Dhaka University massacre

Last updated: 5 October 2017 From the section 1971 Muktijuddho

Reasons for students as principle target

Students have been at the heart of the struggle for the Bengali nation since the creation of Pakistan in August 1947.

It was the students who opposed 'Quaid-i-Azam' Muhammad Ali Jinnah's unilateral declaration in March 1948 that "Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the state language of Pakistan". It was the students who sacrificed their life during the police brutality of Ekushey February. And since the Basha Andolan gradually evolved into a broader socio-political and economic movement for the emancipation of the Bengalis, the students, in the eyes of the Pakistani junta were seen opposed to the very notion of a communal Pakistan.

Students in Bangladesh were forward looking progressive bunch of young men and women who supported Bengali Nationalism not because they were narrow nationalistic but Bengali Nationalism to them meant a freedom from the shackles of an artificially imposed sense of nationalism based on religious divisions which was contrary to the history of South Asia where Hindus and Muslims have lived in peace and harmony over several centuries.

Anis Ahmed, writer

During the entire period of non-violent, non-cooperation movement between 1 March and 25 March 1971, the students protested vehemently against the Pakistani conspiracy of undoing the first ever held national election on the basis of adult franchise in the country. They actively supported the 'hartal' declared by Sheikh Mujib and created the Jatiyo Potaka (National Flag of Bangladesh). Students were also the first to declare an independent Bangladesh.

For the West Pakistani junta, the students of East Pakistan were no longer viewed as the bright hope of the nation but represented potential threat to the very existence of Pakistan. They were considered as the harbinger of the Shadinota Andolan (Independence Movement) of 1971 and hence these young men and women were the principle target of the first murder and atrocities in 1971.

The first target for the Pakistani killing squad was the 'Oxford of the East', the University of Dhaka - arguably, the most prestigious university in East Pakistan containing the brightest minds. Many of its students were active supporters of the Awami League who set up training camps to respond to any potential military invasion by the West Pakistani military in light of the postponement of the national assembly on 1 March 1971. Under the supervision of DUCSU (Dhaka University Central Students' Union), senior students began to provide combat training to members of Chhatro (Students') League and left leaning Students' Union using both real and dummy rifles stored in room number 1052.

Men's training was provided on the Dhaka University gymnasium field whilst the women trained at Rokeya Hall. Along with physical training, the student leaders also explained to the trainees why they we're going to war. Within days, the first batch of group had completed their training. This group, along with two others, including a girl's student group, took part in a parade on the roads. Photographs of the marching girls carrying rifles appeared in the foreign media during this period and are proudly presented in the Mukhtijuddho Jadughar (Liberation War Museum) in Dhaka.

In the beginning, the trainings at Iqbal hall would start at 2 am and continue till 4 am in the night to maintain secrecy. The women used to take training at Rokeya Hall. There was another training camp at Jagannath Hall.

Arms training within University of Dhaka since the beginning of March 1971

I decided to leave the reading table to take to the streets. We started preparation for the war before 26 March. We arranged training with dummy rifles and parade both for males and females. We even practised live firing on the bank of Sitalakhya River in Rupganj.

Mujahidul Islam Selim, president of the Communist Party of Bangladesh

Coordinated attacks on dormitories

The attack on the campus started at about one o'clock in the morning. The first targets as the tanks rolled into Dhaka were the student halls. The first attack was directed at Iqbal Hall (now called 'Jahurul Haque Hall'), which was the centre of the then East Pakistan Chhatro (Student) League, the student wing of the Awami League. The Pakistani army barged into the student rooms - using rocket launchers in some instances to break open the room - and indiscriminately fired bullets on the hapless students. Two hundred (200) students were killed as shells slammed into the building and their rooms were sprayed with machine-gun fire. The army's fire is said to have come from "all types of arms, mortars, tanks, cannon, machine gun fire and tracer bullets".

Led by the American supplied M-24 World War II tanks, one column of troops sped to Dacca University shortly after midnight. Troops took over the British Council Library (situated within the campus) and used it as a fire base from which to shell nearby dormitories areas. Caught completely by surprise some 200 students were killed in Iqbal Hall, headquarters of militant anti-government student union, I was told. Two days later, bodies were still smouldering in burnt-out rooms others were scattered outside, more floated in a nearby lake.

Simon Dring, British Journalist of the Daily Telegraph, on 30 March 1971

All night long, the sounds of rocket and machine gun fire and the sight of tracer fire kept the citizens of Dhaka awake in a state of fear. The noise was deafening and continued through the night until 7 am. The brave students at Iqbal Hall did put up a resistance - but only a little. There were some small arms fire but this lasted no longer than 35-40 minutes. In other version, Shamsuddin, the security guard of Iqbal Hall is alleged to be the the only person to fire several bullets on the advancing Pakistani troops.

