The second partition

Pakistan celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. But it is not the state that Jinnah created out of partition in 1947. In 1971 its more populous eastern wing declared unilateral independence. Colin Smith recalls the large and small atrocities that accompanied the birth of Bangladesh
May 19, 1997

It is not the most dashing way to go to war. I was being pedalled towards the sound of guns in a pedi-cab, an overgrown tricycle powered by poverty. The feet on my pedals were clad in the grey plastic pointed slippers worn by most of the Bengali peasantry, and which resembled the beach shoes I wore as a child. They were made in China which had a sweetheart trade deal with Pakistan, to whom they also supplied their version of the Kalashnikov rifle.

I was in what was then east Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, heading down the road from the Indian border to the town of Jessore. The most deadly thing I saw in the hands of Bengali civilians that morning were cheap, single-barrelled shotguns. Most of the youths in shirts and chequered lungis who flagged down my pedi-cab demanding to know who I was and where I was going were carrying no more than sharpened bamboo sticks and machetes. They were elated, drawing courage from each other. "Where are you from?" they asked, their faces close, fingering my black shoulder bag. "London proper? What is your good name?" "Are you married? How many sons?" The fashionable length of my hair also invited comment: "Are you knowing the Beatles?"

I was 26 and a staff reporter on the Observer. This was my first big foreign news story. I had never set foot in India or Pakistan before and on the flight out I took a crash course in the politics of the subcontinent reading long articles in the Observer and the Sunday Times. In 1947 Quaid-E-Azam Jinnah, a chain smoking barrister, founded Pakistan, the world's first theocratic state and a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent-nearly one quarter of the population of British India. But Pakistan was built like a pantomime horse. Its halves were separated by 1,200 miles of Indian territory. Where its backbone should have been Pakistan had religion and, in the end, religion was not enough. The small, dark Bengalis of east Pakistan had little in common with the tall, light-skinned Punjabis and Pathans of west Pakistan, apart from religion and British ways of administering themselves. The east wing, with its main town of Dhaka, was the more populous half of the Muslim state yet it was governed from Islamabad, the new capital Pakistan had built in the Punjab.

According to Sheikh Mujib ur-Rahman, whose Awami League had become the voice of Bengali home rule, they had simply exchanged white for brown sahibs. Everything from western aid to tea crops was said to be syphoned off by the west wing. The Bengali language had to take second place to Urdu, the lingua franca of west Pakistan, and the official language of the civil service and the army, then ruling Pakistan for the third time in its short history.

When Mujib won all but two of the east wing's 169 seats in elections for a new constituent assembly, the Awami League demanded total autonomy for east Pakistan. In a land the size of England, the then 75m Bengalis were policed by about 25,000 west Pakistani troops. The Bengalis began to taunt them. In the villages, the first red, green and gold flags of Bangladesh were flying. Letters appeared in newspapers referring to "the defeated army of 1965"-the last war with India. Students openly mocked the military whose patience was wearing thin.

The killing started in earnest towards midnight on 25th March 1971, when the tanks of the "defeated army" turned up at Dhaka University and started shelling and machine gunning a students' residence. Other units went to the city's Hindu quarter and, after enjoying their women, did their best to exterminate this nest of Indian vipers. They also attacked the Dhaka HQ of the locally raised East Pakistan Regiment and the East Bengal Regiment. Some of the Punjabi and Pathan officers saw themselves engaged in a re-run of the 1857 Indian mutiny. They were the sahibs and the Bengalis were the sepoys, treacherous ingrates who did not deserve a bullet where a bayonet would do.

Naturally, General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, Pakistan's latest dictator, wanted as few witnesses to these events as possible. Foreign reporters who had been gathering in Dhaka were rounded up and flown out to Karachi. Only an Italian photographer with a bullet wound and two enterprising characters who hid on the roof of Dhaka's InterContinental Hotel remained. (These were Simon Dring and Michel Laurent, the latter a brave young French photographer who four years later was the last western journalist to be killed in Vietnam.)

