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Politicisation and Abuse of Memory: The Genocide in Bangladesh and the Failure of the International Crimes Tribunal

By Neellohit Roy


The return to power of the Awami League in Bangladesh in 2009 under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the daughter of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President and the founding father of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, marks a watershed moment in the history of the nation as well as in the larger history of the region. The nation state of Bangladesh was created out of the struggle of the Bengali nationalists of East Pakistan, who protested against the imposition of Urdu as the sole national language on the Bengali speaking populace of East Pakistan, who constituted a majority in the erstwhile state of Pakistan. The first signs of political unrest against the linguistic chauvinism of the Urdu speaking Punjabis who have always predominated Pakistani politics was seen in the creation of the All-Pakistan Awami Muslim League in Dhaka in 1949. This distinct political outfit with left of the centre affiliations pitched itself as a direct response to the hegemonic policies of the Muslim League, the leadership of which had been more or less monopolised by the ethnic Urdu-speaking Punjabis of the West. The political agenda of the Muslim League reflected a conscious negligence of the socio-political aspirations and the economic needs of the eastern part of the nation.

The Language Movement and the Development of Bengali Nationalism

The demand of the Bengalees for the recognition of their language alongside Urdu as constituting the two national languages of Pakistan fell on deaf ears. The demand was first raised in the form of a legislative petition in the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan by Dhirendranath Datta on 23rd February. This movement for linguistic recognition would soon take the form of an organised protest movement. East Pakistan would experience a wave of political turbulence, with massive rallies and meetings taking place all over Dacca and other important cities and towns. The primary leadership of the movement was provided by members of the academia and the educated Bengali middle class, who found their political aspirations and their linguistic rights being stifled by the hegemonic force of the Urdu speaking Punjabi ruling class. The students at the University of Dhaka were specifically articulate in systematising the unrest that prevailed amongst the Bengali speaking populace through the means of organised politics. The response of the state to the protest movement was brutal and bloody. On February 21, 1952, the police cracked down on one such rally, opening fire on the protestors, killing hundreds. This moment marked a definitive juncture in the history of Pakistan, which revealed in quite naked terms for the first time that the Muslim identity that had been so instrumental in articulating the demand for a separate state of Pakistan was not enough to weed out the differences of culture, region and language that persisted amongst the populace of the new Muslim state. The movement that had initially developed in East Pakistan along the demands of the recognition of their mother tongue, i.e., Bengali as their national language, would ultimately morph into an assertive political force claiming a separate and autonomous Bengali national space.

The Genocide and the Numbers Game

Although it was in the offing for long, the call for the creation of an independent Bangladesh through a secession from the joint structure of West and East Pakistan was a relatively later phenomenon, that emerged only after Yahya Khan and the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto refused to accept the results of the Pakistan General Elections of 1970, in which the Awami League emerged victorious by a huge majority. The political elite of West Pakistan refused to accept a Bengali Muslim as the leader of the nation on the ground that the rice eating Bengalis were ethnically inferior to the sturdy, tall and fair complexioned Muslims of the West. Yahya Khan failed to strike a negotiation with Sheikh Mujib who quite rightfully rejected a political arrangement that would have created the conditions for a sharing of power at the central level with the leaders of the Pakistan People’s Party, that had effectively lost the election. In an effort to suppress Bengali nationalism, the Pakistan army, under the directives of General Yahya Khan, launched the Operation Searchlight on the night of March 25, 1971 that would begin a genocidal crackdown on the Bengali civilians. It was not always the Pakistani army that perpetrated the atrocities. More often it was the state sponsored local collaborators: the Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams militia that conducted those horrific acts of violence.

