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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Alam-Nist

The Genocide That The West Forgot

When I ask if people know what Operation Searchlight is, generally very few people have heard the name. Those who have rarely know the extent of the devastation. Unlike the Rwandan Genocide, Armenian Genocide, the holocaust or atrocities following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the crimes committed in Bangladesh in 1971 have largely slipped out of the public consciousness in the West. However, in Bangladesh, they are branded in the nation’s psyche.

In 1947, the British partition of the ‘British Raj’ left the subcontinent divided, with India occupying a central position and Pakistan flanking both sides of the new Indian state. The new Pakistani state consisted of both West Pakistan, which is what we call modern-day Pakistan, and East Pakistan, which is modern-day Bangladesh.

In addition to East and West Pakistan being geographically distant, the two regions endured widescale economic and political separation. West Pakistan enjoyed economic and political preference within the fledgling nation state, receiving 75% of the new state’s investments and 70% of her imports despite comprising less than half the nation population-wise and producing around half of the nation’s exports. In the years preceding Operation searchlight, West Pakistani elites attempted to make Urdu the national language of the Pakistani state, despite less than 10% of the East-Pakistani population speaking Urdu. When the Bhola cyclone hit Bangladesh in November 1970, killing 300,00 people, the West-Pakistani response was indolent.

Favouritism by the regime overall fuelled a (largely justified) perception that the East-Pakistanis, despite being a slight ethnic majority, were treated as second class citizens within their state of Pakistan. In Pakistan’s 1970 elections, an overwhelming majority of East Pakistani votes went to the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who ran on a platform of East Pakistani autonomy. This consequently would have allowed Rahman to form a government that likely would have tried to fight against West Pakistani control and potentially establish a Bengali nation state.

Such a prospect was met with both shock and anger by the West Pakistani elites and Yahya Khan, the de facto dictator of West Pakistan at the time. Rather than allow Rahman to establish a government, Khan postponed the government’s first meeting and declared martial law. This was met with riots across East Pakistan. Rahman stoked the anger by encouraging civil disobedience in front of a crowd. Following this widespread unrest, it seemed as if a resolution might have been reached when, from the 16th to 24th, Rahman and Khan met and seemed to resolve issues. However, on the night of March 25th West Pakistani soldiers entered East Pakistan, Rahman was arrested, and Operation Searchlight began.

Over the ensuing year, widespread atrocities were committed across East Pakistan in a cruel attempt to quell Bengali nationalism. It is difficult to overstate the scale of the brutality. Modern academic estimates suggest that between 300,000 and 500,000 Bengalis were killed in the violence. Official Bengali sources place the number as high as 3 million, although the providence of this claim is dubious and seem to rest more on modern politicisation of the dispute rather than strict historical evidence. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 400,000 Bengali women were raped in the carnage. The scale of the atrocities was so devastating that the United Nations had to send in doctors to Bangladesh towards the end of the conflict to help women receive abortions. Over 10 million refugees fled to India.

The barbarity only came to an end when West Pakistan, fearing an Indian attack relating to the migrant crisis, launched a pre-emptive strike against India only to be decisively defeated and forced into an unconditional surrender. From the chaos of Operation searchlight, the modern state of Bangladesh was born.

It is clear that operation searchlight involved wanton acts of violence and atrocities. However, whether it represents a genocide is often hotly contested. Only two nations – Banglaldesh and India – recognise it as a genocide. At the time, claims were lobbed from Pakistan that, quizzically, Bangladesh was instead responsible for genocide.

It seems likely that Operation Searchlight fulfils the criteria necessary to be considered a genocide. Genocides can be against ethnic, racial, national or religious groups. For a given group, the United Nations defines a genocide as:

a. Killing members of the group;

b. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to the members of the group;

c. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ;

d. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

It is likely that East Pakistani, or Bengali, is a sufficiently distinct identity to qualify as an ethnic group under the United Nations definition.

Using the UN definition of genocide, it seems that most obviously, the targeted killings of Bengalis during operation searchlight fit standards of components a. and b. of genocide. Operation searchlight resulted in extremely widespread killings, physical mutilation and emotional damage.

The mass rape during the crisis, under the UN definition, can be considered a genocide in three main ways. Firstly, it causes obvious serious physical and mental harm. Secondly, it inflicts on a group harm that could partially bring about its ethnic destruction. Finally, it interferes in births within a group.

The mass rape can be considered so important in defining Operation Searchlight as a genocide due to the way in which is was partially intended to partially remove Bengali as a separate identity, by creating a generation of children whose parents would have been West Pakistani as well as East Pakistani.

Wardatul Akmam has also correctly identified that, in addition to the UN definition, it is important to consider the dismemberment of the elites and structures of a group within the wider context of genocide. In many cases, the destruction of elites and institutions within a group can be tantamount to the destruction of an identity and thus qualify as genocide. Within operation searchlight, there were clear attempts to remove power structures within East Pakistan to eliminate the independence of the identity. This seems likely to be a further step towards genocide.

It thus seems that, legally, there is sufficient basis for Operation Searchlight to be considered a genocide. It seems unlikely that it will be recognised by major powers any time soon. Most of the world has little stake in the recognition of Operation Searchlight as a genocide and fears alienating Pakistan by such a move. However, Operation Searchlight is a founding atrocity that Bangladesh will never forget. It would be right to at least remember it in the West as well.


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