I have always heard people say so, but I don't know if it is true because my brothers found his corpse on 27 March 1971. Other guards or officials were either killed or too frightened to recollect things correctly.

Md Shajahan, son of Shamsuddin the security guard

The only place from which any resistance was offered was Iqbal Hall...The light nature of the resistance is borne out by the fact that the control centre was heard by several witnesses to enquire over the army radio of the officer leading the attack how many guns had been found in Iqbal Hall. The officer replied 'Only 50 rifles'. He was then ordered to add the number of all rifles and small arms taken in house-to-house searches throughout the city as the recorded number of small arms found at Iqbal Hall.

Global Webpost website

After Iqbal Hall, the Pakistani army attack moved to Salimullah Hall and later at Jagannath Hall. Their venom was particularly reserved for Jagannath Hall, which was exclusively meant for non-Muslim students especially the Hindus and other minorities. These accommodations were invaded, shelled at a point blank range and those students who could not escape were ruthlessly killed. The Pakistan Army went around shooting anyone on sight. Hundreds of students were killed. Any students remaining alive were shot or bayoneted to death.

In Jagannath Hall there was general and indiscriminate shooting and killing for a start. This took place in at least one bathroom. The walls were pock-marked by bullet holes. Pieces of human anatomy had stuck to the wall and were still there. Sometimes a part of a nose was sticking here and elsewhere there were fingers and what must have been pieces of flesh and skin. There were plenty of signs from where the dead bodies had been pulled out of the bathroom. Apparently the students had initially taken refuge in the place.

But the main conclusion one has drawn from the killings that took place was that most of them took place in individual rooms. Despite the washing, there were plenty of loose sheets of paper, diaries, pieces of exam papers, pages of books. One saw a few letters written in Bengali and a few in English. They appeared to be some from sweethearts and some from parents.

But the horrible conclusion that one had to draw was that no one was killed at random. Most of the shooting that took place must have been inside the room. Apparently, the boys were terrorized to an extreme degree and were totally docile. It appears that each student was killed by a separate soldier and probably at one precise time, perhaps on a command.

There was a distinct pattern. A window-pane was broken in exactly one place in all the rooms through which the rifles must have been thrust into the room. It must have been that each had been asked earlier to sit on the bed with his face facing the wall. There was a distinctive arch of bullet marks on the wall at a place above the bed where the head should have been. Another piece of evidence was a dark spot on the floor in virtually the same place in all the rooms where the blood must have collected and congealed. True, it had been washed, but the blood was still visible and in the round shape of a pool.

It does seem that they were shot together at one and the same time, otherwise some would have got out or tried to run or something, and the bullet marks would be at different places in the room. In all the rooms that one saw, the pattern was the same: a certain windowpane was broken, an arch of bullet holes on the wall behind the bed and the blood mark on the floor. These told their own grisly story.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

One visitor to the Jagannath Hall forty-three (43) days after the attack gave a vivid description of the human stains that still remains.

The vertical part of the staircases within the halls carried tell-tale spots and discolourings, showing that the dead bodies had been dragged down with blood still oozing out of them. There were even a few bits of human bodies - hair, fingers, ears, noses, etc - sticking to the vertical spaces, while the horizontal steps had been cleared, though they all had dark spots of blood still visible. For such human devastation to be still there a month-and-a-half after the place had been washed clean speaks volume of the ferocity and magnitude of the heinous attack by armed Pakistani army on the young Bengali students.

Many of the students were already in bed, others were working late, still others were discussing the political situation, which had grown increasingly tense during the last few days. But on that dark and sultry night, the last thing to occur to them was that they were in danger.

The shelling lasted five minutes, killing about thirty students...Then the soldiers, shouting loudly, broke into the dormitories, shooting at random, and ordering the students to come out with their hands above their heads. Those who did not come out fast enough were shot or bayoneted. Once outside the building, the students were lined up against the walls and mown down with machine guns fired from the tanks, and from armored cars that had come up so that the Punjabi officers could observe the scene.

Students who remained alive were bayoneted to death. Within a quarter of an hour 109 students were dead. The bodies of the Muslim students were dragged up to the roof of Iqbal hall, where they were left to the vultures. The bodies of the Hindu students were heaped together like faggots and later in the night, six students, who had been spared, were ordered to dig a grave for them. After they had dug the grave they were shot.