The primary targets were Bengali intellectuals, academics, members of the intelligentsia, artists, cultural icons and other than that, the Hindus. The military engaged itself in an unrestrained orgy of mass killings of the civilian population. An unimaginable number of Bengali women of all ages were systematically raped and impregnated by the officials of West Pakistan military in a policy that officially endorsed by the state. The state hoped that the children born as a result of such forced copulation would deal a huge blow to Bengali nationalism by an eventual obfuscation of the uniqueness of the Bengali identity. Aside the massacres and the rapes, East Pakistan also experienced a process of ethnic cleansing in which the Hindus were specifically targeted. This would lead to a massive outflow of displaced people over the border to the Indian side, resulting in a grave refugee crisis in the neighbouring Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Meghalaya. The Bangladeshi response to the West Pakistani military brutality took the form of an armed guerrilla resistance (the guerrillas came to be known as the muktijoddhas and the guerrilla army was called the muktibahini). Although it provided stiff resistance to the Pakistan army in many sectors and it was joined by the Bengali servicemen of the erstwhile military of Pakistan, the most that it could do was conduct hit and run operations given the limited number of resources at their disposal. It was only with the military intervention by the Indian state in December 1971 that the Pakistani army would be forced to surrender on the 16th day of that month and the mass atrocities would come to an end.

Now, it goes without saying that ascertaining the exact extent of the damage caused, specifically in terms of human lives lost, given the genocidal character of the violence perpetrated on the Bangladeshi population, is quite dicey. Various state and non-state agencies have participated in the numbers game, producing figures that have ranged from the outskirts of acceptance to even the brink of inconceivability. The Pakistani state’s official figures, for instance, suggest a total number of 26,000 fatalities during the war, which it goes without saying, is nothing but absurd even to the most untrained eye. Ever since its independence the Bangladeshi narrative has stuck to a block figure of 3 million and the estimate is still accepted without question in that country. Questioning or countering the state narrative has been seen as an anathema in Bangladesh, given the sacrosanct space that the Liberation War occupies in the national imagination of the Bangladeshis (Alamgir 2011).

But putting the numbers game aside, there is no denying the fact, that the Bangladeshi Liberation War saw a gross violation of human rights and crimes committed against humanity of the most horrific kind. So ominously massive was the scale of women raped by the Pakistani army during the war that the Bangladesh government had to adopt the world’s largest state sponsored abortion programme immediately after its independence. But that did not end the crisis. Then there came those cases where abortion was not an option, since pregnancy had already crossed the safe benchmark period for abortion. The children born in these instances were disowned by their mothers. Here, the Missionaries of Charity, based in Kolkata, founded by Mother Tersea (now Saint Teresa), would launch the world’s largest adoption programme of the children born as a result of such despised union. Any attempts at exacting the original number of the rape victims are bound to suffer from a number of problems. Given the social stigma attached to rape, added with the notion of sacrality that is implanted on the woman’s body, it becomes all the more treacherous to arrive at a number close to the actual. But Bangladesh has impressively adopted a brave and bold approach in the memorialisation of the rape victims by referring to them as birangonas (war heroines), something that is quite unprecedented in the history of the world (Mookherjee 2015).

