The genocide in Bangladesh took place more than 40 years ago but it is only now that the enforced stupor of its people is ending, as the War Crimes Tribunal delivers its verdicts. Bangladesh is undergoing a historic catharsis that is being ignored by the world and even by its neighbours. On February 28, the War Crimes Tribunal delivered its third verdict: capital punishment for Delawar Hossain Sayeedi, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, for the murder, abduction, rape and torture of his countrymen during the Liberation War of 1971.
An estimated 3 million people were killed and 2,50,000 women raped during the Bangladesh freedom movement. Before Sayeedi, Abdul Kalam Azad was sentenced to death in absentia and another Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, the Butcher of Mirpur, was sentenced to life imprisonment on February 5 on 344 counts of murder, rape and torture.
Mollah came out of the courtroom flashing a victory sign, which triggered the youth movement at Shahbag Square in Dhaka. The hundreds of thousands of people at Shahbag have demonstrated that Bangladesh remains outraged over the unpunished war-crimes.
For decades now, the Razakars, who along with their Pakistani handlers, undertook the 1971 genocide have occupied positions of political power in Bangladesh. Bangladeshis are determined that they will not back down this time. They want a closure to the wounds of 1971 which can only be had if theguilty are punished.
The Pakistani perpetrators will never be brought to justice — Pakistan refuses to even apologise to Bangladesh for the atrocities committed in 1971 — but some of the Al Badr and Al Shams collaborators in Bangladesh are facing trial. Seven more verdicts are due and should be delivered this month.
The signs are ominous. More than 50 people were killed in riots after the death sentence was awarded to Sayeedi. The Jamaatis and their student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir attacked policemen, ransacked public property, torched several temples, burnt down and looted shops and homes of Hindus and Awami League workers and attacked entire villages with iron rods and bamboos. Some Hindu families have taken refuge in the Gandhi Ashram Trust while there are reports of hundreds fleeing to Indian border villages.
Bangladesh is being torn apart by Jamaatis who are determined to take Bangladesh down the same path as the jehadis of Pakistan. Equally determined is the civil society in Bangladesh, refusing to give in to the bullying tactics and keeping up the pressure to ensure that this trial is sequestered from political and religious machinations of right wing groups. They fear that if there is a regime change after the elections scheduled in early 2014, the Razakars will once again walk out free.
The West and the liberals in the region are a tad uncomfortable with the demand for death penalty for the war criminals, with aspersions being cast on the fairness of the court proceedings, political pressure on the judges by the Awami League and the larger issue of death penalty in a civilised society. Retributive justice for war-crimes, when they involve genocide, mass murder and gang rapes of several hundreds of thousands, is an established global norm.
It was developed for Nuremberg Trials under the London Charter of 1945. Some of the rhetoric from Shahbag may make us uncomfortable but we can’t ignore the larger import of this movement.
The people’s movement in Bangladesh is unique. It is a secular movement in a Muslim-majority country against fanatical elements hell bent on pushing Bangladesh into obscurantism. The bloggers, teachers, students, artistes, freedom fighters, sportspersons, lawyers, doctors, homemakers and ordinary Bangladeshis who are braving the violence of the Jamaatis deserve our support and encouragement. They are fighting for democracy and secularism and for reclaiming their religion from the grip of fundamentalists.
It is important to note that President Pranab Mukherjee chose to go ahead with the visit to Bangladesh as his first foreign tour, even when the Jamaat has called a 48-hour strike. Mukherjee said, “We have recently seen the reawakening of the youth who recall the extraordinary sacrifices that led to the birth of the nation.
The youth of this country will determine its future.” The Indian government — and more importantly, our civil society — should unhesitatingly and unwaveringly express solidarity with the secular and just struggle of the people of Bangladesh. Forty-two years ago we assisted them in their struggle for freedom. Today we should stand by them in their quest to seek justice and closure to the wounds of 1971.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash