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Remembering 5 January, 1964: The Beginning Of A Genocide In East Pakistan

Author: Jaideep Mazumdar
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: January 5, 2024
URL:   https://swarajyamag.com/commentary/remembering-january-5-1964-the-beginning-of-a-genocide-in-east-pakistan

5 January is a particularly dark day in the continuing saga of Hindu persecution in East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh.

On this day sixty years ago, the massacre, rape, abduction, forcible conversion to Islam and displacement of lakhs of Hindus started in that country.

The trigger was the theft of a relic from Kashmir's Hazratbal shrine ten days earlier on 27 December 1963. The relic, believed to be a strand of the beard of prophet Mohammed, was discovered missing that cold December day and triggered widespread protests across the sub-continent.

Pakistan was quick to blame Hindus for the theft, escalating communal passions in both the countries.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru despatched CBI chief B N Mullick to Kashmir to head investigations on 28 December. The relic was recovered on 4 January and three Kashmiri Muslims who had close links with Pakistan were arrested.

Pakistan disputed the authenticity of the recovered relic and continued to blame Hindus for the theft. On 5 January, Pakistan Radio declared that “India had tried to cover up the crime (of theft) by Hindus with the fake recovery and installed it at the shrine, thus insulting Muslims”.

Calls For Hindu Genocide

Pakistan openly called for action to avenge this insult. On 3 January, Pakistan President Mohammad Ayub Khan had said at Dacca (as Dhaka was known then) airport that he would not be responsible for any reaction in Pakistan to the theft.

On 4 January, Abdul Hai, a member of the Pakistan Islamic Board who was close to President Ayub Khan, declared ‘jihad’ against Hindus in Pakistan.

Many other Pakistani politicians, especially those in East Pakistan, made incendiary comments against Hindus and endorsed Hai’s call for ‘jihad’ against Hindus. They termed the recovery of the ‘relic’ a “fake cover-up exercise” and held Hindus collectively responsible.

Muslim religious leaders and politicians in many parts of East Pakistan started issuing decrees from 3 January prohibiting Hindus from wearing any footwear in public, using any mode of transport and even using umbrellas.

Killings Start In Khulna

The first attacks on Hindus started on 5 January at Khulna in southwestern part of East Pakistan. Khulna was the fief of the then communication minister, Abdus Sabur Khan. Khan was notorious for taking over properties of affluent Hindus in Khulna.

He addressed a public meeting on 3 January at Khulna where he delivered a rabidly anti-Hindu speech.

The next day, he addressed another rally at Daulatpur industrial area in the outskirts of Khulna city where he said that the theft of the Hazratbal relic was a ‘Hindu conspiracy’.

Khan called for extermination of Hindus from Pakistan to make it ‘the land of the pure’. About 20,000 Muslims armed with swords, spears, machetes and other weapons heard Khan and then spread across Hindu-dominated areas of Khulna to attack, loot and torch Hindu properties. 

A massacre followed. While Hindu men were summarily killed, Hindu women were gangraped and captured while young girls were abducted and forcibly converted to Islam.

As estimated 5,000 Hindus were killed and 2,000 young women and girls were abducted and converted to Islam in Khulna district alone between 5-12 January.

But even after this Khan went around the district addressing more meetings and calling for the total annihilation of Hindus.

As a result of these attacks, tens of thousands of Hindus fled Khulna and entered West Bengal. Khulna was then the only Hindu-majority province of East Pakistan. By March 1964, it became a Muslim-majority district.

Anti-Hindu Riots Spread Across East Pakistan

After a week of bloodletting and mayhem in Khulna, the anti-Hindu riots spread to other parts of East Pakistan.

As in Khulna, Muslim religious leaders and politicians in Dacca, Rajshahi, Sylhet, Mymensingh, Noakhali, Chittagong and other parts of the country addressed gatherings and issued statements blaming Hindus for the theft of the Hazratbal relic and calling for action against Hindus.

Attacks on Hindus started almost simultaneously in all these provinces from 13 January. The grisly events in Khulna were replicated across the country.

Nearly 2,000 Hindus were reportedly killed and one lakh Hindus rendered homeless in Dacca city alone. All villages and settlements around Dacca were cleansed of Hindus.

The business hub of Narayanganj neighbouring Dacca had a large number of Hindus, many of them affluent businessmen and industrialists. All of them were targeted by Muslim mobs: about 4,000 Hindu men and women were killed, 500 Hindu girls were abducted, 31,000 Hindu houses were looted and destroyed and one lakh Hindus from the entire Narayanganj sub-division were displaced.

