In September Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinejad delivered a speech at Columbia University amidst much protest. The protests stemmed from his views on the Holocaust. Under questioning Ahmedinejad conceded that the Holocaust had indeed happened, but he was calling for further “research” to “approach the topic from different perspectives”. In doing so, Ahmedinejad was engaging in the modern form of Holocaust Denial. Ahmedinejad’s “different perspectives” were on display last year when he called for a conference on the Holocaust. At the time, his spokesman declared “I have visited the Nazi camps in Eastern Europe. I think it is exaggerated.”
Modern Holocaust Denial has three key elements. The Deniers argue that the Nazis did not kill five to six million Jews; that the Nazis did not have a systematic policy of killing Jews; and, that the genocide was not carried out in extermination camps. Ahmedinejad and others call for further “research” to investigate one or more of these key elements. Their goal is to diminish the genocide by, first, questioning its extent and then by arguing that whatever killings took place were part of the normal savagery of war and not as a result of any systematic campaign by the Nazis. Holocaust Denial is anti-Semitism in the cloak of “scholarship”. Over a half century after perhaps the most well-documented act of genocide in the history of mankind, Holocaust Deniers still persist in trying to diminish its horrors.
Holocaust Denial is an example of the phenomenon of genocide denial that crops up to challenge almost every accepted case of genocide. The genocide committed by the Pakistan army during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 is no exception. Because of the scale of the atrocities in 1971 against a civilian population of 70 million people it has proved impossible for genocide deniers to claim that the atrocities did not occur. Instead, they have focused on two tactics used to try to deny the Holocaust: that the scale of the genocide was not that great, and that the Pakistan army had no systematic policy of genocide.
Most estimates of the 1971 genocide put the death toll between 300,000 and 3 million Bangladeshis dead, with between 200,000 to 400,000 women raped. R.J Rummel, in his book Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900, puts the death toll at around 1.5 million. According to Gendercide Watch:
The number of dead in Bangladesh in 1971 was almost certainly well into seven figures. It was one of the worst genocides of the World War II era, outstripping Rwanda (800,000 killed) and probably surpassing even Indonesia (1 million to 1.5 million killed in 1965-66).
Susan Brownmiller, in her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, puts the number of women raped by the Pakistan military and their local collaborators, the Razakars, between 200,000 and 400,000. She writes:
Rape in Bangladesh had hardly been restricted to beauty. Girls of eight and grandmothers of seventy-five had been sexually assaulted … Pakistani soldiers had not only violated Bengali women on the spot; they abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use.
On March 25, 1971 the Pakistan army unleashed a systematic campaign of genocide on the civilian population of then East Pakistan. Nine months later a defeated Pakistan army left in its wake one of the most concentrated acts of genocide in the twentieth century.
After the Bangladesh Liberation War the government of Pakistan produced a report on the actions of the Pakistani army during 1971 known as the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report. While the report acknowledged that the Pakistani army had indeed committed atrocities in Bangladesh, it downplayed the extent of the atrocities and denied that there was any systematic policy of genocide:
31. In the circumstances that prevailed in East Pakistan from the 1st of March to the 16th of December 1971, it was hardly possible to obtain an accurate estimate of the toll of death and destruction caused by the Awami League militants and later by the Pakistan Army. It must also be remembered that even after the military action of the 25th of march 1971, Indian infiltrators and members of the Mukti Bahini sponsored by the Awami League continued to indulge in killings, rape and arson during their raids on peaceful villages in East Pakistan, not only in order to cause panic and disruption and carry out their plans of subversion, but also to punish those East Pakistanis who were not willing to go along with them. In any estimate of the extent of atrocities alleged to have been committed on the East Pakistani people, the death and destruction caused by the Awami League militants throughout this period and the atrocities committed by them on their own brothers and sisters must, therefore, be always be kept in view.
32. According to the Bangladesh authorities, the Pakistan Army was responsible for killing three million Bengalis and raping 200,000 East Pakistani women. It does not need any elaborate argument to see that these figures are obviously highly exaggerated. 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. In fact, however, the army was constantly engaged in fighting the Mukti Bahini, the Indian infiltrators, and later the Indian army. It has also the task of running the civil administration, maintaining communications and feeding 70 million people of East Pakistan. It is, therefore, clear that the figures mentioned by the Dacca authorities are altogether fantastic and fanciful.
