|Volume 6 Issue 02| February 2012|
Bangladesh Genocide and the Quest for Justice
It is important to learn from genocides of the past and to punish the perpetrators in order to prevent such atrocities in future, notes MOFIDUL HOQUE.
The tragic events of 1971 in the then East Pakistan was essentially a conflict between dictatorship and democracy, theocratic militarist state and democratic secular ideals. The political history of Pakistan since its inception in 1947 was one of denial of fundamental national and democratic rights, especially those of the majority of population, the Bengalis in East Pakistan. In a country with two wings separated by 1200 miles and the political, economic, military power rooted in the Western part, the domination of the West over Eastern Province took a semi-colonial form. There was a periodic upsurge of democratic struggle and the central government found that the only way they could sustain their authority was through military might. The state of Pakistan made many failed attempts to frame a democratic constitution and it was ultimately only in 1970 that national elections were held for the first time in the country with an aim to establish democracy and frame a new constitution. The Bengali people united behind the Awami League and its charismatic leader Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won an absolute majority in the parliamentary election. But power was not handed over to the elected representatives of the people and a political stalemate was created. In the midst of the negotiations between the government and different political parties including Awami League the military junta decided to opt for a military solution of the political crisis and launched brutal and massive attack against civilian population of Eastern Pakistan, especially targeting the political and religious groups including the students, teachers and intelligentsia.
The Pakistan Army was confident that with the sudden, massive and bloody attack they would be able to create the shock and awe necessary to tame the Bengali people forever. On the evening of March 25, 1971, President Aga Mohammed Yahya Khan left Dhaka incognito while he was carrying on a dialogue with Sheikh Mujib to solve the political crisis and instructed the Army to launch the attack in the middle of that night. Thus began the most treacherous, deliberate and dramatic act of genocide against the Bengali population. The armed attack was not aimed to restore law and order but to kill and burn as much as possible, as reflected in the military plan known as “Operation Searchlight”. The operation was launched simultaneously in Dhaka, Chittagong, Comilla, Sylhet, Jessore, Khulna and Rangpur-Saidpur. In the operational plan the target was clearly defined and it stated, “A.L. (Awami League) action and reactions to be treated as rebellion and those who support (A.L.) or defy M.L. (Martial Law) action be dealt with as hostile elements.” What was meant by A. L. action and reaction and how the Army was supposed to deal with 'hostile elements' has not been made explicit but it was understandable. About the method of the operation the plan openly stated, “The operation has to be launched with great cunningness, surprise, deception and speed combined with shock action.” In a separate paragraph under the heading 'Surprise and Deception' the military planners stated, “It is requested that the President may consider the desirability of continuing the dialogue -- deceiving Mujib, even though Mr. Bhutto may not agree, he will make an announcement on 25th March conceding to the demands of A.L., etc.”1
Among the targets of the Army attack one can find mention of “political and student leaders and extremists among teaching staffs, cultural organizations,” “Dhaka University,” “Hindu houses in old city,” etc.1
With such an operational guideline the unrestrained military action turned into acts of genocide from the very beginning and continued for nine long months. The first person to identify elements of genocidal intent in the military operation was Archer Blood, the US Consul General in Dhaka, provincial capital of the then East Pakistan. In his memoir The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh he wrote, “On March 28, I sent a telegram captioned 'Selective Genocide.' As far as I know, it was the first time that term had been used, but it was not to be the last. The message was born of frustration and anger. For these days we had been flooding Islamabad and Washington with graphic reports of a vicious military action, only to be answered with a deafening silence. I was suddenly tired of shouting in the dark and I decided to ratchet the intensity of our reporting up a notch”. 2
Munir Uz Zaman/drik News
The aim of achieving quick solution with mighty and brutal blow of military might evaporated as soon as the Bengali people and also other nationalities and Adivasis resisted unitedly with whatever weapons they had in their hands. On the other hand, as the military penetrated deep into the territory to establish their control the carnage became widespread and systematic. Major General (Retd.) Shaukat Riza of Pakistan Army admitted this reality and wrote, “The military high command believed the Bengalis could be made to conform for another 50 years. It was a deceptive picture and a jaundiced appreciation. From June onwards the Pakistan Army was chasing ghosts. The search and destroy missions were born out of fear. Day after day, tired, highly strung troops, were sent out into the slush and verminous vegetation. Every bush, every hut, every moving object was a suspect. Eastern Command had let loose a demon which no one could control”. 3
