Controversy over Bangladesh’s War Dead: 3 lakh (300,000) or 30 lakh (3 million)?


By Q M Jalal Khan

The latter is simply impossible. That the number of liberation war martyrs of Bangladesh in 1971 stood at 30 lakh or 3 million is literally disproportionate and totally unacceptable. It needs to be accurately determined and a correct number ought to be established in the interest of the nation, even after 50 years of its independence. A nation cannot stand on an inadvertent lie or a wishful myth of historic and horrendous proportions. What follows is important for two reasons: one, it’s an attempt at debunking the big and bombast lie of a fact-free but not fat-free figure of casualties and, two, at defending the right of academic researchers and political leaders who should feel free to raise questions about the number of the liberation war dead without being threatened or suppressed for their freedom of speech.

On September 14, 2019, Liberation War Affairs Minister AKM Mozammel Haque said that only 5,795 out of 30 lakh (3m) martyrs of freedom war have been listed. It is an old story revived by the Minister only to lend support to the anti-Awami narrative rendered by many writers and researchers over the years. The still alive and active controversy is like that of the role and status of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman versus Ziaur Rahman, right or wrong national anthem (“Amar Sonar Bangla”) of Bangladesh and whether the people of Bangladesh are Bungalee under the misleading Bengali nationalism or (more properly) Bangladeshi under the logical and legitimate concept of Bangladeshi nationalism.

On the question of and the need to document the number of the martyrs during the 9-month-long liberation war, let me begin by referring to Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury of Public Health Center, Savar, Dhaka. He said that not less responsible for the miserable condition of the nation as a diseased body were the uncritical sycophants and lackeys, as he called them. One may argue that those zealots affect the state body as politically poisonous Zika, Ebola, and Chikungunya viruses. They act like indiscriminating remote control robots or the nuisance that is the rats of the pied piper of Hamelin, to be destroyed by drowning in the river. George Orwell would like to allegorically describe them as animals of all kinds – pigs, boars, dogs, hens, pigeons, sheep, goats, cows, horses, donkeys, mares, cats, rats, ravens, rabbits, all with different skills and qualities of their own – from being shrewd, evil, and domineering to dull, boorish, and boring.

Himself an eminent freedom fighter, Dr Chowdhury also questioned the veracity of the claim that the liberation war casualties stood at 3 million (3,000,000). It was also questioned by many others such as the daily New Age editor Nurul Kabir, New Age special correspondent British journalist David Bergman, New York-based (formerly pro-Awami, now anti-Awami) writer and social media activist Dr Mina Farah, and many BNP leaders, such as Gayeshwar Chandra Roy, Nazrul Islam Khan, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, Nilufar Chowdhury Moni and Fahima Nasrin Munni, among others.

The question of the story of 3 million goes back to Gen Yahya Khan, President of Pakistan (1969–1971), who is said to have wanted to kill that many, according to Robert Payne, author of Massacre: The Tragedy of Bangladesh and the Phenomenon of Mass Slaughter (Macmillan, 1973). It is also a question backed by misinformation or misunderstanding (or maybe a slip of the tongue?) during Sheikh Mujib’s interview with the then BBC journalist Sir David Frost on 8 January 1972, right after Mujib’s arrival in London, following his release from the Pakistani jail – that there may have been an inadvertent mistake or mix up on his part of Bangla 3 lakh (300,000) with English 3 million.

The number – 3 million – does not have to be capriciously established by Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League without a complete and scientific survey just because it is now taken for granted by them to their political advantage. History should not be taken hostage by whatever is convenient to the Hasina-led Awami agenda. If, following a fair, credible and authentic survey, the number is less, let it be; if more, let that be too. Until and unless there is a full and complete count, all Bangladeshis – politicians, historians, and the future generations – would continue to raise questions and challenge the figure of 3 million preferring not to leave the same to rest as it is – unruffled and undisturbed. In his excellent 2017 article, “Myth of 3m killed & 200,000 raped in 1971,” Dr Junaid Ahmad contends:

The repeated claims of 3 million killed and the rape of 200,000 Bengali women were stopped after a tripartite agreement between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh in April 1974. During the regimes of General Zia, General Husain, Mohammad Ershad and later Khaleda Zia, the Bangladesh government was more pragmatic and made friendly overtures to Pakistan. However, the present government of Hasina Wajid of Awami League continues to use this exaggerated lie of 3 million killed to hatemonger if not to evoke the baser emotions of its electorate to cultivate support and also to court favors from India.

