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Debunking the 3 Million Myth


Aug 27, 2014
United Kingdom
United Kingdom
From the Ancient Pakistan facebook page:

Just days after the Fall of Dhaka, General Abdul Siddigui and his Bengali nationalist guerrilla fighters (Mukti Bahini) are photographed using bayonets to torture and kill four Bihari men suspected of "collaborating" with Pakistan. This scene was repeated across Bangladesh weeks after 16 December 1971, in which minority communities like Biharis, Chakma Buddhists and even a small Punjabi community in Dhaka, were brutally murdered.

Mature nations should be able to question their own history, and accept interpretations which may differ from the one they were led to believe. This is particularly true in cases of conflict. As time passes and cooler heads prevail, we can start piecing together the facts, and shunning away the propaganda and exaggerations. History cannot be changed, but it can be reassessed.

I, as a historian and a Pakistani, personally hold no grudges against Bangladesh today nor am I interested in “reclaiming” East Pakistan. But the truth of 1971 must be told – ever since then, Pakistanis have been led to believe a masochistic version of history that holds us responsible for everything that happened in that war. But the actual evidence and sequence of events tells us a very different story, one which morally bankrupt pseudo-historians and cherry picking rights activists like Pakistan Votes

and Brown History

, would rather ignore.

The fact is non-Bengali minorities were brutally murdered by Bengali fascists. What exactly was the intention of targeting them is not fully understood, but a case of “ethnic cleansing” can surely be made. This is something the Government of Bangladesh (the Awami League in particular) would rather hide than accept, and to this day, the crimes committed against these minority communities by Bengali nationalists are either ridiculed or simply dismissed by the Awami League. It is particularly this reason why Bangladesh never made any efforts to involve the international community in going after and charging Pakistani generals involved in the 1971 war. Mujib knew very well that if an impartial, independent, international tribunal were to be set up, like the Nuremberg tribunal was after Nazi Germany fell, that the truth of their own war crimes against non-Bengalis would be exposed to the world.

But let’s take a step back for a second and go back to 1933, because this is an important fact that people seem to miss.

The fact is the conflict in East Pakistan should have never happened in the first place, because East Bengal was never meant to be part of Pakistan. This can be attested to the 1933 document “Now or Never”, written by Chaudhary Rehmat Ali, whereby he defines PAKSTAN, an acronym of the historic nations that would form the country in the future – meaning Punjab, Afghania (KP), Kashmir, Sindh and BalochisSTAN. Bengal was never in the picture to begin with, but in the hastiness of partition it appears the two Muslim wings were simply lumped together. Had our leaders had the foresight after 1947, East Bengal should have either become independent or become an autonomous territory within Pakistan.

There are three major issues why this should have occurred:

> Ethnolinguistic differences
East Bengal had a relatively homogenous ethnic population and spoke one language, whereas West Pakistan (comprising of Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan) was multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural.

> Population
East Bengal was overpopulated – roughly the size of Sindh, it had a larger population than all of West Pakistan’s provinces combined.

> Geography
East Bengal was an enclave surrounded on all four sides by India – its total border length with India was 4156 km, with an additional 270 kilometer border with Myanmar.

When all these factors highlighted, East Pakistan was simply a disaster waiting to happen.

Since this is a very long topic, I will divide it into four major parts:

Part 1: Debunking The 3 Million Myth
I have only used non-Pakistani sources from Bangladesh’s own Foreign Secretary to the British Medical Journal. Sources have been provided for each quote.

Part 2: Ethnic Cleansing by Mukti Bahini
The murder of Biharis is well known, but what is not known are the massacres committed against Chakma Buddhists in Chittagong Tract Hills and the small Punjabi business oriented community within Dhaka. With this in mind, the case of “ethnic cleansing” could surely be made.

Part 3: International Crimes Tribunals (Bangladesh)
This court was setup domestically within Bangladesh in 2012, based off the ICT Act which Bangladesh passed in 1973. The word “international” shouldn’t fool you, since the international community played no part in the trials. It was simply added in to look as if they did. Foreign observers have criticized the tribunal, mentioning government interference, restrictions on public discussion, not enough time allocated for the defence, the kidnapping of defence witnesses and a judge resigning due to controversy over his neutrality.

