Horrors of 1971 Revisited

28 Mar 2015


Ahead of Bangladesh’s 44th independence on March 26, a three-day exhibition “1971 Genocide and Torture” opened in Dhaka on March 23 to showcase the sacrifices made by lakhs of Bengali people of erstwhile East Pakistan to achieve their freedom from Pakistani clutches.

On March 26, 1971 the freedom fighters vowed to win their independence in response to the country’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s call for independence. They launched a massive guerilla struggle against the autocratic Pakistani rulers. This struggle soon snowballed into a full-scale liberation war leading to the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers and emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign nation.


Independence of Bangladesh was achieved after nine months of war against the Pakistani occupation forces through supreme sacrifice of millions of freedom fighters. This independence war was opposed tooth and nail by Jamaat-e-Islami that was the largest, most organized and most active among all the militant Islamic parties that collaborated with the Pakistani forces. Razakar, Al Badar and Al Shams – three wings formed as militia by the Jamaat – had perpetrated inhuman brutalities on the freedom fighters. During the nine-month bloody liberation war, the Pakistani forces, aided by Jamaat activists, committed heinous war crimes that left over three million people killed and a quarter million women raped, let alone the planned elimination of the best Bengali brains of the soil on December 14, 1971. Trials of war criminals are the oldest issue of the country, linked to the birth of Bangladesh.


The first post liberation government formed by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman promulgated the Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) Order in 1972. In July 1973, the parliament enacted the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) Act for prosecution of individuals responsible for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Around 37,000 people were jailed. Conviction of 700 persons was secured.


However, following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, all these came to a naught in 1975. All convicts and under trials were released by the country’s first military dictator Gen Ziaur Rahman, who also annulled the Collaborators Act. The subsequent turn of events saw pro-Pak Islamist forces in power for most part of the post-independence history of Bangladesh. These elements had obvious interests in not putting the war criminals on trial.


The war crimes trial process was blocked and during the following three decades, a succession of military administrations swept aside all attempts to secure justice, fearing that many among their own ranks could be brought into the scope of the trials. Successive Government freed more than 10,000 war crime suspects, and the trials were discontinued after the political turmoil of 1975, and buried thereafter. Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League Government that came to power for the first time in 1996 failed to push aggressively for a restoration of the war crime trials as the administration and bureaucracy were heavily dominated by the pro-Pak and Islamist elements.


After Sheikh Hasina took over the Prime Ministership for the second time in 2009, she pledged to root out religious fundamentalism and terrorism from Bangladesh to facilitate and restart the trial of 1971 war criminals. These elements had colluded with the Pakistani occupying army and committed heinous crimes against humanity under the cover of Islam to thwart the birth of Bangladesh. Initiation of war crimes trial seeks to bring to justice the men, prominently the top leadership of the Jamaat, who collaborated with the Pakistan Army in the genocide of an estimated three million people during the Liberation War, and in the use of rape and collective slaughters as instruments of state policy.


When the pro-Pak / anti-liberation forces realized that their defeat was imminent, they picked up almost all the leading intellectuals and professionals of the erstwhile East Pakistan on December 14, 1971, just two days before independence, lined them up and shot them in order to intellectually cripple the yet-to-be born country and deprive it of able leadership. This day is the blackest day in the history of the country and observed as Martyred Intellectuals Day.


On the midnight of March 25, 1971, a genocide was launched by the marauding Pakistani forces. The University of Dhaka was attacked and a large number of students were killed. Death squads roamed the streets of Dhaka, killing some 7,000 people in a single night, says a report filed from Dhaka by noted journalist Simon Dring. Within a week, half the population of Dhaka had fled, and at least 30,000 people had been killed, say thousands of historic reports.


Narrating the atrocities in Dhaka University, the US Consulate in Dhaka on March 31, 1971 reported that naked female bodies in Rokeya Hall of Dhaka University were found “hanging from ceiling fans with bits of rope,” after apparently being “raped, shot, and hung by heels” from the fans. Ghulam Azam led a procession of Peace Committee to express solidarity with the occupation army for this kind of action. On April 13, 1971 Azam brought out a procession of the Peace Committee in Dhaka supporting the crack down by Pakistan army on the night of 25th March 1971. The procession chanted slogans -- Long live Pakistan, Down with Indian Imperialism.


“Here in Dhaka we are mute and horrified,” wrote Archer Blood, the then American Consular General and a witness to the reign of terror let loose by the Pakistani military with the help of Jamaat and other local collaborators. In a telegram to different American consulate offices and embassies around the world on March 27, 1971, Blood said, “Evidence continues to mount that the Martial Law authorities of Pakistan have list of Awami League supporters whom they are systematically eliminating by seeking them out of their homes and shooting them down” with the help of their local collaborators.


“The Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Muslim (Pakistani) military hatred,” wrote Time magazine in its August 2, 1971 issue. Senator Edward Kennedy in a report of the Senate Committee testimony dated November 1,1971 wrote, “Hardest hit have been members of the Hindu community who have been robbed of their lands and shops, systematically slaughtered, and in some places, painted with yellow patches marked ‘H’…All of this has been officially sanctioned, ordered and implemented under martial law from Islamabad.”


During the liberation war, it was the local collaborators of the Pakistani forces who provided intelligence to the Pakistani soldiers about the whereabouts of the freedom fighters and their supporters / sympathizers; abducted and killed them with the help of Pakistani forces in various army camps and killing zones; burnt their homes and looted their properties; kidnapped Bengali women by thousands, trafficked them to various Pakistan Army camps across the country to be used as comfort girl; and molested / raped more than 300,000 Bengali women. The horrors of 1971 continue to persist and refuse to die down despite passage of four decades since then.


If the ongoing war crimes trials are carried out in a transparent manner, the young generation of people of the country will be made aware of the extreme distress inflicted and the cost paid during the liberation war to achieve independence, as also the gruesome consequences of the abuse of religion to justify heinous crimes like rape and killing. Success of war crimes trial will be achieved if exploitation of religion in the country’s power-play is brought to an end.

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