Bangladesh is presently witnessing widespread upsurge of student power focused on the war-crimes trial of some of those accused of crimes against their fellow citizens in 1971. The faultlines in the history of Bangladesh lie exposed after 41 years. Verdicts on the trial of the first two of those charged with heinous crimes against the people in 1971 evoked widespread protests and strikes by the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose leading figures are under the scanner of the war crimes tribunal. The object of the first verdict, a sentence of capital punishment, is believed to have fled to Pakistan, while the second has been sentenced to life imprisonment. This, in turn, has led to a tsunami of protests from the youth, demanding the death penalty for all accused. The issue is squarely joined.
There may have been some in East Pakistan in 1971 who had with honest conviction believed in Pakistan, until brutally disabused by the marauding Pakistani army. Some, however, were blinkered and bigoted enough not only in their commitment to Pakistan, but in aiding and abetting the Pakistan army in its savage onslaught against the people of the land, and themselves participated with wanton abandon. Many of these belonged to the stables of the Jamaat and are being called to account.
The origins of the present explosion of public sentiment lie in the inadequacy of the steps taken by the post-liberation government against those who had collaborated with the Pakistan army. In the years that followed, military rule saw the whole-sale induction of these elements into the politics of Bangladesh. The Jamaat was allowed to gain in influence and both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League found it expedient, at different times, to defer to their ‘Islamic’ pretensions. To the dismay of many, people with blood on their hands from 1971 were allowed to fly the red-and-green flag of Bangladesh as central ministers in the BNP-Jamaat coalition from 2001-2006. This was the period when government indifference, if not collusion, brought Bangladesh to the brink of the abyss of Islamic fundamentalism.
A leading Bangladesh newspaper has commented that Bangladesh now faces a “unique historical moment whose significance needs to be appreciated”. The principles that had guided the student movements in the 1960s, and which had been the bedrock of the War of Independence of 1971, had been lost in the miasma of the manipulative cynicism of politics in later years. Far from being apologetic, the Jamaat has had the effrontery to acclaim its stand in 1971. Three decades ago, the “mother of the martyr”, Jahanara Imam, had instituted a people’s court to try war criminals, for which she was charged with treason. Her pioneering role has never been acknowledged by any government, but the tributes paid to her in the current phase of agitation demonstrate that the people have not forgotten. Her movement, and those of others, subsequently had kept alive the spirit of ’71. The war-crimes tribunal provided a focus for the pent-up resentment of the youth, who now appear determined to reclaim their lost heritage.
The main opposition party, the BNP, finds itself in a severe dilemma. Its links with the Jamaat, with whom it had an electoral understanding in the last elections, are well known. It has never unequivocally supported the trial (one of its own leading members stands accused), citing procedural inadequacies and accusing the Awami League government of trying to garner political benefits from the issue. The first official reaction of the BNP to the current spate of agitation accused the government of stoking fires to the detriment of the nation by encouraging the demonstrators, while it remains unmindful of the transgressions at the border, highlighting the emotive issue of a young girl killed by BSF fire some time ago.
Clearly, the BNP feels sufficiently challenged to invoke the spectre of India, disregarding the October 2012 Delhi commitment of the party chief, Khaleda Zia, not to engage in anti-India propaganda. It was critical of the student’s agitation as being ‘fascist’ in its approach. On sober reflection and gauging the intensity of the public mood, it subsequently expressed an understanding of the demands of the students. BNP has, at the same time, called on them to include in their agenda the many ills that afflict Bangladesh today, including areas of misgovernance. It appears unlikely that the tactics of diverting attention from the core issue would succeed. The BNP is unhappy that the “discarded” slogan of “Joy bangla” has surfaced at the rallies and termed it politicization. But the people of Bangladesh remember well that Joy Bangla was not the preserve of the Awami League, but the war-cry of all Bangladeshis in 1971. It had transmuted to the Pakistani clone of “Bangladesh Zindabad” immediately after the assassination of Sheikh Mujib.
The present movement is not about politics of the political parties and actors on the political stage. But, in a much deeper sense, it is about the future of politics, indeed the future of the ethos of Bangladesh. It demonstrates the inherent commitment of the people of Bangladesh to a liberal, pluralistic society. The BNP is twisting in the gale. The Awami League may be well advised to ensure that no political colour is added to this spontaneous movement to attempt transient brownie points.
Challenges lie ahead. There would be efforts to divert attention as also to gain political mileage. Bangladesh needs a closure to fundamental unresolved issues. This would be difficult to achieve if the term razakar or collaborator is used indiscriminately. Judging the public mood then, an eminent journalist had spoken in 1972 of “64 million collaborators” — a reference to all those who neither fled to India nor actively participated in the War of Independence. They had lived in fear and silent anguish. The focus has to be on those who have murder and rape on their hands and have continued to prosper in a nation whose emergence they had opposed to the hilt. The present demand of the youth for a ban on all religion-based parties is a most welcome development.
1971 has meant different things to different people. It is seen by some Indians in terms of a victory over the enemy, Pakistan; Pakistanis have not quite made up their minds. A few acknowledge the atrocities, but the majority believe in the hand of Hindu India — a view shared by some Bangladeshis as expressed by a former minister, only a few years ago. Many Bangladeshis lived through the nine months of 1971 in abject fear of what the day could bring; some fled to India; and there were the many civilians who were brutally killed, women who were violated, their anguish veiled in everlasting shame and humiliation. And there were those — from Bengali members of the Pakistan armed forces to peasants and young students who took up arms to liberate their country — many of whom paid the ultimate price. What we may be witnessing, as one eminent journalist and freedom-fighter said, is the restoration of “the ownership of history” to the people. Many young people have spoken of discharging their debt to those who laid down their lives for the independence of Bangladesh.
Spring carries in Bangladesh memories of blood and achievement. The blood of the language martyrs spilt on February 21, 1952, was to be the sustenance for the years of national assertion that followed. March, 1971, saw a nationwide upsurge for the acceptance of legitimate political rights, Sheikh Mujib’s historic speech at Ramna presaging the coming struggle and, finally, the genocidal crackdown by the Pakistan army. It is possible that the spring of 2013 may mark a significant milestone towards burying the compromises that have, for decades, shamed the collective conscience of the people.