The closer my pedi-cab got to Jessore the more our progress was hindered by refugees heading for India and sanctuary among the predominantly Hindu communities of west Bengal, an incredible step for a Muslim Bengali since the border had been virtually closed following the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Some were on ox carts and bicycles. Most were on foot, the women with huge bundles on their heads. There was talk of air raids. "Lakhs have been killed." A lakh is 100,000 and often seemed to be the smallest Bengali unit. Sometimes I would be accosted by educated Bengalis, school teachers or employees of Grindlays Bank, who would demand: "Why is Great Britain not helping us? Why is India not helping us?"

The first shots I saw being fired were by a bren gunner of the East Pakistan Rifles. He was trying to shoot down a four engined Hercules transport of the Pakistani airforce as it made its approach into Jessore airstrip. He was lying by a bridge across the sluggish Kaputakha river and was wearing one of the soup plate style helmets that had served the British well in both world wars. Alongside him were two small boys passing him fresh magazines and having the time of their lives. Then the bren gunner, perhaps playing to his audience, stood up, put the heavy weapon to his shoulder and fired one long burst which propelled him slowly backwards. It was magnificent. John Mills in Dunkirk keeping the Stukas off the beach at Elstree Studios. And it was useless. The Hercules made a perfect landing. I wondered whether its crew had even been aware they were being shot at. My pedi-cab man discovered pressing business elsewhere and insisted I pay him off.

A corporal asked me to accompany him to a house where he said there was the body of a man who had been bayoneted by the Punjabis. The dead man was on the veranda lying under a grey blanket. The corporal lifted the blanket to reveal the small puncture wound in his side which did not look capable of letting the life out of someone. His face was uncovered. I wrote in my notebook: "Flies around his mouth." It was the first time I had seen a dead body.

Shortly afterwards we came under mortar fire. I found myself crouched with a couple of others in a drainage ditch between the road and a dried out paddy field. About 400 yards away a cloud of white smoke was rising. The next one showered us with dust and I fell into a full length sprawl, alongside a helmetless airforce mechanic. We dusted ourselves off. Cigarettes were handed around. There was the thwack of machetes on dabs (green coconuts). Fear makes you thirsty. "What are we do to?" asked a middle aged lieutenant with white flecks in his hair. He was trembling. "We are a police force not soldiers. We don't have heavy weapons."

A young man on the verge of tears arrived holding up his sister who looked to be in her mid-teens and was sensationally pretty or had been until a few minutes before. She was holding a bloody rag to her right cheek which had been sliced open by a splinter from one of the mortar bombs. There were splashes of blood on the light brown sari she was wearing. "Now you see what's happening," said the lieutenant.

I mumbled something about a doctor. "Doctor? What doctor? We have no first aid," said the lieutenant. He sounded triumphant. Then somebody handed me an army field dressing. "But I'm not a doctor," I bleated. "It's British," said the lieutenant, as if that clinched everything. Sure enough, the faded print on its canvas cover not only confirmed its provenance but its year of manufacture. It was 1942, the year the Japanese kicked us out of Singapore and most of Burma, the year of the great Bengal famine and of Gandhi's second arrest. It appeared to have been stitched together with the dedication of Savile Row. I tugged, red-faced and useless at these ancient bonds while the girl swayed patiently besides me. Eventually I remembered I was carrying a German knife I had picked up in Namibia the month before and opened the dressing with it. The bandage emerged in a light brown desert camouflage, it was also the year of El Alamein. I prised the bloody rag from the girl's fingers and her face started to fall apart until I got the flap of flesh back into place with the gauze of the dressing, wrapping the bandage tightly around her head. I could not help noticing how well the desert camouflage went with her sari.

My cruellest images of the Bengali uprising which led to Indian intervention and the end of east Pakistan are of two atrocities-one large scale and one small scale. I never saw either. But the first was commemorated for many years in photographs on the wall of the Bangkok foreign correspondents' club. They showed Bengalis bayoneting to death in the Dhaka stadium pleading Biharis, descendants of Muslims from the Indian state of Bihar who, on partition in 1947, had fled to east Pakistan. During the rebellion the Urdu speaking Biharis sided with the Urdu speaking Pakistani army. They were double losers; in 1947 and again in 1971. And despite promises from Islamabad to rescue them, many tens of thousands still languish in camps in Bangladesh.