The Delay of Justice

Anyway, the numbers game is nothing but a red herring in the context of war crimes and genocide. An independent Bangladesh and specifically Sheikh Mujib seethed for retributive and punitive justice for the inhuman war crimes that the civilian population of Bangladesh were victims of during those bloody 10 months of 1971. A number of legislative manoeuvrings in the newly founded Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) saw the passing of the The International Crimes (Tribunals) Act in 1973. The government even drafted a list of twenty thousand collaborators (individuals that had assisted the Pakistani army in the war crimes and atrocities) that it wished to prosecute in the newly formed tribunal. But, in an abrupt reversal of the situation, and most probably in consideration of the lack of funds and resources to carry out such an elaborate task, the government released an amnesty order that released all the suspected collaborators of the charges that were drawn against them. The people of Bangladesh would have to wait for another four decades for justice. It would only be in 2010 when the first tribunal was created under the aegis of the act. Another one (ICT 2) was given effect in 2012. But for the Bangladeshis craving justice in the immediate aftermath of the Liberation War, who had lost not only their homes, their financial means but entire families on certain occasions, the failure of the state to prosecute the war criminals of 1971 came as a huge personal insult. The sacrifices of the millions martyred and even the memory of their sacrifice had fallen prey to the nasty dealings that took place in the dimly lit corridors of domestic politics that allowed for some of the infamous perpetrators of war crimes a shadily enter through the back-gates into the highest echelons of power in the Bangladesh government. Added to the domestic politics, for a newly born state like Bangladesh, the need to settle diplomatic ties always proved the looming issue. For Bangladesh, national consolidation and international recognition came at a cost. It came at the expense of forgetting its own history. The memory of the violence and the victims that in effect led to the formation that nation was scapegoated in the most singular fashion. In this context, it is necessary to capture those exact historical conjunctures that led to the obfuscation or rather abuse of genocide memory in Bangladesh.

India had won a total victory in the war of 1971 and by the end of December 1971, it had under its custody more than 92,000 Pakistani prisoners of war (POWs). The Bangladesh government issued a petition to India, where it expressed the desire of trying 1,100 of those prisoners of war in an international tribunal for the war crimes that they had allegedly committed. But with its objective achieved, with one part of Pakistan dissolved from the union and an independent Bangladesh formed, India was looking for a closure. As such, India refused to entertain the number as first demanded by Bangladesh and when it pressed the Bangladesh government for specific evidence for every other prisoner that it wished to indict, Mujib’s government narrowed the list and presented charges against the 195 ringleaders. But the Indian reluctance towards such mass trials did not change and the situation was further muddled by the diplomatic advances made by the Pakistan government, that a newly founded Bangladesh government found very difficult to throw away. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto used two important bargaining chips: first, the repatriation of the Bengalis stranded in Pakistan to Bangladesh and second, establishing Bangladesh’s independent position in the global circuit, specifically, helping it gain a footing in establishing relations with China, U.S. and the Arab League. As for the 195 ring leaders convicted of serious war crimes, the Pakistani President, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto promised to conduct fair trials in Pakistan. Now, as is quite obvious with such deals, the trials never did materialise in Pakistan. Bangladesh also felt the need to strengthen the alliance with Pakistan in the coming decade in order to counter India’s position as the regional bully in South Asia.

But, keeping the factor of external politics and foreign diplomacy aside, the domestic politics of Bangladesh has to take a huge share of the responsibility behind the abuse of genocide memory. The Awami League was ousted from power in 1975 by a military coup. ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujib and most of his family were brutally assassinated by dissatisfied factions of the army, who were not satisfied with their position in the entire power structure that came to transpire in post-1971 Bangladesh. In a condition of national instability, and hardly with any grip over the power that they had come to assume through an armed coup, with the nation on the cusp of a rebellion, the generals decided to garner religion for their political needs. Despite knowing the fact that involving religion in politics basically meant playing with a double-edged sword at best, the military leadership revoked the constitutional ban that had prevented the use of religion for political purposes. The Jamaat-e-Islami, a religio-political outfit, whose rank was filled by numerous war time collaborators, was allowed to re-enter the domain of electoral politics. The alliance with Jamaat proved to be specifically beneficial for the coalition because of the closer ties to West Asia that it offered. This allowed for a conspicuous re-entry into politics of a number of collaborators and war criminals in a country whose formation they had initially opposed (Mookherjee 2015). The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), a political alliance formed by former President Major General Zia-ur-Rahman in 1978, which has been the primary adversary of Awami League in Bangladeshi Politics has been in a formal coalition with Islamist political groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikyo Jote since 2010 (D’Costa 2013).

