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Dhaka Tribune

Intellectual killings in 1971: A genocide in the works before the war even began

Just two days before their surrender, the Pakistan military launched a killing spree to annihilate the Bengali intellectuals

Update : 06 Jan 2022, 01:56 PM

On December 14 every year, Bangladesh solemnly remembers the intellectuals who were slaughtered by the Pakistan Army and their collaborators on the day in 1971. 

Although a large chunk of the killings took place on that single day, this should not distract from the fact that the occupation army had attempted to systematically wipe out intellectuals from the very beginning of the Liberation War, researchers have said.

According to government data, 1,109 intellectuals were martyred throughout the course of the Liberation War. Banglapedia estimated that 1,111 intellectuals were killed, including 991 academics, 49 physicians, 42 lawyers, 13 journalists, nine litterateurs and artists, five engineers, and two others.

Many war researchers fear the actual number of intellectuals martyred may be much higher, as it is unclear how many teachers or progressive thinkers were killed by the Pakistan forces in remote areas of the country. It becomes more difficult to determine the accurate number of deaths with every passing day. 

They estimate that as much as one third of all the intellectuals killed were murdered by the Pakistan Army and its collaborators in the course of Operation Searchlight on December 14 and the preceding weeks in 1971.

On December 18, two days after the war was won, famous filmmaker Zahir Raihan was made convener of a 17-member committee tasked with investigating the massacre of intellectuals during Operation Searchlight.

One of the members of the committee, Barrister Amirul Islam, told Dhaka Tribune they made a primary list with the names of 20,000 of the intellectuals killed by the Pakistanis during the Liberation War. However, the list never saw the light of day as Zahir Raihan was killed during the liberation of Mirpur from Bihari control on January 30, 1972.

Convener of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee (WCFFC) Dr MA Hasan believes the killing of intellectuals by the Pakistan army throughout the Liberation War clearly demonstrates that they were not random killings, but a systematic genocide that had been planned before the war even began.

“During our research in the late 2000s, late Brig MR Majumder, who was the martial law administrator in Chittagong just before Operation Searchlight started in 1971, said that he had intercepted a note sent By Yahya Khan that read ‘we cannot allow these black bastards to rule over us’,” the researcher said.

The note was sent in February 1971.

“They attacked Dr GC Deb (Gobindachandra Deb) in the very first hour of March 26, 1971, at his residence. His son-in-law, Mohammad Ali, who was the husband of his adopted daughter and littérateur Rokeya Sultana, was also killed on that night,” Dr Hasan further said.

Rokeya Sultana survived as one of the young officers thought she was a Muslim and asked her to hide in the backyard, added the researcher, who is also Rokeya Sultana’s nephew. 

“The attack on Dr Deb proves that the Pakistan Army targeted Hindu academics first. That is the reason Rajshahi University Assistant Professor of Sanskriti Sukharanjan Samaddar was killed on April 14,” he said.

Dr Hasan also said attacks on Dr Fazle Rabbi, Azharul Haque, and Dr ABM Hamayun Kabir were also evidence that the killings were targeted. “Dr Fazle Rabbi was providing funds and medical assistance to freedom fighters conducting guerrilla operations in Dhaka. They first picked up his partners, Azharul Haque and Dr ABM Hamayun Kabir.”

Dr Rabbi was killed on December 15.

The biggest example of genocidal acts by the Pakistan forces was from December 12-14, when they began killing all intellectuals regardless of religion, Dr Hasan added, mentioning that most of the killing grounds had not been preserved.

Preserving the killing grounds is important as they can serve as proof in order to get the international community to recognize the genocide, and they also help pass on history to future generations.

According to the committee formed to investigate the killings of intellectuals, there are more than 5,000 killing grounds in the country, of which 2,000 can be memorialized. The others have been taken over by construction.

Prof Muntassir Mamun, chairperson of the Genocide and Torture Archive and Museum Trust, in 2019 told Dhaka Tribune the total number of killing grounds in the country could be three times higher than those that have been identified. 

When asked if any initiative to preserve the killing grounds had been taken by the government, former Law Minister Shafique Ahmed, under whose tenure the war crimes trials gained pace, said he did not think any such initiative had been taken.

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