In such a scenario what happened in the nine months was one of the worst genocides of the 20th century when according to contemporaneous reports 3 million people died, 200,000 women were sexually victimised and 10 million people had to flee from their country to seek refuge in India. It was a human disaster of massive dimension and people all over the world rose in sympathy and extended their cooperation to the suffering millions of Bengal. Of late a debate has been created about the number of people killed or who suffered in 1971. It is commonly understood that in case of intense brutality against such a huge population it is difficult to determine the exact figure of casualty. The figures are always a rough estimate and that is acceptable. Nobody raised an eye brow regarding the figure of 1.7 million deaths that is one in every four citizens, who perished in the Cambodian genocide committed from 1975 to 1979. Unfortunately, there are certain kinds of researchers and scholars who are questioning the death toll of Bangladesh genocide with other motives that is the denial of genocide. This has been the case of Sarmila Bose who wrote, “Under the circumstances the number 'three million' appears to be nothing more than a gigantic rumour.” The doubting Sarmila Bose's real motive became clear when she denied that Pakistan Army committed 'genocide' in Bangladesh, rather it was the Bengalis, according to her, who committed genocide against the non-Bengalis residing in East Pakistan. 4
Sarmila Bose has shown complete ignorance about what constitutes a genocide, “the intent to destroy in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” In case of non-Bengalis residing in East Pakistan there were sporadic clashes at the so-called Bihari settlements with loss of life on both sides but there never was any intent shown by the Bangladesh Government or the Liberation Forces to destroy the community either in whole or in part. Unfortunate clashes occurred during heightened periods of tension more as mob violence than any systematic attack. But throughout the nine-month-long freedom struggle there was no incident of Mukti Bahini attacking a non-Bengali neighbourhood, killing the civilians indiscriminately and raping their women. When there was not an iota of genocidal intent how can one raise the accusation of genocidal crimes? On the other hand, the death and suffering of innocent non-Bengali population needs to be documented and put in proper perspective.
While writing about 'genocide' Sarmila Bose never mentioned that the other component of international crimes is the crimes against humanity. The Rome Statute categorised these acts of crime in the following way: “When committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against any civilian population.” If we put together all the incidents against non-Bengali people mentioned by Sarmila Bose in her book we will neither find any intent to destroy the community nor any sign of 'widespread and systematic attack'. Sarmila Bose in her book also made no attempt to prove these points. On the other hand, the attack of the Pakistani military against the civilian population was definitely widespread and systematic. Moreover, at least in case of the Hindus the widespread attack and indiscriminate killing, rape, arson, loot and forced eviction was directed to destroy the religious community in whole or in part. The cases of forced conversion from Hindu to Muslim also reflected the mindset of the perpetrators of genocide. Such acts of genocide and crimes against humanity has led to 3 million deaths, 10 million refugees and countless stories of untold suffering.
It may be mentioned that the Imperial War Museum, UK in their recently established Genocide Hall put the death toll of Bangladesh genocide to be of 1.5 to 3 million which is understandable as the exact figure is always difficult to determine. On the other hand, another more or less exact count is available for the suffering millions, that of the refugees. Ten million people driven out of their state were living in about 1,000 refugee camps in India. They were all issued with refugee cards and the camps had to maintain a dossier. If we keep in mind that the population of East Pakistan at that time was 75 million we can fathom the depth of suffering being so great and widespread that such a huge number of people had to leave their homes and cross the border to save their lives. This is certainly one component of a crime against humanity, that of displacement and forceful uprooting of people. India had great difficulties in providing basic support to the refugees and there were many casualties in the camps, especially among the old people and children. If one makes an estimate of refugees who died on the trail and in the camps because of malnutrition, cholera and other diseases we get a very high figure of casualties. Moreover, there were internal displacements of people which OXFAM estimated to be as high as 30 million. Such was the depth and dimension of the suffering that people of Bangladesh went through. The casualties of such tragic events can never be expressed in numbers, but one needs to have the sensibilities to understand that. Here numbers are not the core issue; the fundamental question is whether genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were committed in Bangladesh. If so, then who are the perpetrators and how can justice be ensured for such heinous international crimes?
Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in a world divided by the Cold War rivalry. The new nation found it hard to get recognition and it was only in 1974 that the nation got its due seat at the UN. The politically divided world was not ready, neither was it able to address in a united way, the international crimes committed in Bangladesh in 1971. Previously, the world community earned great experience through the tragic events of WWII, the holocaust and mass atrocities and the subsequent formation of tribunals known as Nuremburg Tribunal and Tokyo Tribunal. At the end of the war provisions were made for the trial of the persons accused of a. Crimes against Peace, b. War Crimes and c. Crimes against Humanity. The international law developed thereby was reflected in the Genocide Convention of 1948 adopted by the United Nations along with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But soon the international community became divided into the capitalist and socialist bloc and could not take any further action for the prevention of genocide as well as the trial for genocidal crimes. There followed a long and dark period of history when perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes enjoyed impunity. The newly emerged nation of Bangladesh had no international court or platform to seek justice. Although there was great sympathy for the cause of Bangladesh, the issue of justice for international crimes in Bangladesh found very little support. One of the major works highlighting the issue even as early as in 1972 was the book War Crimes and Genocide by B. N. Mehrish. He rightly observed that, “Article 6 of the Genocide Convention appears to afford support for the applicability of the principle of universal jurisdiction with respect to the crimes in question. If the United Nations has failed to support universal jurisdiction for each country, to try the crimes of genocide, but has expressly provided that in the absence of an international criminal tribunal, those accused of the crime of genocide shall be tried by a competent tribunal of the state in the territory of which the act was committed.” 5
Even in that period of complete inaction of the international community the author could highlight the role of the new nation of Bangladesh to try the perpetrators of crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity. It was on the basis of such understanding and giving due recognition of the great importance of the trial of the perpetrators of genocide that the then Government of Bangladesh enacted the “International Crimes (Tribunal) Act of 1973,” a landmark act in the domain of international law. The Act provided definitions of a. Crimes against humanity, b. Crimes against Peace, c. Genocide and d. War Crimes. It also provided for the legality of formation of the tribunal and its modalities. The Act was formulated on the basis of the experiences and procedures of the Nuremburg and Tokyo Tribunal and Genocide Convention of 1948 and related developments. There has been a significant contribution made by Bangladesh while defining the Crimes against Humanity. For the first time in the history of international law, rape was recognised as a crime against humanity in the 1973 Act of Bangladesh. The Act rendered great recognition to the role and responsibility of the nation in trying the war criminals.
It is interesting to note that prior to the enactment of the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act of 1973 the newly established Government in Dhaka proclaimed as early as January 24, 1972 the “Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order” for the trial of those who “contributed towards the perpetration of the reign of terror and the commission of crimes against humanity on a scale which has horrified the moral consciences of the people of Bangladesh and of right thinking people throughout the world.” Special tribunals were set up for such trial and prosecutors were engaged. Later on the Government made quite a few amendments to this Act and cases were filed against a large number of people. Unfortunately, cases of accusations were also being made only to harass people. Recognising the complexities of the trial effort, at one point Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared a general amnesty for those accused under the Collaborators Act for petty offenses but the amnesty was not applicable to those accused of murder, rape, arson or similar serious crimes and also for those already convicted for such crimes in the court of law.
Unfortunately Bangladesh could not initiate the work of setting up the Tribunal for the International Crimes. The national and global situation was not conducive for such a trial. The members of the Pakistani military junta at GHQ Rawalpindi who planned the genocide and crimes against humanity were outside the reach of the national tribunal. The leading members of the Eastern Command of Pakistan Army who surrendered to the Joint Forces of India and Bangladesh were taken to Indian Camps as POWs. A list of 195 Pakistani military Generals and officers was drawn up for their alleged involvement in the war crimes. Under the Act the Tribunal had the inherent power to bring them to justice for crimes committed in the territory of Bangladesh but that could not be executed because of strong Western and Middle Eastern pressure to release the POWs. The authority in Pakistan violating all civilised norms, the Geneva Convention and other relevant international treaties, had taken thousands of Bengalis working in Pakistan to special intern camps. These were similar to the intern camps in the USA established for the Japanese-Americans during WWII. Pakistan used the Bengali interns as pawn in negotiating the release of their POWs. Ultimately, India had to release the POWs under the agreement made in Shimla. The agreement had an understanding that Pakistan would initiate its own trial against those accused of international crimes. That trial never happened, instead what we got is the Hamoodur Rahman Commission formed with very narrow mandate. Even then Hamoodur Rahman Commission Report never saw the light of day in Pakistan, only a part of the supplementary report was leaked out and published.
Nationally the whole scenario changed dramatically with the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in August 1975 and the subsequent killing of four leading figures of the liberation war, Tajuddin Ahmed, Syed Nazrul Islam, Capt. Monsur Ali and Kamaruzzaman, inside the jail in November of the same year. The military regime that took power annulled the Collaborators Act and cases were withdrawn against many accused of serious crimes. Many collaborators were released from jail including those who had already been convicted. Bangladesh entered into a long period of darkness with denial of democracy and the rise of religious fundamentalist forces. Gradually, the collaborators and perpetrators of genocide became part of the ruling coterie and rehabilitated themselves in the society. Denial of justice became the fate of the nation and thus began the long impunity for the perpetrators.
