It was on February 5, 2013 that the young in Dhaka came out to Shahbag Square to protest and demand capital punishment for the Butcher of Mirpur, Abdul Quader Mollah, along with others who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, for their war crimes during the Bangladesh Liberation War. The movement had quickly spread to the rest of the country and the Jamaat Islami reaction was immediate and has remained violent. Nevertheless, Sheikh Hasina has remained constant in her action against the right wing fundamentalists who, aided by the BNP, acting out of electoralcompulsions and its own convictions, has encouraged nationwide violence.
Shahbag was about closure. It was a war against fundamentalism and was not about revenge. Many of the protestors were young boys and girls born after 1971 who gave the famous slogan ‘Joy Bangla’ a new relevance and a new meaning. It is in Bangladesh that they wish to remember the discrimination in all the 25 years preceding 1971 and the genocide in the nine months that preceded that December 16. It was too soon after independence to find out what happened during those horrible months as the new nation had to be built from the debris and the devastation that the West Pakistanis had left behind. Yet they needed to remember all that to build their future.
The then Karachi-based journalist, Anthony Mascarhenas, was the first in June 1971 to break the news internationally of the genocide in East Pakistan, leading the Pakistan Government to white wash the events in its white paper of August that year. The young nation needed more than anecdotal references.
The Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order soon after liberation and the 1973 War Crimes Tribunals Act were lost in the assassination of Bangabandhu and some members of his family. It took the Awami League twenty years to regain power in 1996 only to lose it to the right wing BNP supported by the Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that had supported the Pakistan Army and had opposed independence.
Attempts at discovering what happened in 1971 and to record Pakistani atrocities remained haphazard. There was no systematic fact finding and War and Secession — Pakistan, India and the creation of Bangladesh by Richard Sisson and Leo Rose in 1991 was more an account covering the military aspects of the war and did not cover the activites of the Pakistan Army before the war.
Robert Payne’s Massacre has several anecdotal references but his book was published soon after independence as was Mascarenhas’ book The Rape of Bangladesh, so could not give accurate estimates. Susan Brownmiller (Against Our Will) refers to 400000 rapes by the Pakistan Army and its collaborators, of which nearly 80 per cent were Muslim women.
Centuries of Genocide (4th edition in 2013) edited by Samuel Totten and William S Parsons has a chapter — Genocide in Bangladesh by Rounaq Jahan that has detailed graphic descriptions of the killings and depredations. She also says 3 million were killed. Yet Sarmila Bose's book Dead Reckoning has remained controversial as it sought to find proof for a predetermined finding that the Bengali claim was grossly exaggerated and accepts the Pakistan Army figure of 26,000 Bengalis killed. Bose is dismissive of Bengali claims about the extent of genocide.
It was left to Dr M A Hasan, a medical student in 1971 who had joined the Mukti Bahini resistance movement. He painstakingly researched the events of 1971 through his NGO, The War Crimes Fact Finding Commission established in 1999 produced an accurate report entitled War Crimes, Genocide and the Quest for Justice in 2008. This report should ideally be in research and history libraries given the meticulous details and perhaps not something the average reader would read. Fortunately, Dr Hasan has now published Beyond Denial — The Evidence of a Genocide for the average reader. Hasan’s study says that the figure of 3 million innocent civilians killed is the more likely figure. The book describes in considerable detail some truly blood curdling systematic massacres; only those with strong hearts should read these pages.
Bangladesh needs full closure of this painful aspect of her history and a move away from fundamentalism that threatens it today. Bangladesh has to see the fulfillment of its Shahbag moment. The recent hanging of Mollah, is a process in that closure. But when Pakistan’s National Assembly expressed concern at the hanging of Mollah and Interior Minister Nasir Ali Khan criticised this hanging, this only shows how dangerously delusional Pakistan’s leaders have become. No wonder this prompted Sheikh Hasina to comment that Pakistan had not accepted liberation of Bangladesh.
The writer is a former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)