Even basic arithmetic, which seems to be beyond the grasp of the Bangladeshi establishment, shows the unabashed absurdity of the 3 million killed and 200,000 women raped myths. To illustrate, perhaps at the expense of disgusting my readers, the Army action in East Pakistan started on 26 March and lasted till 16th December, 1971 – a total of 262 days. This implies that about 11,450 Bengalis would need to have been picked-up, killed and buried every day. When compared to the 2nd World War for instance, the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany in 6 years comes to only 2,740 killed every day – markedly less. Both the figures of the daily killings are fantastically preposterous and defy common sense.

Upon his return to the newly independent Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib reportedly ordered a 12-member committee, on January 29, 1972, to find out the exact number of the dead. After nearly completing the work two years later, the commission came up with a number in the neighborhood of 58,000 to 65,000. The commission’s work, however, did not proceed for reasons unknown and mysterious. According to Zoglul Husain of the UK, “Around 1972-73, the Bangladesh Red Cross Secretary (of which Gazi Golam Mostafa was Chairman) was given the assignment by Mujib to study the number of deaths in 1971. After about 9 months of study, when three-quarters of Bangladesh was covered, they found about 60,000 dead. Mujib then asked them to stop counting and destroy the papers, and they did it accordingly. Since then, no survey was done.”

In his soon-to-be published article, “Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and His Daughter Sheikh Hasina: A Short Account of Their Dismal and Disastrous Record,” Dr Sultan Ahmad of the USA attempts to make a point saying: “No initiative was ever taken to make a list of the unknown hundreds and thousands of martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the independence of the country, which was disgraceful and unfortunate. In fact, the number of martyrs in the market is only guess-based, which has become a dirty political debate. Mujib voluntarily absented himself from the war, thereby having no contribution in its execution and victory. Could that be a reason for his disinterest in learning about the number of people died in the war?”

Some members of the said survey team such as Secretary (Ret) Asafuddowla are still alive. They could very well be asked to provide their testimony, as Dr Zafrullah asserted. Dr Mina Farah, in two of her great and golden columns, addressed the controversy and argued that three million deaths in 1971 meant there had to be at least one death in every twenty five people, which she claimed did not add up to the reality nor did it confirm and corroborate the exaggerated 3 million figure.

Following the similar argument, also Javed Helali of Austin, Texas, would like to contend that, even though killing even ONE innocent person was reprehensible, 3 million meant 11,000 deaths a day every day for 9 months. Could it be possible, he asked, that somebody made a mistake somewhere in translating 3 lakh as 3 million?

The BNP Joint Secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi cited different sources giving different estimates. According to the former Awami MP M A Muhaimen in 1990, the number was over 100,000 (1 lakh); according to a Liberation hero, M R Akhtar Mukul, the number was 200,000 (2 lakhs); and Bangladesh’s first Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmad put the number at one million (10 lakh/1m) on January 3, 1972.  According to a Wikipedia entry, “In the post-war period, authorities estimated that over a million people had been killed in Bangladesh by Pakistani state forces and collaborating militias.” According to an Independence Day (December 16, 1971) Bangladesh Government-released Liberation Supplement, the number was one and a half million (1,500,000 or 10.5 lakhs). According to a BBC report following the execution of the Jamaat leader Moulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, “Exact number of people killed in 1971 is unclear—Bangladesh says it is three million but independent researchers put the figure at up to 500,000 fatalities.”