Part 4: What Pakistan Got Wrong In East Bengal
To suggest Pakistan had no role in the debacle of 1971 would be silly. This is why the Hamoodur Rahman Commission was setup to understand what led to the conflict of 1971. However, as you’re all well aware, it was classified at the behest of the military. The commission was highly critical of Pakistan's military interference in East Pakistan, misconduct of politicians as well as intelligence failures of the ISI and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).

PART 1 - The Myth of 3 Million
I’ll start off by addressing the most controversial issue here – the myth that three million people were killed in East Pakistan by the army. This allegation was first made by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on 8 January 1972. This number is widely circulated as fact, but sources from within Bangladesh seem to question its authenticity.

Serajur Rahman, a journalist and broadcaster with BBC Bangla Service at the time, wrote a piece in 2011 for The Guardian explaining how the three million figure came to be:

“On 8 January 1972 I was the first Bangladeshi to meet independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after his release from Pakistan. He was brought from Heathrow to Claridge's by the Indian high commissioner Apa Bhai Panth, and I arrived there almost immediately. Mujib was puzzled to be addressed as "your excellency" by Mr Panth. He was surprised, almost shocked, when I explained to him that Bangladesh had been liberated and he was elected president in his absence. Apparently he arrived in London under the impression that East Pakistanis had been granted the full regional autonomy for which he had been campaigning. During the day I and others gave him the full picture of the war. I explained that no accurate figure of the casualties was available but our estimate, based on information from various sources, was that up to "three lakh" (300,000) died in the conflict. To my surprise and horror he told David Frost later that "three millions of my people" were killed by the Pakistanis. Whether he mistranslated "lakh" as "million" or his confused state of mind was responsible I don't know, but many Bangladeshis still believe a figure of three million is unrealistic and incredible.” (Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/may/24/mujib-confusion-on-bangladeshi-deaths


However, in the book “Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy” by Sayyid A. Karim, Bangladesh’s first foreign secretary, he wrote a different story about the three million claim:

“As for the number of Bengalis killed in the course of the liberation war, the figure of 3 million mentioned by Mujib to David Frost in January 1972 was a gross overstatement. This figure was picked up by him from an article in Pravda, the organ of the communist party of the Soviet Union.” (Source: http://uplbooks.com.bd/author/sayyid-karim


But where did Mujib get his hands on Pravda in London? That answer lies in an article written in “The Bangladesh Observer”, which was published on 5 January 1972 (and was a prosecution exhibit in the Golam Azam case) entitled, “Pak Army killed over 30 lakh people”. It reads:

“The Communist party news paper ‘pravda’ has reported that over 30 lakh persons were killed throughout Bangladesh by the Pakistan occupation forces during the last nine months, reports ENA. Quoting its special correspondent stationed in Dacca the paper said that the Pakistan Military forces immediately before their surrender to Mukti Bahinis and the Allied forces had killed about 800 intellectuals in the capital city of Bangladesh alone.”

It is unclear how Pravda got ahold of this figure – the newspaper simply quotes its special correspondent, which in turn is quoted by the Bangladesh Observer. It’s pertinent to note that the USSR played a big role in the secession of East Pakistan and riling up Bengalis. In a television interview, retired KGB Psychological Warfare Officer Yuri Bezmenov explains in detail how the USSR aided Mujib by using India. (Watch video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bb_fXONk2Y


In 1974, Bangladesh apparently tried to calculate the number of people who had died in 1971. However, upon most of the study being completed, the actual number calculated came to around 250,000 dead and was nowhere close to the estimated 3,000,000 Mujib had claimed in 1972. Upon hearing the number, Mujib had the entire study shut down. Lawrence Lifschultz, a resident correspondent with the “Far Eastern Economic Review” in Bangladesh, wrote about this in detail:

“In the course of my reporting I met a very interesting man who had a very intriguing story to tell about the work he had recently been doing. He was employed by the Home Ministry and was part of a team of researchers conducting a study that was trying to assess the total number of casualties that had occurred during the nine months of 1971 as war raged across the country. The Home Ministry study was trying to assess how many people had died directly from the armed violence of the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators. They were also trying to estimate how many people had died on the road or once they reached refugee camps across the border in India. Many of these deaths were among children and the elderly. The study was conducted by field workers systematically asking families in villages about those who had died from their village during the war and under what circumstances. They were slowly building up a picture across the country. At the time we met, the Home Ministry team had completed their survey in approximately a third of the districts. My Home Ministry source told me that based on their projections the number of deaths from the war was estimated at 250,000 people. As I recall, this did not include the young, the ill and the elderly, who died either in the refugee camps or as they fled the Pakistan Army. A quarter of million people dying from armed violence is by any measure a terrible and tragic number. However, according to my source, the study was abruptly shut down and discontinued. The reason was that the survey was moving toward a statistical conclusion that differed with the prevailing orthodoxy that three million people had died from armed violence and refugee migration. (Source: http://www.pamphleteerspress.com/the-case-of-david-bergman


