Separated by more than 1,000 miles, distinct cultures, economic disparities, and profound political differences, West Pakistan (Pakistan) and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) struggled to function as a single country following partition from India and independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Increasingly frustrated with what they viewed as West Pakistani privilege within the government and a lack of concern with the lives and livelihoods of East Pakistanis, an East Pakistan political party, the Awami League, called for autonomy. The Awami League won the 1970 parliamentary elections in East Pakistan by a wide margin, setting off a political crisis. In response, West Pakistan delayed convening the National Assembly, and while it held some talks with the Awami League, it then launched “Operation Searchlight,” a military offensive against East Pakistan’s political and other community leaders. Decrying the violence, Bangladesh declared its independence on March 26, 1971. The resulting war pitted the Pakistani national army, Rajakars (Bengali volunteers), and the Bihari community against Bengali forces consisting of the Mukti Bahini (eight infantry battalions formed by Bengali defectors from the East Bengal Regiment), and civilian insurgents trained and aided by India.
The overwhelming pattern of atrocities was that of Pakistani armed forces and their associated civilian groups (peace committees) and later paramilitary groups (Razakar, Al-Shams, Al-Badr) against civilians who were thought to be against Pakistan. The pattern of assaults included both large-scale, targeted killings and more generalized violence as part of counter-insurgency.
The initial invasion included Pakistani army attacks in the capitol, Dhaka. The university was among the sites of violence, where students, faculty and others were massacred. Other groups specifically targeted included Bengali military men who sided with the independence movement, the Hindu population, Awami League activists, students, intellectuals, professionals, businessmen, and other potential leaders. The Hindu population were also particularly vulnerable during the war, deemed by West Pakistanis as “Indian” and therefore traitorous.[i] Bengali independence fighters also targeted Biharis and West Pakistanis. However, with the advantage of overwhelming force, the Pakistani Army was able to dominate the strategic positions in the urban centers and key transport centers, but they struggled later to combat rural guerilla warfare.[ii] Due to a strike in early March 1971, many urban workers had returned to their villages by the time war began[iii]. Curlin, Chen and Hussain note that there were devastating disruptions to food distribution, and “consumption fell to a near starvation level.”[iv]
In addition to large-scale targeted actions, there were significant numbers of deaths when the Pakistani military attempted to “pacify” the population as the conflict continued. Collective punishment and overwhelming violence was directed at the civilian population in response to insurgent activities.[v] Rape is widely charged in many accounts of the conflict with estimates ranging from 200,000–400,000 victims[vi], but these numbers are challenged by other scholarship which suggests a range of several thousand.[vii] Towns were looted, razed and set aflame.
However, tensions within groups in East Pakistan also produced violence, particularly between Bengalis and Biharis. Biahris are described by Bose as, “Non-Bengali Muslims from the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who had migrated to East Pakistan (East Bengal) after the partition of India.”[viii] Violence was perpetrated by both groups against civilian population of the other side, and continued against Biharis following the end of the war.
Towards the end of the war, there was a final Pakistani attack on intellectuals on December 14, 1971, when the Al-Badr militia rounded up writers, professors, artists, doctors and other professionals in Dhaka, blindfolded and killed them.
Given the increased food scarcity and famine conditions, the brevity of the conflict likely saved countless lives. Curlin, Chen and Hussain demonstrate that during the war year, the death rate soared from 15 per 1000 to 21 per 1000, or 37% higher than a five-year average.[ix] They further note that the monthly death rate precisely matched the movement of the conflict.
Best estimate: up to 500,000 people killed. This is a very rough estimate.