33. Different figures were mentioned by different persons in authority but the latest statement supplied to us by the GHQ shows approximately 26,000 persons killed during the action by the Pakistan Army. This figure is based on situation reports submitted from time to time by the Eastern Command to the General Headquarters. It is possible that even these figures may contain an element of exaggeration as the lower formations may have magnified their own achievements in quelling the rebellion. However, in the absence of any other reliable date, the Commission is of the view that the latest figure supplied by the GHQ should be accepted. An important consideration which has influenced us in accepting this figure as reasonably correct is the fact that the reports were sent from East Pakistan to GHQ at a time when the Army Officers in East Pakistan could have had no notion whatsoever of any accountability in this behalf. [Emphasis added by me.]
The Report’s estimate of 26,000 dead stands in stark contrast to every other study of the death toll, which put the death toll between 300,000 to 3 million. The Report was an attempt by the Pakistani government and army to dictate the narrative before the true extent of the genocide became evident to the world. The Pakistani Report has nonetheless stood as the document of last resort for most 1971 genocide deniers.
Following up on her 2005 paper denying the extent of the 1971 genocide published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Sarmila Bose has now published a paper denying the extent of the rapes of Bangladeshi women by the Pakistan army and the Razakars. In her paper entitled “Losing the Victims: Problems of Using Women as Weapons in Recounting the Bangladesh War” she states in the introduction:
That rape occurred in East Pakistan in 1971 has never been in any doubt. The question is what was the true extent of rape, who were the victims and who the perpetrators and was there any systematic policy of rape by any party, as opposed to opportunistic sexual crimes in times of war.
At the very beginning of her paper, she lays down the two tactics familiar to all genocide deniers: she questions the extent of the rape and questions whether there was any systematic policy of rape. Ms. Bose argues that claiming “hundreds of thousands” were raped trivializes “the possibly several thousand true rape victims” of the war. She however does not offer a good explanation as to how she reached the “several thousand” number other than saying that so many rapes would not be possible by the size of the Pakistani army in 1971. She also, unsurprisingly, quotes the passage from the Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report that I cited above to support her assertion that so many rapes could not have occured.
To try to bolster her argument that the Pakistani forces in Bangladesh could not have raped so many women, she claims:
The number of West Pakistani armed forces personnel in East Pakistan was about 20,000 at the beginning of the conflict, rising to 34,000 by December. Another 11,000 men – civil police and non-combat personnel – also held arms.
For an army of 34,000 to rape on this scale in eight or nine months (while fighting insurgency, guerrilla war and an invasion by India), each would-be perpetrator would have had to commit rape at an incredible rate.
The actual number of Pakistani forces at the end of the war, and taken POW by the Indians, was 90,368, including over 54,000 army and 22,000 paramilitary forces. It is not unreasonable to conclude that a force of 90,000 could rape between 200,000 to 400,000 women in the space of nine months. Even if only 10% of the force raped only one woman each in nine months, the number of rapes are well over “several thousand” claimed by Ms. Bose. Since Ms. Bose does the math in her paper, I will do the macabre calculation for the total force here. To rape 200,000 Bangladeshi women a Pakistani force of 90,000 would have to rape 2 to 3 women each in nine months. Not only is this scale of atrocity possible by an army engaged in a systematic campaign of genocide, it also has parallels in other modern conflicts (for example, the rape of between 250,000 to 500,000 women in Rwanda within 100 days).
Ms. Bose also paints a picture of the Pakistani military as a disciplined force that spared women and children. She writes:
During my field research on several incidents in East Pakistan during 1971, Bangladeshi participants and eyewitnesses described battles, raids, massacres and executions, but told me that women were not harmed by the army in these events except by chance such as in crossfire. The pattern that emerged from these incidents was that the Pakistan army targeted adult males while sparing women and children.
However, her field research is contradicted by all available evidence. From the early days of the war, women and girls were targeted for rape and killed. On March 30, 1971 the American Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Blood, sent a telegram to the State Department recounting the Pakistani atrocities in Dhaka. In it he wrote:
Major atrocity recounted to him took place at [R]okeya Girls’ Hall, where building set ablaze and girls machine-gunned as they fled building. (USIS local who lives nearby confirms girls gunned down.) Girls had no weapons, forty killed. Attacks aimed at eliminating female student leadership, since army apparently told girl student activists resided there. Estimated 1,000 persons, mostly students, but including faculty members resident in dorms, killed.
On March 31, 1971 Archer Blood sent another telegram which contained the following chilling account:
Atrocity rales rampant, including those of reliable eyewitnesses. Bengali businessman not AL supporter saw six naked female bodies at Rokeya Hall, Dacca U. Feet tied together. Bits of rope hanging from ceiling fans. Apparently raped, shot and hung by their heels from fans. Workmen forced to dig mass graves at Dacca U. Report 140 buried within. Other graves equally as large. Japanese report they told 400 killed there.
