Sunday, December 20, 2009

Killing squads

Photo: Intellectuals were kidnapped, blindfolded and murdered by dreaded Al-Badr recruited from Islamist radical Jamaat-e-Islami party youth & student group


In 1971, a number of Bengalis allied with the Pakistani Army to form what was then known as the ‘killing squad,’ massacring civilians indiscriminately.

AN UNNERVING thing happened the other day. I was invited to a friend’s house for a cup of tea. There I met two people: one, who currently works at the US embassy, had fought with the Al Badrs, a religious killing squad that allied with Pakistan during the Liberation War in 1971. The other is the head of English in one of Dhaka’s universities, and his brother narrowly escaped being executed by the very man who now sat across the table from him.

The men did not recognise each other at first, not until they both introduced themselves to me. I was the penny, and when it dropped, the atmosphere became, for lack of a better word, ‘unfriendly.’ The ex-Al Badr made a dash for the door. The professor, blood curdled, partly with shock but mostly with rage, summoned up the courage to explain why.

During the Liberation, the professor’s brother had been working as an artist, a trade which the Al-Badrs considered to be anti-Islam and hence anti-Pakistan. In the dying stages of the war, just days before liberation, the professor’s brother found himself at the mercy of the ‘killing squad.’ Many others around the country – including intellectuals, Hindus, artists – considered to be progressive and pro-liberation had already been hunted down and executed by these pro-Pakistan squads. However, after independence, only a handful of these killers were caught and most escaped, never to face trial.

‘There has been no closure for the many millions that lost loved ones and their unharnessed feelings of hostility and bitterness are not the right ingredients for a harmonious Bangladesh.’

I suspected that the professor’s story must be commonplace in Bangladesh and it must contribute in some way to explaining why the country has found it so difficult to unite post-independence. What affected the people most were not only the savage acts of 1971 that remained so fresh in their minds, but also the unforgivable inaction of the government (even with overwhelming evidence) for not bringing these men to justice.

Over the last four decades, Bangladeshi human rights activist Shariar Kabir and others, both nationally and internationally, have been campaigning for those Bangladeshis who participated in 1971 violence to be brought to justice. Still, there has been no closure for the many millions that lost loved ones at the time, and their unharnessed feelings of hostility and bitterness cannot be the right ingredients for a harmonious Bangladesh.

‘Revenge is obviously not the answer, but then what are the alternatives?’

It disturbs me a great deal listening to these stories of atrocities and I can empathise with the desire for revenge. It’s obviously not the answer, but then, what are the alternatives? And what would they achieve?

‘Even after everything, they’re still Bengalis, and it’s always difficult for a mother to renounce her own son.’

Some say the Bangladeshi killers should be labelled, and locals should be told who they are and what they did. But this could lead to lynching. Others argue that they should be prevented from getting jobs within national institutions, but then we run the risk of sacrificing democracy. As a last resort, the men could simply be booted out of the country. But even after everything, they are still Bengalis, and it’s difficult for a mother to renounce her own son.

‘Largely it will have to come down to time, and yes, eventually we will forget.’

I fear that such a sensationalist title may have detracted from the impact of this story, but there’s no other way of presenting such an uncompromising truth. These criminals committed horrific atrocities, but bringing them to justice and punishing them, despite the ongoing work of rights groups, doesn’t seem to be a likely outcome if the present strength of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat alliance and the Saudi-influenced, right-wing military is anything to go by.

At the same time, it would be difficult to find a Bengali that could forgive them for the rape and pillage of the country. So largely it will have to come down to time, and yes, eventually we will forget. Just like America has forgotten its War of Independence and Europe has all but forgotten World War II, we too will forget. #

First published in The DAWN Blog, Karachi, Pakistan, December 16, 2009

Misha Hussain is a British journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh