By Salil Tripathi: Newsweek
© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World for Newsweek
Old ghosts stalk the streets of Dhaka. Over the past month, tens of thousands of people have gathered at Shahbag, near the National Museum in downtown Dhaka, demanding justice over the war crimes of 1971. There is a large portrait of Jahanara Imam, the “mother of martyrs,” who lost her son during the war, and fought for justice for all those who perished. She died in 1994, but her spirit is vividly present at Shahbag.
The people at Shahbag demand the death penalty for those found guilty by the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal, which is trying several prominent politicians, most of them from the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, for war crimes. Many of Jamaat’s aging leaders, who were young men during the war, opposed Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan. The demonstrations have turned violent: the death sentence given to one of the accused has led to widespread rioting, with the Jamaat’s youth wing vandalizing martyrs’ memorials in different cities. Police have opened fire and nearly 100 people have died. Troops are on alert. One of the bloggers who pioneered the protests has been found murdered. If Bangladeshis settle scores of the unfinished business of 1971 on the streets, it can get more violent.
Hartals or strikes have returned. Opposition leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—whose leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury from Chittagong also stands accused before the international crimes tribunal—called for a strike that book-ended the three-day visit of India’s Bengali-speaking president, Pranab Mukherjee, to Dhaka. Expressing that strikes sometimes turn violent, Zia declined to meet Mukherjee.
What do the voices from the streets of Dhaka say?
Many narratives are intertwined in this mass of humanity. There is the narrative of the family that lost a loved one in 1971 and which has not been able to find out what happened to that father, or brother, or sister, and has sought justice in vain for four decades. There is the narrative of those who saw their loved ones killed, and have sought an answer from Bangladesh’s ruling class: Why us? Why has nobody been punished? There is also the narrative of the unconsoled, who want nothing less than revenge, and who would like to see those responsible for the bloodshed in the country die at the hands of the state. And there is another important narrative: of Bangladeshis who want to seize and reclaim the promise of liberation, of a secular Muslim-majority country united by a language. This was a nation wary of becoming India, but which never wanted to experience what has become of Pakistan today either.
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It took a brash, foolish gesture on the part of a Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, to ignite the spark. When the tribunal ruled that he was guilty on several counts of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to life imprisonment, the rotund politician decided to cheer his supporters with a partisan, political sign—V for victory—as he made his way to the police van that took him to jail. He has the right to appeal, but his victory sign was meant to tell supporters not to lose heart. When Bangladesh goes to the polls (which it has to by early next year), the BNP will return to power, sweeping aside the ruling Awami League. As the BNP and Jamaat are allies, they will be part of the new government, and the price of that alliance would be freedom for the likes of Mollah—so runs his logic.
In my conversations with many Bangladeshis inside the country and abroad, the one great worry which those seeking justice for the war crimes of 1971 have is that once the government changes, the new one will pardon those the tribunal finds guilty. That assumption is not far off the mark. Many Bangladeshis can name incidents in which the current defendants are accused of having taken part, and they remember too well how over the years they had been rehabilitated politically. Some were elected as parliamentarians, a few became ministers. They belonged to the Jamaat, the party that tried its hardest to prevent Bangladesh from being born. Believing in the original idea of Pakistan, the home for the subcontinent’s Muslims, these politicians and their supporters did not want to see the breakup of Pakistan.
But the breakup of Pakistan had become inevitable after the military regime of Gen. Yahya Khan showed its utter incompetence to run a diverse nation. First, most people in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) felt that West Pakistan was tone deaf when the east cried for help after Cyclone Bhola devastated the countryside and killed nearly 3 million people in 1970. Then, in the elections that followed, against their expectations, not only did the east vote overwhelmingly for Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League (it won 160 of the 162 seats in the east) but it also handed the party a clear majority in the national parliament which had 300 seats. That upset the calculations of the generals, and, critically, of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had aspirations of becoming Pakistan’s prime minister.
Instead of inviting Rahman to form a government, the generals and the politicians in the west decided to engage the east in prolonged negotiations. As we know by now, at the same time, preparations were being made to use military force to suppress any rebellion. The negotiations stalled; then broke down. Gen. Tikka Khan, assigned to take charge of the east, sent the Army into the streets, and the massacres began: first at Dhaka University, then in other populated areas, targeting and singling out those who were Awami League supporters, leftists, secular-minded, Hindus, and others. Countless thousands were killed in the first few weeks. Ten million refugees came to India.
