It’s been nearly 42 years since Pakistan got split giving birth to Bangladesh. But just as the oppressive shadow of their past perpetually hangs over India and Pakistan 65 years after their violent separation, the ghost of the 1971 catastrophe continues to haunt Bangladesh and Pakistan.
In Pakistan, most people would rather forget that dark phase in the nation’s history. In Bangladesh though, the past is ever present.
The Year 1971 is in the spotlight these days once again in Bangladesh with the familiar accusations and counteraccusations of war crimes and political vendetta flying thick and fast. Indeed, every time Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League comes to power, this game is played out again and again with the regime going after its opponents with a new zeal.
This time around, the witch-hunt has been taken to a whole new level. The manner in which the entire senior leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami is being tried for “war crimes” and for its “anti-liberation” role in 1971 has outraged many around the world.
The Jamaat-e-Islami, founded in undivided India, is widely respected for its dedication to spreading the universal message of Islam. The partition saw the movement split with a marked shift in approach and priorities in the two countries. In Pakistan, it decided to take the path of electoral politics to pursue its goals, to the chagrin of some of its supporters.
In India, the Jamaat focused on taking Islamic teachings to all communities in their own languages even as it pushed the believers to be true representatives of their faith. This has been more or less the approach of the movement in Bangladesh too.
This is why this trial of Prof Ghulam Azam, the 90-year old ailing former Jamaat chief, and current president Motiur Rahman Nizami and almost the entire top brass of the party by the Bangladesh International Criminal Tribunal is so absurd. The serious charges against the Jamaat leaders include war crimes, rapes, executions and other atrocities during the 1971 turmoil. Prof Azam’s wife Afifa Azam has accused the authorities of physically and mentally torturing her incarcerated husband.
The open victimization of the party, part of an 18-party opposition alliance led by former Premier Khaleda Zia, has provoked strong condemnation from international rights groups, jurists and lawmakers.
In October, Britain’s House of Lords denounced the trial in a strongly worded resolution, demanding the authorities allow its team of lawyers to attend the trial.
The Bangla tribunal has been slammed by the International Bar Association saying “the legislative framework of the Tribunal fell short of recognized international standards.”
US Ambassador for Global Justice Stephen Rapp has criticized the Tribunal’s procedures and “evident bias” of its presiding judge.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Center for Transitional Justice have voiced concerns over the way the tribunal has been operating, urging the government to abide by international law and protect the rights of all accused.
Toby M Cadman, a renowned international jurist, has called on the world community to act to stop the impending “summary executions” of opposition leaders. He was in Saudi Arabia recently to rally the support of Arab and Muslim countries against what he sees as a sham trial and mockery of justice.
He has asked the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to convene an international conference to start a reconciliation process in Bangladesh or at least persuade Prime Minister Hasina to ensure a fair and transparent trial. “The Bangladesh tribunal,” he told Arab News, “violates norms of fair trial spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”
But most damning criticism of the ICT and the government has come from The Economist in its two reports titled, Ever Murkier and Discrepancy in Dhaka. It has questioned the manner in which the tribunal has been functioning, from allowing testimonies of old friends of presiding judge Nizamul Haq to the abduction of key defense witnesses like Shukho Ranjan Bali by intelligence agencies right at the doorstep of the court.
“None of this brings confidence that the trial is being conducted to the highest standards. Even observers who have long insisted that there is merit in the process now see a rush to get the trial finished. The goal may be to wrap up before a general election that is expected in a little over a year,” noted the London-based magazine respected for its independence and professional integrity.
Where’s all this going to end? Doubtless, what happened in 1971 was truly shameful and indefensible. How a country that was created in the name of Islam and was to be a model Muslim state witnessed the endless bloodletting, rape and all sorts of appalling crimes against Muslims at the hands of fellow Muslims will forever remain a sordid chapter in South Asia’s history.
In less than a quarter of a century after its inception, “the land of the pure” ended up losing half of its body. The political and military leadership had managed to alienate much of the Bengali-speaking population in the East in no time with their combination of hubris and highhandedness. The failure to recognize the massive electoral mandate that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina’s father, received in the 1970 elections proved the final straw on the camel’s back.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the other claimant to the throne, threatened of dire consequences if Gen. Yahya Khan invited Awami League to form the government. And when the people of East Pakistan hit the streets to protest the stealing of Mujeeb’s historic win, the military hit back hard, sparking a national revolt. What followed is part of history and no one can deny or defend it. The 9-month long conflict reportedly claimed more than 3 million lives.
Of course, India’s strategic support played a critical role. An effusive Vajpayee famously compared Indira Gandhi to Durga for her role in breaking the neighbor back. However, if anyone was indeed responsible for breaching the fabled fortress of the faith, it was the selfishness and conceit of its own elites and crimes of the army against its own people. Thousands of civilians were raped and killed and millions uprooted. Mukti Bahni had its share of bloodletting too.
The groups like Biharis, who remained loyal to the idea of a united Pakistan, bore the brunt. In fact, Cadman claims massive crimes were committed by all sides.
It was truly an utterly, utterly shameful and horrendous tragedy that befell the subcontinent. But what was Jamaat’s role in it? Like the Biharis and many others, it believed in a united Pakistan and desperately tried to prevent the inevitable split. But did it run death squads and rape campaigns to aid the Army? Anyone familiar with its history and reputation of its leaders would find the accusations ridiculously absurd.
If they are guilty of anything it is standing up for national unity at a time when everyone else was trying to wreck it. Does it deserve punishment for that sin now? The massive popular response to the Jamaat’s strike call last week to protest the trial leaves no one in doubt what ordinary Bangladeshis think of this vicious campaign against the party. Other members of the 18-party alliance have also extended total support to Prof Azam and other accused.
To his credit when Bangladesh came into being, Sheikh Mujib sought a fresh start saying his was a forgiving nation and that Bangladesh should now look to the future, not the past, in the interest of peace and reconciliation. This was why similar trials were abandoned in 1973 leading to a tripartite accord between Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.
Sheikh Hasina would do well to be guided by the wisdom of her farsighted father. This charade of a trial will only revive old wounds and end up dividing a nation that has rebuilt itself after epic sacrifices. Bangladesh has earned the world’s respect thanks to the hard work of its people, steadily marching to progress. Raking up the past and waking up the ghosts of 1971 won’t help anyone. It’s time to move on.
n Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf based writer. Write him at [email protected]