Accurately estimating the numbers of those dead in any conflict is notoriously difficult. In Bangladesh, these practical difficulties are exacerbated by the partisan nature of the politics

On April 17, the Bangladesh’s War Crimes Tribunal initiated contempt proceedings against the Dhaka-based British journalist David Bergman for, among other matters, questioning the death toll from the country’s 1971 war. In the following article, Mr. Bergman explains why journalists and scholars should be able to question this figure.

Is the Bangladesh government’s official figure of three million a fair estimate of the number of people killed by the Pakistan military and its collaborating forces in the country’s 1971 independence war? Though over 40 years have passed since the end of the conflict, in Bangladesh, this question continues to be a sensitive one. In part, the sensitivity is because Bangladeshis have grown up with this number — it is taught in schools and has become embedded in the country’s poetry and culture.

So, for many people, even questioning the accuracy of the number seems to cut across deeply held beliefs.

It is also due to the identity of the person who first declared the figure of three million — the country’s independence leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who is also the father of Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Speculating about the accuracy of the figure is perceived by some as impugning Mujib himself, a figure revered in Bangladesh — particularly among the supporters and leaders of his party, the Awami League.

The three million figure also forms a part of the orthodox nationalistic discourse about the 1971 war which continues to be crucial to the political positioning of the Awami League government vis-à-vis the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Even raising uncertainties about the three million figure is considered by many Awami Leaguers as reflecting an “anti-liberation” war and “oppositional” mindset.

Therefore, those in Bangladesh who might seek to question the accuracy of three million dead tend to keep their heads down — fearing political backlash and personal attacks.

Mujib and the ‘3 million’ figure

Nonetheless, it is important that journalists and independent researchers do assess the accuracy of this iconic figure of three million. This is not in order to minimise the extent of atrocities committed by the Pakistan military and its collaborators which were undoubtedly very significant, but for the purposes of a more accurate representation of history that is not in thrall to partisan interests.

On January 18, 1972, eight days after Mujib returned to a newly independent Bangladesh following his nine month imprisonment in a Pakistani jail, he gave an interview with the British broadcaster, David Frost. “… 3 million people have been killed, including children, women, intellectuals, peasants, workers, students,” he said.

When Frost asked him how he knew that the “number was as high as 3 million,” Mujib replied, “Before my coming, my people had started collecting the information. I have messages coming from all areas where I have a base. We have not finally concluded, it might be more, but definitely it will not be less than three million.”

This was not the first time he had mentioned the three million number. He had mentioned it on January 10, the day of his arrival in Bangladesh, but Frost’s interview went global.

At the time, some of Mujib’s confidantes were surprised to hear him suggest such a high number and suspected that the country’s independence leader had meant to say three “lakh” (300,000) — see “Mujib’s confusion on Bangladesh’s deaths,” the letter of Serajur Rahman, the former deputy head of the BBC Bengali Service, to The Guardian, May 24, 2011).

However, Sayyid A. Karim, Bangladesh’s first Foreign Secretary under Mujib, did not think the country’s new leader had make this mistake. After commenting in his biography of Mujib, published some years later, that the three million figure was “no doubt a gross exaggeration,” Mr. Karim said, “Curious as to how the figure of three million dead had been arrived at, I asked someone in the Prime Minister’s office about this. I was told that this figure was taken from Pravda, the organ of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

Indeed, a report from Pravda had been published in early January 1972 in a number of local newspapers under the headline “Pak Army killed over 30 lakh people.” However, the Pravda article should have given Mujib’s advisers pause for thought.

Apart from providing no substantive basis for its three million estimate, the report also stated that “800 intellectuals” had been killed in Dhaka in the days “immediately” before the surrender of the Pakistan military — when the Bangladesh authorities would soon have been aware that the correct figure was closer to 20 (a figure not in dispute).

Survey findings and research

To his credit, Mujib sought accurate data on the numbers of those killed, and within days of the Frost interview established two committees to obtain lists of the war dead.