Robert Payne, author of "Massacre" (1973)

Several hundred young men, the cream of Bengali youth, died that night from Pakistani bullets, shells, and raging flames. Later, when an art student was found sprawled across his easel, it became apparent that dozens never knew what hit them. At the Hindu students' dormitory, the students who survived the attack were forced to dig graves for the slaughtered fellow students. Then they, too, were shot and stuffed into the graves dug with their own hands.

Viggo Olsen, author of "Daktar: Diplomat in Bangladesh" (1973)

During the early days of Operation Searchlight Pakistani army killed students instantaneously by shooting or by launching rockets in the dorms. But when the dorms were emptied and the surviving students fled this Operation Searchlight intensified and was extended even to remote villages. Students were rarely shot at sight, on the other hand they were caught, interrogated if they had links with the Freedom Fighters or Mukti Bahini and even if they had not any link or it was not proven, the innocent students were tortured and slowly killed.

Anis Ahmed, writer

As day broke, students were hunted down and forced to dig a mass grave on the open ground outside the Jagannath and Salimullah Halls. They were ordered to carry their fellow student's corpses scattered here and there, and to heap them in a corner of the field. The students were aided by captured Hindu officials such as Monbhoran Roy, an employee of the National Institute of Public Administration at Dhaka University, who were taken from the employees' lodgings within the Jagannath Hall compound. More bodies were collected in trucks from Iqbal Hall and elsewhere on the campus and dumped into the grave.

Finally, the Pakistan Army ordered the remaining students to line up beside the stacks of corpses and shot them point blank to complete their mission.

There were about 50 families living here, but they just arrested 5 or 6 men, my husband being one of them. At first the army had said that they would get him to work and release him afterwards. But when all the corpses were carried and graves were dug, they also aligned him with the students and brushfired him.

Rajkumari Roy, wife of Monbhoran

Loosely covered with earth, bulldozers were then used to level the grave. Some witnesses speak of the sight of arms and legs sticking up out of the grave.

Silence descended upon the whole compound after the brushfire had ceased. But soon the silence was broken with sporadic cries of 'save me' or 'give me some water'. As the army had left the compound by then, a few dared to go near the stacks of corpses only to find that many had already been buried while many were just left to die away in a pool of blood. Monbhoran Roy was among the latter group. Although he outlasted others, he also died in a few hours.

Estimates of the number of students killed vary but seem to have totaled some hundreds. The number would have been higher but for the fact that the University had been closed since 7 March 1971 (after Sheikh Mujib's famous 'Ebarer Shongram' speech) and many students had gone to their homes.

Very few students survived to give an eyewitness account of the carnage. One such student was Kali Ranjansheel, a veteran activist of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, who had survived the clampdown on Jagannath Hall that night. He along with few other fortunate ones were spared because of the darkness. Ranjansheel was one of those tasked with carrying the corpses. Too overworked to stand on his feet, he fell on the ground beside the dead body of Prof. D. C. Dev right before the bullets could hit him.

I was a student at the Dhaka University. I used to live in room number 235 (South Block) in Jagannath Hall. On the night of 25 March, I woke up from sleep by the terrifying sound of gunfire. Sometimes the sound of gunfire would be suppressed by the sound of bomb explosions and shell-fire. I was so terrified that I could not even think of what I should do! After a while I thought about going to Shusil, assistant general secretary of the student's union. I crawled up the stairs very slowly to the third floor. I found out that some students had already taken refuge in Shusil's room, but he was not there. The students told me to go to the roof of the building where many other students had taken shelter but I decided (rather selfishly) to stay by myself. I crawled to the toilettes at the northern end of the third floor and took refuge in there. I could see the east, the south and the west from the window. I could see that the soldiers were searching for students with flashlights from room to room, were taking them near the Shahid Minar [Martyr's Memorial] and then shooting them. Only the sound of gunfire and pleas of mercy filled the air. Sometimes the Pakistanis used mortars and were shelling the building. The tin sheds in front of Assembly and some of the rooms in the North Block were set one fire...

After some time, about 40 - 50 Pakistani soldiers came to the South Block and broke down the door of the dining room. The lights were turned on and they were firing at the students who took shelter in that room... When the soldiers came out they had Priyanath [the caretaker of the student dormitory] at gunpoint, and forced him to show the way through all the floors of the dormitory. During this time I was not able to see them as I left the toilette by climbing up the open window and took shelter on the sunshed of the third floor. But I could hear the cracking sounds of bullets, the students pleading for mercy and the sound of the soldiers rummaging and throwing things about in search of valuables. The soldiers did not see me on the sunshed...

