A Bangladeshi Perspective on 1971 ‘War Crimes’

Mark Twain says the very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice. That may or may not be true in every case but it may be true at least in the case of Bangladeshi and Pakistani narratives about the events of 1971, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, following military intervention by India. For people in today’s Bangladesh, 1971 means “war of liberation” and for people in Pakistan, it means grave mistakes by their leaders and “act of treason” by their erstwhile compatriots in what used to be East Pakistan. While one may not expect the two nations to ever come on the same page on their shared history, people in Bangladesh itself seem to be divided on the 1971 events. The debate over 1971 has increased over the past few months after Bangladeshi courts awarded capital punishments to “war criminals” in trials many in the international community are questioning. Here is an excellent example of the emotional debate going on in the South Asian country on the subject.

Posted on 10/4/13
By Mahfuz Anam | Via The Daily Star


Demonstrators in Dhaka, Bangladesh, demanding death penalty for Abdul Kader Mollah and all other “war criminals” being tried by the “International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh” in February this year. Mollah was handed death sentence last month for his role in 1971 war. (Photo by M. Hasan, Creative Commons License)
Demonstrators in Dhaka, Bangladesh, demanding death penalty for Abdul Kader Mollah and all other “war criminals” being tried by the “International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh” in February this year. The court handed Mollah death sentence last month. (Photo by M. Hasan, Creative Commons License)

We are a severe critic of this government on many issues. But on the issue of holding war crimes trial we have no hesitation in saying that without the AL (Awami League party of prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid who also happens to be daughter of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rehman) in power, and without Sheikh Hasina’s determined leadership, it would have never happened. For this we express our heartfelt gratitude, as we have done in the past, to the AL chief’s single minded focus and unwavering resolve to hold the trial and then see it through to the very end.
For those of us who remember the immediate post-Bangabandhu assassination period, we distinctly recall how the memories of our Liberation War and that of the leaders of those momentous days, especially the role of Bangabandhu (which means Friend of Bangal, a title Bangladeshis gave to the country’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) and that of Awami League, were either gradually obliterated or made questionable by selective, incomplete, and sometimes fabricated history of the period.
Bangabandhu was the founder of Baksal and Awami League the party that killed democracy were the two oft-repeated narrative of that period. The former’s role in leading to the independence struggle — how he united a divided people, how he forged an ironclad unity behind Bengali nationalism, how he emboldened us all to first demand and then fight for our rights-were swept under the carpet, and only the fact that he formed Baksal (no doubt his biggest blunder) was grilled into the public mind.
All the narratives of the Liberation War were usurped by one sentence, that Maj. Zia declared independence, and hearing his announcement over the radio, people just spontaneously started the armed struggle.
There was no political struggle from 1947 to 1970, there were no movements for provincial autonomy — six points and eleven points — there was no anti-martial law movement, there were no anti-Ayub and anti-Yahya movements, there was no Agartala Conspiracy case, there were no student or mass movements. There was just Zia’s announcement, and like magic our Liberation War started.
Without going into the nitty-gritty of the trial and its real and imagined shortcomings, the question we need to ask is that why did it need the Awami League and Sheikh Hasina in power to bring it about? There is not a single Bangalee–save perhaps the perpetrators themselves–who will deny that genocide did take place on our soil during 1971. In that genocide millions were killed and hundreds and thousands of our women raped and thousands of our villages burnt. Even today one would not find a single family that did not have one or several of its family members killed, either by the Pakistani army or their local collaborators, including the dreaded Al-Badrs, Al-Shams, etc.
When such is the collective memory, then why is that it is only the AL and Sheikh Hasina who pursue the war crimes trials, and the rest of us, at best, watch like spectators and, at worst, pass sneering remarks about its so-called flawed process and legal lacunae.
Herein lies one of the biggest failures of our politics. It is so blinded by mutual hatred, jealousy, suspicion, and driven by vulgar opportunism, that we are willing to sacrifice everything, including facts relating to the Liberation War atrocities, just to suit our political convenience. We are among a few countries in the post Second World War history, which had the rare good fortune of fighting and creating a free and independent state of our own. In gaining that freedom we had to undergo tremendous sacrifices, immense sufferings, almost endless prison terms of many of our leaders, including, and especially, Sheikh Mujib.
In the final chapter of that struggle we had to face genocide. The state machinery of Pakistan and its formidable and highly trained and equipped armed forces — armed, by the way, by our tax and jute money — used their full might to quell our struggle for freedom. The idea was that they would kill everyone who demanded freedom and when sufficient numbers would be dead the rest would become silent.
What made our genocide different was that it was being perpetrated by “our own” army. In almost all other cases of genocide, the actor was an invading army. But in our case the army that we clothed, fed, trained, brought equipment for and housed in ideally located areas of the country, wanted a “pure Pakistani” people and wanted to eliminate the “impure Bengalis” from amongst them.
The above narrative was just to nudge the memory of those of us Muktijoddhas who seem to have forgotten how our Liberation War narrative was hijacked till Awami League and Sheikh Hasina retrieved it. (With a new fault of their own, that of excluding everybody from the narrative save Bangabandhu.) We hope to address that issue on a separate occasion)
We need to remember the atrocities of 1971 and the brutality perpetrated on our people, in order to fully understand the relevance of the war crimes trials. Yes, we wish we were a bit more efficient in going about it, more tech-savvy, more up to the international standard, etc. But all the shortcomings notwithstanding — all of which were eminently avoidable — the fundamental legal, moral and historical foundation of the process remains unshaken.
There is an urgent need for the nation to be united behind the war crimes trial. The present political process that shows a divided polity on the issue is an insult to the millions who laid down their lives so that we can live in freedom. This is not revenge, nor retribution, but only justice. There is no way we, as a self-respecting people, can and should forget what happened in 1971. Those who say why hang on to the past, the answer is simple. There are “pasts” whose value is so immense, whose significance in our national ethos so fundamental, and whose energizing capacity to drive towards the future is so powerful, that giving it up is like giving up our very dream of building a nation of prosperity, freedom, and above all, DIGNITY.

The writer is Editor & Publisher, The Daily Star

This article first appeared in The Daily Star, a leading newspaper of Bangladesh. Click here to go to the original.

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