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Deb Mukharji: Bangladesh and the recovery of history

by Dilip, 3 March 2013

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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

World-famous article by Pakistani reporter Anthony Mascarenhas, former Assistant Editor, Morning News, Karachi: GENOCIDE: Why the Refugees Fled (Sunday Times, London, June 13, 1971)

The Blood Telegram

Jogendra Nath Mandal’s Resignation Letter, October 1950

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

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