The pictures of the Biharis being used for bayonet practice were taken by a British photographer who won at least one award for them. His newspaper used to display them in its Fleet Street front window like cinema stills, much to the disgust of other photographers who had walked out of the stadium feeling the killings were being staged for their benefit.

My other image was described to me some years after the event and, since I owed a kindness to the victim, I can never think of it without a chill. It is of a corpse in a river, by some caprice borne upright in a strong current so that the head and shoulders are visible from the bank. It is the body of Father William Evans, a catholic priest from Massachusetts. He had been shot by Pakistani soldiers.

I last saw Father Evans at his mission in the village of Boro Gullah, a few miles west of Dhaka, on the eve of Easter Sunday 1971. With me was the Italian photographer Romano Cagnoni and we were returning some shirts we had borrowed from the priest. We had worn the shirts in order that we might better resemble the expatriate engineers we claimed to be. We were hoping Father Evans would put us up for the night as he had done a few days before. But the priest did not want to do anything more to draw attention to his small Christian flock. "There was a lot of gossip after your first visit," he told us, and sent us on our way clutching some cans of tuna fish. With Ekram, our student guide, we walked through the night, tired and drenched by a tropical storm. At the time I was a bit resentful.

i got back from my first trip into east Pakistan, telexed a report from my Calcutta hotel on the bamboo stick army I had encountered around Jessore, and then almost got lynched by a Bengali mob who thought I was an agent of the CIA. This was mostly the fault of Sunanda Datta Ray, a clever Bengali journalist who later went on to edit Calcutta's Statesman newspaper, but was then its chief political writer, an arena for which his waspish talents were well suited.

I had returned to the frontier with Sunanda in his chauffeur driven Ambassador car. We wanted to see if it was true that the old Hindu-Muslim divide had been bridged by hundreds of Hindu youths from west Bengal who had gathered at the Radcliffe Line to demonstrate solidarity with their east Bengali brethren. In Calcutta there were new graffiti demanding a "United Bengal"-something India had not seen since before the Moghul empire.

The Bengalis can be a volatile people. The British recognised this and so did their successors in New Delhi. For some time the activities of the Naxalites, the local revolutionary Marxists, had placed the whole of west Bengal, including Calcutta, under martial law. Most of the young men at the border had been waiting for days for something to happen and they examined the contents of the Ambassador with intense curiosity. Then, by some awful crowd chemistry, a decision was made. Perhaps it was the chauffeur that did it. Perhaps it was the sight of Sunanda's Dunhill cigarette holder, for at times he adopted a foppish manner, more Coward than Calcutta. For whatever reason it soon became obvious to these patriots that we were there to spy on the Bengali revolution for the Americans who were perceived, quite rightly, as being pro-Pakistan. (The cold war was hot on the subcontinent. The Russians were supplying the Indians with warplanes.)

The young men brought the Ambassador to a halt, daring the driver to run them over. He dared not. From the goldfish bowl of the car we watched the angry faces chanting, "CIA, CIA." Some of the faces had been crushed against the car so that they had their noses and lips flattened against the windows like naughty children pulling faces. There was a bump on the roof and an upside down head appeared at my window. "Joy Bangla!" I mouthed weakly.

Sunanda was made of sterner stuff. He stretched out his legs, screwed yet another Rothmans into his holder and blew smoke at the flattened faces of the masses. Outraged, they began rocking the car. It felt as if we were in a small boat. Very soon it felt as if we were in a small boat in a Force Seven, and only the arrival of the border police saved us from capsizing.

I decided to get to Dhaka. Romano Cagnoni and I arrived at Father Evans's St Francis Xavier Mission at Boro Gullah shortly after dark on Maundy Thursday. The village lies on a quiet tributary of the Dhalesewari river about 20 miles west of Dhaka. It was converted to Christianity in the 17th century by Portuguese missionaries and has a tradition of supplying sea cooks to the merchant fleets of the world.

The last leg of our journey there was completed in a country boat. It was three days since we had left the Indian border 80 miles away. When we could not get a boat we travelled by foot, ox cart, and, when we were very lucky, Toyota jeeps abandoned by various UN agencies and seized by the Awami League.