And the controversy continues to this day. Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chief and former Prime Minister of Bangladesh Khaleda Zia herself has questioned the validity of the three million claim:

“There is a debate about how many hundreds of thousands were martyred in the Liberation War. Different books and documents give different accounts.” (Source: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/khaleda-raises-doubt-on-liberation-war-casualties/article8018812.ece


In Volume 30 of the “Population Studies: A Journal of Demography” published in 1976, the study ”Demographic crisis: The impact of the Bangladesh civil war (1971)” estimates around 500,000 deaths during the conflict. (Source: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00324728.1976.10412722?tab=permissions&scroll=top


In the British Medical Journal’s 2008 volume, the study “Fifty years of violent war deaths from Vietnam to Bosnia: analysis of data from the world health survey programme” states around 269,000 deaths (allowing a possible range of 125,000 to 505,000). Earlier estimates of casualties during the Bangladesh war were in the region of 58,000, the study noted. The objective of the survey was to provide an accurate estimate of deaths in wars. The study analysed estimated deaths from war injuries in 13 countries over 50 years, including Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. (Source: https://www.bmj.com/content/336/7659/1482


Despite factual evidence available from non-Pakistani sources debunking the myth of 3 million, some Bangladeshis, and many Indians for that matter, continue to believe this ridiculous number. M. A. Hasan, convener of the "War Crimes Fact Finding Committee" in Bangladesh says that:

“The figure of liberation war martyrs is one such issue which no one should question.”

The fact this is coming from somebody who heads a “Fact Finding Committee” is quite disturbing. It’s evident from this quote that fact finding is not the objective here, but rather cementing the myth is. Since the Awami League came to power again in 2009, it has tried to use the emotions surrounding the 1971 war to justify a move toward authoritarian one-party rule in Bangladesh. In its version of history, only the Awami League is the party of liberation, and therefore of government, and opposition parties are branded as “pro-Pakistan,” and therefore dangerous and disloyal. For many others however, both within and outside of Bangladesh, questions are indeed necessary on the 1971 war.

All of what has been written above comes in the form of small articles and studies. However, if you want an unbiased, scholarly take into the events surrounding 1971, I would suggest Sarmila Bose’s book “Dead Reckoning: Memories of Bangaldesh”.

Sarmila Bose is a British-Indian historian at Oxford who is credited for publishing the first scholarly analysis of the 1971 conflict. Bose’s investigation of the 1971 Bangladeshi narrative began when she saw a picture of the Jessore massacre of 2 April 1971. The caption of the photo stated: "April 2, 1971: Genocide by the Pakistan Occupation Force at Jessore". However, upon closer examination, Bose found that "some of the Jessore bodies were dressed in shalwar kameez an indication that they were either West Pakistanis or Biharis. In Bose's book, she has done a case-by-case body count estimate that lead her in the end to estimate that between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed on all sides, including Bengalis, Biharis, West Pakistanis and others, in 1971 war. (s: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/01/dead-reckoning-sarmila-bose-review

) and (https://www.telegraphindia.com/culture/style/the-truth-about-the-jessore-massacre/cid/1553111


Another book I suggest reading is by Dr. M. Abdul Mu’min Chowdhury, a Bengali nationalist who actively participated in the separatist cause. In his book "Behind the Myth of 3 Million", he challenges the falsehood and conspiracy theories around what took place in 1971. Citing an extensive range of sources to show that what the Pakistan Army was carrying out in East Pakistan was a limited counter-insurgency, not genocide, the scholar discloses that after the creation of Bangladesh, the new de facto government offered to pay 2000 Taka to every family that suffered loss of life, but only 3000 families claimed such compensation. Had there been three million Bengalis dead, a lot more families would have come forward. Furthermore, the actual fighting force of the army in East Pakistan was 40,000 not 93,000. As such, when India invaded East Pakistan, the army was at a 50:1 disadvantage. (http://www.storyofbangladesh.com/ebooks/myth-of-3-million.html#:~:text=Many%20myths%20have%20been%20formed,integrity%20of%20a%20united%20Pakistan


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