Following its huge victory in the 2008 Bangladesh elections, the Awami League government set up an International Crimes Tribunal with the aim of prosecuting those alleged to have collaborated in war crimes during the Pakistani Army’s crackdown in 1971. In a conflict replete with horrifying acts, the most heinous role was played by the razakars, who helped the Pakistani Army conduct brutal missions against its own people. In March 1971, Pakistani soldiers under General Niazi launched a campaign against the local population to ‘teach these Bengalis a lesson’ for daring to want to secede from Pakistan. The men who led the largely Punjabi army to targets ranging from individuals to entire villages belonged to local fundamentalist Islamic groups such as Al Badr and Al Shams, alleged fronts for the Jamaat-e-Islami. With millions of refugees pouring into India, Niazi’s soldiers carried out one of the worst genocides of the second half of the 20th century. Sparing neither old people nor children, they also raped hundreds of thousands of women, killing many of them.
In December ’71, the Indian Army and the Mukti Bahini launched an offensive that Niazi’s troops couldn’t handle. But even as Dhaka was falling the massacres continued. As the liberators closed in, the razakars made their escape, melting into the population or making their way to the UK and the US. Unlike the widespread outrage against the perpetrators of the Holocaust after the Second World War, the international anger against the butchers of East Bengal became dispersed by events that shortly followed: the Emergency in India, the military coup in Bangladesh where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family were gunned down, and the hanging of Bhutto by Zia ul-Haq. Though there were Bangladeshis determined to document the genocide, there was no wherewithal to form groups such the ones that systematically helped bring fugitive Nazis to justice. Differently from Israel, in a Bangladesh riven by coup and counter-coup there was for two decades no institutional will to launch an international hunt for the collaborators. In fact, after the establishment of Ziaur Rahman’s regime, there were powerful elements in the ruling cliques who were sympathetic to the Jamaat and an Islamicized Bangladesh.
With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, certain ‘Bangladeshi’ ‘community leaders’ began to appear in Britain. The protests against The Satanic Verses brought forward Chowdhury Mueenuddin, who led book-burning marches. Mueenuddin, the vice-chairman of an East London mosque, was claimed to have been involved in the abduction and killing of intellectuals in the last few days of the war. By 1994, a British journalist, David Bergman, got wind of the story and began his own investigations. What Bergman and his associate, Gita Sahgal, found was quite startling: Mueenuddin, along with two others, were out in the open, running various organizations, even as an increasing number of people placed them as the ones responsible for horrendous crimes. Bergman and Sahgal contacted groups in Bangladesh that were also investigating known razakars, some now actually in government as Jamaatis and coalition partners of the BNP. In late 1994, Despatches, one of Britain’s leading television investigation programmes, commissioned a film and the journalists flew to Bangladesh. There, Bergman and Sahgal, working with local journalists, historians and volunteers, put together a horrifying picture of Mueenuddin and his cohorts’ activities during 1971. Having filmed extensively, they returned to Britain to confront these men and give them a chance to reply. Their evasions on camera were, unsurprisingly, far from convincing. The programme, The War Crimes File, was broadcast in 1995 and included both the hefty evidence against the razakars and their shifty replies. Scotland Yard, which had set up a unit to investigate war crimes committed by those living in the UK, dragged its feet in following up on the evidence handed over to them, arguing that this was the responsibility of the Bangladesh government. It was clear that for the Yard, the slaughter of innocents in Auschwitz or Srebrenica was more of a ‘war crime’, more ‘genocidal’, than the slaughter of innocents in Mymensingh or Sylhet.
In Bangladesh, the BNP, closely linked to the Jamaat, opposed raking up ‘old events’, while the Awami League and the Left were set on bringing the razakars to justice. It took the Awami League till 2008, and its two-thirds majority in parliament, to set up the tribunal. When the tribunal began, it gave rise to hope across generations of Bangladeshis that nearly 40 years after the great genocide, the country would deliver justice. However, the manthan churned up by the tribunal brought up many kinds of toxins.
Many of the high-profile accused were living abroad and were tried in absentia. Sitting in the UK, Mueenuddin deployed every means to undermine the tribunal. The Sheikh Hasina Wajed government and the tribunal itself fell prey to knee-jerk responses. If the UK accused recruited Lords and leading law firms to their cause, the authorities in Dhaka often disabled fair procedures that were the right of any defence. If a US security firm claimed to have procured the recording of a damning conversation between a tribunal judge and an advisor in Britain, the authorities in Bangladesh made sure witnesses were deflected from appearing in court, while defence lawyers assigned by the government displayed strange ineptitude. The authorities refused to do away with the death penalty, thus preventing the British government from extraditing any of the UK accused. Out on the streets, war erupted between the Islamists and students who wanted to implement the death penalty on the convicted. Last year’s polls were regarded as a farce; while the army backed the Awami league, the BNP and its allies boycotted the polls, leading to a risible ‘victory’ for Wajed, something that further undermined the tribunal.
Bergman kept reporting on the tribunal, along with many of the criticisms levelled against it. A pioneer of the research that gathered evidence against the collaborators, Bergman could hardly be called a votary of the Islamicists, but this didn’t stop people in power from trying to smear him as ‘pro-razakar’. Two months ago, the tribunal turned its gaze upon Bergman, accusing him of being in ‘contempt of court’. One of Bergman’s apparently serious misdemeanours, dug up from a blog article he had written two years earlier, was that he had questioned one of the great shibboleths of 1971, the exact figures of the dead, which the establishment holds at 3 million. Bergman had tried to trace how this figure was arrived at, while stressing that even a figure of 1 million, 3,00,000 or 30,000 was horrifying enough. This was deemed by many in the establishment as ‘seditious’ and ‘anti-Bangladesh’. Bergman also had the temerity to lay out how a government-appointed defence lawyer failed to do minimum homework while defending an accused who could go to the gallows. This was seen as undermining of the tribunal and ‘its dignity’.
While Mueenuddin roams free in the UK, Bergman is about to face contempt proceedings in a country to which he has committed so much. After the slaughter and the decades of obfuscation, this is also one of the fall-outs of 1971: the authorities who are supposed to bring back probity into Bangladesh’s history attack one of the very people who have done so much to kickstart that process. In India, as we look at the unfinished business of our own massacres and the subversion of judicial processes by various political agendas, there are lessons to be learned from this story.