The reports from the American Embassy in Dhaka give us a small window into the systematic killing spree that was Operation Searchlight, the code name the Pakistani army gave to the first stage of the genocide operation.
Ms. Bose continues to paint the Pakistan military as a disciplined force not capable of systematic rape. She cited a memo written by the Pakistani general leading the army in its campaign, General Niazi, who reminds his officers that they have a “code of honor” and as “gentlemen and officers” they should abide by it. She then writes that Pakistani officers she spoke to were “indignant” at charges of large-scale rape and claimed these charges are false:
During my research, some Pakistan army officers who had then been junior officers serving in East Pakistan, told me of occasional opportunistic cases of rape or attempted rape by army personnel, such as when on patrolling duty. Usually, the accused soldier was put through the army’s disciplinary process and jailed if found guilty. In some cases officers on the field meted out exemplary punishments themselves – such as thrashing the offender in front of other troops and locals.13 Officers reporting the occasional cases were indignant at the accusations of large-scale rape, which they said were false.
Ms. Bose follows a similar pattern throughout her paper. She gives credence to the stories told to her by the Pakistani military, the perpetrators of the rapes, and dismisses as “alleged” and not credible the accounts of the rape victims. However, contemporaneous news reports from 1971 tell a different story. For example, an October 25, 1971 Time Magazine article detailing the Pakistani military atrocities reports on women and girls held captive and raped at Pakistani military headquarters in Dhaka:
One of the more horrible revelations concerns 563 young Bengali women, some only 18, who have been held captive inside Dacca’s dingy military cantonment since the first days of the fighting. Seized from Dacca University and private homes and forced into military brothels, the girls are all three to five months pregnant. The army is reported to have enlisted Bengali gynecologists to abort girls held at military installations. But for those at the Dacca cantonment it is too late for abortion. The military has begun freeing the girls a few at a time, still carrying the babies of Pakistani soldiers.
Among the countless other reports of systematic rape by the Pakistani army is this report from August 1, 1971 that appeared in the New York Times. It details interviews with some of the 10 million Bengali refugees that fled to India to escape the Pakistani army’s brutality.
Having portrayed the Pakistani military as a benevolent force, Ms. Bose then attempts to discredit a handful of accounts of rape victims as a way of casting doubt on the rapes committed during the 1971 genocide.
She begins by trying to cast doubt on an eyewitness to rape named Rabeya Khatun who she dismisses as illiterate:
She is illiterate, as her signature is a ‘tip-sohi’ or finger imprint. Khatun, therefore, is not in a position to verify what is written in her name.
Ms. Bose then dismisses accounts of two other corroborating witnesses because their testimony is similar to hers and they too are illiterate:
Indeed, the language in this part of the statement is strikingly similar to the statement of Rabeya Khatun’s, raising the possibility that the same person wrote the two testimonies. The language is not what would be used either by illiterate sweepers or by educated Bengalis in everyday conversation.
She then finds refuge in the account of a Pakistani Lt. Colonel Taj who, unsurprisingly, “categorically denied that any molestation of women had taken place at Rajarbag by his men.” Ms. Bose then informs us Lt. Col. Taj was not actually present at Rajarbag after the first night of military action. Yet, she felt the need to inject him as a fact witness. Then she dismisses Ms. Khatun’s account as “highly dubious”:
Still, the account given by Rabeya Khatun is highly dubious. Being a busy police headquarters in the capital city, whatever happened at Rajarbag would have had many witnesses. It is quite possible that sexual violence occurred at Rajarbag – police stations across south Asia are notorious for such offences, but until and unless other, credible witnesses come forward, the hellish account attributed to one illiterate woman simply will not suffice.
It is one of the tragedies of the Third World and of Bangladesh that a large portion of the population is illiterate. However, the Pakistani military did not discriminate between illiterate and literate classes in its campaign of killings and rape.
Ms. Bose then tries to cast doubt on the account of rape victim Ferdousi Priyabhashini, an educated woman and well-known sculptor. Ms. Bose’s argument here is somewhat muddled, but it appears that she is claiming that Mrs. Priyabhashini was less of a rape victim and more of a willing participant. Ms. Bose writes, “It is highly unusual for someone of her background to admit to have been a rape victim, especially in the conservative societies like Bangladesh.” Ms. Bose goes on, “According to her own account, in 1971, Ferdousi Priyabhashini was a mature woman, a divorced mother of three, working for many years.” After a muddled discussion of Mrs. Priyabhashini’s account of rape by Pakistani soldiers, Ms. Bose concludes:
A final inconsistency in Ferdousi’s account is that as the Indian army and Bangladeshi freedom fighters approached Dhaka, she was warned by a non-Bengali clerk in her office that she would be killed and should flee. Ferdousi makes much of the threat to her life – but as Bangladesh became independent, only those who were perceived to have willingly fraternised with the Pakistani regime were at risk of the wrath of freedom fighters, not victims of the regime. [Emphasis added by me.]
