March 25: Ethnic cleansing?

The mass grave at Jagannath Hall, Photo: Palash Khan

Rifat Munim

What had happened on the night of March 25, 1971 has been carved permanently in the collective consciousness of Bangladeshi people as the darkest night in history. Certain groups of people in certain areas of the erstwhile East Pakistan were caught unawares by the Pakistani army who, well equipped with ammunition and tanks, engaged in an orgy of killing totally unarmed, unprepared people most of whom woke up from sleep only to face death or see their near ones die before their very eyes. The targets of the occupation forces were mostly the cantonments, Rajarbagh Police Headquarters, East Pakistan Rifles at Pilkhana, the Dhaka University dormitories and teachers' quarters- places which were regarded as containing subversive elements. Apart from these, the Katabon slums, bazaars, newspaper offices, Kamalapur railway and Sadarghat also came under brutal attack. The nature and extent of the mass murder unleashed on that night is now considered one of the worst instances of genocide in history. The deadly crackdown, known as the Operation Searchlight, was later extended even to the remotest village. Taking note of the entire nine-month-long war is the task of a historian. For the present purpose, let us confine ourselves only to that fateful night as far as the DU and its adjacent areas were concerned; and let us ask whether those animalistic acts of mass killings were just genocidal or something else.

Many writers and historians have shown how calculated this crackdown was. But while recounting the horrifying events of that night as well as the whole war, be it an objective or subjective account, our history writers have often passed off two aspects: firstly, the indescribable sufferings and the incalculable gory deaths sustained by commoners, rickshaw-pullers and slum dwellers whose sacrifices have not been properly recorded and recognized; and secondly, the communal elements embedded in the deadly crackdown, which have always remained underrated. Seen from the second angle, the Operation Searchlight and all the subsequent events till December 1971 appear to have underlain the ulterior motive of ethnic cleansing alongside the genocidal one.

The DU teachers were killed indiscriminately irrespective of their religion because they were believed to have masterminded the operation of the make-shift camp at the dormitories for training up students to face the Pakistan army. But of the four dormitories (including Iqbal Hall which is now Zahurul Haq Hall, Rokeya Hall and BUET's Liaqat Ali Hall) that had met with artillery attacks, the case of the Hindu-dominated Jagannath Hall stands out in terms of the brutal nature and extent to which its students were massacred. Although one of Selina Hossain's article, anthologised in a book edited by Rashid Haider, very realistically brings out the heinous devastation wreaked upon the then Iqbal Hall, the list of the martyred students and officials of the hall stands to reason that the severity was much less compared to the Jagannath Hall which was exclusively meant for the Hindu students. The same racial element also worked in the selective slaughtering of the DU staffs, who lived opposite the teachers' quarter, and of the lower rank Hindu officials who lived in the employees' lodgings within the Jagannath Hall compound.

Photo: Palash Khan

Kaliranjan Sheel, a veteran activist of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, was one in a very few who had survived the clampdown on Jagannath Hall that night. In an article titled Jagannath Hall-ei Chhilam (I was at Jagannath Hall that Night) included in the above-mentioned book, he gives a vivid picture of what had actually happened that night and the next morning. Having completely surrounded the Jagannath, the Pakistani army first launched a deadly shell and arson attack on the hall. The crushing nature of the attack made it clear that the mission was to enact a holocaust, gunning down every living soul staying there. Yet, miraculously, Sheel had survived although how this was possible would continue to baffle him all his life. While the mortar shell attacks were going on, the army gutted most parts of the dormitory. Then they barged into the rooms and indiscriminately fired bullets on the hapless students. However, some students, including Sheel, were spared because of the darkness. But as the day broke, they hunted down all the students and asked them to carry the corpses scattered here and there, and to heap them in a corner of the field. Finally, they ordered the remaining students to line up beside the stacks of corpses to complete their mission. But Sheel was too overworked to stand on his feet, so he fell on the ground right before the bullets could hit him. This was the breathtaking tale of how Sheel had cheated death. Yet, disturbing memories of that horrifying night might have taken their toll accordingly, precipitating an early death of one of the few survivors of the Jagannath Hall carnage. It has been years since he died.

Towards the morning some of the army men broke into the employees' lodgings within the dormitory compound, where about fifty Hindu families lived, all of whom were third or fourth class officials of the university. But only five or six of them were taken away. Monbhoran Roy, who was then an employee of the National Institute of Public Administration at Dhaka University, was one of them who were asked to dig a big grave in one corner of the field. First they were told that they would be released after the works were done. But as the graves were dug and all the corpses were thrown in, they were also aligned with the remaining students and brushfired them all.

A despondent Rajkumari Roy, wife of Monbhoran, told this writer that even though it was established that her husband was one of the martyred officials of this dorm, his name was not even inscribed in the list of the monument built in their memories.

Arun Kumar Dey, another eye witness to the massacre, was only eleven at that time. His father Madhusudan Dey, owner of the famous Madhu's canteen which is still regarded as the political hub of progressive students, lived in the DU staff quarter. On the morning of March 26, some army men entered their flat and took his father out while some others began to vandalise things, especially the Hindu religious materials. Then they first shot his brother, then his sister-in-law. Arun told this writer the army sprayed his parents' bodies with so many bullets that chunks of flesh were sagging out from their bodies. The dead bodies were dragged to the graves and buried with others.

Once the dead bodies were disposed of, they moved towards the old Dhaka which in those days was a lot different than today's Muslim-dominated locality. All the Hindu-dominated neibourhoods were assaulted with as much ferocity and hundreds of them were murdered. Although that was the end of Operation Searchlight, that was also the beginning of a new phase of communal violence. Or ethnic cleansing? Soon the Bangalee collaborators took over and continued to threaten, torture, oust and kill the Hindu minorities with the sole purpose of occupying their land properties. Several plausible portrayals of this latter phase are to be found in our arts which often challenge established ideologies. Among many others, one of them is Shahidul Zahir's short story Kanta and the other is Nasiruddin Yousuff Bachchu directed film Guerrilla.

Side by side with genocide, ethnic cleansing also formed an integral part of the mass killing project that the Pakistan army launched during 1971 and which is true not only of Dhaka but also of every district and perhaps every village. Before conclusion, in order to predicate my thesis upon evidence, I'd like to quote an extract from a write-up titled “Massacre of the Bengali intellectuals in 1971” by Dr Rafiqul Islam who during that time was a resident of the University quarters at Nilkhet, adjacent to the Iqbal Hall. Published in The Daily Star on December 14, 2011 he writes: “Pakistan Army also launched a genocide campaign on the inhabitants of old Dhaka particularly in Shankhari Bazar, Tanti Bazar, Luxmi Bazar, Narinda, Moishandi etc.” All the places mentioned were Hindu dominated area.

The writer is Senior Editorial Assistant, The Daily Star. Email:


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