By Dr. Abdullah al-Ahsan
Bangladesh has recently captured headlines in international media outlets thanks to its International War Crime Tribunal (ICT) which has started delivering verdicts on what it calls crimes committed in 1971 when Bangladesh was born out of a bloody war. These verdicts have ranged from death sentence to life imprisonment. The Tribunal seemed to have expedited the process as if it was meeting some deadline. This has been evidenced in a Skype conversation between the chief judge of the tribunal who later resigned and a lawyer of Bangladeshi origin in Europe. These conversations were first reported in the The Economist of London (December 12, 2012). A Bangladeshi daily later published the full text of these conversations.
The latest verdict sparked serious violence throughout the country and the government had to deploy the army to control the situation. The Economist (March 9, 2013) reported that, “According to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human-rights watchdog, more than 100 people died between February 5th and March 7th in what it called a “killing spree” by law-enforcement agencies on the pretext of controlling the violence. At least 67 people were killed after the court awarded the verdict of death by hanging to Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, one of the leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s biggest Islamic party, for the murder, abduction, rape, torture and persecution of his countrymen.
A number of political leaders including the opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and former President H M Irshad, whose Jatyo Party is in alliance with the government, have expressed the fear that this could push the country toward an all-out civil war. The situation has deteriorated further because of the participation of two opposing groups: one known as Shahbaghi Movement and the other Hefazati Islam. While the former consists of arch secularists, the latter represents people of deep religious orientation. Both seem to be adamant in their opposing demands upon the state.
All these developments raise many questions: What sort of crimes the tribunal is addressing? War crimes? What kind of war? Civil war? War of independence? Liberation war? Who fought whom? Who are these people who are being tried by ICT? When were these crimes committed? Who committed them? Why has this tribunal been constituted 42 years after the 1971 war? Are there political motives behind this? Let us consider these questions.
What Are The Crimes That The Tribunal Is Addressing?
The tribunal claims to address the alleged crimes committed in the former East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), which in 1971 was under military rule. Allegation against Pakistani military ranges from premeditated murder to organized rape: from denial of civil, political and human rights to humiliation and persecution. Although Pakistan military’s actions were highlighted and strongly condemned by the international community and the media, nobody was held responsible for those alleged crimes. Initially the government of Bangladesh listed 195 officers of Pakistan armed forces for these violations, but charges were dropped in an agreement between governments of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan in 1974 in an accord called the Simla Agreement. What is noteworthy is that nobody determined the intensity of these crimes.
Even the government of Bangladesh never conducted any enquiry examining the extent of atrocities and determining the number of people killed or women raped in 1971. The government of Pakistan prepared a report on the basis of official correspondence between its Eastern Command and its armed forces General Headquarter (GHQ) and on soliciting witnesses from all walks of life who were directly or indirectly involved in the tragedy. According to this report, authored by the Chief Justice of Pakistan Supreme Court at that time, Justice Hamoodur Rahman, himself a Bengali, approximately 26,000 persons had been killed in the conflict. Some Bangladeshi sources put the figure to 3 million. This fantastic claim does not seem to include the pro-Pakistani and non-Bengali elements killed in the conflict. Based on eye witness accounts and media reports Norway based Peace Research Institute, which has the reputation of collecting information on the number of deaths in such conflicts since 1900; put the figure of death toll the entire conflict at 58,000. One American/ Indian scholar, Sarmila Bose in her recent book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (2011, Columbia/Hurst), has studied the subject academically and has challenged the pro-Bangladeshi narratives. Since its publication Bangladeshi government and its supporters are scoffing at her. But the fact remains that to date Bose’s work is one of the most reliable accounts of 1971 war.
Background Of The Conflict
In order to address questions related to 1971 one needs to take a long view of history. Bangladesh seems to have achieved independence from two different “colonial powers” in a span to only 25 years. Although today’s Bangladesh and Pakistan achieved independence from the British rule in 1947 and established one nation, the area that constitutes Bangladesh today came under British East India Company (EIC) rule in 1757 while most areas that constitute Pakistan today came under British imperial rule after 1857. During the first one hundred years the EIC crushed the local Muslim aristocracy and promoted the Hindu community through its divide and rule policy. The British patronage of the Hindu community created what has been called the 19th century Bengal renaissance and a large Bengali Hindu middle class. On the contrary, very few Muslim aristocrats survived in Bengal to send their children to faraway places such as Aligarh where Muslims had established an institution for European education. As a result the new Pakistani civil service in 1947 was dominated by non-Bengali elites although Bengalis constituted the majority population in independent Pakistan. Non-Bengali elites had no desire to address questions of historical disadvantages that East Pakistan had suffered.