A 1976 article by Curlin, Chen and Hussain[x] studies births and deaths in a population of approximately 120,000 in rural Bangladesh in the Matlab Bazar thana as maintained by the Cholera Research Laboratory, and then extrapolate to the wider population to arrive at their overall estimate of excess mortality resulting from the 1971 conflict. The authors clarify:
“Baseline trends of vital events for the years 1966-67 to 1970-71 are presented. Short-term fluctuations in births and deaths during the disturbances of 1971-72 and in the two subsequent years are analysed, and selected fertility and mortality rates are computed to document the differential impact of the conflict on the population.”[xi]
They argue that while “the impact of the war in Matlab Bazar, while not representative of the nation as a whole, illustrates and reflects in a qualitative sense the consequences of the civil war.” Applying their findings to the wider population, they postulate “an overall excess number of deaths of nearly 500,000.”[xii]
Given that the above figure captures a broad range of causes of death (not only killing) in an area that was generally “conflict-affected,” one could hypothesize that it might describe condition across the country that similarly “conflict-affected.” However, this method could not account for concentrated intentional killing, as was reported for specific subsets of the population and in relation to certain massacres. Other estimates are significantly higher. During the nine-month period of massacre, various sources claim that “at least 1.5 million,”[xiii] and others suggest that up to up to three million people were killed.[xiv] Further, an estimated 10 million fled to India as refugees.[xv] Additionally, an estimated 50,000 Bihari were killed by Bengalis.[xvi] However, we note that data on fatalities is quite poor. As Beachler notes: “With the exception of Chaudhuri, who used Bangladeshi newspaper accounts and government reports, none of the authors provided detailed evidence for the number of deaths they projected.”[xvii]
Further, there was substantial displacement. Seven to 10 million people fled to India, including approximately over half of the Bangladesh’s Hindu population, possibly 1 million of whom stayed when the war ended.[xviii]
A study of patterns of diahorreal deaths[xix] in Matlab upzaila of Chandpur distrinct in Bangladesh based on demographic surveys groups the year of concern for this study, 1971, within a five-year study. The authors note that, “during the war and famine period (1971-1975), the diarrhoel death rate was 200% higher than the preceding period of 1966 – 1970, while the death rates due to other causes changed only slightly.”[xx] However, they further note a discrepancy in deaths in 1971—which appear to affect all age groups. This pattern would be consistent with an overwhelming and more tightly controlled disruption that ends quickly when the cause disappears. Contrast this with a more normal pattern for famine death, as noted in their study for 1974, where mortality increase immediately for infants, but “manifested one year later for the other age groups.”[xxi]
By October, the war had reached a stalemate. At this point, India put an Indian general in charge of the joint command of freedom fighters and Indian troops, and expanded its military operations inside East Pakistan. West Pakistan responded by bombing a number of airfields in north-western India, after which point, India started full military intervention on December 3, 1971. On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani administration crumbled and the army was forced to surrender. West Pakistan was soundly defeated and Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign nation.
The primary cause of ending was the Indian intervention, which we coded as an international defeat of the perpetrators. We do code for the targeting of multiple victim groups, and include a non-state actor, the resistance movement, as a secondary perpetrator of systematic violence against civilians for the targeting of Biharis.
Akmam, Wardatul. 2002. “Atrocities against humanity during the liberation war in Bangladesh: A case of genocide,” Journal of Genocide Research, 4:4, 543-559.
Beachler, Donald. 2007. “The politics of genocide scholarship: the case of Bangladesh,” Patterns of Prejudice, 41:5, 467-492
Bose, Sarmila. 2005. “Anatomy of Violence: Analysis of Civil War in East Pakistan in 1971,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 40, No. 41 (Oct. 8-14, 2005), pp. 4463-4471.
Bose, Sarmila. 2007. “Losing the Victims: Problems of Using Women as Weapons in Recounting the Bangladesh War,” Economic and Political Weekly,Vol. 42, No. 38 (Sep. 22 – 28, 2007), pp. 3864-3871.
Chaudhury, K. (1972) Genocide in Bangladesh (New Delhi: Orient Longman).
Curlin, G. T., L. C. Chen, and S. B. Hussain. 1976. “Demographic crisis: The impact of the Bangladesh civil war (1971) on births and deaths in a rural area of Bangladesh.” Population Studies, 30: 87-105.
Jahan, Rounaq. “Genocide in Bangladesh” in 296 – 321. Century of Genocide ed. Samuel Totten and Williams S. Parsons (Third Edition) New York: Routledge, 2009.
Sen, Sumit. “Stateless Refugees and the Right to Return: The Bihari Refugees of South Asia Part 1.” International Journal of Refugee Law 11:4, 625 – 645.
Shaikh, Kashem ,Bogdan Wojtyniak, G. Mostafa and M.U. Khan, 1990. “Pattern of Diarrhoeal Deaths During 1966 – 1987 in a Demographic Surveillance Area in Rural Bangladesh,” Journal of Diarrhoel Diseases Research 8:4: 147 – 154.
[i] Sarmila Bose 2005, 4465.
[ii] Curlin, G. T., L. C. Chen, and S. B. Hussain 1976, 88.
[iii] Curlin, G. T., L. C. Chen, and S. B. Hussain 1976, 88.
[iv] Curlin, G. T., L. C. Chen, and S. B. Hussain 1976, 88.
[v] Bose 2007, 4467.
[vi] Chaudhury 1972
[vii] Bose 2007, 3870.
[viii] Bose 2005, 4463.
[ix] Curlin, Chen Hussain, 91.
[x] Curlin, G. T., L. C. Chen, and S. B. Hussain 1976.
[xi] Curlin, Chen and Hussain, 87.
[xii] Curlin, Chen and Hussain, 103.
[xiii] Beachler, 467.
[xiv] Chaudhury, 1972, p 22.
[xv] Jahan, 297.
[xvi] Sen, 631.
[xvii] Beachler 475.
[xviii] M.R. Khan, 1972a, 1972b.
[xix] Kashem Shaikh, Bogdan Wojtyniak, G. Mostafa and M.U. Khan 1990.
[xx] Kashem Shaikh, Bogdan Wojtyniak, G. Mostafa and M.U. Khan 1990, 148.
[xxi] Kashem Shaikh, Bogdan Wojtyniak, G. Mostafa and M.U. Khan 1990, 149.