Bangladeshis rise up to lay ghosts of atrocity to rest
Already, 2013 will go down as a pivotal year in Bangladesh history.
It has witnessed the reincarnation of the spirit of 1971 through a mass protest at Dakha's Shahbagh Square, demanding the death penalty for perpetrators of the 1971 genocide.
In the 1971 War of Liberation against Pakistan that raged between March 26 and December 15, we lost many of our bravest and brightest citizens. Children became orphans and mothers wept themselves to sleep over the unknown fate of their sons and daughters.
Historians divide the Liberation War into three phases. The first phase (April to mid-May 1971) saw the Pakistani army engage in killing civilians, particularly young males, and burning in order to terrorise the population.
During the second phase (mid-May to September), systematic and organised rape was the weapon used by Pakistani troops. "Girls and women were raped in front of close family members in order to terrorise and inflict racial slander," observes Professor Rounaq Jahan, a distinguished political scientist.
The second phase was a key turning point in the history of Bangladesh because it was during this period that the Pakistani government deliberately recruited Bangali collaborators from the Islamist political parties such as the Muslim League and the Jamaat-e-Islami, who were opposed to the Awami League's call for an independent Bangladesh.
In the third and final phase (October to mid-December), with the objective of depriving the new nation of its most talented leadership, the Pakistani military killed the most respected and influential intellectuals in the country. The impact of this phase can still be felt today in our society where one can only conjecture the contribution that such talents could have made to the socio-economic advancement of Bangladesh.
The aftermath of the genocide committed by local collaborators created a deep chasm of mistrust in society that continues to divide our perceptions about our motherland. Professor Jahan writes: "The sheltered and protected life of women, provided by the Bengali Muslim cultural norm, was virtually shattered in 1971. Thousands of women were suddenly left defenceless and forced to fend for themselves as widows and rape victims."
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party's stance on the war crimes offers insight into the consequences of the Liberation War. On the one hand, in late 2012, they invited freedom fighters for a party that excluded their major ally Jamaat, and on the other hand, they are refusing to play the role of opposition expected of them in a parliamentary democracy.
The Awami League won a landslide victory in the 2008 election promising to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes committed in 1971. It then set up an International Crimes Tribunal with the mandate to prosecute collaborators involved in those crimes.
Organisations such as the Sector Commanders' Forum, which is committed to releasing Bangladesh from its bloodstained shackles, need to join hands with those in Shahbagh Square in order to obtain the desired verdict. Much more can be done by our media and civil society groups to fulfil their duty to their motherland by reminding us of our struggle for independence, the Liberation War and all the factors that enabled us to claim our national identity.
The perpetrators of the 1971 genocide should, at the least, be tried for their attempt at snuffing the nation's development by depriving Bangladesh of its most talented and intelligent citizens, and tearing apart its social fabric. We can only hope that maybe one day Pakistan will confess to its war crimes. We can only hope that one day we will be able to bring the Bangali perpetrators to justice in order to set right our historical record. Finally, it can be hoped that the present government can bring about qualitative changes in the way we conceive and identify ourselves as Bangladeshis. We must continue to demand the trial of the 1971 criminals, until justice is served and we can lay the ghosts of the past to rest.