Bangladesh: the forgotten template of 20th century war

In 1971 the Jamaat e Islami supported the Pakistani army against the nationalist Awami League: now their leaders are being indicted by an international crimes tribunal and secularism is back on the agenda. It's time to discuss the forgotten role of the fundamentalist militias in the war of liberation of Bangladesh

Gita Sahgal
10 October 2012

A recent article by Elliot Wilson in the Huffington Post asked whether British aid was being used to fund a crackdown on human rights in Bangladesh. The article did not discuss where the £250 million given by the British government is spent or whether that spending is effective. Wilson argues that the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina has undertaken ‘the most sustained assault on freedom of speech in the 41 years since independence’. A major reason for his claim is the arrest of Mir Quasem Ali, whom he describes as a leading member of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, head of a major charity and a media magnate, arguing that he has been arrested solely for his public criticism of a Tribunal established to try crimes committed during the Bangladesh war of liberation in 1971. He argues that the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) is completely politically motivated.

As the extensive comments show – many Bangladeshis living at home and abroad – are concerned about the human rights situation in their country. But many don’t necessarily buy the main thrust of the argument. Although human rights advocates and independent observers agree that many of the tribunal processes are flawed, there are also extensive comments arguing against the proposition that the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) was established solely as a sort of vanity project for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to get rid of her political opposition.

Indeed the strength of the debate within Bangladesh and in the diaspora, suggests that although governments frequently fail to meet their promise, civil society activists working in both development and human rights have gone some way to highlighting human rights violations, addressing impunity for mass crimes - without which there would be no international crimes tribunal - and most remarkably for creating a development success story. 

Human rights concerns in Bangladesh are far wider than the Wilson suggests. For instance, the government has been reluctant to accept new refugees fleeing violence in Burma. Unfortunately for Wilson’s argument that this is the worst attack on freedom of speech in Bangladesh’s history – the opposition is also implicated in targeted attacks on minorities when they came to power in a BNP and Jamaat e Islami coalition.

Fear of their rise to power again has lead religious minorities to campaign hard for Bangladesh to return to its secular founding principles. At meetings in the East London tabernacle and at the House of Commons a number of organisations representing religious minorities such as Ahmadiyyas, and the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council, described pogroms against them as soon as the BNP came to power in a previous election. Syed Anas Pasha, representing Bangladeshi journalists, described how journalists reporting on these attacks were themselves attacked.

For those whose lives are threatened by fundamentalists, 1971 is not simply a bad memory but a current threat; one which has largely disappeared from public memory abroad.

For those who do remember, even if they were children at the time, Bangladesh 1971 remains the template for many of the conflicts that define the late 20th century. It is a forgotten template, although many aspects of genocidal conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda during the 1990s, and on a smaller scale in Gujarat, India in 2002 were pre-figured in Bangladesh. These include widespread and systematic mass rape, and targeted killings of men and boys such as at Srebrenica in the context of attacks on groups based on their ethnicity, religion or both. Also crucial was the role of militias. The Bangladesh story tells us what happens when a military crackdown is supported by militias composed of religious fundamentalists with their own agenda.

The Jamaat e Islami was already known as a violent political party of the far right in Pakistan, bent on attacking minorities and creating an Islamic state. Indeed, their founder Maulana Maududi, who had opposed the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland, is regarded as the first modern theorist of an Islamic state. On March 25th 1971, the Pakistan army launched a huge military crackdown in Dhaka – including an assault on Dhaka University in which many staff and students were rounded up and killed. Hindu halls of residence were particularly targeted. The army had by then decided that they were not going to let Sheikh Mujibur Rahman take power. As the leader of the Awami League, which had won a decisive victory in the recent elections, he was entitled to become Prime Minister of Pakistan. But Bhutto, whose Pakistan Peoples Party was the largest party in west Pakistan did not want to stand aside. Although, the Jamaat e Islami had not fared well in the elections, its political leaders and cadres, supported the idea of Pakistan – and were prepared to fight to preserve both the East and West wings as a unified state. Working beside the Pakistani army in two different militias, al Badr and al Shams, members of the student wing of the Jamaat e Islami are alleged to have both supported the Pakistani army, and been involved in their ‘own scheme of killing’ - as journalist Enayetullah Khan told me during the 1990s -  long before there was any possibility of establishing a tribunal.

The most notorious event that al Badr are said to have instigated, is known as the ‘killing of the intellectuals’. In the days before the surrender of the Pakistani army, dozens of professors, journalists, doctors and others were picked up, taken to torture centres, and killed.

Wilson fails to mention that Mir Quasem Ali is under investigation by the tribunal, not for what he said about it, but for what he is alleged to have done during 1971. According to the Bangladesh press, the charges against the Jamaat leader include that he was the Chittagong unit commander of Al-Badr, described as ‘a vigilante outfit mobilised by Jamaat's erstwhile student wing Islami Chhatra Sangha’, and was third in the outfit's command structure. The investigation relates to atrocities alleged to have been committed by al Badr.

It is not surprising that Wilson, who calls himself an investigative journalist, doesn’t mention any of this. A recent book on 1971 by Sarmila Bose, Dead Reckoning: memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, which has been comprehensively rebutted by Naeem Mohaiemen, manages to claim to interview all sides, to give a balanced account of what happened. As I showed in my analysis of the book, the author failed to interview any members of the Jamaat e Islami, or address allegations of their role in the conflict.  The story has simply vanished from her work.

David Bergman, himself a critic of the Tribunal, has investigated the Jamaat e Islami’s extensive lobbying efforts in the USA, and raised questions about whether the lobbying firm hired by Mir Quasem Ali in New York acted legally under the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938.

This Act requires that any lobbying firm acting on behalf of a foreign political party must register itself with the Department of Justice. The firm in question has signed contracts with Mr Ali (whose contract was terminated) and his brother worth $310,000 to work on exactly the same issues – ‘the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal and political opposition matters.’ Later they were reported to have dropped the work on opposition matters.

Given the extensive well funded lobbying effort by lawyers and lobbyists hired by the Jamaat e Islami or individuals connected to them, we might ask whether the Huffington Post article is part of this extensive lobbying effort, or driven by a genuine concern for fair trial and free speech. Both human rights and development efforts have been driven forward in Bangladesh by the efforts of  activists committed to secular values and gender equality. Without these efforts, the Awami League would not have made a commitment to hold trials in the first place, nor be able to show such a good record on development.

In part two of this article Gita Sahgal will address the role of development in Bangladesh.


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