Blood in the Water

The contested history of one of Bangladesh’s worst wartime massacres

01 November 2014
The refugee crisis caused by the 1971 war displaced up to 10 million people from Bangladesh.
AP Photo
The refugee crisis caused by the 1971 war displaced up to 10 million people from Bangladesh.
AP Photo

IN THE WINTER OF 2012, when I drove along Jessore Road, it was a weather-beaten two-lane road with waterlogged fields on either side, the landscape occasionally interrupted by a few shops—a mechanical works, a petrol pump, or a tea stall. Jessore Road connects south-western Bangladesh to Kolkata, in West Bengal. During the war of 1971, it was one of the lifelines that connected refugees from East Pakistan, fleeing war and massacre, to India. Of those fateful eight months, as the world slowly realised that a massacre was underway in East Pakistan and sympathy and support began to trickle in from the West, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg wrote in his lyrical anthem ‘September on Jessore Road’:

Millions of daughters walk in the mud
Millions of children wash in the flood
A Million girls vomit & groan
Millions of families hopeless alone

Millions of souls nineteen seventy one
homeless on Jessore road under grey sun
A million are dead, the million who can
Walk toward Calcutta from East Pakistan

The road passes through Khulna district in southern Bangladesh, and is the gateway to the world’s largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans, formed at the confluence of the Padma, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. This was once Bengal’s jute territory: before Partition, jute would be taken from Khulna to the mills of Calcutta. Later, to reduce dependence on India, West Pakistan set up jute mills in East Pakistan, some of them in Khulna. It was here, on the night of 25 March 1971, when the wave of killings called Operation Searchlight by the Pakistani army began, that dozens of Bengali mill workers were shot to death by soldiers who came to take over a jute factory. And it was in Khulna that, in May of that year, one of the worst massacres of the war took place over the course of one day.

Salil Tripathi lives in New York, is a contributing editor at The Caravan and writes for Mint.

Keywords: Bangladesh refugees Bangladesh Liberation war displacement 1971 War massacres East Pakistan