Bangladesh 1971: the forgotten template of 20th century war - by Gita Sahgal

In 1971 the Jamaat e Islami supported the Pakistani army against the nationalist Awami League: now their leaders are being indicted by an international crimes tribunal and secularism is back on the agenda. It's time to discuss the forgotten role of the fundamentalist militias in the war of liberation of Bangladesh

A recent article by Elliot Wilson in the Huffington Post asked whether British aid was being used to fund a crackdown on human rights in Bangladesh. The article did not discuss where the £250 million given by the British government is spent or whether that spending is effective. Wilson argues that the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina has undertaken ‘the most sustained assault on freedom of speech in the 41 years since independence’. A major reason for his claim is the arrest of Mir Quasem Ali, whom he describes as a leading member of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, head of a major charity and a media magnate, arguing that he has been arrested solely for his public criticism of a Tribunal established to try crimes committed during the Bangladesh war of liberation in 1971. He argues that the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) is completely politically motivated.
As the extensive comments show – many Bangladeshis living at home and abroad – are concerned about the human rights situation in their country. But many don’t necessarily buy the main thrust of the argument. Although human rights advocates and independent observers agree that many of the tribunal processes are flawed, there are also extensive comments arguing against the proposition that the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was established solely as a sort of vanity project for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to get rid of her political opposition.
Indeed the strength of the debate within Bangladesh and in the diaspora, suggests that although governments frequently fail to meet their promise, civil society activists working in both development and human rights have gone some way to highlighting human rights violations, addressing impunity for mass crimes - without which there would be no international crimes tribunal - and most remarkably for creating a development success story. Human rights concerns in Bangladesh are far wider than the Wilson suggests. For instance, the government has been reluctant to accept new refugees fleeing violence in Burma. Unfortunately for Wilson’s argument that this is the worst attack on freedom of speech in Bangladesh’s history – the opposition is also implicated in targeted attacks on minorities when they came to power in a BNP and Jamaat e Islami coalition.
Fear of their rise to power again has lead religious minorities to campaign hard for Bangladesh to return to its secular founding principles. At meetings in the East London tabernacle and at the House of Commons a number of organisations representing religious minorities such as Ahmadiyyas, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, described pogroms against them as soon as the BNP came to power in a previous election. Syed Anas Pasha, representing Bangladeshi journalists, described how journalists reporting on these attacks were themselves attacked.
For those whose lives are threatened by fundamentalists, 1971 is not simply a bad memory but a current threat; one which has largely disappeared from public memory abroad. For those who do remember, even if they were children at the time, Bangladesh 1971 remains the template for many of the conflicts that define the late 20th century. It is a forgotten template, although many aspects of genocidal conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda during the 1990s, and on a smaller scale in Gujarat, India in 2002 were pre-figured in Bangladesh.. 

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