After they left, I again took refuge in the washroom. I peeked through the window and saw that the other student's dormitory, Salimullah Hall, was on fire. The northern and the eastern parts of the city were on fire too as the north and east horizon had turned red. The whole night, the Pakistani soldiers continued their massacre and destruction... Finally I heard the call for the morning prayer [i.e. Fajr adhan]...

The curfew was announced at dawn and I thought that this merciless killing would stop. But it continued. The soldiers started killing those who had escaped their notice during the night before...

It was morning and I heard the voices of some students. I came out of the toilette, and saw that the students were carrying a body downstairs while soldiers with machine guns were accompanying them. It was the dead body of Priyanath. I was ordered to help the students and I compiled. We carried bodies from the dormitory rooms and piled them up in the field outside. There were a few of us there - students, gardeners, two sons of the gateskeeper and the rest were janitors. The janitors requested the Pakistanis to let them go since they were not Bengalis. After a while the army separated the janitors from us...

All the time the soldiers were cursing and swearing at us. The soldiers said, "We will see how you get free Bangladesh! Why don't you shout 'Joy Bangla' [Victory to Bengal]!" The soldiers also kicked us around. After we had finished carrying the bodies, we were divided into groups. They then took my group to one of the university quarters and searched almost every room on the fourth floor and looted the valuables. Downstairs we saw dead bodies piled up, obviously victims from the night before. They also brought down the flag of Bangladesh...

After we came back, we were again ordered to carry the dead bodies to the Shahid Minar. The soldiers had already piled up the bodies of their victims and we added other bodies to the piles. If we felt tired and slowed down, the soldiers threatened to kill us...

As my companions and I were carrying the body of Sunil (our dormitory guard), we heard screams in female voices. We found that the women from the nearby slums wre screaming as the soldiers were shooting at the janitors (the husbands of the women). I realised that our turn would come too as the Pakistanis started lining up those students who were before us, and were firing at them. My companion and I barely carried the dead body of Sunil toward a pile where I saw the dead body of Dr. Dev [Professor of Philosophy]. I cannot explain why I did what I did next. Maybe from pure fatigue or maybe from a desperate hope to survive!

I lay down beside the dead body of Dr. Dev while still holding onto the corpse of Sunil. I kept waiting for the soldiers to shoot me. I even thought that I had died. After a long time, I heard women and children crying. I opened my eyes and saw that the army had left and the dead bodies were still lying around and women were crying. Some of the people were still alive but wounded. All I wanted to do was to get away from the field and survive.

I crawled towards the slums. First I went to the house of the electrician. I asked for water but when I asked for shelter his wife started crying aloud and I then left and took refuge in a toilette. Suddenly I heard the voice of Idu who used to sell old books. He said, "Don't be afraid. I heard you are alive. I shall escort you to safety". I went to old Dhaka city. Then I crossed the river. The boatman did not take any money. From there, I first went to Shimulia, then, Nawabganj and finally I reached my village in Barisal in the middle of April.

Kali Ranjansheel in "Jagannath Hall-ei Chilam" (I was at Jagannath Hall), published in "1971: Bhayabaha Abhignata" (Terrible Experiences)(1989)

Though Kali Ranjansheel cheated death, he died pre-maturely possibly due to disturbing memories of that horrifying night which will have taken their toll on him.

Rare & unique video evidence

The gruesome killing of the student at Jagannath Hall was captured in an amateur video by an Electrical Engineering professor of East Pakistan University of Engineering and Technology (now Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, or BUET for short). Professor Nurul Ullah witnessed the horrific event from the safe confines of his quarter in the university area which overlooked the open field of Jagannath Hall. From the back window of his flat, he recorded the shooting of the Bengali students by the Pakistani soldiers using a video tape recorder.

The film, lasting about 20 minutes, first shows small distant figures, faces unidentifiable, emerging from the hall carrying the corpses of what's likely to be the students and professors massacred in Jagannath Hall. These figures, dressed in lighter clothes, are civilians and behind them, seen strutting arrogantly even at that distance, are darker clad figures of the Pakistan Army. The bodies are laid down in neat, orderly rows by those forced to carry them at gunpoint. Then the same procession troops back to the Hall. All this time, with no other sound, one hears innocent birdsong and a lazy cow is seen grazing on the university lawns. The same civilians come out again and the pile of bodies grows.

But after the third trip, the action changes. After the corpses are laid on the ground, the people carrying them are lined up. Fearing the morbid outcome, one civilian falls on his knees and clings to the legs of the nearest soldier, pleading for mercy. But there's no mercy. Instead the soldiers point their guns, pull the trigger and one by one the lined up figures fall to the ground. Some piled on top of the very corpses they had to carry out at gunpoint, their own colleagues and friends. Then the soldiers went amongst the bodies shooting close up to make sure their victims were definitely dead.

