Saturday, February 07, 2009

Bangladesh War of Independence: A Moral Issue

MOKERROM HOSSAIN

In 1971, the Bengalis of East Pakistan had to stand up against the West Pakistani military junta’s indiscriminate attacks and declare independence. However, until today, the Pakistani government has not apologized for its crimes against humanity and there are a small number of people in Bangladesh who do not consider the crackdown on 25 March 1971 a wrongful act. It seems that some people of the country are still not sure about how to characterise the liberation war of Bangladesh. This article distinguishes and separates the meanings of two behavioural actions – a political action and a moral action. These two types of actions have been examined here in terms of Bangladesh’s socio-political history.

EVERY YEAR on 16 December, the people of Bangladesh celebrate Victory Day. In 1971 on this day Pakistani soldiers surrendered to the Joint Command of the Indian army and the Mukti Bahini (Bangladesh Liberation Army) after committing atrocities for nine months against the people of East Pakistan. Along with all the celebrations, another debate continues and that is about the roles different people performed during the occupation period.

With the surrender of the Pakistani army, an ugly chapter ended and a new one began for the people of East Pakistan. However, misconceptions about the resistance movement that was popularly known as Mukti Judho, abound. Many Bangladeshis still seem unsure about how to characterise the war of liberation and how to deal with those who actively participated against it and those who killed innocent civilians. All these issues need to be addressed by the people of Bangladesh and resolved so that the controversy is set to rest once and for all.

In the last 37 years the country has progressed in many areas, except perhaps the political arena. Ironically, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he has set up received the Nobel Prize for Peace even as political rivalries were being settled through street fights in many places in Bangladesh. The country has survived many political catastrophes like the brutal murders of two of its presidents, a couple of military coups and many mass upheavals even as its political system moved from the presidential form of government to a parliamentary form.

Distortion of History
Despite all this there is much confusion over the roles played by different sections during the nine-month occupation by the West Pakistani forces. This is so because people fail to distinguish between a political action and a moral action. Comprehending the difference between these two would be the best way to clear the misunderstandings.

In recent years some political parties have repeatedly tried to distort the history of Bangladesh and especially the war of independence. Twisting historical facts to suit particular motives is not an unusual phenomenon but ultimately the truth prevails. However, writing contemporary history is far more difficult than writing about the distant past because any discussion about contemporary issues is sure to be an emotionally charged one, given that many participants in these events would be living and many would also chance to be exercising political, economic and religious powers. These sections will be determined to construct the narration of the facts as they perceive them, leading to controversies, defensive arguments, buildup of tension and eventually to the polarization of communities.

In a developed society, professionals argue and debate over the accuracy of the facts. Some political and religious groups may try to extract controversy but the majority do not become a part of any group because they have the ability to think and make their own judgment independent of media or political hype. However, in some countries, some historical controversies continue to rage unabated as there are always a number of groups wanting them to remain so in order to reap the political and economic fallout. Bangladesh is one country where the controversy over the fight for freedom does not seem to end.

If people learn to distinguish and separate a political action from a moral action and develop a critical perspective, many unnecessary debates will automatically die down. This article attempts to describe what constitutes a “political action” and what is a “moral action” with the help of examples from the Bangladesh war of independence. These two concepts will be examined from the perspective of Bangladesh’s socio-political history and will occasionally refer to the history of other countries.

What Is a Political Action?
According to the sociologist Max Weber, when an individual is involved in an action which has subjective meanings of any form of power sharing, or brings any change to the existing meaning of power or control, it qualifies to be a political action. For example, the US war against Iraq was a political action wherein the Bush administration, rightly or wrongly, tried to contain the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in that country. When no WMDs were found, the emphasis was changed from a political issue to a moral cause. The administration is now trying to establish “democracy” in Iraq and in the countries of West Asia. The American people are divided on this issue. Similarly, in the past the Vietnam war raised many moral questions about US involvement in south-east Asia and the American people are still debating the political justifications given by the administration for that war. It is not unusual for one section of people to brand an action as a political action and for another section to see the same action as a moral issue. Thus we see the development of new ideas and concepts about a “just war” or an “unjust war.” A war may be just or unjust but certain truths cannot be overlooked. Issues related to destruction and death in a war will never escape the moral question. Thus the Pakistani attacks on the innocent Bengalis cannot be justified on any grounds.