Now, in the absence of a nationally sanctioned legal space for the prosecution of the war crimes, the movement for the demand for justice was carried on by numerous individuals and pressure groups. One woman by the name of Jahanara Imam began a movement against Golam Azam, the chief of the Jamaat e Islami and one of the most notorious collaborators of the rapacious Pakistani army. A People’s Tribunal was organised under her leadership in 1992. But the public demand for punitive justice of the war criminals had more or less disappeared from the political space in Bangladesh. Even the return of the Awami League to power in 1996, did not bring out any noticeable governmental policies aimed at bringing to justice those accused of war crimes.

It was only in the BNP tenure of 2001-2006, during which the right-wing alliance introduced into the cabinet a number of members from the Jamaat-e-Islami, that the demand was renewed. Some front line commanders of the Mukti Bahini took this as an insult and organised a movement against it, which soon mushroomed into a national consensus calling for the trial of the war criminals of 1971. The Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina Wazed, the daughter of the late Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman, would publicly endorse this agenda and would win a landslide victory in the elections of 2009 (Alamgir 2011).

A three-member International Crimes Tribunal was finally formed on 25 March 2010, marking the 39th anniversary of the beginning of the war. Many scholars have seen the formation of the ICT as a mere continuation of the inter-party conflict in Bangladesh. The ICT has been viewed as a political tool of the ruling Awami League for charging and vindicating political adversaries, i.e., members of the B.N.P. and Jamaat. The Jamaat with the help of its Western Asian contacts and massive financial support base, has vehemently questioned the legal fairness of the tribunals formed by Bangladesh.  Then again, it is no secret that the Awami League will definitely benefit from the trials. In fact, the first tribunal had to be dissolved after some private communiques between the government and the judges were leaked, where the government was coaxing the judges to speed up of the judicial process so that atleast one sentence could be delivered before the next election. The second tribunal was formed with the same consideration in mind: delivering justice as hastily as possible so that the Awami League could capitalise on that for the upcoming election. In all of this, the actual motivation and objective for creating the tribunal, i.e., rendering justice to those who deserve it, has been somehow lost in the dark fog of the petty political games.

Concluding Reflections and Unresolved Questions

Now, if we draw a hypothetical assumption that the ICT in Bangladesh is able to successfully prosecute by bringing to trial all those collaborators, who were responsible for the atrocities of 1971, it will still fail to fill an unbridgeable lacuna in its objective. The ICT in Bangladesh can bring to trial only the local collaborators, whereas the Pakistani military and political leadership that planned this entire saga of violence will obviously escape justice. Moreover, the efforts of the ICT will be restricted to the prosecution of only individuals. The ICT can do little, rather nothing in bringing about charges against states that were involved in the genocidal violence perpetrated on the Bangladeshis, either by direct participation (Pakistan), or by armed and diplomatic support (China and U.S.). With the changing global political and economic situation, with histories being rewritten to serve the new needs of the nation it will be overambitious to assume that the memory of 1971 and that of its victims will ever receive the veneration that it deserves. People can only hope, but that is the most that they can ever do. History always chalks out its own course, as it has always happened.


Alamgir, Jalal and Bina D’Costa (2011). “The 1971 Genocide: War Crimes and Political Crimes.” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 46 No.13 (March 26 – April 1): 38-41.

D’Costa, Bina (2013). “War Crimes, Justice and the Politics of Memory.” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 48, No. 12 (MARCH 23): 39-43.

Mookherjee, Nayanika (2015). The Spectral Wound: Sexual Violence, Public Memories, and the Bangladesh War of 1971. London: Duke University Press.

Neellohit Roy
is a postgraduate student of History at Presidency University, Kolkata. He serves as the Editor at Voyages into the Past, a student-run initiative that aims to explore and bring to the forefront lesser-known facts about the past. His research interests include the political history of caste and the psychology of racial and caste violence among many others.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Dr. Vipasha Bhardwaj #

    I did find some syntactic errors but the larger expression and motive of the article definitely overshadows that. Overall, the piece is well supported by facts and statistics.

    April 5, 2023

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