Blood in the Water

The contested history of one of Bangladesh’s worst wartime massacres

The refugee crisis caused by the 1971 war displaced up to 10 million people from Bangladesh. AP Photo

IN THE WINTER OF 2012, when I drove along Jessore Road, it was a weather-beaten two-lane road with waterlogged fields on either side, the landscape occasionally interrupted by a few shops—a mechanical works, a petrol pump, or a tea stall. Jessore Road connects south-western Bangladesh to Kolkata, in West Bengal. During the war of 1971, it was one of the lifelines that connected refugees from East Pakistan, fleeing war and massacre, to India. Of those fateful eight months, as the world slowly realised that a massacre was underway in East Pakistan and sympathy and support began to trickle in from the West, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in his lyrical anthem ‘September on Jessore Road’:

Millions of daughters walk in the mud
Millions of children wash in the flood
A Million girls vomit & groan
Millions of families hopeless alone

Millions of souls nineteen seventy one
homeless on Jessore road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan

The road passes through Khulna district in southern Bangladesh, and is the gateway to the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, formed at the confluence of the Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. This was once Bengal’s jute territory: before Partition, jute would be taken from Khulna to the mills of Calcutta. Later, to reduce dependence on India, West Pakistan set up jute mills in East Pakistan, some of them in Khulna. It was here, on the night of 25 March 1971, when the wave of killings called Operation Searchlight by the Pakistani army began, that dozens of Bengali mill workers were shot to death by soldiers who came to take over a jute factory. And it was in Khulna that, in May of that year, one of the worst massacres of the war took place over the course of one day.

A collapsed bridge on Jessore Road, which was a lifeline for Bengalis fleeing their homes in East Pakistan during the war of 1971. Expres / Gety Images

TO THE WEST OF KHULNA is a place called Chuknagar, which is an important junction on the way to India. It is a dusty town, with a derelict centre that once had a large market. Here, in a single May morning, Pakistani forces killed an unknown number of Bengali people, many of them waiting to take river transport or the Jessore Road route to cross the border into India. In the months and years that followed, as the Bangladeshi refugee crisis swelled to include five, then six, and finally up to ten million displaced people, the world retained little memory of this massacre. Its ghosts have remained largely unexorcised, further raising questions of how, or whether, such ghosts can ever be laid to rest.

The history of Chuknagar, when not obscured, has been fiercely contested—an indication of how the number of recorded deaths, as well as the degree of brutality with which crimes were committed during the war, has vexed historians ever since 1971. When I visited the area two years ago, I spoke to about a dozen people who claimed to have witnessed that unrestrained murder. They described the day vividly; but forty years had passed, and time can play tricks with memory, particularly in the absence of any other record of the names or the number of the dead. All this had made it even more complicated to come to any conclusions about the scale of the tragedy. Multiply that many times over, and you realise how hard it is to characterise what happened in Bangladesh in 1971. Human rights groups argue that the Pakistani forces and their allies committed “war crimes”; writers sympathetic to the state of Bangladesh say it was the site of “crimes against humanity”; many Bangladeshis assert that the war was an outright “genocide.” As far as international legal definitions go, the conflict may have involved all three—contrary to the Pakistani establishment’s disavowal of these labels, and its stated belief that this was, all told, just a brutal war in which many civilians died.

Through 1971, word began to spread through southern Bangladesh: go to Chuknagar, walk to Satkhira, and sneak into India. Central Pres / Gety Images

Chuknagar had, proportionately, more Hindus than other parts of East Pakistan; by local estimates, in the 1970s, some villages in these parts were as much as 40-percent Hindu. The Razakars, and members of other pro-Pakistani militia, were active here; they worked both to spy on the villages and to intimidate the local people. Achintya Biswas, a teacher of French revolutionary history at a college in Batiaghata, near Chuknagar, told me that local Hindus, as well as supporters of the Bengali nationalist Awami League party, decided to move to India after April 1971, when the Pakistani army shot villagers near Chuknagar and a few people died—including members of Biswas’s family.