In her Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (2011), Dr Sarmila Bose of Oxford University claims that the total number of the dead during the war, combatants and civilians combined on both sides, was between 50,000 and 100,000. Prof R J Rummel’s estimate, in his book, Death by Government (1997), is 1,247,000. According to the Wikipedia:

The total number of people killed in East Pakistan is not known with any degree of accuracy. Bangladeshi authorities claim that 3 million people were killed, while the Hamoodur Rahman Commission, an official Pakistan Government investigation, put the figure as low as 26,000 civilian casualties […] A 2008 British Medical Journal study by Ziad Obermeyer, Christopher Murray, and Emmanuela Gakidou estimated that up to 269,000 civilians died as a result of the conflict. The authors note that this is far higher than a previous estimate of 58,000 from Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. According to Serajur Rahman, the official Bangladeshi estimate of “3 lakhs” (300,000) was wrongly translated into English as 3 million.

Serajur Rahman (who died on 1 June 2015) was deputy head of BBC Bengali Service, London. He expressed his surprise at Mujib’s figure of 3 million Bangladeshi war dead (because of Mujib’s wild exaggeration). In a letter to The Guardian, UK, on 24 May 2011, he stated that he mentioned to Mujib, on 8 January 1972, the figure of three lakh (three hundred thousand) as their (BBC’s?) estimate of the death toll in 1971 war, but Mujib in an interview with David Frost, mentioned the figure to be 3 million, which may be a mistranslation or a confusion.

Citing evidence from (1) the British journalist William Drummond in The Guardian, (2) BBC Bangla Service’s Serajur Rahman, and (3) Professor Richard Sisson’s and Professor Leo Rose’s book, War and Secession: Pakistan, India and the Creation of Bangladesh, Dr Firoz Mahboob Kamal, a UK resident, supports the same view.

As recently as January 2017, BBC Bangla Service contended why the number of the freedom fighters kept increasing, based on the ever-fluid and varying definition of a freedom fighter. Referring to different narratives in different books, the BNP Chair Begum Khaleda Zia simply said that there was still a controversy about the exact number of people martyred during the Liberation War, adding that different sources in published material suggested different numbers in this regard, implying that there was a need to come up with a clear and final number.

In his article, “Bangladesh: Challenges of Democracy and Good Governance,” a paper presented at Southwestern Social Sciences Conference at San Antonio, Texas, April 5, 2014, Lakehead University Political Science Professor Syed Serajul Islam contends with the same issue:

Individuals whether they are true freedom fighters or not depend on their belongingness to the party. In this way, being, or not being, in the political party becomes a “yardstick” to identify the individuals who are freedom fighters. This constantly perpetuates division not cohesion. Thus, until now there has been no accurate list of Freedom Fighters in Bangladesh. The BNP, while in power in 1992, prepared a list of the Freedom Fighters that was revised by the AL while it was in power in 1996. Again, the BNP revised that list in 2001 which was further revised by the AL in 2010. How could the list of Freedom Fighters be changed again and again, considering that the liberation war was over in 1971?

Dr Anisur Rahman, a liberal and secular-minded retired nuclear scientist in the UK (who is suffering from a sense of Islamophobia to the point of being an atheist!), sounds otherwise perfectly logical and sensible in his view about the number of the war dead:

Bangladeshis (in fact, the large majority of Bengalis all over the world) are either totally innumerate or totally prone to rumor-mongering […] Take, for example, 3 million deaths in the liberation war! No more than few thousand dead bodies have actually been accounted for in the whole of the country. But then the official figure had been put out as three million and now it has to be established by force of law, not by statistical or numeric count! In Syria, after 6 years of most vicious and barbaric fights—destroying most of the cities and towns in the country almost completely—the UN figure of death toll so far is around 400,000. But in Bangladesh, in nine months with no clash of armies, no aerial bombings, no tank fights, no suicide bombings, etc. three million death figure had been cocked up by illiterate politicians! Now this figure gets into the school text books and so, we are teaching the future generations a total lie about the liberation war! (E-mail of May 11, 2017 to the author)

Like the different estimates of (1) the number of prophets in Islam (varying from 1 lakh 40 thousand to 2 lakh 40 thousand), (2) the Holocaust dead (the number of Jews killed during World War II), (3) the number of the freedom fighters of Bangladesh, and (4) the number of Myanmar Rohingya refugees taking shelter in Bangladesh, the controversy surrounding the number of Bangladesh war casualties during its liberation war is not new. The controversy was there right from the beginning, from the time of the emergence of Bangladesh. It is a pity that there has been no proper and accurate survey of the war dead even after forty-nine years of independence, as a result of which many families who lost their near and dear ones may still remain unrecognized, suffering from poverty. The fact that there was a need to account for the total number is/was supported by many politicians, political commentators, journalists, academics, and researchers, including the opposition BNP.

