Tuesday, February 25, 2014

1971's war time death numbers: further thoughts

How many people died during the 1971 war?

Over two years ago, in the context of the first indictment in the International Crimes Tribunal, I wrote a   a long article on this question, which can be seen here.

Since then, some more information that can be added to the analysis.

The 'official' government figure is that 3 million were 'killed' in the war at the hands of the Pakistani military and their collaborators.

It is significant that the word 'killed' is usually used - since this does not include those who died from war-related diseases.

Presumably therefore, those who argue that 3 million were 'killed' in the war also consider that many more also died from other war-related causes making the figure of those who died in the war higher than 3 million.

Basis of the 3 million figure
Where does this 3 million figure come from? As mentioned in my previous article, most people attribute the figure to Sheikh Mujib who for example gave an interview to David Frost on 18 January 1972, following his release from a Pakistani jail ten days earlier, where he said:
'You know what has happened in Bangal ? I will tell you. Three million people have been killed, including children, women intellectuals, peasants, workers, students.'
So what was the basis for Mujib saying this? There are two stories given.

The first is an alleged confusion that Mujib may have made between '3 lakh' (which means 300,000) and 3 million. This argument is, for example, made by Serajur Rahman, who says that he was 'the first Bangladeshi to meet independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman after his release from Pakistan, ' and that when they met in London,
'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.
Whether or not Serajur Rahman was in fact the first person to meet Mujibur Rahman, the claim that Mujib might have got confused between 'lakhs' and 'millions' is often repeated.

However, there is another story which has been given to explain why Mujib said 3 million - and that is that he was repeating a figure that was first published in the Soviet Union newspaper, Pravda.

In his biography 'Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy', Sayyid A Karim, Bangladesh’s first foreign secretary, stated in a footnote 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.’
How could Mujib have got the Pravda figure? The Bangladesh Observer published an article on 5 January (which was a prosecution exhibit in the Golam Azam case) titled, 'Pak Army killed over 30 lakh people' and stated:
'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 8oo intellectuals in the capital city of Bangladesh alone.
It is unclear what was the basis of Pravda's figure - the newspaper simply quotes its special correspondent. It may have been an earlier editorial by the Bangla language newspaper Daily Purbodesh which on 23 December suggested that 3 million people have been killed. It may also have been from other news reports published by newspapers in which large numbers are said to have died in particular districts. So far example, the Observer on 4 January published an article which stated:
'More than 75,000 persons were killed in the district of Dinajpur by the Pakistan occupation forces and their collaborators during the last nine months, according to the preliminary reports of an unofficial survey says ENA. The Survey revealed that besides mass killing, about 20,000 women were dishonoured by the Pakistani occupation forces and their agents in the district.' (also part of the Azam prosecution exhibit)
It is however interesting to note that in the 5 January Observer report apart from stating that 30 lakhs (i.e 3 million) had died, it also stated that the:
 'Pakistan Military forces immediately before their surrender to Mukti Bahinis and the Allied forces had killed about 8oo intellectuals in the capital city of Bangladesh alone.' (emphasis added)
This appears to be referring to the abduction and murder by the Pakistani/Al Badr forces of intellectuals between 10th and 14 December in central Dhaka. About this, however, we do know for sure that the number was not 800, but close to a couple of dozen and perhaps around 18 - which is suggested in the tribunal judgment against Chowdhury Mueen Uddin and Ashrafuzzaman Khan.*

Of course, whilst it is perfectly possible for the quoted 3 million figure to be correct whilst at the same time as the 800 figure quoted by the article to be wrong - the wide inaccuracy of the 800 figure should perhaps raise some alarm bells about the accuracy of Pravda's estimate of 3 million particularly since the article seems to suggest that it is from the same source.

Other evidence in support of 3 million
Is there any other subsequent evidence to support the 3 million figure? There are perhaps two points that arguably provide some support for it.
- Robert Payne's 1972 book, 'Massacre' at p.50 quotes President Yahya Khan at the February 1971 conference as stating, “Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands.” Of course, assuming Yahya Khan is quoted accurately, it only goes to the intention of the pakistani military to kill very large numbers of Bengali civilians, and not to the actual number that were killed.  
- in addition, there are those who use UN population estimates and census data to argue that the 3 million figure is plausible. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, population demographers are loathe to give much credibility to the particular figures used. 
There have of course been many other estimates of numbers of dead - which can be seen here. Gary Bass in his highly regarded book published last year, 'The blood Telegram' about the US role in the 1971 war, states this about numbers of dead.
'A senior Indian official put the Bengali death toll at three hundred thousand, while Sydney Schandberg, who had excellent sources, noted in the New York Times that diplomats in Dacca thought that hundreds of thousands of Bengalis - maybe even a million or more - had been killed since the crackdown started on March 25. Even the lowest credible Pakistani estimates are in the tens of thousands while India sought vindication with bigger number: Swaran Singh quickly claimed that a million people had been killed in Bangladesh.' (p.322)
He also quotes General Jacob as stating that the pakistan forces 'had killed, several hundred thousand' (p.323).

These are of course, again, just simply estimates. Not based on any concrete information. The numbers could be bigger or smaller.

There has only been one study which actually involved the counting of those who died in 1971 - and this involved just the small area of the upazilla of Matlab. 

I have already summarized this study previously, but because of its significance will shortly be writing a longer  article about it.

* Amended on 1 March 2014 to make clear that the number of intellectuals killed in Dhaka in the last days of the war maybe more than 18: The tribunal itself have named 18 individuals deemed to be 'intellectuals' abducted/killed in the dying days of the war in Dhaka. However there may be some more people that are not that well known - or perhaps are not conventionally considered as 'intellectuals' - that were killed, and are not included in the Mueen Uddin/Khan judgement. However, it is likely that the number is unlikely to be much more than the 18 set out in the judgement.

1 comment:

  1. Just putting out some information:

    "After the surrender of Pakistan army, near about 93,000 Pakistani military personnel and civilians were taken to India as Prisoners of war (POWs). Among the POWs there were 56998 armed forces regulars, 18287 para military persons and 17376 civilians including 4616 police and 1628 civilian government servants, 3963 others including over 6000 women and children. (Chopra, 1988) Soon after their surrender, the UNO Security Council passed a resolution on December 21, 1971 calling upon the parties to observe the Geneva Convention and not to attach any conditions to the repatriation of the POWs.(Burke, 1973)"

    cited from http://thejournalofbusiness.org/index.php/site/article/viewFile/424/361

    In a full fldeged war or civil conflict, with 60,000 regular armed West Pakistani personnel also fighting the Mukti Bahini and the Indian soliders there couldnt have had that much time for each of these 60,000 men to kill 3 million people, and rape another 300-500,000 women. If you include the civil servants, the women the children, really even then it does not add up. It was a political conflict with tremendous injustice to the Bangladeshis who then fought for independence. West Pakistan fought to keep a country together and in the process committed war crimes on a large scale. India took advantage of the situation and tried to deliver a body blow to a country that it never liked.

    Thats not to say that hundreds of thousands were not killed and that tens of thousands of women werent raped and that war crimes did not take place. They did. And Pakistanis are sorry for that suffering and loss of life and our government should show some moral fibre and apologize for that.

    Bangladeshis meanwhile should take a closer look at what they did to the Biharis--- plenty of wrongdoing by everyone in this conflict.