THE WAR of liberation in 1971 is still a highly charged and emotive subject within Bangladeshi society. The event, through which the country was born 38 years ago, continues to be a polarising issue, haunting the present. The fact that the alleged war criminals – those who committed atrocities against innocent civilians during the nine-month war – have not been brought to justice is a major cause of contention.
It is a source of the ongoing paralysis in the country's democracy and the culture of impunity that dogs all sections of society. It is also at the root of the role of religion in contemporary Bangladeshi identity. Consecutive governments have made pledges to prosecute perpetrators and hold them accountable. None have so far delivered.
Sheikh Hasina, the current prime minister and the leader of the Awami League, the political party that swept to power in the 2008 elections, has promised to hold long overdue war crime tribunals, seeking assistance from the UN. Throughout the country, there is growing optimism that the victims and survivors can finally receive restitution.
With the retreat of the British Raj and the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, East Bengal became a part of Pakistan. Known as East Pakistan, it was separated from West Pakistan not only physically (with India in the middle), but also linguistically and culturally. It soon became clear that Islam, the raison d'être for the Pakistan project, could not unify these vastly different regions. Even the shared faith was practised in radically different ways: the east being far more liberal than the west. This division was heightened by Pakistani suspicion that Bengalis were only nominally Muslim. Their relatively recent conversion from Hinduism (albeit a century or so ago) made them, in the eyes of the West Pakistani ruling elite, unreliable coreligionists.
To pave over the cracks, in 1952 it was ordained that Urdu, with its echoes of the sacred language, Arabic, would be the official language of the two sides. There was widespread resistance to this in East Pakistan and when student protesters were shot dead, the first martyrs of what was to become the liberation movement were created.
The two wings hobbled along together until 1970 when, after 12 years of military rule, East and West Pakistan went to the ballot. The outright winner of the election was the Awami League. However, the West Pakistani administration refused to allow the party's then leader, Mujibur Rahman (father of the current prime minister), a Bengali from East Pakistan, to form the government. Their chosen man was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As negotiations between both sides broke down and Bengalis launched a campaign of civil disobedience, the Pakistani army launched Operation Searchlight in March 1971. Up to three million Bengalis were murdered in the crackdown and more than 200,000 women were raped or sexually assaulted. To escape the genocide, 10 million people crossed the border into India.
Atrocities were committed by the occupying Pakistani soldiers and their Bengali collaborators. The latter, known as razakars, were against the break-up as it was contrary to their vision of building an Islamic khilafat, or state. Thus the idealism of a secular identity, based upon Bengali nationalism as articulated by Mujibur Rahman was abhorrent to them. The razakars were in the main members of Islamist parties, including the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which is allied to Wahhabism and to the fundamentalist Deobandi sect.
Using local knowledge, they perpetrated the worst brutalities and massacres of the war. They rounded up and executed people who they thought were colluding with India to divide Pakistan. This included members of the Awami League party, intellectuals, guerrilla fighters who were involved in skirmishes against the army and Hindus. In reality, much of the killing was indiscriminate. The carnage of those few months has been collected in rooms full of black and white photographs in the Liberation Museum in Dhaka.
They depict chilling images of mass burial pits with decomposing bodies, the remnants of the slaughter of entire villages.
Mujibur Rahman did initiate trials against war criminals but he was assassinated in 1975. Last year, the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, a civil society initiative in Bangladesh, released the most comprehensive list of alleged suspects to date.
It includes the late Yahya Khan, president of Pakistan at the time, but the majority are Bengali razakars as well as previous and current leaders of JI. Many of these fled in the aftermath of the war and some came to the UK.
A Channel Four documentary from 1995 made allegations of involvement by British Bangladeshis in the genocide. Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, director of Muslim Spiritual Care Provision in the NHS, who was until recently vice-chairman of the East London Mosque and London Muslim Centre and was involved in setting up the Muslim Council of Britain, is one of the most prominent people to be accused of having carried out war crimes.
Mueen-Uddin is alleged to have been part of a group that abducted and "disappeared" people. Witnesses at the time describe seeing him kidnapping a university professor and a journalist in Dhaka during the war. Mueen-Uddin told the documentary makers "all the accusations being made against me are … utterly false and malicious, and either politically motivated or instigated otherwise".
Having left the newly created country of Bangladesh for London, Mueen-Uddin, along with other members of JI set up Islamic Forum Europe, an avowedly Islamist organisation connected to the East London Mosque.
Among the numerous ways in which consecutive Bangladeshi governments have lagged behind public opinion, the inaction with regard to trying the alleged war criminals is the least forgivable for many. Undeterred, Bengali civil society has continued to be vociferous in making sure this issue does not disappear.
Unless trials are seen to be free and fair, they will be perceived as political point-scoring by the Awami League. It is incumbent on the British Bangladeshi community, together with wider British society, to join the demands to bring the Bangladeshi war criminals to justice. It is also time to rethink a period of history which has continuing ramifications for today. #
First published in the Guardian, Wednesday 7 October 2009
Delwar Hussain is a writer on South Asian society, currently completing a doctorate at Kings College, Cambridge