However, the government never publicly released the committees’ findings — and it has been suggested that this was because the details of only 57,000 people could be identified. Of course, this was only months after the end of the war, and the low number could have been due to the practical difficulties of undertaking a systematic national survey in the immediate post-war period.

However, since then, no Bangladesh government has undertaken any further research on this matter.

Soon after the war ended, the Cholera Hospital (now known as the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh) undertook a comprehensive population survey in a locality called Matlab where around 120,000 people lived. Although this thana represented only a small part of the country’s overall population, the war in Matlab Bazar followed the general chronology of the national conflict.

“The army made its first appearance in the area in April with an expedition to Chandpur, an inland port about 13 miles south of Matlab Bazar,” the international researchers stated in their 1976 article published in the respected journal, Population Studies.

“In June, the thana headquarters were raided by the army, and in July the army instituted periodic counter-insurgency operations in the area. This precipitated out-migrations from the thana. As the conflict progressed, the insurgents grew in strength and the intensity of the hostilities increased. By November, insurgents controlled the entire thana.”

The research concluded that there were a total of 868 excess deaths in this area in the wartime period from all causes.

The researchers then looked at whether this number could help estimate the probable “overall” demographic impact of the war in Bangladesh.

While stating that “the conflict undoubtedly had different impacts on different geographical areas within Bangladesh” and that “the impact of the war in Matlab Bazar [was] not representative of the nation as a whole,” the article states that Matlab nonetheless “illustrates and reflects in a qualitative sense the consequences of the civil war.”

The authors (one of whom was recently honoured by the Prime Minister as a Foreign Friend of Bangladesh for his work during the 1971 war) then concluded that “accepting these limitations,” the excess death rate in Matlab “implies an overall excess number of deaths [in the whole of Bangladesh] of nearly 5,00,000.”

This research is the only detailed survey work undertaken on the number of deaths in the 1971 war.

Many years later, academics at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, at the University of Washington in Seattle looked at reports on sibling deaths in World Health Organization population surveys that had been undertaken in Bangladesh.

In an article published in 2008 in the British Medical Journal, the authors concluded that the number of 1971 wartime dead ranged between 1,25,000 to 5,05,000 — substantiating the 1976 Matlab study estimate.

Apart from these two studies, all the other material (other than that of Pakistan’s Hamoodur Rahman Commission report which estimated that 26,000 people had been killed supposedly on the basis of “situation reports” from the military’s Eastern Command to the General Headquarters) are simply subjective estimates, mostly based on media reports which are themselves subjective estimates.

These range from 1.5 million, as suggested by the writer R.J. Rummel to 50-100,000 estimated by the academic Sarmila Bose.

The Indian position

And what was the position of India — which intervened militarily and brought about the early surrender of the Pakistan military?

In their 1990 book, War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, Richard Sisson and Leo E. Rose state, “We interviewed two Indian officials who had held responsible positions on the issue of Bangladesh in 1971. When questioned about the actual numbers of deaths in Bangladesh in 1971 attributable to the civil war, one replied ‘about 300,000’. Then, when he received a disapproving glance from his colleague, he changes this to “300,000 to 500,000’.”

And more recently, Gary Bass, in his book, The Blood Telegram, about the role of the United State in the 1971 war, quotes a senior Indian official putting the Bengali death toll at “three hundred thousand” and General Jacob, who spearheaded the Indian Army’s military intervention into Bangladesh in December 1971, as stating that the Pakistan forces “had killed, several hundred thousand.”

Of course, accurately estimating the numbers of those dead in any conflict, whether involving current wars or those from the past, is notoriously difficult — and in Bangladesh, these practical difficulties are exacerbated by the partisan nature of the politics which would now make independent research on this matter very difficult.

This is a pity — as the number of civilians who were killed in atrocities by the Pakistan military in 1971 was, without doubt, very high. Whatever might be the actual figure, it would not affect the government’s current policy for the need for criminal accountability for these offences.

(David Bergman is a journalist with the New Age newspaper in Bangladesh.)

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