This year a small delta nation, a land of fertile plains, luscious terrain and a remarkably rich history and heritage, celebrates its 40thbirthday. In 1971, following an epic struggle for freedom, dignity and justice, Bangladesh was born.
While the popular narrative of Bengal history tends to begin in the British colonial era of the 18th century, a rich history existed for many centuries prior to this. With its wealth of natural resources, Bengal was arguably the most prosperous region of the sub-continent up until it was colonised. In 1757, the East India Company occupied the region, beginning with their victory at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. This brought a seismic shift in the socio-political and economic state of the region, and within a few decades Bengal became one of the poorest regions in South Asia. This turning point in the country’s history is a significant chapter in the relationship of the Bengali people and Britain; an early chapter on the place of the Bengali Diaspora in Britain today.
The 1947 partition of united India created Pakistan and India. Yet the newly formed Pakistan with its Eastern wing (later, Bangladesh) and Western wing (present day Pakistan) had only begun to experience its birth pangs. Within five years, the Bengali Language Movement began, in response to the refusal by its central government, based in West Pakistan, to recognise Bengali as an official language. In the subsequent years, increasing dissatisfaction towards West Pakistan for its policy of injustice towards its Eastern wing culminated in a tumultuous nine-month war. On 26 March 1971 an independent Bangladesh was finally born and 16 December 1971 saw the signing of the Instrument of Surrender by the Pakistani Army. The valiant language movement was recognised by the international community with the UNESCO declaring 21 of February as ‘International Mother Language Day’. To commemorate those who lost their lives, and to support the many struggling survivors, George Harrison, along with numerous other renowned artists, hosted a charitable Concert for Bangladesh in August 1971.
The new Bangladesh, since 1971, has witnessed many challenges and political upheavals as well as significant developments. From widespread political and bureaucratic corruption, political violence, environmental calamity, poverty and overpopulation to significant progress in literacy and gender parity in education, a vast human resource and remarkable growth in economic development. In December 2005 Goldman Sachs placed Bangladesh on the list of Next Eleven largest global economies, and in February 2011 Citigroup named Bangladesh as among the Global Growth Generators. In spite of the challenges, over its relatively short life span, the nation has come a long way.
But perhaps one area remains the most challenging of all for Bangladesh – that of its war of birth in 1971. Four decades have passed, yet the war remains an unresolved space, creating conflict both within Bangladesh and the wider diaspora. While 1971 should have become an event to unify Bangladeshis in honouring the birth of their nation, it has become a target of political exploitation by the nation’s dominant political parties. The facts and figures are routinely manipulated such that Bangladesh has no real agreed upon modern history. Indeed little value appears to be given to fact where politics is concerned. The dominant narrative on the war is dependent on the political party in power, and is set to be rewritten and fiercely protected by the next government. The destabilising effects of this narrative have been palpable for these 40 years; a nation incapable of agreeing on the very roots of its conception will find securing its identity, stability and progress a challenge. While 1971 released the nation from a partnership that was too often imbalanced and unjust, it is now against the exploitative and destabilising bounds of this contentious debate that the nation requires liberty.
While the facts remain unverified and unreliable the hope for closure for the victims and the nation remains remote. Those seeking political appropriation of the war insist on dragging out and misusing a memory, rather than permitting the sufferers to come to terms with it and move on. To allow closure is to stopper the exploitation of this period, hence this is resisted. At the other end are those who resist acknowledging that the suffering has not concluded, that many still need to come to terms with the memories and gain justice, and that things cannot simply be brushed under the carpet. If crimes have been committed, they must be faced and addressed, not avoided.
The primary point of contest remains in the details. While the current leading Awami League (AL) led government in Bangladesh routinely propagate the three million deaths figure, viable testimony remains to the contrary and is conveniently disregarded. That a great many suffered and died is undeniable and must be addressed, but to stubbornly tamper with the facts is to dishonour the victims. In the name of seeking truth, but with all indications of exacting revenge, the government has established an International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) to try those they accuse of war crimes, decades after a general amnesty had been granted by Bangladesh’s founding President, Mujibur Rahman. Claiming to want to try those who committed crimes, the ICT is neither attempting nor can aspire to try the most glaring culprits from the period: the West Pakistan army officials. Instead, all cases are being directed towards accused Bangladeshis, most of whom, significantly, sit in the camps of the political opposition to the ruling party. It would appear the ICT, bearing little sign of ‘international’ standards, has all signs of being another means of silencing political opposition and securing power than achieving the truth.
The injustice of this situation towards the victims of the war is perhaps the greatest tragedy. Rather than securing closure, their realities are routinely appropriated to serve political ends. It is high time that the War was treated with the victims – their cause, suffering and need for a resolution – genuinely at the forefront of the discourse. To be credible and just, the ICT must attain the international standards it claims to uphold and be regulated by an independent body; only then can the facts be verified without the danger of factual corruption. Indeed, such a tribunal should be held at the UN’s International Court of Justice, rather than in a young country wholly inexperienced in such procedures and under a government with a strong bias in the matter. Justice must be attained through justice.
Bangladesh is at a cross-road where the truth of the past frequently clashes with the propaganda of the present. Political conflicts are genuinely hindering the progress of the nation. Both those within Bangladesh and its diaspora, even in Britain, suffer from partisan clashes over the war. The social divisions created are another sad and long-standing product of this unresolved conflict. It is high time members across Bengali society were able to come together to discuss this single most significant event in the modern history of the nation in a mature and balanced manner. Indeed Bangladesh’s progress depends upon it – the future cannot be built in the absence of the past.