It seems quaint now that I wrote 41 years ago that “though Bangla Desh (two words then) may one day emerge, the dormant communal bitterness successfully re-aroused by the Pakistan army and the irrevocable flight of the Hindus will make it a Bangla Desh for Muslims only”. That report in London’s Observer newspaper of June 13, 1971 under the headline, FLIGHT OF THE HINDU MILLIONS, in bold capitals across all eight columns at the top of the page contradicted the official narrative of a secular Elysium in the making. The drift to sectarian exclusiveness had to be pointed out because, as I also wrote, “for a time last year (meaning 1970), the Hindus still inside East Bengal rallied to the heady promise of an equal life for people of all religions offered to them by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.”
Indian enthusiasm for the Shahbag upsurge in Dhaka suggests a naïve belief that Mujib’s initial promise can still be realized if Sheikh Hasina Wajed sends all the guilty men of 1971 to the gallows. Not that there is much genuine concern in this country for a minority without political or economic clout. But there is a conviction that the International Crimes Tribunal’s targets are also India’s worst enemies. It’s probably a justified conclusion but a dangerous one nevertheless for it identifies India’s interests with one lobby in Bangladesh’s internal conflicts. It also makes the law a tool of politics. Bangladesh was the first South Asian country to sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court setting standards for prosecuting people accused of crimes against humanity. Sheikh Hasina was right, therefore, to punish Mujib’s murderers, albeit 35 years after that night of the long knives. But long-delayed retrospective justice can look suspiciously like vengeance. Human rights activists fault the tribunal for not living up to international standards of due process. The real criticism is that anything that deepens the already sharp division in Bangladeshi society makes it even more difficult for Sheikh Hasina to heal the wounds of the past. She needs something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to draw a veil over the blood-soaked years when justice followed power — rather than Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which was seen as a partisan exercise.
Bangladesh is a painfully divided nation. How divided was brought home to me once in Dhaka’s Intercontinental Hotel when my old friend, Salauddin Quader Chowdhury — a British-trained barrister, businessman, member of the Jatiyo Sansad and leading light of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party — sent his driver for me. The smartly dressed receptionist told me politely that Salauddin would not be welcome in the hotel because he had personally killed many liberation fighters. Whether he did or not (Dhaka thrives on gossip and rumour), Salauddin always said Awami Leaguers murdered his father, Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, a Muslim League leader and former acting president of Pakistan, in Dhaka Central Jail in 1973. Salauddin himself has been in jail for several months without being charged or granted bail. His anguished son and brother lament that the police are treating him — a septuagenarian like me — very roughly indeed.
When I mentioned this to a Bangladeshi diplomat, he shrugged to say, “You know what the police are like in our countries!” That recalled Salauddin’s own story that when his father died in jail he advised Tajuddin Ahmed, regarded as India’s best friend in Bangladesh, to have the cell fitted with air-conditioners and other comforts because his turn would come one day. True enough, Tajuddin and Mujib’s other colleagues were brutally killed in that very prison after the 1975 coup. The grim cycle continues. When Ahmed Rajib Haider, one of the organizers of the Shahbag protest, was stabbed to death, his father and friends blamed the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir. However repugnant the Jamaat may be to us, it represents — like Mujib’s murderers — a strand in Bangladesh’s psyche. The BNP-led alliance would not otherwise have won 32 parliamentary seats in 2008. Though Jamaat’s representation dwindled to just two, it had the resources to set up a reported 65,000 madrassas. It is less a party than a way of thinking that also sometimes finds a resonance in some sections of the Awami League.
That is why the pragmatic Mujib, who passed the Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order only 10 days after returning to Dhaka, found it expedient to declare a general amnesty in November 1973. More than 37,000 war crimes suspects were freed, among them East Pakistan’s last civilian governor, Abdul Motaleb Malik, and an implacable opponent of both liberation and Mujib personally, Shah Azizur Rahman, whom a twist of fate in 1979 made prime minister of the country whose birth he had opposed. Mujib also made his peace with Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and achieved a rapprochement with Pakistan. He revived the Islamic Academy, and joined the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Islamic Development Bank. Those who knew him towards the end say “Khuda Hafiz” had replaced “Joy Bangla” as his favourite greeting. Politics is the art of compromise. Even Sheikh Hasina dare not touch Hussain Muhammad Ershad’s 1988 constitutional amendment making Islam the state religion. She knows how far she can go.
As my Observer report indicated, it was clear even in 1971 which way the wind was blowing. India’s government may have decided to ignore it because of strategic considerations. India’s media were drunk on emotion and their own inventiveness. But there were some genuine believers too. A young Hindu lieutenant in the Mukti Bahini on Jessore station platform consoled me with the comment that people of my generation would never be able to comprehend the psychological transformation that had eradicated East Bengali communalism. He made it sound like St Peter’s epiphany on the road to Damascus.
Among the many incidents that confirmed my less idealistic perception was an encounter in a refugee camp somewhere near Kanchrapara with a peasant who had fled Khulna. The war was over and Indian soldiers were pushing him at bayonet point to board a returning truck. To my question if he regarded himself a Bangladeshi, the man replied “No. You can call me an Indian resident in Bangladesh!” He or another like him had a revealing sequence to narrate. First, local Muslims massacred Biharis — Indian migrants who were not Bengali-speaking. When the army descended on what was still East Pakistan, all three groups turned on Hindus.
People like the Khulna peasant may provide a humanitarian dimension to India’s interest in its smaller eastern neighbour. The political, strategic and economic reasons for cooperation are far more compelling. But those reasons will be defeated if Bangladeshis identify India with a particular political lobby or if India takes sides in domestic conflicts. That deserves stressing because I suspect that support for the Shahbag demonstrators is rooted in the conviction that if the Jamaat and even perhaps the BNP were somehow eliminated, India and Bangladesh would bask in the bliss of eternal honeymoon. That is why no democratic hackles rose in this country in June 1975 when Mujib outlawed all political parties, disciplined the press and judiciary, and installed his Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League’s one-party dictatorship. Lawrence Lifschultz had written in the Far Eastern Economic Review the previous year of the regime’s “unprecedented” corruption, malpractices “and plunder of national wealth”. Indian indulgence recalled Franklin D. Roosevelt who, despite his vision of the United States of America as the “arsenal of democracy”, supposedly remarked that Nicaragua’s ruthless Anastasio Somoza “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”.
Faced with the South African and Sri Lankan models, Bangladesh must make its own choice. India’s best friend would be a country that is not paying off old scores but has come to terms with the past and is at peace with itself.