Bangladesh, 1971: The forgotten holocaust

By Neil Andrews

Forty years ago one of the bloodiest conflicts to engulf the Asian continent took place.  East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) rose up against West Pakistan after the latter had denied the East independence.  The struggle pitted the two halves of Pakistan – geographically located either side of India – in a bitter conflict lasting nine months.  Only the intervention of India, on the behalf of East Pakistan, prevented events from reaching Holocaust-like proportions.

3 million are said to have perished at the hands of the West Pakistan Army and Bengali collaborators between March and December 1971.  In a conflict that witnessed the rape of 200,000 women in purpose-built “rape camps” – of which more than 10% became pregnant – and the exodus of more than 10 million Bengalis for the relatively safe confines of India, the engagement also saw the surrender of 90,000 prisoners of war (POWs), the largest recorded since World War II.  Though Bangladesh cannot be entirely absolved of guilt, Pakistan has never accepted responsibility for the war, which began after the disputed result of a 1970 election, culminating in one of the worst acts of genocide in recent history.

But as evidence of how little the war is known to the West, a 1995 Channel 4 documentary reported that many of the perpetrators of 1971 had been living and working in London, seemingly unbeknown to anyone.  Yet more worrying is the fact that many polemicists – and a handful of historians – have continued to deny that genocide was even committed.

 Justice for the 3 million may now be on its way, however – but it has been a rocky road.  Protests in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s bustling capital, in recent months have thrown fresh light on the events of 1971, with protesters calling for the heads of suspected war criminals.  One of those most wanted is Abdul Quader Mollah, or the “Butcher of Mirpur”, as he is more commonly known.  Linked with the beheading of a poet, the rape of an 11-year old girl and the shooting of more than 300 Bangladeshis in 1971, Mollah – who was assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party strongly linked with a number of the atrocities – was found guilty last month and handed down a life sentence.  Justice done, then?  Apparently not.  In a country where life imprisonment for a mass murderer is seen as getting off lightly, the decision has, for many, left a bitter taste – protestors want him executed.  Though I do not support the use of capital punishment anywhere, regardless of the circumstances, it is clear that many in Bangladesh still feel a sense of injustice at the outcome, and want blood.  One reason for such animosity may be that the party alleged to have colluded with the West Pakistan Army in the genocide, Jamaat-e-Islami, is still free to run for election, despite vocal opposition calling for it to be banned.

So how can justice be fairly dispensed?  One charge levelled against the Bangladeshi legal system is that it is plagued with corruption and political favouritism, which is why it has taken so long to convict any of the perpetrators of 1971.  A suggestion has been made that those found guilty could instead be imprisoned under the provisions of the International Criminal Court, situated in The Hague.  Certainly, the intervention of international law in this instance may prove the key to taking those guilty out of the reach of national politicians, which might prevent further delay.

But aside from this, there is something else – something bigger – brewing in Bangladesh.  The gathering of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the capital’s Shahbagh Square, the bubbling epicentre of the protests, bares a striking resemblance to events that encircled Tahrir Square in Egypt two years ago.  The music, the street theatre, and the seeming unity of those in Dhaka suggest that maybe something else is apace.  Perhaps this is not just a protest about 1971.  Perhaps it is a yearning for reform, modernity, and the search for a new Bangladesh.


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