“Operation Searchlight” on the mid night of 25 March 1971 was not due to “self- or other-defence against aggression…contemporary “just war” theory and international law have recognised only one just cause for war: self- or other-defence against aggression” (McMahan 2005: 1). The attack on Bengalis was a morally wrong and unjust act. The Pakistanis cannot justify Operation Searchlight by resorting to the argument of “preventive war” either because the movement launched by the East Pakistanis then following the postponement of the meeting of the National Assembly was a non-violent movement. Pakistan cannot defend its attacks on its own citizens as a “preventive war,” because generally a preventive war takes place between two political entities. Moreover, during 1970 “preventive war’ was “immoral and illegal as a matter of principle, as it is not a response to an actual or imminent attack” (Kaufman 2005: 23).

Historically, the people of what is now Bangladesh were involved in many political actions in order to bring about changes in the existing power structures. Until the beginning of British rule (1757), mass participation in political actions was mostly non-existent because the concept itself did not exist. During the battle of Plassey, wherein the army of the East India Company defeated Nawab Shiraj-ud-Doullah of Bengal, the ordinary people did not participate as the struggle was between two armies. Along with the British direct rule after 1857, the dynamics started changing as the British rulers gradually introduced a new form of political system requiring a limited form of people’s participation.

Beyond Immediate Interests
In the last 100 years there have been a number of instances when the majority of Bangladeshis have had to rise above their immediate needs and aspirations and support political leaders found to be most credible at that point of time and whose actions could benefit a majority of the people. Those instances have since become landmarks in the history of Bangladesh. During the 1940s, supporting the cause of Pakistan was considered appropriate by the people of East Bengal. Thus, both Muslims and Hindus of the lower castes in East Bengal voted for Pakistan since they thought it would be politically right to support the Muslims of East Bengal and opted for the creation of Pakistan. It was a political choice for both the communities since there were no moral values attached to the movement. The Hindu-dominant Congress fought to end British rule over India and the Muslim League fought for a separate country until finally India was divided.

Though riots broke out and both innocent Hindus and Muslims became victims of a communal carnage, it was not supported by the political leaders of either religious group. An individual could be a supporter of the movement for Pakistan and still condemn religious riots. A majority of the people of East Pakistan succeeded in differentiating political issues from moral ones though in recent years the boundaries between the two seem to be getting diluted. Political goals are beginning to form the basis of moral issues.

The process of combining political issues with moral ones began when the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, tried to impose the language of less than 7% people of the country over the majority only because according to the West Pakistani leaders, the Urdu dialect was the language of Islam as it had an alphabet similar to the Arabic language. Adding the moral overtone of Islam to political actions became a routine activity for most of the West Pakistani political leaders. This process started in a simple way, but gradually took over the whole body politic of Pakistan.

The language movement of 1952, the 1954 election (imposition of 92A rules after the 1954 elections led to the complete rout of the Muslim League in what was then East Pakistan, the central government banned all political activities there), imposition of martial law, the six-point movement (the six demands put forward by the Awami League in 1966 to end exploitation of the East Pakistan by West Pakistan and which envisaged a federation of Pakistan giving a great deal of autonomy to the states), the rise of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the 1970 elections, the announcement of the date of parliament’s meeting by Yahya Khan, followed by its cancellation at the insistence of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, were all political actions related to political issues, though many a time the party in power tried to colour its actions with a moral brush. The West Pakistani politicians tried to show their East Pakistani counterparts as less patriotic and not true Muslims. Some supporters of the Urdu language announced that the protection of Urdu was equal to protecting religion, in this case Islam:

In the present circumstances, therefore, protection of the Urdu language is protection of our religion. Thus this protection is a religious obligation of every Muslim according to his capacity (Rahman 1996: 75).

The West Pakistani leaders used the moral tone to undermine great Bengali politicians like A K Fazlul Huq, Maulana Bhashani, Hussein Shaheed Suhrawardy and Sheikh Mujib. But the use of religious overtones had nothing to do with the religion itself; these were moves to justify their unjust ways of staying in power. They did it to cover their political dishonesty and hypocrisy. The use of religious moral overtones applied to social and economic issues by the West Pakistani political leaders was designed to shift attention from the real issues.

Lending support to the Pakistan movement during 1940s or not doing so was purely a matter of individual choice. Many Muslims of undivided India were against Partition and the creation of Pakistan, while many Muslims were so emotionally charged with the concept of Pakistan that they were ready to leave their birthplace to become its citizens. Many Hindus of East Bengal opted for Pakistan though they knew they would form a minority there. During the 1960s the people of East Pakistan could support or vote against Sheikh Mujib’s six-point movement. There were no moral values attached to the six-point movement. There may have been strong nationalistic feelings awakened by the Awami League movement, but no religious colour was given to it. The West Pakistani leaders, on the other hand, tried to give moral connotations to every action of theirs.

