The Bangladesh Independence Struggle
by Noorhan Amani
On March 26, 1971, a nine-month long struggle for independence began in East Pakistan, which is now known as the country of Bangladesh. During this nine month period, the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Bengalis by the Pakistani army took place, along with the systematic rape of thousands of Bangladeshi women.
As a young person of Bangladeshi heritage, I have heard numerous stories from elders about the Bangladesh Liberation War and how it affected the lives of our family. One family member was shot and killed by Western Pakistani forces. Countless others, including my grandparents, had to flee their homes and hide in the countryside to avoid being in the way of the Pakistani army.
Even though I had heard so many stories about the bloody birth of Bangladesh, I never actually learned about it at school, and none of my peers around me seemed to knew anything about it. In middle school, I decided to do some research myself and find out whether my family’s experiences were really as horrifying as they had portrayed it to be. I ended up finding out, to my surprise, that the Bangladesh Liberation War was more than just a struggle, it was an ethnic cleansing.
The conflict between East and West Pakistan began in 1948, right when the Indian Subcontinent was partitioned into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan by the British colonizers. Pakistan consisted of two wings which were separated by India in the middle. West Pakistan was ethnically Punjabi, while East Pakistan was ethnically Bengali. The Western Pakistanis took control of the government, and made Urdu the national language of Pakistan, even though Bengalis spoke Bengali. They looked down on the Bengalis and refused to recognize Bengali as a second national language, even though there was a higher population of Eastern Pakistanis (Bengalis) than Western Pakistanis. In the 1950s, the Bengali Language Movement arose to advocate for the recognition of Bengali as a national language of Pakistan. After much struggle, Bengali was made as the second official language of Pakistan. Still, that did not change the attitude towards Bengalis. They were still looked at as second-class citizens and were discriminated against. During the late 1950s and 1960s, the Bengali nationalist movement continued, with Bengali leaders such as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman demanding political and economic autonomy for East Pakistan.
In March 1971 the Pakistani government (which was composed of an overwhelmingly majority of Western Pakistanis) carried out Operation Searchlight. This military operation, conducted by the Pakistani army, aimed to eliminate Bengali academics, intellectuals, nationalists in a killing campaign, curb all political and military opposition, and marked the beginning of the nine-month long Bangladesh Liberation War. Between March and December 1971, hundred of thousands of Bengalis were murdered (the exact figure is unknown; estimates range from 300,000 to 3,000,000) and buried in mass graves, which are still being found to this day, and 200,000-400,000 Bengali women were raped.
On December 16, 1971, the Pakistani army surrendered after Bangladeshi liberation forces, with help from Indian forces, were able to drive Pakistani forces out from key strongholds in East Pakistan. At last, the nation of Bangladesh was finally liberated after months of discrimination, genocide, and war.
Today, Bangladesh is almost 45 years old and is the 8th most populated country in the world. Though most of the population still lives in poverty, the country has come a long way since its humble and bloody beginnings in 1971, with the GDP rising every year and strides being made to improve access to education and health for all. However, the scars of the War still exist, and every year, Bangladeshis recognize and remember the martyrs of the War on Bangladesh Independence Day in March and Victory Day in December.