I gather Ms. Bose is asserting that since Mrs. Priyabhashini feared for her life, she must have consented to having sex with Pakistani soldiers. I think even a rudamentary understanding of the effect of rape on the victim casts doubt on Ms. Bose’s argument.
Ms. Bose goes on to try to cast doubt on the account of Akhtaruzzaman Mandal who was a freedom fighter who accompanied Indian soldiers as they took control of a Pakistani position and took 30 to 40 Pakistani soldiers captive. There Mr. Mandal states that he saw the dead body of the Pakistani Captain in charge lying beside a dead Bengali woman who showed signs of rape. Mr. Mandal also states that four naked women were discovered locked in a building and one of the women was six months pregnant. Another 16 women were also discovered locked in an adjacent high school, some showing signs of torture.
In discounting Mr. Mandal’s account, Ms. Bose writes that she interviewed two Pakistani officers who told her that only four or five soldiers had been captured. One of the Pakistani soldiers said that dead Captain was “humane” and had only recently arrived at the location. She writes:
The picture painted of Captain Ataullah by this fellow officer,who knew him, completely contradicts the one given by Mandal, who appears to have only seen his dead body. Clearly, if Captain Ataullah had been based in Nageshwari and only gone up to Bhurungamari the day that the Indian attack started, he could not have been responsible for whatever might have been going on in Bhurungamari. Mandal offers no corroborating evidence for his character assassination of an officer who had died defending his country, and therefore, cannot speak in his own defence. [Emphasis added by me.]
Ms. Bose once again is ready to accept the word of the Pakistani soldiers, the perpetrators of rape. There are many cases of rapists in this world who appear to be “humane” to those who know them.
In critiquing accounts of seven rape victims describes in Neelima Ibrahim’s book Ami Birangona Bolchhi, Ms. Bose notes that four of the seven women were abducted by Bengalis and one by a Bihari before being handed over to the Pakistani army. Some of the women were raped by their initial abductors before being handed over to the Pakistani army to be held in barracks and raped. Ms. Bose neglects to mention that those who abducted the women were local collaborators, or Razakars, working with the Pakistani military. Nonetheless, she makes this bizarre observation:
The allegation that the army maintained “comfort women” – even if the numbers were nowhere close to Bangladeshi claims – is a serious charge and merits further inquiry. However, Ibrahim’s book reveals that in most cases the abductors and rapists of Bengali women were Bengali men, who later passed them on to the military. For the majority of these women, therefore, even if the Pakistan army had done nothing, they would still be rape victims. [Emphasis added by me.]
The point of course is that the Pakistani army had done something – they had raped these women. I feel compelled to make the obvious point that in a gang rape situation, all rapists are considered rapists and are culpable, not just the first one. In another attempt to humanize the rapists, Ms. Bose writes of one rape victim in Neelima Ibrahim’s book who went to Pakistan and married her rapists. Ms. Bose then points out that the rape victim then “had a son by her Pathan husband in Pakistan. When the son grew up, he joined the Pakistan army.”
In this latest paper Sarmila Bose tries mightily to diminish the atrocities committed by the Pakistani military in 1971. She, however, offers very little of substance to back up her assertion that the existing research and documentation of the 1971 genocide overestimates the death toll and the rapes. Her claim that, in her words, the “unsubstantiated and implausible” claims of hundreds of thousands of rape victims distracts attention from the “true rape victims” and “insult the true victims by trivialising their suffering” is itself an insult to the victims of rape in Bangladesh. The number of rape victims does not diminish the suffering of any individual rape victim; the vast number of rapes only demonstrates the heinous magnitude of the Pakistani campaign. If there is any insult, the insult lies in not acknowledging all the victims of the Pakistani army’s rapes by trying to dehumanize the rape victims further by asserting that these rapes did not take place.
In her attempt at denial she relies on the Pakistan government’s report on the atrocities and the accounts of Pakistani soldiers. She overlooks news reports from the time, eyewitness accounts, academic works and case studies. In the end, her paper is neither scholarly nor neutral. It is an apologia for the Pakistan army and for the genocide it perpetrated against the Bangladeshi people in 1971.