to ensure victory in a conflict with Pakistan. “In December 1971 (when)… India’s Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, asked her Army Chief, Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, if he was ready for the fight. He replied with the gallantry, flirtatiousness and sheer cheek for which he was famous: ‘I am always ready, sweetie.’ (He said he could not bring himself to call Mrs Gandhi “Madame”, because it reminded him of a bawdy-house.)” (The Economist  5th July 2008)

Gen Manekshaw’s strategy was to have II Corp under Lt. Gen. T.N. Raina attack Bangladesh from the west while Lt. Gen. Sagat Singh’s IV Corp would invade from the east and Lt. Gen. Mohan Thapan XXXIII Corp was to enter from the north. Each Indian Army Corp contained three to four divisions. The Eastern Command was in the hands of Lt. Gen. Jagjit Singh Aurora and his Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Jack Farj Rafael Jacob. The Indian Army was supported by three brigades of regular Mukti Bahini.

An interesting footnote to the British Indian Army’s theory of martial races and an example of the secular pluralism of then India, is the fact that Manekshaw was a Parsi and Jacob a Baghdadi Jew.

The 1971 Indo-Pakistan War began on 3rd December, when the Pakistan Air Force, operating from West Pakistan, in a pre-emptive strike, attacked Indian airfields in its north-west, adjacent to Bangladesh. But these attacks were ineffective and within a matter of hours the Indian Air Force (IAF) was able to establish air superiority over Bangladesh which would become the main theatre of conflict in the coming fortnight.

The strategy of the Pakistan Army (PA) was to hold a set of key choke points like river crossings but being too thinly spread, they were repeatedly outflanked by the advancing Indian Army and Mukti Bahini which bypassed them and secured the Pakistani’s defensive points before they could fall back to them. The Indians used heliborne troops and paratroopers to leapfrog over Pakistani lines. The IAF’s control of the air denied the retreating PA their avenue of relief and escape. Consequently Pakistani morale plummeted. Peter Tsouras explains that “greatly out-numbered by the Indians, beset by guerrillas and despised by the civilian population, the Pakistan garrison attempted to defend far too much of the country and was spread too thinly.”

On the West Pakistan-Indian frontier the order of battle was 13 Indian Army Divisions facing 12 Pakistan Army Divisions, giving the illusion of parity. But in fact India had a 3:2 advantage in personnel and a 2:1 superiority in armour capability. There was, however, heavy fighting in the west where initially the PA made gains in Punjab and Kashmir. While the Indians were able to limit and contain the Pakistani advance they also attacked further south in the Sind capturing 3,000 square miles of Pakistani territory.

During British times, it was believed that South Asian troops were incapable of employing armour effectively. During World War II this led then Lt Gen Bernard Montgomery, commanding the British Eighth Army battling Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, to relegate the 1st Indian Armoured Division to Palestine, since he was reluctant to commit them on the battlefields of North Africa.

A week into the war, though holding a heavy concentration of troops along the southern border of Jammu and Kashmir, the Pakistanis were quiet on that front. So, in an effort to draw them out and engage them, on 15th December, the 47th Indian Infantry Brigade launched an offensive across the Basantar River which divided the two countries. This was in order to establish bridgeheads at Jarpal and also at Ghazipur which was sheltered by a forest; all this with the objective of launching an assault on Zafarwal.

An Indian armoured unit of the 17th Horse with its British Centurion Tanks had to break the resistance at Ghazipur and overnight, crossed a broad defensive minefield. At daybreak the Pakistani defenders laid a thick smokescreen under cover of which they positioned two squadrons of 31 Cavalry’s M48 Patton tanks and the 13 Lancers Armoured Regiment. The result was the biggest tank battle in the history of the Indo-Pakistan Wars which left 48 Pattons destroyed. Montgomery’s presumption had been disproved!

As the Pakistan Army rolled back, in a desperate reaction, US President Richard Nixon, on the advice of Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor ordered the US Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 74 in the Pacific, led by the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, to enter the Bay of Bengal.

Commanding Officer of Pakistan Army forces in East Pakistan, Lt. Gen A. A. K. Niazi, signing the instrument of surrender on December 16, 1971 in the presence of Lt. Gen. Arora

On 16th December Dacca was captured and the 93,000 strong Pakistan Army in Bangladesh surrendered, the largest military surrender post-World War II. The following year the Simla Agreement entered into by New Delhi and Islamabad provided for both the return of Pakistani prisoners of war and Islamabad’s recognition of Bangladesh. The US, Pakistan’s key military ally, was one of the last to recognise Bangladesh. While Islamabad’s other ally China, vetoed Bangladesh’s admission to the UNO.

The Rape of Bengal

“No people have had to pay as high a price in human life and suffering as the people of Bangladesh,” lamented Mujib in an interview in London soon after his release in early January 1972. In an attempt to heal the wounds of the brutal Civil War he proclaimed that Bengali women raped by Pakistani soldiers were heroines of the war of independence. His statement appeared in The New York Post which explained that “in traditional Bengali village society where women lead cloistered lives, rape victims often are ostracised.”

