It has been 41 years since Pakistan was split, giving birth to Bangladesh. However, just as the oppressive shadow of the 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 counter-accusations of war crimes and political vendetta flying thick and fast. Indeed, every time 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 — much to the chagrin of some of its supporters.
In India, Jamaat focused on taking Islamic teachings to all communities in their own languages, even as it pushed Muslims to be true representatives of their faith. This has been more or less the approach of the movement in Bangladesh too.
This is why the trial of professor Gulam Azam, the 90-year old ailing former Jamaat chief, and the current president of the organisation, 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, rape, 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 victimisation of the party, part of an 18-party opposition alliance led by former premier Khalida 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 that the authorities allow its team of lawyers to attend the trial. The Bangladesh tribunal has been slammed by the International Bar Association, saying: “The legislative framework of the tribunal fell short of recognised international standards.” The US Ambassador for Global Justice, Stephen Rapp, has criticised 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 Centre 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 for the support of Arab and Muslim countries against what he sees as a sham trial and mockery of justice.
He has asked the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to convene an international conference to start a reconciliation process in Bangladesh or at least persuade Dhaka 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.”
However, the most damning criticism 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 defence 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 professional integrity.
Where’s all this going to end? Doubtless, what happened in 1971 was truly shameful and indefensible. How a country created in the name of Islam 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 the subcontinent’s history.
In less than a quarter of a century after its inception, Pakistan 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 high-handedness. And the failure to recognise the massive electoral mandate that Shaikh Mujeeb, present Prime Minister Shaikh 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 General 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 revolt. What followed is part of history. The nine-month conflict reportedly claimed more than three million lives.
Of course, India’s strategic support played a critical role. An effusive former Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, famously compared the then prime minister Indira Gandhi to Hindu deity Durga for breaking the neighbour’s back. However, if anyone was indeed responsible for breaching the fabled fortress of faith, it was the selfishness and conceit of its own elites and the excesses against its own people.
Thousands of civilians were raped and killed and millions uprooted. Mukti Bahini (liberation force) had its share of bloodletting too. Groups like Biharis, who held on to the idea of a united Pakistan, bore the brunt. In fact, Cadman claims massive crimes were committed by all sides.
An utterly shameful and horrendous tragedy befell the subcontinent. But what was Jamaat’s role in it? Like Biharis and many others, it believed in a united Pakistan and desperately tried to prevent the inevitable split. However, 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 party’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 Azam and the other accused.
To his credit, when Bangladesh came into being, Mujeeb sought a fresh start, saying his was a forgiving nation and that Bangladesh should look to the future, not the past, in the interest of peace and reconciliation. This is why similar trials were abandoned in 1973, leading to a tripartite accord between Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.
Shaikh Hasina would do well to be guided by the wisdom of her far-sighted 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 will not help anyone. It’s time to move on.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer. Follow him on Twitter @aijazzakasyed