Romano was a photographer living in London who had distinguished himself covering the Biafra war. He was not impressed by the Bengalis. He thought Biafrans braver secessionists. We had never met before but teamed up in Calcutta the way young journalists on the road make up life as it goes along.

All day, as we made our way through the refugees who continued to stream towards the Indian border, we had heard fresh rumours. The Punjabis were dropping paratroopers. Everywhere! Chittagong had been bombed to smithereens. There was plague in Dhaka. India had declared war. Hurrah! India had closed the border and there was no longer anywhere to run to, lakhs had been killed. We saw old sweats with swagger sticks bellowing commands in English at awkward squads of youthful volunteers being taught to drill in columns of threes. The more we saw of them the more apparent it became that the Bengalis were not going to be another Viet Cong.

Father Evans invited us to spend the night with him and, having made arrangements for our Muslim companion, Ekram, to eat with one of his servants, he produced a Virginia ham which he had been saving for Easter. "These are difficult times for minorities," he said as we tucked into Islam's forbidden flesh. His parishioners were saying that the entire Hindu population of Dhaka had been wiped out. He ordered that the church bells remain silent on Easter day. No sense in drawing attention to themselves.

We set out in a country boat shortly before dawn, gliding into the sunrise hidden in its shelter, watching through the gaps in its bamboo weave as the land woke up. Brightly coloured birds flew about the reeds; grey curls of smoke rose from village cooking fires; women entered the water to bathe fully clothed, making complicated underwater adjustments to their saris; naked small boys did back flips from the bank briefly revealing the white soles of their feet. The boatman put a lantern sail up and we drifted past mosques and Hindu temples with terraced garden and steps down to the water's edge.

"Come spring, O mother mine!" sang Ekram. Like most educated Bengalis, Ekram worshipped Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali aristocrat from Calcutta who wrote poetry in English and was the first Asian to win the Nobel prize. Now reciting Tagore was an act of resistance and the words Ekram sang would become the national anthem of Bangladesh.

Come spring, O mother mine!

Your mango groves are heady with fragrance,

The air intoxicates like wine

We entered Dhaka shortly after midday on Good Friday 1971. Grey caped Asian crows, fat on human flesh, bounced about the corrugated iron sheeting that was the wreckage of people's homes. Ekram had dropped us off at a ferry point about ten miles from the city centre.

We walked for a while and then flagged down a scooter rickshaw which took us to the Deputy British High Commission where we managed to talk our way past the fixed bayonet of the Pakistani sentry at the door. To their credit the British and Americans were the only diplomatic missions to remain in Dhaka. That is about the only creditable thing I can find to say about these British dips, who were in a state of hysteria about our arrival. It would get them all killed "and probably yourselves as well."

"Embarrassing in front of a wop eh?" said Romano as we remounted our rickshaw and went to the nearby US consulate. Here cold beers and a wall map were produced. Men in short sleeved, button-downed shirts quizzed us about our journey. They wanted to know if the rebels still controlled the countryside, if we had seen evidence of massacres, if we had noticed any support from India.

The disgust they felt for the Pakistani army was evident. Months later I discovered that, by the time we got to them, the consulate had already begun to bombard the State Department with atrocity stories and urge Washington to cut General Yahya's arms supplies. President Nixon took a dim view and had the consul general in Dhaka fired. Pakistan was the conduit for the White House's secret talks with Peking that led to rapprochement with China and outflanked Russia. Nixon and Kissinger needed Yahya no matter how many Bengalis died.

Father evans was killed on the afternoon of 13th November 1971 when he was called over to a Pakistani outpost while travelling by countryboat to the village of Boxingar to hear confessions. His Muslim boatman ran away and lived to tell the tale. He thinks he escaped because the priest nudged the arm of the soldier who was firing at him.

On 22nd November the second Indo-Pak war began when the Indians invaded east Pakistan, an operation they had delayed until there was enough snow in the Himalayan passes to stop the Chinese making a diversionary attack on behalf of their Pakistani allies. It came too late for thousands of Bengalis killed by an army trying to glue Jinnah's Pakistan back together with terror. To this day nobody knows how many died. Certainly lakhs. Estimates normally start at one million. Occasionally I wonder if the girl who was hit in the face survived. She would be a middle aged woman now with a large scar on her right cheek.