Without going into the details of the historical reasons for the emergence of Bengali nationalism and events that followed leading to the final showdown in 1970 elections, one could easily summarise that the majority of East Pakistan’s population was for sustaining a united Pakistan with maximum political autonomy. A very small percentage of the population might have been contemplating separation from West Pakistan. Of course, no opinion polls were conducted on these issues, but anyone who lived through the period of united Pakistan and the liberation of Bangladesh would vouch for the truth of this assertion.

Until the crackdown of 1971, the majority of the people were hoping for a political solution to the crisis that emerged due to long-term military rule in Pakistan and even the Pakistani army junta announced that it was working towards a political solution (Zaheer 1994). Despite clear evidence that the West Pakistani military rulers were preparing for a military solution to the political crisis, people were still hopeful. Until the genocide began on 25 March 1971, the Bengali population living in East Pakistan looked upon it as a political issue on which they could have different opinions. Until the beginning of the genocide supporting West Pakistani leaders and a united Pakistan was a political choice. After that however it became a moral issue.

What Is a Moral Action?
For sociologist Emile Durkheim, the issue of morality is also an element of social life and works as a binding force in society. According to him, individuals need inner morality at the same time that they need external control in order to be free. The modern nation state decided to keep collective moral values away from the domain of public affairs; however, it succeeded in establishing a universal moral teaching for mankind. The modern moral teaching actually emerged from Greek classical thinkers.

Aristotle…says that a man ‘can be afraid and be bold and desire and be angry and pity and feel pleasure and pain in general, too much or too little’; but he says also that malice, shamelessness, and envy are such that their names imply that they are evil. So also with actions such as adultery, theft, and murder” (MacIntyre 1998: 65).

It is morally wrong to inflict injuries on another individual for whatever reasons. Homicide, rape and stealing are morally wrong actions. Even in times of declared war, the killing of civilian population is morally wrong. Attacking a group of people on grounds of religion, race, and/ or ethnicity is morally wrong. Political necessities do not make morally wrong actions right. A political action may seem right at one point of time or in a certain situation but issues of morality do not change with time and circumstance. During the 1970s the political elite of Pakistan tried to justify the immoral act of genocide by making a number of allegations against the leaders of the elected majority party of Pakistan, but the fact of the matter remains that they were involved in immoral actions. Whether the leaders responsible for the killings of thousands of innocent Bengalis were charged for committing crimes against humanity like the leaders of Nazi Germany and Bosnia were is not indicative of their moral status. Historically, they would always be branded as criminals.

After the crackdown of 25 March 1971, the crisis of Bangladesh became a moral issue. Until 25 March, an individual could have the privilege of supporting or not supporting Sheikh Mujib’s political calls or even one could support Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party. But after Operation Searchlight, and the indiscriminate attack of West Pakistanis on innocent Bengalis, the actions of negotiation lost political credibility. They turned into a moral issue, a question of right and wrong. Supporting indiscriminate killings of innocent people on any pretext cannot be morally right. It was alleged that convening parliament and allowing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of Pakistan’s parliament to design a constitution would destroy Pakistan. It was further alleged that Sheikh Mujib’s uncompromising attitude regarding his six-point programme was about to destroy Pakistan. The West Pakistani politicians and scholars are still searching for the reasons that forced the Pakistani army to attack East Pakistan in 1971. The attack was random, not selective. And it was merciless (Mascarenhas 1971). Attacking sleeping civilians who were also fellowcitizens was a cowardly act.

Taking recourse to a military solution of a political crisis was morally wrong then and is morally wrong today. The political crisis that was created by the West Pakistani junta with the collaboration of Bhutto by postponing the meeting of the National Assembly should have been resolved through a political solution and not by conducting massacres. While Yahya Khan looked upon Sheikh Mujib as a potential destroyer of a united Pakistan he did not seem to have had the same opinion about Bhutto who had already declared the demise of Pakistan by his “two-Assembly” proposal and announcement of Idhar-hum.. Udhar-tum (“I am on this side and you are on other”). The American newspapers recorded, “Bhutto and his followers, on the other hand, may have tacitly concluded that they would be prepared to let the East Pakistan secede – leaving themselves to govern a residual state in West Pakistan – rather than accept a weak federal system based on the Awami League program” (2000: 506).

