Deb Mukharji: Bangladesh and the recovery of history

The author is former Indian ambassador to Nepal and Bangladesh
Bangladesh is presently witnessing widespread upsurge of student power focused on the war-crimes trial of some of those accused of crimes against their fellow citizens in 1971. The faultlines in the history of Bangladesh lie exposed after 41 years. Verdicts on the trial of the first two of those charged with heinous crimes against the people in 1971 evoked widespread protests and strikes by the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leading figures are under the scanner of the war crimes tribunal. The object of the first verdict, a sentence of capital punishment, is believed to have fled to Pakistan, while the second has been sentenced to life imprisonment. This, in turn, has led to a tsunami of protests from the youth, demanding the death penalty for all accused. The issue is squarely joined.

There may have been some in East Pakistan in 1971 who had with honest conviction believed in Pakistan, until brutally disabused by the marauding Pakistani army. Some, however, were blinkered and bigoted enough not only in their commitment to Pakistan, but in aiding and abetting the Pakistan army in its savage onslaught against the people of the land, and themselves participated with wanton abandon. Many of these belonged to the stables of the Jamaat and are being called to account.
The origins of the present explosion of public sentiment lie in the inadequacy of the steps taken by the post-liberation government against those who had collaborated with the Pakistan army. In the years that followed, military rule saw the whole-sale induction of these elements into the politics of Bangladesh. The Jamaat was allowed to gain in influence and both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League found it expedient, at different times, to defer to their ‘Islamic’ pretensions. To the dismay of many, people with blood on their hands from 1971 were allowed to fly the red-and-green flag of Bangladesh as central ministers in the BNP-Jamaat coalition from 2001-2006. This was the period when government indifference, if not collusion, brought Bangladesh to the brink of the abyss of Islamic fundamentalism.

A leading Bangladesh newspaper has commented that Bangladesh now faces a “unique historical moment whose significance needs to be appreciated”. The principles that had guided the student movements in the 1960s, and which had been the bedrock of the War of Independence of 1971, had been lost in the miasma of the manipulative cynicism of politics in later years. Far from being apologetic, the Jamaat has had the effrontery to acclaim its stand in 1971. Three decades ago, the “mother of the martyr”, Jahanara Imam, had instituted a people’s court to try war criminals, for which she was charged with treason. Her pioneering role has never been acknowledged by any government, but the tributes paid to her in the current phase of agitation demonstrate that the people have not forgotten. Her movement, and those of others, subsequently had kept alive the spirit of ’71. The war-crimes tribunal provided a focus for the pent-up resentment of the youth, who now appear determined to reclaim their lost heritage.

The main opposition party, the BNP, finds itself in a severe dilemma. Its links with the Jamaat, with whom it had an electoral understanding in the last elections, are well known. It has never unequivocally supported the trial (one of its own leading members stands accused), citing procedural inadequacies and accusing the Awami League government of trying to garner political benefits from the issue. The first official reaction of the BNP to the current spate of agitation accused the government of stoking fires to the detriment of the nation by encouraging the demonstrators, while it remains unmindful of the transgressions at the border, highlighting the emotive issue of a young girl killed by BSF fire some time ago...  read more:

See also: Peter Custers - Shahbagh: Its international significance
The Shahbagh protest was not initiated by any of the established political parties. Nor was it started by any of the forces which in the past had been instrumental in building public opinion around the demand for adjudication of war crimes. The principal role is being played by independent activists, and by students and youngsters. Whereas people from all walks of life participated in the mass rallies and demonstrations, it is the students of universities and high schools who have been coming out in largest numbers.

Bangladesh deaths as Jamaat protest strike begins

Famous article by Anthony Mascarenhas, former Assistant Editor, Morning News, Karachi: 
GENOCIDE: Why the Refugees Fled (Sunday Times, London, June 13, 1971)
The Blood Telegram
Bangladesh 1971: the forgotten template of 20th century war - by Gita Sahgal
The UN & War Crimes Trials for Pakistani Soldiers in Bangladesh 1971–1974

Jogendra Nath Mandal's Resignation Letter, October 1950
Extract: The bulk of the upper class Hindus and politically conscious scheduled castes have left East Bengal. Those Hindus who will continue to stay accursed in Pakistan will, I am afraid, by gradual stages and in a planned manner be either converted to Islam or completely exterminated. It is really amazing that a man of your education, culture and experience should be an exponent of a doctrine fraught with so great a danger to humanity and subversive of all principles of equality and good sense. I may tell you and your fellow workers that Hindus will allow themselves, whatever the treat or temptation, to be treated as Zimmies in the land of their birth. Today they may, as indeed many of them have already done, abandon their hearths and homes in sorrow but in panic. Tomorrow they strive for their rightful place in the economy of life. Who knows what is in the womb of the future ? When I am convinced that my continuance in office in the Pakistan Central Government is not of any help to Hindus I should not with a clear conscience, create the false impression in the minds of the Hindus of Pakistan and peoples abroad that Hindus can live there with honour and with a sense of security in respect of their life, property and religion. This is about Hindus. 

NO CIVIL LIBERTY EVEN FOR MUSLIMS 35. And what about the Muslims who are outside the charmed circle of the League rulers and their corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy ? There is hardly anything called civil liberty in Pakistan . Witness for example, the fate of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan than whom a more devout Muslim had not walked this earth for many years and of his gallant patriotic brother Dr. Khan Sahib. A large number of erstwhile League leaders of the Northwest and also of the Eastern belt of Pakistan are in detention without trial. Mr. Suhrawardy to whom is due in a large measure the League's triumph in Bengal is for practical purpose a Pakistani prisoner who has to move under permit and open his lips under orders. Mr. Fazlul Haq, that dearly loved grand old man of Bengal, who was the author of that now famous Lahore resolution, is ploughing his lonely furrow in the precincts of the Dacca High Court of Judicature, and the so called Islamic planning is as ruthless as it is complete. About the East Bengal Muslims general, the less said the better. 

They were promised of autonomous and sovereign units of the independent State. What have they got instead ? East Bengal has been transformed into a colony of the western belt of Pakistan, although it contained a population which is larger than that of all the units of Pakistan put together. It is a pale ineffective adjunct of Karachi doing the latter's bidding and carrying out its orders. East Bengal Muslims in their enthusiasm wanted bread and they have by the mysterious working of the Islamic State and the Shariat got stone instead from the arid deserts of Sind and the Punjab.

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