Mujibur Rahman

Soon after Indian troops, along with the Mukti Bahini, had liberated Jessore, Joseph Fried of The New York Daily News reported, “A stream of victims and eyewitnesses tell how truckloads of Pakistani soldiers and their hireling Razakars swooped down on villages in the night, rounding up women by force. Some were raped on the spot. Others were carried off to military compounds. Some women were still there when Indian troops battled their way into Pakistani strongholds. Weeping survivors of villages razed because they were suspected of siding with the Bahini freedom fighters, told of how wives were raped before the eyes of their bound husbands who were then put to death.”

Since journalists had been barred from Bangladesh during the Civil War, few reports on the atrocities committed against Bengali women leaked out. But by January 1972 volunteers began assessing the scale of the tragedy. The Asian Relief Secretary from the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Rev Kentaro Buma on his return from Bangladesh reported that more than 200,000 Bengali women had been raped, some estimated that the toll was nearer 400,000.

Susan Brownmiller in her 1975 seminal work on men, women and rape, titled Against Our Will, claimed that “girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy five had been assaulted…Eighty percent of the raped women were Moslems, reflecting the population of Bangladesh, but Hindu and Christian women were not exempt….Despite a shared religious heritage Punjabi Pakistanis are taller, lighter-skinned and ‘rawboned’ compared to dark small boned Bengalis. This racial difference would provide added anguish to those Bengali women who found themselves pregnant after their physical ordeal.”

Berengera d’Aragon, a Photo Reporter for Black Star, explained that as the Pakistani regulars swept through the tiny hamlets of rural Bangladesh, a high incidence of forcible rape took place. The Razakars (pro-Pakistan Bengalis and Urdu-speakers in Bangladesh) who acted as mercenaries were even worse offenders. The Bahini also committed rape in the process of ‘liberation.’

Khadiga and Kamala

d’Aragon tells the story of 13-year-old Khadiga walking home from school when she, along with four others, was kidnapped by a gang of Pakistani soldiers and put in a military brothel at Mohammadpur, where she was held captive for six months till the end of the war. She was abused by two soldiers a day, others had to service seven to ten daily. “At first Khadiga said the soldiers tied a gag around her mouth to keep her from screaming. As months wore on and the captives’ spirit was broken, the soldiers devised a simple quid pro quo. They withheld the daily ration of food till the girls submitted to the full quota.”

d’ Aragon also wrote about Kamala Begum, a wealthy widow living in a Dacca suburb, who had packed her two daughters to the countryside for safety, confident that she was ‘too old’ to attract attention. But she was assaulted by two Pakistani soldiers and a Razakar in her home.

In the New York Times Magazine Aubrey Menen recorded the case of a 17-year-old Hindu bride living with her parents. “At ten one night a truckload of six soldiers burst into their home. Two went into the room that had been built for the bridal couple. The others stayed behind, one of them covering the family with his gun. They heard a barked order, the groom’s voice protesting, then silence until the bride screamed. In a few minutes one of the soldiers exited the room, his uniform in disarray, grinned to his companions and another soldier took his place.

“And so on until all six had raped the belle of the village. Then they hurriedly left. The father found his daughter lying on the string cot unconscious and bleeding. Her husband was crouched on the floor, kneeling over his vomit.” Susan Brownmiller wrote that “the most serious crises was pregnancy…25,000 is the generally accepted figure…the bastard children with their fair Punjabi features would never be accepted into Bengali culture – and neither would their mothers.”


Unwanted babies

The stigma of rape in traditional Muslim societies and the appalling consequences were grotesquely displayed in Bangladesh where Mujibur’s plea on behalf of the victims, that they be reintegrated into society by their husbands and families taking them back, and by marriage for those who were single, to suitors from among Bahini combatants, fell on deaf ears.

Susan Brownmiller says that sadly “the marry-them-off campaign never got off the ground. Few prospective bridegrooms stepped forward, and those who did made it plain that they expected the government as the father figure to present them with handsome dowries. ‘The demands of the men have ranged from the latest model of Japanese car, painted red, to the publication of unpublished poems,’ a government official bitterly complained.”

Robert Trumbull in the New York Times quoted an Australian physician in Bangladesh who said that “almost every rape victim had a venereal disease.” The other horrific consequence was mass abortion. Planned Parenthood offered terminations in Dacca and seventeen provincial centres. Indigenous terminations were widespread. Dr. Geoffrey Davis of the International Abortion Research and Training Centre also reported that countless incidents of suicide and infanticide were recorded.

Overcoming their conservative aversion to abortion, Bengali women volunteers set up indigenous facilities on their own. Tahera Shafiq who headed the work was adamant. Rape was the wrong word, she said torture better described the experience of Bengali women.

Meanwhile Mother Theresa’s shelters opened their doors in Dacca to accept babies for adoption.


Was the rape of women in the East by Pakistan’s own army something inevitable, ad hoc, an unavoidable consequence of war? The renowned Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand asserts that the rapes were so systematic and pervasive that they had to be the result of conscious policy, a “planned attempt by the West Pakistanis to create a new race or at least to dilute Bengali nationalism.”

The Island 23 December 2021

The Island 24 December 2021


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