In April 1972, while walking aimlessly down Free School Street, a friend and I chanced upon a hawker selling forms that would enable travel between the newly-liberated Bangladesh and India. Being plain bored — it was that waiting period between the end of school and beginning of college — we completed the formalities, secured the necessary endorsements and persuaded our parents that a trip across the border would be educative.
Just four months after the Pakistani army surrendered, Dacca (as it was then spelt) was a city on a permanent high. The turbulence of the past year dominated the conversations at the Dacca University campus. There were chilling stories of Pakistani high-handedness and an equal number of boastful accounts of Mukti Bahini “action”. We heard passionate discussions centred on the role of particular individuals: were they “collaborators” or just frightened souls who had either “obeyed orders” or kept their heads down after the imposition of Martial Law' In the drawing rooms of Gulshan we heard accounts of post-December 16 recriminations against “Biharis” — how an entire family living in the adjoining lane had been killed the previous month and their possessions distributed among Awami League activists.
On the final night of our week-long stay, there was a flurry of excitement when the women of an adjoining house began yelling “dakait” (dacoit). The younger brother of our host fished out a gun and rushed out. The next thing we knew was that a crowd had collected around a frightened man. They began hitting him with lathis and metal pipes. Soon someone exclaimed “razakar” and the intensity of the assault increased. In about 15 minutes, the assailant was dead.
The incident left us shaken. Was the dead man truly a razakar — a member of a vigilante squad promoted by the Pakistan army to safeguard East Pakistan from the secessionists' Our hosts couldn’t be sure. They assured us, however, that these were just the type of riff-raff who had been recruited and issued uniforms by the Pakistani authorities to terrorize people into submission.
There was no mistaking the visceral hatred of the average Bangladeshi for the collaborators, particularly the lumpen razakars. After liberation, many razakars were killed either by the victorious Mukti Bahini or by local people; some, particularly the Urdu-speaking ones, fled to the new refugee camps in Mirpur; and others tried to worm their way back into society.
The initial ferocity of post-liberation recriminations in Bangladesh was understandable, given the bestiality of the Pakistan army after March 25, 1971. After the December 16 surrender, some 92,000 Pakistani soldiers were sent to prisoner-of-war camps across India. Despite their inglorious record, the soldiers were treated with dignity and released after the Simla Accord.
Initial noises about establishing a war crimes tribunal notwithstanding, no action was taken by either India or Bangladesh against soldiers. In 1973, those soldiers from East Pakistan, like Hossain Mohammed Ershad, who had remained loyal to the Pakistan army during the war of liberation, were allowed to make a seamless transition into the new Bangladesh army. The consequences were ominous.
The civilian collaborators fell into two broad categories: the razakar rabble and the Bengali-speaking ideological upholders of Pakistan. On January 24, 1971, the Bangladesh government promulgated a special tribunal order that led to the arrest of nearly 37,000 collaborators. The bulk of them comprised razakars and members of peace committees promoted by the Martial Law authority, but a significant minority included members of the Al Badr group which waged its own distinctive ideological war for upholding Pakistan. The Al Badr’s most notorious act was the identification, arrest and massacre of anti-Pakistan intellectuals in the final days of East Pakistan.
On April 18, 1973, the government stripped Golam Azam, the head of the East Pakistan wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the most notorious of the ideological collaborators, and a few others of their citizenship. Although Azam had left for West Pakistan in late-November 1971 and, therefore, wasn’t in Dacca at the time of liberation, the act was deeply symbolic.
In 1974, as part of the infant state’s attempts at national reconciliation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman announced an amnesty that led to the release of 26,000 erstwhile collaborators. A grey area surrounded the remaining 11,000, which included Azam’s right-hand man, Motiur Rahman Nizami (“Moitta Rajakar”), the head of Al Badr, and Abbas Ali Khan, both stalwarts of the Jamaat. On December 31, 1975, the military government, which organized the ouster of the Mujib regime, rescinded the act governing collaborators. Since then, the entire Jamaat top brass, including Azam and Nizami, have returned to active politics and even become ministers in a government headed by Khaleda Zia.
I returned to Dhaka earlier this week to discover that interest in the razakars remain as potent after a gap of 35 years. Last week, Bangladeshi nationalists were incensed over a remark by the secretary-geeral of the local Jamaat-e-Islami, General Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mojaheed, that there were no war criminals in Bangladesh. Mojaheed was the president of the Jamaat’s Islami Chhatra Sangha in 1971. Adding fuel to the fire, the former Is- lami bank chairman and Jamaat sympathizer, Shah Abdul Hannan, described the events of 1971 as a “civil war”, and not a “liberation struggle”.
In suggesting that public opinion in East Pakistan was divided between those who wanted independence and those who preferred remaining in a united Pakistan, the Jamaat has sought to make the formation of Bangladesh a contested history. Apart from the implication that the scales were tilted in favour of Bangladesh solely by Indian intervention, the “civil war” theory seeks to marry the legacy of Bangladesh with the Islamic inheritance of Pakistan. The Jamaat does not deny it was in favour of maintaining the unity of Pakistan but insists this was part of a political debate that had nothing to do with a war of liberation.
For the Jamaat, the most important aspect of this intervention is the denial of the bloody events that began with General Tikka Khan’s operations on March 25, 1971. Jamaat supporters have consistently peddled the view of Pakistan’s Hamoodur Rahman commission report that only 26,000 civilians died in the nine-month conflict. In other words, if the claims of “genocide” and the murder of three million people are wildly exaggerated, it follows that accusations of people like Azam, Nizami and others being war criminals are baseless.
The Jamaat’s attempts at acquiring a respectable pedigree shouldn’t be brushed off as just an attempt to rewrite the history books. It is an important pointer to the fact that the organization now has the requisite self-confidence to believe it can emerge as one of the distinctive poles of Bangladesh politics — the other being the Awami League. Organized along the lines of the Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and riding the crest of global Islamism, the Jamaat has systematically infiltrated every wing of the state, but particularly the bureaucracy and military. Hannan, for example, is a former secretary to the government and Azam’s son, Kaifi Azmi, is a mid-ranking officer in the army. Its network of mosques and madarsas is elaborate, and Jamaat leaders enjoy the patronage and protection of Saudi Arabia.
The forcible suspension of politics by the military-backed caretaker government may have given Bangladesh a respite from bouts of mindless disruption, but it is also creating a vacuum. The void may well be filled by Islamist organizations that have different mobilizing strategies. At this rate, the razakars won’t remain history; they are likely to resume their old ways.