That the BNP chief Khaleda Zia used the same controversial, yet the so-called “official” number in her occasional and ceremonial messages in the past as prime minister does not mean it is forbidden for her to raise the issue and take issue with it later. Like many other still unsettled issues facing the nation, this issue also is far from being settled, at least scientifically, unless the present folk-based speculative and hypothetical supposition about the count is taken for granted. Ironically, excepting for nonstop corruption, politicization, criminalization, bribery, intolerance, vindictiveness, abductions and assassinations, and persecution and politically motivated low-merit penal lawsuits and jail, torture, discrimination, and imprisonment, nothing has been settled in Bangladesh. There are still big questions marks (?) about the nationhood that needs to be unified and solidified; the national anthem; status of the two great leaders (Zia and Mujib); state of democracy; free and fair elections; role of the police; election commission; anti-corruption commission; judiciary; quality of education (from primary to tertiary); and the nasty and filthy ever widening discrepancy between the rich and the poor.

Unfortunately, Khaleda Zia, like the former Air Chief and Awami Cabinet minister A K Khandoker, was singled out to face a purely despotic political harassment, an autocratic sanction on her freedom of expression and an authoritarian government-sponsored sedition trial. Whereas Sheikh Hasina’s liberation war minister, AKM Mozammel Haque, was free to say that Bangladesh became independent at the sacrifice of Indian soldiers, which undermined the extent of the sacrifice of the millions of Bangladeshi freedom fighters, Khaleda is facing a sedition trial for simply referring to the long-existing differences of opinion over the controversial (higher or lower) number of liberation war casualties and for merely implying the need to determine a correct figure based on a scientific study – a study Sheikh Mujib himself once wanted to undertake. Although there are many records and writings to show that Mujib ended his 7 March speech with “Long Live Pakistan,” A K Khandoker was singled out for bitter and brutal Awami criticism for saying so in his 2014 book. Since there has always been a controversy surrounding the number of the war dead, every measure should be taken to determine an exact or at least near exact number of the same.

In the latest of the harassing and humiliating bundle of lawsuits against Khaleda, she was sued by the Awami loyalists and Awami fundamentalists for what they called a “defamatory remark” they claimed she allegedly made about Sheikh Mujib. She is said to have commented that Mujib did not want the independence of Bangladesh and that he rather wanted to become the Prime Minister of a large and united Pakistan. One wonders where is the “defamation” in the statement, if she said so, because there is a plenty of no-nonsense (national and international) historical facts and incontrovertible evidences out there to affirm, confirm, and corroborate Khaleda’s observation. In this way, many Awami claims, either concerning the Awamis themselves or the opposition BNP, begin and end in controversy, obstinacy, distortion of history and political manipulation and vindictiveness that do not and cannot stand the test of time.

Q M Jalal Khan is the author of Bangladesh: Political and Literary Reflections on a Divided Country (Peter Lang, 2018) and Bangladesh Divided: Political and Literary Reflections on a Corrupt Police and Prison State (Peter Lang, 2019), in addition to numerous other publications on literature and culture. After disengaging from many years of full-time teaching abroad, American-educated Dr Khan is currently on the adjunct faculty at an institution of higher learning in North America. His recent work, “Sheikh Hasina’s Brutal BNP-Phobia and Her Scandalous “Midnight” Power Grab Through Vampire Vote Dacoity and Villainous “S/Election” Rigging With an All-Time High Record of Humongous White-Collar Corruption” has appeared in Sabria Chowdhury Balland (ed), Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020).


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