Bangladesh: Struggle to Reclaim 1971
On May 11, Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) Bangladesh Amir, Motiur Rehman Nizami was hanged to death The sentence was carried out following the judgement of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) Bangladesh, set up by the present Awami League led government in 2009, to try those who killed and raped innocent Bangladeshis on behalf of the Pakistani army in 1971. His appeal to the Bangladesh Supreme Court was rejected. He preferred not to appeal for presidential clemency. His acolytes in the Jamaat said his only appeal will be to Allah, and not any man made justice system.
Till now the perpetrators of genocide executed include Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed (November, 2015), Mohammed Kamruzzaman (April 2015), Abdul Qader Mollah (December 2013), all top Jamaat leaders, and top leaders of killer squad Al Badar set up by the Pakistani army. The other executed was Salauddin Quader Choudhury (November 2015) originally of Jamaat, but later joined the BNP formed by President Gen Zia-ur-Rehman in 2008. Gen. Zia came to power in 2007 through a coup.
The original head of the Jamaat till 2000, Ghulam Azam was sentenced to 90 years of imprisonment in July 2013 by the ICT, in view of his old age. He died in prison in October 2014. Another top leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi has been sentenced to life imprisonment. More are on trial.
Ghulam Azam was the kingpin of the Razakars referred to as the “serpent’s head”. According to statistics from the Bangladeshi government, around three million were killed and approximately 200 thousand women raped by the Pakistani army and their Bangladeshi collaborators. The figures have been corroborated approximately by independent sources. This was a genocide next only to Adolf Hitler’s purge of the Jews, otherwise known as the Holocaust.
Most western nations had sharply criticized the ICT. Some of them are now coming around to understand or at least, acknowledge, that the Jamaat is the root of the religious extremist problem in Bangladesh which has dangerous regional and global ramifications. With the advent of the Islamic State (IS) or Daesh the international community cannot afford to have a forward looking and modernising member of the global community go down the Daesh way.
The Human Rights Watch (HRW), which continues to attack Bangladesh on the ICT and the executions are narrowly focussed and do not have a historical view. They remain heavily biased. They have not been able to make a dent on the laws of execution in the United States. Bangladesh and the rest of South Asia (including India) are not what Western Europe is today, though there is a robust debate in India over capital punishment. In terms of development many of these countries are in the 19th century or early 20th century. In India the Supreme Court has ruled that death penalty should be pronounced in the “rarest of rare cases”.
What Ghulam Azam, Nizami and their cohorts had done is much worse than the “rarest of rare”. Imagine pregnant women being disembowelled. Or little children being forced to drink belly full of water and made to run for target practice by Pakistani soldiers. There are not imaginative stories, but stomach churning facts. A documentary made by an Indian film maker just as the war was ending can make a slightly sensitive person sick. These emotions cannot be assuaged by HRW values. Killer groups like the dreaded Al Badr, Al Shams and the all-pervading Razakars were set up by the Pakistani army. Even Pakistani army officers like Sadiq Salik who were posted in East Pakistan, were so sickened by the atrocities that they resigned their commission and wrote about the torture massacre and brutality they witnessed. These books are still available.
Ten million refugees came to India to escape the genocide. Most went back when the country was liberated. The minority Hindus, who are taken as naturally anti-Pakistan, and any Bengali Muslim who were slightly suspected of being pro-liberation or independent were the targets. One has only to walk up the stairs of the Dhaka club to see photographs of some of the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army and their cohorts. In fact, the Jamaat auxiliary army was far more cruel than the Pakistani army.
Two issues need to be examined here. First, there is a cry for human rights of the likes of Nizami, Qader Mollah and a host of others. What about the human rights of the millions killed and thousands of women raped by these same men and their murderous gangs? Very little is spoken about it. Many survivors who witnessed these attacks are alive today. The ICT did not lose sight of the human rights of the murderers either. The head of the Jamaat till 2000. Ghulam Azam was awarded life imprisonment considering his advanced age. So was Mojaheed, a minister in Khaleda Zia’s BNP-Jamaat led government from 2001-2006.