The Pakistan Army was aided by two militia groups—Al Shams and Al Badr—and those now pejoratively referred to as razakars–many of them supporters of the Jamaat. Some of them encouraged Pakistani troops, others openly colluded with them, pointing out and often accompanying troops to the homes of Hindu and Muslim Bangla nationalists which supported the guerrilla force, Mukti Bahini. Hundreds of thousands died during those nine months. Many Bangladeshis say the figure goes as high as 3 million. The Hamoodur Rahman Commission that the Pakistan government set up after the war said the figure is perhaps a fraction of that, around 26,000. The Pakistani estimate is way too low; the Bangladeshi figure is being disputed. But it is no longer a matter of 3 million vs. 26,000. For the fact is that it takes exceptional callousness to describe the massacre of so many as “only 26,000 deaths.” Without getting into a statistical debate about how many people died—always a hard task 42 years after the fact, particularly in a predominantly rural society like Bangladesh, where records, even if kept, were often lost—the fact remains that an outrageously large number of civilians were killed, and they had committed no crime. This constituted a crime against humanity at the very least, and most Bangladeshis refer to it as gonohotta (genocide).
What’s less contentious is the number of women who were raped. Those figures range between 200,000 and 500,000, and such figures, the wide range apart, are entirely possible. In the course of my research of that period, including interviews with nearly 40 women who were sexually assaulted, it is apparent that rape was commonly used as a weapon of war, to intimidate and subjugate the Bengali, to assert power, or to get temporary sexual gratification.
The war escalated in 1971 after the Pakistan Air Force attacked Indian airfields in early December, and India retaliated with full force. It helped the Mukti Bahini reach Dhaka, leading to the surrender of over 90,000 Pakistani forces to the Indian Army. In the protracted negotiations that followed, India and Pakistan agreed to exchange prisoners of war, including 195 Pakistani officers and men whom Bangladesh asserted were war criminals. Bangladesh agreed because Pakistan said it would prosecute those officers and men under its laws. Pakistan never did that, feeding the sense of betrayal Bangladeshis felt toward the Pakistan Army.
But the Jamaat was in Bangladesh and it was known that its leaders had fought for a united Pakistan. Bangladesh passed a law that would set up tribunals to try the accused. But in 1975, Mujibur Rahman was assassinated and the government that took over pardoned the killers. The matter of trying the collaborators was allowed to fade. The once-banned Jamaat was allowed to operate again and became active in politics, Rahman’s killers were allowed to fly to safety, and over the years, some joined politics and others got diplomatic assignments. The discontent simmered.
When elections were announced for 2008, the Awami League promised that it would revive the tribunals and try those accused of war crimes. Astonishingly, the party was swept to power with a large majority; it got massive support from the young. Many of those who voted for the Awami League weren’t even born in 1971; they learned about the conflict only from hushed memories of their parents or grandparents, rekindled when an anniversary came, and a promising young student’s photograph on the wall reminded the family of what was lost.
Immediately upon assuming power, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Rahman’s daughter, began the unfinished trials of her father’s killers. The verdicts came swiftly. The accused were sentenced to death. The punishments were carried out immediately. That explains the cries for “phaansi,” or death by hanging, that you hear at Shahbag—people who have gathered there want justice, and they want capital punishment not only because some of them seek revenge, not only because some feel that’s the only way to atone for the past, but also because of what they fear Mollah’s victory sign signifies. If the BNP and Jamaat return to power, is there any guarantee that these people, now convicted, will not roam free, and worse, seek retribution against those who bravely came out and offered their testimony before the tribunals?
The Shahbag spirit does pose a serious dilemma for liberals. Most human rights groups and liberals support tribunals for international crimes because these offer hope and redress against impunity. Commanders, soldiers, even politicians responsible for committing grave rights abuses have often remained at large. In some countries they remain part of the political setup; in others, they are allowed to go into exile. In some instances they become turncoats and join the new government. But few have been punished and sent to jail. That’s where liberals want the story to end. They are against the death penalty on the grounds that states often use it as a way to get even (the subcontinent has enough examples of that, Pakistan included). Prosecutors, and even judges, make mistakes. The penalty is imposed disproportionately on the poor and the powerless; the wealthy often get away with murder. And finally, because it is morally wrong to allow the state to take away any individual’s life.
Munir Uz Zaman / AFP
Bangladeshi liberals are aware of all this, and yet many say that viewing the Shahbag movement only as bloodthirsty and vengeful is wrong. The underlying cry is for justice. But people have lost faith in the ability of the state to ensure that a punishment once given would stay; they have no assurance that a future government won’t pardon these men and let them go free. Better to execute them, so goes their reasoning.
