Friday, November 11, 2011

Sayedee indictment - 1971 deaths

This is my third of four posts looking at the Tribunal's 3 October 2011 order charge-framing Sayedee on 20 counts of international crimes involving genocide and crimes against humanity relating to the 1971 war of independence. The first post looking at the charges against Sayedee is here. The second post looking at some legal issues discussed in the tribunal is here.

The introduction to the 3 October order stated, in its historical introduction that 'As a result' of the actions of the Pakistan military, and the role of the collaborators, '3 million (thirty lacs) people were killed more than 200,000 (two lacs) woman raped, about 10 million (one crore) people deported to India as refugees and million others were internally displaced...'.

This statement by the tribunal provides an opportunity to look at the question of how many people died as a result of the 1971 war - a controversial issue within Bangladesh. In certain nationalistic circles, to raise what I consider to be legitimate questions about the 3 million figure can draw strong emotions.

The tribunal in its order does not provide or refer to any evidence or material on record to support the figure of 3 million, treating it as a historical fact.

Although this number is treated as though it is an official government figure, there is as far as I can see little evidence, if any, to support it.

It is not uncommon of course for there to be widely different estimates of the numbers who died as a result of a war. People involved in any conflict have reasons to either over or under estimate the numbers who died. Moreover, it is difficult, in any post conflict situation, to make accurate estimates of the numbers of dead, as even recent wars in Iraq, for example, testify. Sarmila Bose's criticism in her recent book (see below) of the failure of the Bangladesh government after the war to have undertaken proper studied that would have provided more reliable estimates of the number who died do seem rather unfair.

Although writing about this subject is like sailing in perilous waters, I think it is fair to make the following points on this question.

(a) Where did the 3 million figure come from?
It seems that the figure of 3 million may first have appeared in a daily newspaper, Purbodesh on 23 December 1971, when an editorial stated that 'enemy occupation' had resulted in the deaths of 'about 3 million innocent people.' Subsequently, the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, is reported to have published a news report quoting this figure, and then the figure was more widely distributed in the Bangladesh media, when the news agency ENA, picked up the Pravda piece and distributed an article stating that 'The communist party newspaper Pravda has reported that over 30 lakh person (3 million) were killed throughout Bangladesh by the Pakistan occupation forces during the last nine months.' This news agency article was apparently widely covered in Bangladesh newspapers, including for example, the Bangladesh observer, on 5 January 1972.

The figure however only became widely popularised when Sheikh Mujib on 10 January, the day he returned to Bangladesh, stated, "Three million people have been killed. I believe there is no parallel in the history of the world of such a colossal loss of life for the struggle of freedom.' He is also said to have made similar comments around this time in a number of international TV interviews.

Significantly, Sayyid A Karim, Bangladesh’s first foreign secretary, supports the contention that Mujib picked the figure of 3 million up from these sources, when he wrote in a footnote in his autobiography of Sheikh Mujib that, '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.’

There is, of course, another story that is often recounted which suggests that Sheikh Mujib made a mistake when he said 3 million died, and that he really meant 3 lakh (300,000) were killed. However, in light of Karim's comment, I am more willing to support the contention that he picked it up from the newspaper reports of the time.

(b) Govt inquiry into numbers

In late January 1972, according to press reports at the time, the then government set up a committee to look into the number of war dead, under the chairmanship of the Deputy Inspector of Police. However no final report was published, and there have been suggestions that the decision not to publish the report was because the inquiry had not found anywhere near the number of 3 million deaths.

(c) Who died?
The question of the number of people who died in 1971 cannot be properly answered without considering what deaths form part of that number.

Sisson and Rose, in their 1990 book, 'War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the creation of Bangladesh' make the point that whatever the figure for the dead may be, '... it is still impossible to get anything like reliable estimates as to (1) how many of these were 'liberation fighters' killed in combat, (2) how many were Bihari Muslims and supporters of Pakistan killed by Bengali muslims, and (3) how many were killed by Pakistani, Indian or Mukti Bahini fire and bombing during the hostilities. One thing is clear - the atrocities did not just go one way, though Benglai Muslims and Hindus were certainly the main victims.'

The distinction between liberation war fighters killed in combat and civilian deaths is an important one. It is also important to recongise that amongst the civilian deaths were Biharis civilians killed by 'Liberation fighters' or their supporters.

In addition, of course, there are many deaths that are the result of war but are not the result of fighting and atrocities - but disease and malnutrition (see below the study by the cholera hospital on this very issue).

(d) Studies and estimates on number of dead

There have been a number of other estimates on the number of people who died in 1971.