Word had spread rapidly to these remote villages that, contrary to what the official radio stations were telling them, the Pakistani troops were not entering these villages to protect them; instead, they were busy killing Bengali men and boys, and no Bengali woman or girl was safe near them. People constantly lived in fear of the Khan Sena, as they called the soldiers sent from West Pakistan. In the southern parts of East Pakistan, Bengalis with a keen survival instinct began to spread the word: go to Chuknagar, walk to Satkhira, and sneak into India. Once across the border, people were told, Sikh soldiers would lift their children, embrace them, and carry them to safety; Indira Gandhi would give them tents, saris, medicinal tablets and injections. For thousands of villagers living in inaccessible parts of the south Bangladesh delta, such as Rampal, Sarankola, Morelganj, Fakirhat, Bagerhat and Gopalganj, Chuknagar was the transit point to reach.

But each of these villages had its Razakars, and word soon reached the occupying army that people were gathering in Chuknagar. These Razakars mobilised others to rush to collect intelligence on the area, and on other transit points such as Badamtola, some forty kilometres from Chuknagar. On 19 May 1971, followers of the pro-Pakistan Muslim League came to Badamtola and killed more than a hundred people—of whom only 23 were ever identified, since the rest had all come there from other villages and were not known to the locals. It had been nearly two months since General Yahya Khan, the president of Pakistan, had declared martial law on national radio, and said, “It is the duty of the Pakistani armed forces to ensure the integrity, solidarity and security of Pakistan. I have ordered them to do their duty and fully restore the authority of Government.”

MANY OF THE POOR IN THIS AREA, who were used to floods and cyclones, had come to accept forced displacement as an integral part of their lives. At least one reason why some of them were able to move to safety was the assistance of countless boatmen and peasants who helped their compatriots unhesitatingly, regardless of their faith.

Imtiaz Ahmed, who would later head the international relations department at Dhaka University, fled to India as a class-nine student to join the Mukti Bahini, the Bengali resistance. He was forced to return because he was too young, and the Bahini had too many able-bodied young men. While in India, Ahmed innocently bought two books by Tagore for his mother, thinking that they would please her. He had not realised that if he were seen with the books, the Pakistani army would figure out he had been to India and instantly kill him: Indian cultural imports had been banned in East Pakistan since 1965, and if you were carrying a Tagore book, chances were high that you had acquired it across the border.

The boatman who brought Ahmed back to a launch-ghat from the border area understood this. He concealed Ahmed’s books, covering them in plastic so they wouldn’t get wet, and handed them to him when they reached the ghat. He also gave Ahmed a lungi and a gamchha, so that he could pass for a rural child. “Those boatmen were like the underground railway that existed in the United States to free the slaves,” Ahmed told me in 2012.

The day after the Badamtola killings, on the morning of 20 May, Chuknagar was teeming with thousands of people. It was the day of a local festival. Some families had just arrived by boat; others were bargaining with agents who could get them across to India. Many were buying food or selling their possessions to raise money for the journey. The mood was not festive, but the town looked like the site of a country fair.

At around 10 am on that unusually bright day, Ershad Ali Morel, then 23 years old, heard the rumbling of trucks—faint at first, then gradually louder. There were two of them, he told me, carrying Pakistani troops to Chuknagar. They were heading towards the large, open grounds where the crowd had gathered, forming small circles, squatting or lying down, waiting to be smuggled into India. The Pakistani army’s job was to prevent them from leaving.

Morel was working on the family’s jute farm with his brothers and father, who was then 65 years old, when the soldiers arrived. His father told him to go back to the family’s hut, about a hundred yards away. Morel wanted to stay and see what the noise was all about, but he obeyed his father and ran back towards his small home. From there, he saw the trucks driving closer at an even pace, throwing up dust. He heard one of the soldiers shout at his father. He remembers, he told me, his father standing tall in the field, gesturing angrily, waving his sickle, as if telling them not to drive over his field. The soldiers needed only one shot to kill him.

In Khulna, “Bihari” or Urdu-speaking Muslims humiliated by Bangladeshi nationalists in reprisals following army atrocities. Sarmila Bose’s 2011 book, Dead Reckoning, alleged that “several thousand” Biharis died in reprisal attacks during the war. Jack Garofalo / Paris Match / Gety Images

Morel heard the shot, and gasped. He saw the truck move on; his father had fallen. Morel rushed out through the back door. He heard more gunshots, from all sides. He heard cries for help. After taking some family members to relative safety in the bushes, he rushed back to see his mother, still in the house. She was wailing. She told him his father had died, and he should get a white cloth from the shops for the burial shroud.

