The Awami League’s rebellion cast its dark and ominous shadow on the lives of the non-Bengali populace in Thakurgaon, a town in the Dinajpur district, in the middle of March 1971. Before the outburst of genocidal frenzy against the non-Bengalis in the last week of the month, the belabouring of non-Bengali young men by groups of Bengalis on the streets and in alleys had become a frequent occurrence. The police had swung to the side of the Awami League rebels.
In the last week of March and the first fortnight of April 1971, armed Bengali rebels from the East Pakistan Rifles joined the Awami Leaguers and unleashed terror and death on the non-Bengalis. About 3,000 innocents were killed in this barbaric slaughter. More than two-third of the non-Bengali population in Thakurgaon was wiped out; their houses were looted and many were burnt. Dead bodies by the hundreds were deliberately incinerated in blazing houses by the killers. Non-Bengali teenage girls were kidnapped, ravished and tortured in sex assault chambers; most of them were murdered by the rebels before they quit the town. Some pregnant women were bayoneted; their still born babies were bludgeoned. The dead bodies of some prominent non-Bengalis were dragged through the streets and displayed in public from flagpoles. The Army regained control over Thakurgaon on April 15, 1971.
Mohammad Sohail Tanvir, 21, an articulate student who lived with his father in their own house in Rahmatganj in Thakurgaon town, described the murder of his father by the Bengali rebels in these words:
“My father was a prominent Muslim Leaguer in Thakurgaon. He had served as a Basic Democrat for many years and was respected by the Bengali and non-Bengali residents alike. We had lived in Thakurgaon for more than 18 years and we spoke Bengali very well. My father had done well in business and bought some property. He helped many charitable institutions in the town........
“In the last week of March 1971, a pall of death and destruction enveloped the non-Bengalis in Thakurgaon and several thousands of them lost their lives. My father had gone to the main Mosque in our locality to offer his evening prayers. With him were two non-Bengali and a Bengali friend. As they stepped out of the Mosque, a killer gang of Bengali rebels brutally killed him and his three friends. They threw the dead bodies inside the Mosque and wiped out other non-Bengalis in the neighbourhood. I and some members of my family escaped the carnage with the help of a God-fearing Bengali friend of my father. After India’s conquest of East Pakistan in December 1971, we escaped to Nepal. Early in 1974, we were repatriated from Nepal to Karachi.”
Sohail’s slain father, Mr. Tanvir Ahmed, as a member of the local Council in Rahmatganj locality, had devotedly worked for the social uplift of the Bengalis as well as the non-Bengalis. “My father advocated fraternisation between Bengalis and non-Bengalis”, said Sohail.
Sohail recalled that it took the federal troops some days before they could retrieve all the dead bodies of non-Bengalis and arrange their proper burial. Heaps of human skulls and bones were found in the gutted houses of non-Bengalis.
“The Awami League killers in Thakurgaon had instructions to kill all the non-Bengali male adults”, said Afzal Siddiqi, 50, who lost his two sons and a daughter in the carnage in Thakurgaon. He had migrated to East Pakistan from Calcutta in 1947 and settled in Thakurgaon in the mid 1960’s. Repatriated from Dacca in January 1974, he reported that he escaped the massacre of non-Bengalis in the last week of March 1971 by hiding in a dry, derelict water tank, not far from his house in Rahmatganj. He said:
“I worked as a commission agent for the sale of household wares. My three children were born in East Pakistan My Bengali wife had died some years ago. In spite of our close links with East Pakistan, the Awami Leaguers called us Biharis.........
“Since early March 1971, non-Bengalis were harassed and intimidated in Thakurgaon by the Awami League militants. But in the last week of the month, the killers went on the rampage and wiped out most of the non-Bengali population in Thakurgaon. I was away from my house when an assassination squad raided my house, looted it, murdered my two sons and kidnapped my teenage daughter. When I returned to my house I saw it aflame. The bodies of my sons lay on the doorstep. I knew that the killer gang was at work. Fearing that they would return for me, I went into hiding in a dry water tank which had a large hole in it. I slipped into it and covered it with leaves. It served as my hideout for a fortnight before the Army crushed the rebels.........”
Witnesses from Thakurgaon estimated that out of the 9,000 non-Bengalis who lived in this town, barely 150 survived the March-April 1971 massacre. A non-Bengali army major held nearly 1,000 Bengali rebels at bay for more than 72 hours. When his ammunition was exhausted, he fought the raiders with a dagger and died a hero’s death. The killer mob slayed his wife and his children and paraded their dead bodies as trophies of victory. The attacking mob was led by the local leaders of the Awami League, the sons of the head of the local administration and half a dozen police officers.
Amongst the other towns of Dinajpur district where non-Bengalis were liquidated en masse by the Bengali rebels between the second fortnight of March 1971 and the third week of April were Hilli, Phulbari, Jamalganj, Ponchagarh and Chaur Kai. Estimates of the non-Bengali death toll in these four towns ranged from 3,000 to 4,000. The Times of London, in its issue of April 6, 1971, reported:
“Thousands of helpless Muslim refugees who had settled in Bengal at the time of partition arc reported to have been massacred by angry Bengalis during the past week........The facts about the massacres were confirmed by Bihari Muslim refugees who crossed the border into India this week and by a young British technician who crossed the Indo-Pakistan frontier at Hilli today............He said that hundreds of non-Bengali Muslims have died in the north-western town of Dinajpur alone”.
Most of the killing of the non-Bengalis, it was gathered from eyewitnesses, was conducted by the rebels of the East Bengal Regiment, the East Pakistan Rifles and armed volunteers of the Awami League. The pattern and mode of extermination of the non-Bengalis here was similar to “Operation loot, kill and burn” staged by the Bengali rebels in Dinajpur and Parbatipur. The rebels, as they retreated to the sanctuary of the Indian border in the face of the advancing Pakistani Army, carried away with them a number of teenage non-Bengali girls whom they had kidnapped from Dinajpur and other places in the district. The border town of Hilli remained for many days the principal escape chute of the Bengali rebels into India. Some of these unfortunate captive girls — amongst them were a few from Punjabi and Pathan families— made a brave and desperate bid to escape the clutches of their fleeing captors but they were mowed down with machine gunfire by the rebels in Hilli. The rebels, while they held Hilli, were aided by the Indian Border Security Force and received arms and ammunition from their Indian benefactors. In Phulbari, Ponchagarh, Jamalganj and Chaur Kai, the liquidation of non-Bengali families was wholesale and ruthless. Some non-Bengalis of Bihar origin, it is reported, escaped the rebels death noose and succeeded in crossing the border into India. The Indian police and military forces caught them and quite a few are believed to be languishing in jails in India.
Witnesses reported that not more than five per cent of the 5,000 non-Bengalis who lived in the town of Ponchagarh survived the March-April 1971 massacre. Awami league cadres, rebels from the East Pakistan Rifles and infiltrators from India waged the massacre of the non-Bengalis in Ponchagarh.
The President of the East Pakistan Refugees Association, Diwan Wirasat Hussain, in a memorandum submitted to the British Parliamentary Delegation in Dacca on June 20, 1971, estimated that out of the more than 50,000 Muslim refugees from India who had settled at the time of the 1947 Partition in Birganj, Manickpara, Shetabganj, Sahebganj, Deviganj and Sall Danga in Dinajpur district, barely 150 survived the March-April 1971 massacre of non-Bengalis. According to his figures, more than 100,000 non-Bengalis were killed in Dinajpur district.