But even in the darkest period of the nation's history, when freedom fighters were persecuted, history was distorted and values of liberation struggle were trampled, the people never lost their hope or gave up their demand for justice. The process of memorialisation carried out by various means kept the flame alive. Artistic endeavours were an important component of this process. The memoirs written by all kinds of people, the literary pursuits made through poems, songs, short stories, novels and the theatrical and cinematic renditions, the paintings and sculptures all together made strong contributions in re-creating the past for the present and the new generation. The Liberation War Museum also made a humble contribution in this national effort. The civil society movement for justice launched by Jahanara Imam, in the early 1990s, and the efforts of the bipartisan Sector Commanders Forum in the late 2000s made strong contributions. Most importantly, almost every family suffered in 1971 and the families transmitted orally their experiences from one generation to others.
The power of memorialisation was enriched over the years and found reflection in the national election held in December, 2008, when the trial of war criminals became a major agenda and the people, especially members of the young generation, overwhelmingly supported the demand for justice.
Forty years have passed since the genocide of Bangladesh, which was a period of inaction by the international community. Bangladesh, the war ravaged country, embarked on the difficult journey of reconstruction. It had its own problems and complexities reflected in its chequered political development. Bangladesh lost the attention of the world and gradually the Bangladesh genocide became a forgotten genocide to the international community. Even in academic circles, in various research publications we do not find much reflection on the Bangladesh genocide or the crimes against humanity committed during that period. At the most we find a few passing references, in some cases only as footnotes. Popular works like Geoffrey Robertson's Crimes against Humanity: the Struggle for Global Justice (1999) or Samantha Power's A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (2003) have only noted the fact of Bangladesh genocide but the episode did not get its due attention.
Meanwhile, a definite shift in perspective has occurred among the community of nations following the fact of genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. The collapse of the Socialist empire led to the crisis in Yugoslavia and the post-socialist scenario also made it possible for the world community to address the issue unitedly. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) were established. The role of the international community became more organised with the Rome Declaration of International Criminal Court (ICC) made in 1998 and the adoption of the Statute of the ICC in 2002. The Government of Bangladesh, under the Prime Ministership of Sheikh Hasina became a signatory to the ICC, the only South Asian country to do so to date. While these are positive developments, one should also remember that the ICC cannot address retrospective cases and the genocide of 1971 and its perpetrators thus remain outside its jurisdiction.
In this context, the justice process initiated in Bangladesh carries great significance both for the nation and the international community of nations. Bangladesh has brought to an end the long impunity the perpetrators imposed upon the nation and moved from denial of justice to the process of justice through a massive electoral verdict as expressed in the 2008 national election. Subsequently a few amendments have been made to the Act, a Tribunal has been set up which has formulated its own Rules of Procedure and the trial process is now on. The Tribunal is a domestic tribunal addressing the issues of international crimes. It should be remembered that the International Criminal Court has always highlighted the importance of domestic tribunals. In the preamble to the Rome Statute the ICC affirmed
“that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished and that their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation.”
The International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh is the first major domestic tribunal set up for the trial of international crimes. Moreover, it represents a justice process which seeks to end impunity which has lasted over 40 long years. It faces many challenges including that of fair trial and ensuring due process of law. No nation has natural expertise on international crimes, and the justice process and legalities. But it has the obligation to meet the challenge as and when required. That time has arrived for Bangladesh. It is expected that all the concerned parties, the tribunal, the prosecution and defence, the victims, the media, civil society and the wider population will make their necessary contribution to ensure fair trial and the establishment of justice. At this hour, Bangladesh also needs greater international cooperation which is essential to ensure minimum standards in the trial process by sharing the experiences of other International Tribunals.
When Bangladesh is taking steps to establish justice for the genocide of 1971 it is also the obligation and responsibility of the international community to assist the process of justice. We look forward to a global initiative to assist Bangladesh to come to terms with its history and ensure justice for past crimes, which will also contribute to put the Bangladesh genocide back in a proper perspective. It can also be hoped that the success of the domestic tribunal in Bangladesh may one day open up the opportunity to have a domestic tribunal in Pakistan to try the persons responsible for genocide committed in Bangladesh in 1971.
The International Crimes (Tribunal) of Bangladesh is moving on its way to deliver justice for one of the worst genocides of post WWII history and its success will ensure the establishment of justice for international crimes as well as creating opportunity for humankind to learn from past genocides in order to prevent future genocide.
This paper was presented at a seminar of American Institute of Bangladesh Studies in December 2011.
1. Siddik Salik, Witness to Surrender, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1979, P-218-9.
Mofidul Hoque is a cultural activist and essayist. He is the founder Trustee and Member Secretary of the Liberation War Museum, Bangladesh.
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