“I had no time to think,” Morel told me four decades later, when we met.

Even as the Morels were absorbing the devastation visited upon them, the trucks reached the town centre. The soldiers stepped out of the trucks, and without any provocation or warning, started to shoot. Achintya Biswas, hiding in a school with his family, heard the noise, but did not know what was going on.

As Morel ran through the town, he saw that most homes were empty—many from the village had already left for India. A girl, about 11 years old, bleeding profusely as her leg was shot, asked him for water. Morel went into a house nearby and filled a glass of water from a clay pot. She died in his arms while drinking it.

A West Pakistani soldier in a bunker near Jessore. Bengalis called this army the “Khan Sena,” and lived in constant fear of them. Michel Laurent / AP Photo

Then he saw another child, barely six months old, clinging to her mother’s breast. Her mother lay beside her, and there was blood all over her body. The mother was beautiful, and she had sindoor in her hair—indicating she was married, and a Hindu. Her eyes were wide open; she was dead. She had been feeding her daughter when she was shot.

“I carried the girl in my arms,” Morel said, “but I was very confused. The baby was unhurt, but she had blood all over her body, her mother’s blood.”

Oh god, what am I doing, Morel asked himself as he ran holding the child. He fled through the market, and saw many more dead bodies, including those of Hindus he had grown up with—Kalachand, who played the drum at Hindu weddings; Bhogirath, who worked as a butcher; Digambar, who was a farmer; and Babunath Biswas, a grocer. All the while, gunshots sounded. There were many Muslims, too, among the dead—Saifuddin, the butcher; Murshid Ali, the shopkeeper who sold coal; his five children; and Inayat, the mentally disabled man with the mind of a toddler.

Morel crouched low as he ran past the maidan where the army had found the waiting refugees, and went to the home of Mandar Das, a Hindu man he knew. “My father has just been killed,” he told Das. “I am going to get the cloth to bury him. On my way I saw this girl, whose mother has just died. I don’t know who she is. I don’t know her mother’s name. But her mother is a Hindu. Can you look after her? I will come back tomorrow after the funeral and take her back,” he said.

The morning after Morel found the cloth and returned home to bury his father, he returned to Das’s house to take the little girl back. But there something unexpected happened. Das’s wife told him that the couple wanted to keep the baby. They had been married twenty years and did not have a child. They would bring the girl up as their own daughter. She was god’s gift, they said; and they would name her Sundari, “beautiful.” She was beautiful.

“I knew she was a Hindu, that’s why I had taken her to a Hindu family. I did not want her stolen from her people,” Morel told me.

NITAI CHANDRA GAYEN, a 24-year-old communist volunteer waiting to meet his family in Chuknagar, ran to warn the people gathered in the grounds when he saw the soldiers moving towards them. He shouted to tell his cousin Ranjit and nephews Binoy and Dhiren to flee, and found himself in a mosque. Many people were loudly reciting the namaz, as if to show the soldiers that they were devout Muslims and not Hindus. A woman covered Gayen with a mat, to hide him. When he looked out from underneath it, to his horror he saw a soldier place a gun to the head of one of his uncles, then another, and then to the head of his brother, and shoot all of them, one by one. On the grounds, Gayen said, the shooting went on for about four hours. After the soldiers had gone, he slowly went to a large tree under which eight members of his family lay dead. Among them were the youngest, Ranjit and Binoy, who had returned to the scene to remonstrate with the soldiers.

“There were dead bodies everywhere,” Gayen told me in Batiaghata, at the college where Achintya Biswas taught. “I can’t say with any certainty how many died, but at least a thousand, and maybe many more were killed. Wherever there were people, the Pakistanis shot at them. They even shot the people who jumped in the river to escape. The army then shot the boats so that the boats would drown. All I remember seeing are dead bodies.”

Along with twenty-odd survivors, Gayen started looking through the pockets of the dead. They collected whatever they could find, so that they would have some money to pay for their journey to India. Gayen, too, saw an infant suckling its mother; this mother, too, was dead. He carried the child to a boat. A woman in the boat asked him if the child had a scar on its forehead. It did—and the woman, upon seeing it, recognised the child as her dead sister’s.