Another noteworthy phenomenon of this period is the division of Bengal in 1905 by the new Viceroy in order to create more opportunities for Muslims and establish a university in Dhaka. The Hindu community fiercely opposed the creation of a new Muslim-majority province of East Bengal. The British yielded to the pressure and the new province was dissolved.The Bengali Muslims responded to the middle class-led Hindu animosity by organizing in 1906 the All India Muslim League in Dhaka – the political party that achieved Pakistan in 1947. The Bengal Muslim League received convincing victory against the Indian National Congress in the 1930s and it was a Bengali leader who moved the Pakistan Resolution in 1940. Pakistan, in a vital sense, was thus a gift of Bengali Muslims for the Indian Muslim community.
In independent Pakistan however, soon the democratic process collapsed and the military and civil bureaucrats took control of governance. The role of Bengalis in achieving independence of the country was not only ignored; they were denied of their political and economic rights. The gap between the two wings of Pakistan widened. The first national elections were held 23 years after independence in which all national political parties were almost wiped out. East Pakistan-based Awami League, led by Shaikh Mujibur Rahman, campaigned for economic and financial self-determination and won all seats but two in East Pakistan with an overall majority at the national level. The vested interests in West Pakistan took serious note of this and began conspiring against the Awami League forming government at the center. Although national political parties such as the Muslim League and Jamaat-i-Islami expressed their unreserved support for transfer of power to Awami League, military and regional political leaders formed a coalition against the Awami League. Military dictator General Yahya Khan and political leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto put up a facade of negotiation with Shaikh Mujibur Rahman for about a month, only to prepare for the ultimate showdown against the democratic forces in East Pakistan. Eventually the central government took military action on 25 March 1971, creating terror in Dhaka and forcing the millions to flee to India for safety. Many pro-independence elements in East Pakistan responded by attacking non-Bengali civilians in various parts of the territory; the struggle for economic self-determination turned out to be an all-out civil war.
The General Character Of The War And The International Media
Pakistani authorities not only took military action to prevent the democratic forces, they also arrested Shaikh Mujibur Rahman leaving the party in disarray. Most other leaders fled to neighboring India which was waiting for an opportunity for decades to dismember Pakistan. The exiled leaders of Awami League declared the formation of an independent government of Bangladesh, while a significant number of Bengali speaking members of Pakistan armed forces declared a war of liberation against Pakistani military authorities. The international media was merciless against Pakistan, exaggerating the atrocities of the Pakistan military and totally ignoring the equally brutal killings of pro-Pakistani civilians and non-Bengali East Pakistanis.
As for the war, the fighting continued for about 8 to 9 months with the participation from both sides of various elements in society. There were the Awami Leaguers and left-wing activists who were willing to greet India’s invasion of Pakistan to facilitate their independence. But there were many among liberation fighters who were reluctant to accept India’s military assistance and wanted to fight their own war. Then there were those who wanted to solve the problems of political and economic inequality between the two wings of the country within the framework of a united Pakistan through political struggle. Almost every family was divided along these political opinions. In this fundamental sense the conflict was classic civil war until it culminated with India’s declaration of war against Pakistan.
Culmination Of The War And Post Independent Bangladesh
India officially attacked Pakistan in early December claiming that Pakistan had attacked India on several fronts. At the end of the war Pakistan’s Eastern Command surrendered and India took more than 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. Later, in 1974 India signed an accord with Bangladesh and Pakistan under which Pakistani POWs were released unconditionally with indemnity for Pakistani military personnel against any future trials. Within four years of Bangladesh independence, in August 1975, some Bangladeshi military officers assassinated Shaikh Mujibur Rahman and his family. The mutineer received hero’s welcome in the streets of Dhaka since Mujib had earlier introduced a new constitution establishing a one-party dictatorship with a provision to ban all independent newspapers. Another important motivation for the coup was the general perception that Mujib had surrendered Bangladesh sovereignty to India. Since then Bangladesh has been governed both by civilian and military administrations but tension still remains between pro-Indian and Bangladeshi nationalist forces.
Why Has The Issue Been Raised Now?
This is the most appealing question in the context of the current political situation in Bangladesh. The general election is due within a year and the current administration seems to be worried about its prospects of winning. Most independent observers believe that the Awami League government wants to eliminate the opposition coalition through this trial. The government also knows very well that it would be impossible to convict these accused had the judiciary been independent and impartial. That is why the government has ignored persistent demands of international legal community to adhere to internationally recognized norms of justice and due process. It is obvious that these politically-motivated trials will have no legitimacy whatsoever given the way the ICT has been conducting itself so far. From among members of the international community only Turkey and a number of NGOs including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and International Bar Association have raised voice about the legitimacy and impartiality of this tribunal. The faster that the rest of the international community joins questioning the such questions about this tribunal, is better for international peace and security.
Dr. Abdullah al-Ahsan is the Vice President of JUST.