Invoking Islam to Repress and
Subjugate Bengalis of East Pakistan in 1971
By: Shabbir Ahmed
30 March, 2005
The people of Bangladesh were repressed and subjugated by the Pakistani
military rulers and their cohort Islamists in 1971. They invoked
various aspects of Islam to justify mass murder, rapes, and torture of
Bengalis. The political Islamists used Islam to commit genocidal
crimes. I myself saw and observed the severity of crimes committed
against the Bengalis in general and the minority Hindus in particular.
All the crimes were justified in the eyes of most of the Mullahs and their
allied fundamentalist forces. Many Bengalis still remember the
crimes of the political Islamists even after thirty four years of the
independence of Bangladesh. Here I am writing a few of the
atrocities that I saw in 1971. First of all, I am giving a brief
background information on the conflicts created by the Pakistani military
and their Islamist cohorts.
Bangladesh, whose name used to be East Pakistan, was a part of Pakistan
till December 16, 1971. In East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), the
movement for liberal democracy (against military and theocratic rule of
Pakistan) grew very fast since late 50s of the last century. In this
movement, the intellectuals and the liberal politicians of all secular
parties in general and the political leaders of a major political party
Awami League in particular, contributed to mobilize public opinion in
favor of democratic movement in a Muslim majority East Pakistan. As
one can understand that the intellectuals can write and create a wave on
an issue among the conscious section of the population of a country but
ultimately there should be the political leaders having clear political
agenda to carry forward the messages to the grass root level. The
people of East Pakistan were fortunate enough to have a charismatic
political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (we lovingly call him
“Bongobondhu” meaning a friend of Bengal), who wholeheartedly wanted
liberal democracy and separation of Islam from politics as opposed to
Islamic theocracy, fundamentalism, and military rule in the then Pakistan.
He popularized secular democratic values in East Pakistan – an
overwhelmingly Muslim majority province of Pakistan. The nation was
under the military rule of Gen. Ayub Khan till 1969. Then another
military man, Gen. Yahya Khan, took over the power and promised to
establish democracy through adult franchise.
In December 1970, a free and fair election was held throughout the
nation. In this election, Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s
party Awami League won 167 out of 300 parliamentary seats in the entire
Pakistan. His party got 167 seats (out of 169 seats) from East
Pakistan but did not get a single seat from West Pakistan (now Pakistan).
Compared to East Pakistan, the intellectuals and the political leaders in
West Pakistan were way behind in promoting secular liberal democratic
values. So, there were sharp differences in the vision and mindset
between the people of East and West Pakistan.
The victory of Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League did
not bode well with the military rulers from West Pakistan. Besides,
the Islamic fundamentalist parties including Jamaat-i-Islam of Pakistan
and Muslim League were not all that thrilled to see a secularist party
such as Awami League literally knocking at the door to assume the power to
rule the entire of Pakistan. Furthermore, the military in power
thought that the establishment of liberal democracy would undermine the
unlimited power the military had in those days in Pakistan. Whereas,
the Islamic fundamentalists thought that the establishment of secular
democracy by Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League would
seriously jeopardize the Islamists dream for a totalitarian Islamic
Shariah rule in Pakistan. Therefore, both the military and the
Islamic fundamentalist parties of Pakistan joined hands to deny handing
over power to Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and to his party Awami
League even though they got clear mandate to rule Pakistan.
At one point, on 25th March, 1971 the military in power
under President Gen. Yahya Khan overturned the election results and
cracked down on unarmed Bengalis (people of East Pakistan) for supporting
and voting Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his party the Awami
League. In the night of 25th March, they killed tens of
thousands of people in Dhaka city alone by targeting minority Hindus,
students, Awami League supporters, and young men/women. They
immediately arrested Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and took him to a
jail in West Pakistan, which is thousand miles away from East Pakistan.
Later, they continued their operation throughout East Pakistan for nine
months. Millions of people were displaced and about ten million
people took shelter as refugees in the neighboring provinces of India.
The elected leaders of Awami League had no other choice but to form a
government in exile in India and start a freedom struggle for the
marginalized population of East Pakistan.