ABUL BASHAR MOHAMMED SHAFIQUL ISLAM, who is now a senior administrator at the local secondary school in Chuknagar, was a student in the tenth standard on that day in 1971. He, too, estimated that the shooting went on for several hours. I walked with him through the fields as he described the violence. He pointed out the spot where Chikan Morel, Ershad Ali’s father, was shot. When we reached the riverbed, he was momentarily speechless. That day, four decades ago, the riverbed had been full of dead bodies. “There was a huge amount of blood,” he said, regaining his composure. “I saw blood flowing into the river; I saw the river water turning red. I have never seen anything quite like it,” he said, wiping away tears. Some of those fleeing the army had hidden in shallow ponds, he told me. When they raised their heads to breathe, the soldiers shot them. The ponds turned dark vermillion.

The morning after the massacre, Abul Bashar heard a voice from the trees, and thought he was losing his mind. When he looked up, he could not see anything. But then, slowly, he saw someone starting to climb down. It was an old man. He was whimpering. He was not sure if Abul Bashar was a Pakistani sympathiser or a Bengali partisan. It is only after Abul Bashar put his arms around him that he howled. He had stayed in the tree throughout the previous day, worried that if he made a single move he would get shot. He had seen the soldiers aim randomly at the trees and shoot, and people dropped dead, like fallen birds.

IN SPITE OF THE TESTIMONIES of several eyewitnesses, it remains impossible to say with any certainty how many people were killed in Chuknagar. Abul Bashar said he later met 44 manual labourers who had disposed of the dead bodies, dragging them into the river and allowing them to float away, at the behest of the Pakistani army. The army had paid them two annas per body, and each labourer claimed to have disposed of at least one hundred. That indicates a possible count of 4,400 dead. Abul Bashar nonetheless claimed the figure was closer to 10,000. Dragging an adult body to the river, however, would have taken some time, and it is improbable that each labourer could have disposed of so many bodies.

The Chuknagar massacre remained largely forgotten for many years. It was hardly known outside Bangladesh; within the country, it was relatively little talked about. After 1975—the year the country’s first prime minister, Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated—Bangladeshi politics began to accommodate politicians who had been unenthusiastic about freedom for East Pakistan.

The noted Bangladeshi filmmaker Tanvir Mokammel, who has researched the massacre for years, recently completed a feature-length film, Jibondhuli (The Drummer), based on the life of a low-caste Hindu drummer whose family was killed in Chuknagar. Muntassir Mamoon, a historian at Dhaka University who has written several volumes on the war, edited a compilation of testimonies from more than eighty survivors of Chuknagar, and he accepts a figure of 10,000 deaths. Some activists in Bangladesh would like the government to declare 20 May as Genocide Day. It is nearly impossible to gather the names of the massacre’s victims, because the incident occurred more than forty years ago; as in Badamtola, not all those who died lived in Chuknagar, and nobody carried identification papers. In many cases, entire families were killed, leaving no survivors to come looking for them later.

Many villagers claim that “thousands” died in their villages, but social scientists attempting to add up the numbers have rarely managed to collect more than thirty to fifty names from each location. Reporters, too, have been frustrated by the lack of precise information. Martin Woollacott, who was a correspondent for The Guardian during the war, wrote:

“How many were killed?” we would ask refugees who had fled from areas where the Pakistani army and its auxiliaries were attempting to suppress the Bangladesh independence movement. “Lakhs and lakhs!” came the answer. Journalists who covered the Bangladesh war in 1971 remember the phrase with a mixture of amusement and frustration. It sometimes seemed as if the majority of Bengalis knew no other number, or, if they did, it was “crore.”

The academic Sarmila Bose published a controversial book about the war, called Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, in 2011. In it, she attempts a forensic dissection of Bangladeshi claims about the total number of deaths and the scale of atrocities. Her account is broadly sympathetic to the Pakistani army. Bose is the granddaughter of Saratchandra Bose, the older brother of Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian nationalist who allied with Hitler in World War II and took over the Indian National Army in Singapore. Bengalis on both sides of the India-Bangladesh border revere the Bose brothers, and Sarmila received warm cooperation from Bangladeshis when she began her research.