(i) The Peace Research Institute in Norway along with Uppsala University in Sweden, have collected information on the numbers of deaths in all wars since 1900. Apparently, on the basis of eye-witness and media reports as well as other data, they have estimated that about 58,000 people died in 1971 in Bangladesh.

However, it has proven difficult to clarify the methodology upon which they came to this figure and relying on press reports is clearly a far from accurate method of ascertaining the number of deaths. It is not clear whether this low figure of 58,0000 has any better basis in truth than the high figure of 3 million.

(ii) More recent research conducted by academics at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, at the University of Washington in Seattle, and published in 2008 in the British Medical Journal, analysed World Health Organisation population surveys, looking at sibling deaths, to estimate the number of deaths in different wars in different countries. Their calculation suggest that the number of dead in 1971 was closer to 269,000 – five times the number of the Scandinavian researchers. Their figures range from 125,000 to 505,000

a(iii) Perhaps the most reliable estimate of number of deaths as a result of the war in 1971 is found in a little known study published in 1976 by the Cholera Hospital (now the ICDDRB) in a prestigious journal called 'Population Studies'. One of the article's three authors was Lincoln Chen who subsequently became a very noted public health specialist and is due, I understand, to be honored by the Bangladesh government for his contribution to independence in 1971.

The article looked at changes in population numbers in the rural area of Matlab Bazaar Thana. The Cholera hospital had collected detailed population data, including details of birth and deaths, on this area since 1963, and so was able to compare the population figures collected in 1972 with those collected during the war and prior to it to make an estimate of the number of 'excess' deaths.

It found that in 1971, in this particular area of the country there were 868 'excess' deaths.

Extrapolating, to the whole of Bangladesh it estimated that about 500,000 people had died because of the war. The article does concede, of course, that there are limitations to making such a generalisation - and the article does not suggest that 500,000 can in any way be said to be an exact figure. However, the detailed neutral objective analysis of one particular rural population using data that was collected systematically before, during and after the war makes it an extremely important piece of research.

It should be noted, in fact, that a considerable number of the 'excess' deaths that this study recorded in 1971 were the result of malnutrition and diseases caused by the war, and not deaths as the result of specific violent action by the Pakistan military, and its collaborators. (In fact, since the system of data collection was initially set up in peacetime, without anticipation of war, there was no direct category to put atrocity deaths, so they would have been put in the categories of 'other' or 'general' which both showed significant increase in death rates in 1971).

What this suggests is that, assuming for one moment that the ball park figure of 500,000 dead is about right, then the number of 'atrocity' deaths amongst the excess 1971 deaths will be, according to this study, less than 500,000.

(iv) There do remain respected people who suggest that there is some evidential basis to the 3 million. So for example, Mofidul Huq, a publisher and respected war crimes activist points to the census data of June 1969 which, he says, estimated the population to have been 69.8 million with a growth rate of 2.8%. ‘At this rate the population was supposed to be 80.1 million in 1974 when the census was made. But the actual count in 1974 was 76.4 million. The great number of missing persons indicate the estimate of three million deaths in Bangladesh genocide was not an exaggerated figure,’ Huq told me.

More recently, this argument has been detailed further in a blog [this section was updated on 27 Feb 2013]

It is important to note, however, that the analysis in this blog depends on UN estimates of population - not census data. As one demographer states: these are 'interpolated (estimated averages) calculated by guessing at what the population might be based on the counts for the preceding and following census counts.'  There was a census done in 1974 (not mentioned in the blog in fact) which states that the population was nearly a million higher than the UN estimates (71.5 mil compared to 70.6 mil). Moreover this 1974 census is itself considered by demographers to have been a particularly poorly conducted survey leading to an under-count. It is notable that the adjusted figure for the 1971 census is nearly 5 million more at 76.4 mil. (See, for example: 'Estimates of Recent Trends in Fertility and Mortality in Bangladesh', written by the Committee on population and Demography, National Research Council (1981). This states at p.15: 'Looking at the population as a whole the post enumeration check for the 1974 census indicated an under enumeration of 19.3 per cent in the four major towns and 6.5 percent elsewhere, giving an adjusted population of 76,938,000 for 1 March 1974'

Moreover any gap in the figures could, in any case just as easily be explained by the large number of migrations to India along with depressed fertility.

The point here is really that using (a) estimates of population and (b) poor census data are not a good basis for making an assessment of the numbers of 1971 war deaths.