The problems of the liberation war were deep rooted. After the Awami League came to power as the first government of Bangladesh, religious political parties were banned, so was the Jamaat. The liberation movement started as the language issue in 1952, when the Bengalis of East Pakistan rejected imposition of Urdu by West Pakistan. The Jamaat, religious extremism and the demand for independence came in later. The East Pakistan (Bangladesh) based Awami League won the 1970 Pakistan general elections, and Sk. Mujibur Rahman was to become prime minister of Pakistan. West Pakistan nullified the election results, arrested Sk. Mujibut Rahman, established martial law in East Pakistan, and launched “Operation Searchlight” in March 1971, rounding up and killing opponents. The carnage began. Just before the army surrendered to the Indian forces Bengali intellectuals in all fields were rounded up and executed by Al Badr.
Sk Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members were assassinated by a group of young officers on August 15, 1975. August 15 is India’s Independence Day. The message was not missed. The coup was not by a handful of young, hot headed army officers. This was a huge conspiracy which included two prominent ministers later found to be long term Pakistani moles, moles in the new Bangladeshi army, the Pakistani army and establishment with some help from Dr. Henry Kissinger and the CIA. Kissinger had taken the break up of Pakistan as a personal affront.
Following Sk. Mujibur Rahman’s assassination Bangladesh began to unravel. Zia-ur-Rehman became the army chief through a coup within the army, and President of Bangladesh through another almost simultaneous coup. He formed the BNP, legalised the Jamaat-e-Islami, and pardoned the entire Razakar family. Zia was killed in a coup in 1981, perhaps a fitting end to a man who rose through assassinations and coups. This story remains to be told. But he planted the seeds to what is being witnessed in Bangladesh today.
During the lost BNP-Jamaat led government rule, extremism and terrorism took roots (see earlier SAAG papers by this writer on the subject). Political murders of the opposition including the near fatal attack on Sk. Hasina then the opposition leader in 2004, countrywide bomb blasts by the JMB and cover for the extremists by the government will eventually have to be accounted for.
Attacks on secular bloggers and teachers, and minorities have recently raised concerns for the US. The US is coming together with Bangladesh and India to counter this menace. Although the Islamic State has been claiming responsibility for these killings, Prime Minister Sk. Hasina has taken the correct strategy to deny the presence of the IS in Bangladesh. For one, there is no evidence that IS has established itself in Bangladesh. Next, giving importance to these claims will only encourage these elements.
Unfortunately, and dangerously for Bangladesh, is political assassination returning? In March this year, a New York court sentenced Rizue Ahmed Caesar, FBI agent Robert Lustiyik and another American citizen to different terms of jail for accessing privileged information from the FBI about Sajeeb Wajad Joy. Caesar is the son of head of BNP’s US unit, Mohammed Ullah Mamun. Joy is the son of Prime Minister Sk. Hasina. The US court concluded the intention was to harm Joy physically. At least two other journalists connected closely with the BNP have been arrested in connection with this conspiracy.
What cannot be disassociated with these developments is the Pakistani reaction to Nizami’s execution. Pakistan’s foreign office condemned the action. Pakistan’s national parliament also passed a resolution similarly castigating the execution of Nizami and offered prayers for his departed soul. This has naturally attracted a backlash from Bangladesh and resulted in both countries withdrawing their envoys from each other’s country.
The War Crimes Tribunal and its verdict in each case has been criticized. What adds to the problem is the expulsion of two officials of the Pakistani Mission in Dhaka in the last few months, on charges of funding terrorism, specifically the JMB. A manager of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) was expelled from Bangladesh on similar grounds. The Bangladesh government gave these incidents the minimum of publicity in the interest of bilateral relations.
There is a long way to go, however. If one of the two largest political parties still retains supportive role from a country which committed virtual genocide, the second largest killing of innocent people after Hitler’s massacre of Jews, the future does not portend well. It is time that the younger, progressive leaders of BNP do some deep introspection, eschew the old rigid ideology, and think about the nation’s future.
Every democratic government needs a good and constructive opposition. There is a lot of space.
By Bhaskar Roy