On March 25, 1971, the day of the Pakistani crack-down, although I knew nothing about it at the time, my wife and I had just had breakfast and I was looking out of my back windows in the professors' block of flats in which I and my colleagues from the Engineering University live with our families. Our back windows overlook a street across which are the grounds of Jagannath Hall, one of the most famous halls of Dacca University. I saw an unusual sight, soldiers driving past my flat and going along the street which overlooks it, towards the entrance to the University. As curfew was on, they made announcements on loudspeakers from a jeep that people coming out on the streets would be shot. After a few minutes, I saw some people carrying out what were obviously dead bodies from Jagannath Hall. I immediately took out my loaded video tape recorder and decided to shoot a film through the glass of the window. It was not an ideal way to do it, but I was not sure what it was all about, and what with the curfew and all the tension, we were all being very cautious. As I started shooting the film, the people carrying out the dead bodies laid them down on the grass under the supervision of Pakistani soldiers who are distinguishable in the film, because of their dark clothes, the weapons they are carrying and the way they are strutting about contrasted with the civilians in lighter clothes who are equally obviously drooping with fright. As soon as firing started, I carefully opened the bedroom window wide enough for me to slip my small microphone just outside the window so that I could record the sound as well. But it was not very satisfactorily done, as it was very risky. My wife now tells me that she warned me at the time: 'Are you mad, do you want to get shot too? One flash from your camera and they will kill us too.' But I don't remember her telling me, I must have been very absorbed in my shooting, and she says I took no notice of what she said.

It so happened that a few days earlier, from the same window I had shot some footage of student demonstrators on their way to the university. I little thought it would end this way.

Anyway, this macabre procession of students carrying out bodies and laying them down on the ground was repeated until we realized with horror that the same students were themselves being lined up to be shot. After recording this dreadful sight on my video tape-recorder, I shut it off thinking it was all over only to realize that a fresh batch of university people were again carrying out bodies from inside. By the time I got my video tape-recorder going again, I had missed this new grisly procession but you will notice in the film that the pile of bodies is higher.

I now want to show my film all over the world, because although their faces are not identifiable from that distance in what is my amateur film, one can certainly see the difference between the soldiers and their victims, one can see the shooting and hear it, one can see on film what my wife and I actually saw with our own eyes. And that is documentary evidence of the brutality of the Pak army and their massacre of the intellectuals.

Professor Nurul Ullah

This powerful and highly sensitive video is the only video documentary evidence of the murders in progress at the Dhaka University, and remains a heroic effort on behalf of Professor Nur Ullah to capture the Pakistani brutality during those dark days.

Professor Nurul Ullah's world scoop indicated that he was a remarkable individual who through his presence of mind, the instinctive reaction of a man of science, had succeeded in shooting a film with invaluable documentary evidence regardless of the risk to his life.

Global Webpost website

Girl students also killed

Neither gender nor age was a factor in deterring the perpetrators of war crime from committing atrocities and murder. Female students were not spared either and also subjugated and tortured by the Pakistani Army.

On 30 March 1971, the American Consul General in Dhaka, Archer Blood, sent a telegram to the State Department recounting how the girl hostel of Rokeya Hall at Dhaka University - named after Begum Rokeya, the pioneer of women rights movement in Bangladesh - was "set ablaze and girls machine-gunned as they fled the building". The attack seemed to be aimed at eliminating the female student leadership since many girl student leaders resided in that Hall. It is estimated about 45 - 50 people were killed inside the Rokeya Hall.

Six naked female bodies at Rokeya Hall, Dacca U. Feet tied together. Bits of rope hanging from ceiling fans. Apparently raped, shot and hung by their heels from fans.

Archer Blood in a telegram to the US State Department

I was scared when the Pakistani army knocked on our door. I just managed to hide under a bed. The army men entered the room breaking the door, and shot my parents dead. I was lucky enough that they did not look under the bed.

Mohsin Ali, then a 10-year-old living in Rokeya Hall employees' quarters with his family

Screams of terrified people were heard from distant areas. Tracer shells reflected in dark sky of the night. Number of death was innumerable.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

After massacring the students, the army set the university halls and other buildings on fire, including the libraries. The Library of the British Council building on the campus was attacked in the mistaken belief that it was the University Library. An eight man Bengali police guard at the British Council premises were shot to death in a small room where they were hiding. A group of about 30 civilians from a nearby slum quarter who had sought refuge on top of one of the blocks of university teachers' flats were similarly wiped out.

From his suite at Hotel Intercontinental (today's Sheraton), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto watched the flames engulf Dhaka.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)