In Rajshahi province, an estimated 10,000 Hindus were killed and more than two lakh Hindu houses destroyed. The toll of Hindu lives in Sylhet, Mymensingh, Noakhali, Chittagong and other districts was over 15,000.

The authorities did nothing to save Hindus and prevent attacks on them. Fanatical Muslim mobs were given a free rein and were even assisted at many places by the authorities, including police and even the army.

Lakhs of Hindus who took shelter in schools, colleges and even buildings housing government offices were left to fend on their own. No relief was provided and, at many places, even basic police protection was not given to the displaced.

Hindus Forced To Observe Ramzan:

To make matters worse for Hindus, Ramzan — the Muslim month of fasting — started on 15 January that year.

Muslim religious leaders issued diktats in many parts of the country prohibiting Hindus from consuming food during the one-month period. Hindus were also prohibited from praying and carrying out rituals at temples, and even blowing conch shells in their houses. Hindu women were prohibited from applying sindoor and wearing shakha-pola (shakha is a white bangle made of conch shells while pola is a red bangle made from corals — married Bengali Hindu women wear these) in public.

These restrictions were imposed on Hindus to make the community atone for the theft of the relic from Hazratbal. At many places, temples were looted, desecrated and destroyed, and Hindus were forced to consume beef. Hindu priests were disrobed, paraded naked and smeared with the blood of slaughtered cows.

On Eid-al-Fitr (the end of Ramzan) that fell on 14 February that year, countless Hindus across East Pakistan were forced to part with their cattle that were slaughtered for beef feasts in which the Hindus were forced to participate.

According to many accounts, thousands of Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam in Sylhet, Noakhali and Chittagong on 14 February. Workers and employees of 35 tea gardens in Sylhet were given the option of being killed or accepting Islam that day.

An estimated two lakh Hindus crossed over into West Bengal, mainly from Khulna and Rajshahi provinces, and another 1.2 lakh Hindus from Mymensingh, Dhaka and Sylhet provinces sought refuge in Assam while about 60,000 Hindus fled to Tripura from Comilla and Chittagong provinces.

Anti-Hindu Measures By Authorities

Pakistani authorities passed a new law — East Pakistan Disturbed Persons (Rehabilitation) Ordinance (I of 1964) — that prohibited sale of immovable properties by Hindus.

This move was aimed at preventing Hindus who were fleeing the country from selling their lands and houses. As a result, Hindus had to abandon their properties, which were then simply taken over by Muslim politicians, clerics and other influential people.

Many prominent Hindus like lawyers, doctors, university professors, politicians and even members of the East Pakistan Legislative Assembly were arrested and jailed.

Press censorship was imposed and Hindu-owned publications banned. All foreign correspondents were asked to get their despatches cleared by government authorities and Indian journalists posted in East Pakistan were given two days to leave the country.

Nehru’s Apathy

The Indian government at the centre did little to provide relief to the lakhs of Hindus who had fled East Pakistan.

According to western media reports, about 6,000 Hindus would mob the Indian mission in Dacca for permits to emigrate to India. But the Indian foreign ministry permitted the mission to issue permits to only a couple of hundred Hindus a day.

In mid-February, the chief ministers of Bengal and Assam (Prafulla Chandra Sen and Bimala Prasad Chaliha respectively) sent urgent missives to Nehru asking for funds to provide relief to the lakhs of Hindu refugees who had flooded their states.

Nehru replied that he had spoken to Pakistan President Ayub Khan who had assured him (Nehru) that it was safe for the Hindus to return to East Pakistan!

An outraged Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (the President of India) took it upon himself to write to Ayub Khan to stop the genocide of Hindus.

Khan cheekily replied that the attacks on Hindus in Pakistan was a reaction to the theft of the relic from Hazratbal shrine by Hindus and the attacks on Muslims by Hindus in India!

By the end of March that year, things got back to normal in East Pakistan.

But by then, an estimated 40,000 Hindus had been killed, Hindu women raped, about 5,000 Hindu girls abducted and forcibly converted to Islam, lakhs of Hindu homes looted and destroyed, or taken over by Muslims, and lakhs of Hindus driven out from East Pakistan.

Since then, more attacks on Hindus have taken place in East Pakistan (till 1971) and Bangladesh (post-1971). The persecution of Hindus in Bangladesh is a continuing pogrom that receives scant international attention and even less condemnation.
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