Not everybody could join the fight in a literal sense, but they could make a choice to support the fight and stay on the morally right course or take the morally wrong course – collaborate with the killers. During the time of the war of independence only a handful of people chose to take the morally wrong path and collaborated with the invading army and its political supporters. During the occupation period some Bengalis joined Al-Shams, Al-Badar and other militant organisations specially formed to help eliminate Bengali intellectuals, doctors, professionals, and teachers. The members of these organisations raided houses and rounded up individuals and took them to a designated area to be killed. These kinds of activities cannot be termed as political actions. Many supporters of Pakistani occupation were directly involved in these kinds of activities.

During the second world war, after France surrendered to Germany, the Vichy government collaborated with the occupying German army. German occupation continued until 1945 and a resistance movement under the leadership of De Gaulle took shape during this period. Not all French citizens joined the resistance movement and neither did all of them collaborate with the occupation forces. Immediately after the end of occupation the French government prepared a list of collaborators who were identified and punished. French Resistance forces summarily executed, after cursory trials, about 10,000 collaborators as part of “justice at the cross-roads” while the courts condemned about 2,000 people to death and more than 40,000 were sent to prison. Vichy prime minister Pierre Level was also executed.

Bangladesh’s history has turned out differently. Immediately after the Pakistani army surrendered, there was massive confusion helped by the availability of the captured arms and ammunition. There were a large number of groups belonging to the local resistance forces that were not under any central authority. Therefore, the government-in-exile had a hard time establishing law and order in the country. Moreover, the pivotal force of the liberation was Sheikh Mujib, who was under arrest in a foreign land far away from the country. All these factors prevented the newly formed government of Bangladesh from initiating as policy to deal with the collaborators. Moreover, countries like the US and China as also many many Muslim countries did not support the Bangladeshi fight for liberation. No list of collaborators was prepared by the new administration, though every city, town and thana had witnessed local collaborators. All these collaborators had not necessarily participated directly in the atrocities but they did not condemn Pakistani atrocities either. A list should have been prepared with specific charges and they should have been brought before the special courts for judgment (there was a list of persons against whom criminal cases were filed). Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, no action was taken against those named in the list. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman provided blanket amnesty to all Bangladeshis who collaborated with the Pakistani army irrespective of the nature of the collaboration. Later on after Sheikh Mujib’s assassination, Ziaur Rahman rehabilitated the collaborators by offering them higher political positions in his administration.

Mixing Moral with Political Actions
The Pakistani army leadership under Yahya Khan succeeded in avoiding prosecution by the International Tribunal Court with the support of the Nixon administration which was a reward for the establishment of diplomatic ties with the Chinese government. But for the people of East Pakistan who were the victims of Pakistani attacks, the supporters of the Pakistani government were guilty of committing crimes against humanity. Political propaganda may provide a different meaning to a particular action but the universality of a moral issue hardly changes. Perpetrators of a moral wrong are the wrongdoers and “every wrong action is a lie” (MacIntyre 1998: xii). “The action of a wrongdoer always gives expression to a judgment which is false and thus misrepresents some reality” (ibid).

The West Pakistani leadership succeeded in misrepresenting the reality but like, “every wrong action is a lie”, their wrong actions were full of lies. It is still trying to find scapegoats for its own “wrongdoings”. The Hamood-er Rahman Commission was a testimony of a “big lie” with some small truths. Thus if someone fails to separate a moral issue from a political issue by simply listening to Pakistani propaganda, they need to ask themselves some universal questions: On what moral grounds can one justify the killings of innocent ordinary people of any community? The Pakistani government and society have not yet agreed to atone for the wrongdoing of 1971. It is not unusual for “wrongdoers” to repent and seek forgiveness. Until that redemption takes place, supporting Pakistan is morally wrong.

References
Hare, R M (1952): The Language of Morals (Clarendon: Oxford Press)

Kaplan, Alice (2000): The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach (Chicago: The Chicago University Press)

Kaufman, Whitley (2005): “What’s Wrong with Preventive War? The Moral and Legal Basis for the Preventive Use of Force”, Ethics and International Affairs, 19, No 3, December

Lagrou, Pieter (2000): The Legacy of Nazi Occupation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1998): A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press)

McMahan, Jeff (2005): “Just Cause for War”, Ethics and International Affairs, 19, No 3, December

Mascarenhas, Anthony (1971): The Rape of Bangladesh (Delhi: Vikas Publications)

Rahman, Tariq (1996): Language and Politics in Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press)

Zaheer, Hasan (1994): The Separation of East Pakistan: The Rise and Realisation of Bengali Muslim Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

First published in the Economic & Political Weekly, January 31, 2009

Mokerrom Hossain (mhossain@vsu.edu) is with the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Criminal Justice, Virginia State University