In just 9 months in 1971, the Pakistani army killed 3 million people in what was then known as East Pakistan and is now known as Bangladesh. Contrast this with Hitler’s atrocities when 6 million Jews were killed between 1941 and 1945. For the sheer intensity of the atrocities, for their sheer brutality packed within a short time, Pakistani’s annihilation of Bangladeshis beats any other purge anywhere in the world. Which is why it is a matter of huge regret that the the world has not paid much attention to this genocide.
(The atrocities by Pol Pot in Cambodia were spread over 4 years when 2 million were killed)
As I see pictures of Narendra Modi, the Indian PM, who landed in Bangladesh earlier today, my mind goes back to those days. I was 8 going on 9. it started as a game for me and my sister. Every evening the sirens would go off. Sometime around then, power to would be cut. We would do our homework under the light of hurricane lamps. My sister and I would race to see who could get more windows covered with brown paper so that the light from the lamp could not be seen by overflying aeroplanes looking for a target to bomb though I don’t think any Pakistani plane ever got close. We would seal up the windows good. Once in a while, we would rush to the terrace hearing the sound of a plane which were told was an Indian fighter jet rushing to defend Bangladesh. If we spotted one, we would scream in sheer delight.
Not that I understood much. I did not know why there was a war, I did not know anything about the genocide that was going on less than 100 miles away from where we lived in Calcutta. I only knew that something big was happening. I got really excited my when my grandfather took me to Southern Avenue to see Indira Gandhi drive past in an open jeep. The roadsides were lined up with more people than I had ever seen. I waved to her and she waved back. I did not know then that that was a victory procession. I did not understand the significance of it then. A few weeks later my father took me to see a Pakistani tank which was kept in the Maidan area. There was not much of a crowd and we were allowed to go in. I got to play inside the tank for a few minutes. I did recall thinking how anyone could sit inside all cramped up.
Over the next few weeks and months and even years, the enormity of what happened sunk into me gradually. I heard about this place called Salt Lake on the outskirts of Calcutta where the refugees were being settled. Millions of them. i heard abut the squalour and the dirt and how the area had become smelly. Today that area houses the affluent of Calcutta. Over the next few years I read about how many refugees were moved to a place called Dandakaranya in Orissa.
This post is triggered by an article I read today by Ravi Venkatesan describing India as a poor country. When I recall the enormity of the sacrifices that must have been made by people at that time to accommodate the displaced people from across the border, the enormity of which is sinking into me only now, I can tell you that it cannot be the act of a poor country. We have poor people in this country alright, but when I recall what we did then, I would hesitate to call ourselves poor.
It strikes me that that was then India as a world power came on the world stage. Because being a world power is about caring, it is about caring for the consequences of one’s actions not to mention of that of others. But for the genocide which the world is yet to recognise for what it was, I am not sure Indira Gandhi would have intervened. Of course it must have occurred to her that if she won, as she did, her position in the government would not be challenged. The human cost of the refugee influx may also have been a factor. But you don’t act if you don’t care. And she showed that India cared. She showed that India which had been a home for displaced people from all over the world over the ages, could still provide comfort to the displaced from across the border.
Today as my Prime Minister stands in Dhaka, I want him to remember that the greatness of India was reinforced by her actions. I want him to spare a thought to the memory of Indira Gandhi.