(v) Another view comes from Dr. MA Hasan, the Convenor of the War Crimes Facts Finding Committee who, since the fall of General Ershad in 1990, has with the aid of a groups of researchers, traveled around the country, 'village to village', to uncover accurate information on the numbers of dead.

Hasan however thinks that 3 million is an ‘exaggerated’ number – with the real figure being closer to 1.2 million. He said to me: ‘We have identified 946 killing fields or mass graves. ... Our research suggests that for every one grave that we have found there are four others which have been built upon or are not accessible. That makes a total of about 5000 graves.’

He goes onto explain that from their experience the average number of bodies found in each mass grave is about 100.

‘If there are 5000 graves with 100 bodies in each that is 500,000. In addition, from talking to villagers throughout the country, we think that the number of bodies buried represents only about 30 per cent of the total number of deaths, with the remainder disposed of into the rivers. Most bodies were washed away. If we add these in the total comes about 1.2 million.’ He however said that the figure of deaths may be as high as 1.8 million.

It is to Hasan's credit that he has tried to undertake a detailed estimate of war dead. However, his figures do remain pretty speculative.

(vi) More recently, the academic Sarmila Bose has, controversially entered into the fray. In her book, 'Dead Reckoning' where she states:
'From the available evidence discussed in this study, it appears possible to estimate with reasonable confidence that at least 50,000 - 100,000 people perished in the conflict in East Pakistan/Bangladesh in 1971, including combatants and non-combatants, Bengalis and non-Benglais, Hindus and Muslims, Indians and pakistanis. Casualty figures crossing one hundred thousand are within the realm of the possible, but beyond that one enters a world of meaningless speculation.'
Without getting into the many critiques that people have about this book, on this particular point it is really difficult to see how she can say anything about the numbers of dead 'with reasonable confidence.' Her book does raise some legitimate queries about how particular 1971 incidents are viewed, and it may well be the case (as she suggests) that popular notions about the numbers who died at for example Shankharipara (in March 1971) and at Chuknager (in May 1971) have been exaggerated, but at the same time none of the research that she did, really allows her to make any conclusions about the numbers who died.

(vi) In her book, Bose quotes an interesting paragraph from the book by Simmon and Roee (mentioned above). This states that:
"India set the number of victims of Pakistani atrocities at three million and this is still the figure usually cited. We interviewed two Indian officials who had held responsible postions on the issue of Bangladesh in 1971. When questioned about the actual numbers of deaths in Bangladesh in 1971 attributable to the ciil war, one replied 'about 300,000'. Then when he received a disaproving glance from his colleague, he changes this to '300,000 to 500,000'"
It is interesting perhaps to note that I have heard, from a number of different sources, that the United State's unofficial view is that 300,000 people died in the 1971 war.

(vii) One should of course finally mention the Hamoodur Rehman Commission which was set up after the war by the new Pakistan government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. It remained classified for a long time, but recently most of it has been published in Pakistan. Chapter 2 of the report stated that:
"According to the Bangladesh authorities the Pakistan army was responsible for killing three million Bengalis and raping 200,000 East Pakistan woman. It does not need any elaborate argument to see that these figures are obviously highly exagerated. So much damage could not have been caused by the entire strength of the Pakistan Army then stationed in East Pakistan, even if it had nothing else to do." (para 32)
Its own estimate was much lower. It stated:
".. the latest statement supplied to us by the GHQ shows aproximately 26,000 persons killed during action by the Pakistan Army. This figure is based on the situation reports submitted from time to time by the Eastern Command to General Headquarters." (para 33)
Make of this what you will. But I think this figure, for obvious reasons, has as much credibility as the 3 million figure: Not very much at all!

(e) Number of woman raped [this section was updated on 20 March 2013]
On the question of the number of woman who were raped in 1971, the figure of 200,000 given by the tribunal has also it seems come to be an 'official' figure. The figure appears to have come from an estimate given by the Australian doctor, Dr Geofrey Davis, who worked in Bangladesh from March 1972 for about six months. There is therefore a more legitimate source for this figure than perhaps the 3 million estimate for the number of people died.

Much less has been written about the issue of rapes in Bangladesh but I think it is fair to see there is doubt about the accuracy of this figure. The Australian based academic, Bina D'Costa, who is amongst the few who has researched this area in some detail, thinks that this number is ‘too high’. From interviews of those involved in the abortion and the adoption programme that took place in Bangladesh after the war, she considers that ’25,000 forced pregnancies is correct’, though she accepted this may be a ‘rather conservative estimate.’ Those 25,000 cases consist of rape and forced impregnation of women and girls kept in rape camps or elsewhere (like bunkers, or in some cases in houses), who later either approached or were taken to the women's welfare division. ICRC documents refer to these cases and note that at least 25,000 cases of pregnancy from abduction, rape and forced marriages occurred during the war.