What complicates the narrative, however, is the way the trials have been administered. Of the three sentences handed out so far, one is for life imprisonment (Mollah) and two (Abul Kalam Azad, who was tried in absentia since he’s untraceable, and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi) for death. Some of the evidence used is not from eyewitnesses. Sometimes, defense submissions have been ignored. One defense witness has disappeared. In a few instances rules have been changed halfway through the trial. In one verdict, one judge hadn’t heard half the arguments, and another judge hadn’t heard any of the oral submissions. And most controversially, the former presiding judge was recorded as having conversations with two academics based abroad in which tactical aspects concerning the trials were discussed. According to The Economist, the two academics also allegedly had conversations with the prosecutors as well, discussing witnesses, questions to be asked, and so on. Such conversations raise suspicion given that the accused are being tried for capital offense. Defense lawyers point out that judges have the right to consult experts, relying on the principle of amicus curiae, or even to discuss finer points of law. But the process has to be transparent—in this case it was not, and the presiding judge stepped aside. The defense sought a retrial. That plea was not granted.
Nobody denies that exceptional crimes were committed during the war. It is also true that by the standards of trials in Bangladesh, the tribunal has operated in a dignified manner. But such incidents detract from the purpose of the trials, giving its opponents ammunition to raise serious questions about the process, the result of which undermines the pain of the victims seeking justice. What also causes concern are remarks by Awami League politicians, including ministers, who have told the tribunal that it must pay heed to the voices and demands on the streets as it decides on the right punishment for those found guilty. This comes perilously close to the cliché “Give ’em a fair trial and then hang ’em.” If that is the foregone conclusion, it would weaken the tribunal’s credibility further, and, in a very real sense, disrespect the martyrs of 1971.
It is likely that the passionate spirit of Shahbag will subside as more verdicts are handed out. Students have colleges to attend, office workers have piled-up in-trays to clear, roads have to be vacated, traffic resumed. But the clarion call of Shahbag cannot be forgotten. Horrendous crimes had taken place in this country. Millions of lives were affected; virtually every family, every community, and every village knows someone who died during the war. Many had been made refugees and had to rebuild their lives.
But the most significant message of Shahbag is that in a country where Muslims form the majority, hundreds of thousands of people turned out in public, defiantly opposing religious fundamentalists—who had been and are violent, and who had sought to remake Bangladesh into an austere, joyless, repressed, faith-run state. They came to Shahbag to reclaim their songs, their music, their poetry, their dance, their colors, their heritage, and their freedoms. They came out so that their women can wear saris or jeans, go to work if they want to, and sing and dance, if they wish to. That’s the truly remarkable aspect of the spirit of Shahbag—of becoming the kind of Bangladesh the freedom fighters died for.
© Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World for Newsweek
The uprising has a message for India and Pakistan, too: Don’t confuse religious rabble rousers for the majority. Much of the history of that war had lain buried because it was inconvenient to wake up those ghosts. The young people of Bangladesh want that silence no more. They want to dig open graves, and they seek answers. The truth that emerges may be uncomfortable, but it has to be faced. Pakistan too has to face its truth. Toward the end of Pakistan-born Kamila Shamsie’s novel Kartography Maheen tells her niece Raheen: “Bangladesh made us see what we were capable of. No one should ever know what they are capable of. But worse, even worse, is to see it and then pretend you didn’t. The truths we conceal don’t disappear, Raheen, they appear in different forms.”
Bangladesh has had many victims. Its families have suffered grievous hurt, and some of its people who committed criminal acts have evaded justice. They haven’t expressed remorse. One flashed the V sign; another, during his trial, shouted angrily at the judges, and threatened prosecuting lawyers to wait for the day when his party is in power again.
Many wounds are impossible to heal. Those who have suffered brutality know that. But honest accounting of what happened in 1971 is a good place to start. On Dec. 14, 1971, two days before Gen. A. A. K. “Tiger” Niazi surrendered Pakistani troops to Gen. Jagjit Singh Arora of the Indian Army, the razakars went round with Pakistani troops to the homes of professors, doctors, lawyers, and other intellectuals, singling them out and taking them near Rayer Bazaar. There, they were gunned down. With defeat looming, the collaborators and the Army killed dozens of civilians who would have formed the intellectual backbone of the new nation, as if to cripple it at birth. Many families have searched in vain for answers. These trials attempt to bring some justice to their calls.
But that culture of impunity has prevailed too long. Today there stands a monument at Rayer Bazaar, where a poignant question has been left inscribed: “Tomra je bolechhley, bolchheyki ta Bangladesh?” (“Is Bangladesh saying what they wanted to say?”) That question resounded in the valleys and rivers of this wounded nation for four decades. At last, there are some answers.
London-based Tripathi is writing a book, to be published by Aleph Book Company, on the 1971 war.