Many Bangladeshis have come to feel betrayed by the book. Bose interviewed numerous witnesses—both Hindu and Muslim, men and women—and drew from the Pakistani army’s internal reports, to conclude that Pakistani forces are “demonised” by Bangladeshis and accused of “monstrous actions regardless of evidence.” In particular, Dead Reckoning challenges two central beliefs in Bangladesh—that all Bangladeshis were victims, and that they always fought bravely.

Bose examines the Chuknagar massacre in some detail. She finds it hard to believe that fewer than thirty soldiers, who arrived in two or three trucks and carrying limited ammunition, could have killed 10,000 people in a few hours. She writes:

What is interesting about the number is that while estimates of the dead range widely in various accounts, the number of the killers is consistent—they were very few, according to all accounts, some say twenty to twenty-five, or even fewer. They arrived in Chuknagar in about three vehicles. Also consistent is the evidence that the attackers were lightly armed, carrying only their personal weapons. Given the type of weapon and extra ammunition carried by a soldier at that time, a band of thirty soldiers would not have more than 1,200 bullets to use in total. Not all of the bullets would hit their targets and not each hit would kill.

When I asked the witnesses I met in Chuknagar—teachers, a school principal, shopkeepers, and a priest at the Hindu temple—I got a range of responses about the number of deaths. Some said 10,000, others 20,000. There are no records of the dead, no graves to visit, no memorial stones to humanise the statistics by giving names to the victims.

Applying rigour to understand the scale of a massacre is a sound academic principle. In the context of Chuknagar, Bose writes, “The attempt by some Bangladeshis to establish the ‘largest mass killing’ of 1971, with the attendant claims that 25-30 soldiers armed only with their personal weapons killed 10,000 people in a morning’s expedition, are unhelpful obstacles to chronicling what was clearly a major massacre”.

But Bose overstates her case when she blames the massacre entirely on “a band of twenty-five to thirty men” who “brought lasting disgrace to an entire army and a whole nation.” In so doing, she takes at face value the notions that the Pakistani armed forces were exemplary and professional, fighting an armed insurgency supported by a belligerent neighbour; that they tried to play fair in a hostile terrain with which they were unfamiliar; and that a few units had rogue elements. This analysis is far too generous to the Pakistani army, and discounts the atrocities that people in East Pakistan, including men such as Ershad Ali Morel and Nitai Chandra Gayen, suffered for no fault other than wanting to live peacefully in their own country.

Allen Ginsberg wrote in his lyrical anthem, ‘September on Jessore Road’: “Millions of souls nineteen seventy one/ homeless on Jessore road under grey sun/ A million are dead, the million who can/ Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan. ” AP Photo

Bose’s credulity in taking at face value the defenses that Pakistani generals have put up, and her deep skepticism over any claims Bangladeshis make, both suggest that she was predisposed to her findings: that Bangladeshis exaggerated their suffering, and Pakistani generals deserve better. Writing about the Khulna jute mill massacre, in March 1971, Bose mentions “several thousand” Bihari victims—referring to the Urdu-speaking Muslim population of East Pakistan. Bengalis did indeed kill many Biharis during, and particularly after, the war. But nowhere in Dead Reckoning does Bose examine claims of Bihari deaths with the same rigour she applies to Bengali ones.

Missing from her analysis is the application of Occam’s razor, which would yield a simpler narrative: that a nation of two halves separated by a thousand miles, with little in common except faith, was probably a bad idea to begin with. When the part that felt discriminated against protested; demanded respect, cultural autonomy and more resources; and even won a majority in nationwide elections, the dominant half ignored the verdict, declared the election invalid, sent in troops and killed, at the least, tens of thousands of people, before surrendering to a guerrilla force assisted by a superior army—but not before destroying the new nation’s physical and intellectual infrastructure. Many Bangladeshis insist what they experienced during 1971 was genocide. Legal scholars wedded to internationally-negotiated definitions are reluctant to use the “G-word,” but call it what you will, it remains a crime against humanity.

This essay is adapted from Salil Tripathi’s The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, published this month by the Aleph Book Company.