This figure however does not include those who were raped in their houses or elsewhere; who were then taken overseas (in most cases to India) by families for abortion or adoption. It also, doesn't include rapes and resulting pregnancies of Bihari women either.

(f) Do numbers matter?
Does it really matter how many people actually died in 1971?

It is perhaps important to note from the beginning that the actual number of deaths is not relevant to whether the particular accused at the International Crimes Tribunal have committed the offences of genocide or crimes against humanity to which they have been accused.

Moreover, whether 3 million, 300,000 or indeed even 30,000 were killed, the number of deaths in 1971 was very very large. And no-one can really deny that. There is enough substantiated evidence to suggest that whatever the exact number of deaths, a very large number of civilians were killed.

Yet, at the same time, arguably it is important for the sake of accuracy that people do not claim that a particular number of people died - whether it is too high or too low - which has no basis at all in the evidence.

As a result, coming back to the tribunal's remark in its 3 October order about the number who died, it may well have been preferable for it not to have mentioned these particular figures. Maybe the prosecution will provide evidence to support this figure in the course of the trial but, as yet, it has not done so.


  1. Can you provide the reference for the following statement? ".. points to the census data of June 1969 which, he says, estimated the population to have been 69.8 million with a growth rate of 2.8%.".

    As far as I know, there was no census in 1969. How did they estimate this particular number?

    Overall, can you include references for all the sources that you have used? This will help us find the original sources

  2. Very insightful. Gives a balanced perspective. Thanks.

  3. One of my friend has serious concerns about your quote: "Much less has been written about the issue of rapes in Bangladesh but I think it is fair to see there is doubt about the accuracy of this figure. The Australian based academic, Bina D'Costa, who is amongst the few who has researched this area in some detail, thinks that this number is ‘too high’. From interviews of those involved in the abortion and the adoption programme that took place in Bangladesh after the war, she considers that ’25,000 forced pregnancies is correct’, though she accepted this may be a ‘rather conservative estimate.'

    It is even less likely that we will ever have an accurate figure of the number of women raped in 1971. But even assuming D'Costa's estimate is correct, 25,000 rapes is a huge number.""

    His concern #1 is: How can you (David Bergman) mix up the number of raped women with the number of impregnates ( the number counted as who went for abortion)?

    His concern #2 is: You refer to Bina D'costa but he doesn't find where D'costa thinks that 'the number is too high! Instead she refers [Ref. 2] to Susan Brownmiller who states in her book [Ref 1] that the number of impregnated women is 25000 number of raped women is between 2,00,000 - 4,00,000 number of people died is around 30,000,000.

    Ref 1. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (P 76:84) - Susan Brownmiller, 1975

    Ref 2. War Babies: the question of national honour - Bina D’Costa

    What would you say in response?

  4. Independent researchers say around 300,000 (3 lacs) to 500,000 (5 lacs) died in 1971 Bangladesh war, then why common people in Bangladesh are misguided by their establishment and some from Inida that the numbers were around 3 millions? Independent researchers, R J Rummel for exammple, estimated that 150,000 non-Bengals were massacred by Awami League aligned militias, with a low estimate of 50,000 and a high estimate of 500,000. Why the common people in Bangladesh are being ignorant of this fact that Awami League aligned militia Mukti Bahini may have killed 500,000 (5 lacs) innocent non-Bengalis (Pakistanis) civilians? Indeed Pakistan army and some politicians of west Pakistan of that time made some serious mistakes and they should apologize to the people of Bangladesh for it but why common people in Bangladesh are not ashamed of the mass killings of innocent non Bangalis Pakistani civilians during the same war?
    Get more information from the following links:

  5. With regard to the Hamoodur Rehman Commission's assertion that "so much damage could not have been caused by the entire strength of the Pakistan Army then stationed in East Pakistan, even if it had nothing else to do," it is worth noting that immense death tolls can be exacted by relatively small forces, especially if victim populations are (or can be rendered) dense and highly concentrated. Only about 3,000 members of the Nazis' Einsatzgruppen, for example, were principally responsible for the mass murder of 1.5 million Jews (and many others) on the eastern front during 1941-42 -- the so-called "Holocaust by bullets." The numbers of Hutu army and militia forces in Rwanda in 1994 was also small compared to the number of West Pakistani troops and allied paramilitaries available in 1971, yet they killed up to a million people in just twelve weeks.