Forty years on, Bangladesh is still in the shadows of war

A focus on unity and closure is desperately needed.

 

The blood-red circle on a vast vivid green flag flutters in the skyline, with the honking taxis and busses below. Throngs of people join in the carnival atmosphere - pride and  patriotism can be seen on their faces. Traditional folk music about freedom can be heard from the local community centre, and fairy lights decorate buildings. Rickety rickshaws race past through the narrow and uneven side streets, while little boys with the green and red bandanas draped over their foreheads and little girls wearing scarlet  and emerald shalwar khameez run past.

The peanut seller reads a newspaper and tosses the nuts under the glowing kerosene lamp, while a group of men huddle over their chai in street corners, while speeches of  freedom fighters of days gone by blurt out of speakers, into the Dhaka smog. Political slogans – Joi Bangla! – wreaths of flowers and the faces of the Prime Minister Sheikh  Hasina, leader of the Awami League Party, and the "father of the nation" Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, dominate every street lamp and corner. It is Victory Day in Bangladesh.

But despite the bunting and the banners marking the 41st anniversary of national independence and the defeat of the occupying Pakistani forces in 1971, it also commemorates how Bangladesh has suffered a history of so much human tragedy, natural disaster and political chaos. Yet perhaps the greatest injustice is that people are denied the truth of what really happened during the war. In the months since the death sentence verdict was given to Jamaat-e-Islami politician Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, over 100 people have died during clashes between protesters and the police. Attacks on journalists and bloggers, political abductions and open firing on civilians have sparked fears of instability in Bangladesh. But why is such a youthful population still in chains of the memories and grudges of the older generation?  

I wonder what brings thousands of young and educated Bangladeshis – the Shahbag movement – to the streets of Dhaka to call for the hanging of elderly men, for events that happened before they were alive? While travelling in Bangladesh, I met student Ali Uddin* who explained how he couldn’t look to the future or do anything, as everything depends on the political situation: “It’s so frustrating, the biggest problem for students is that lessons and exams can be suspended or delayed at any moment due to strikes, that can happen at any time.”

As someone of Bangladeshi heritage, I have realised that not many people care about this tiny nation, or know Bangladesh’s history and what happened after decolonisation, which is so central to understanding the current political tumult.

After the 1947 partition of India, newly formed Pakistan, with west and east wings, experienced difficulties. Within five years the Bangladeshi Language Movement was established, but the central government based in West Pakistan refused to recognise Bengali as an official language. When the Pakistani forces under Yahya Khan declared martial law, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, founder of the nationalist Awami League (AL), was arrested in the early morning on 26 March 1971 of Operation Searchlight. With no one to lead East Pakistan’s fight for independence, Ziaur Rahman, an army Major who would go on to establish the Bangladeshi National Party (BNP), declared himself the head of the provisional revolutionary government of Bangladesh.

That evening, he made a radio broadcast from Kalurghat in Chittagong,  “I, Major Ziaur Rahman, at the direction of Bangobondhu Mujibur Rahman, hereby declare that Independent People's Republic of Bangladesh has been established.”  Yet this very act has since been the source of so much political turmoil of Bangladesh.

Both Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Ziaur Rahman were later assassinated by their opponents, and even four decades later, the Bangladeshi political arena is still dominated by their shadows – Awami League being led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter and current prime minister Sheikh Hasina, while the BNP is led by her bitter foe, Ziaur Rahman’s widowed wife Khaleda Zia. These political divisions have fractured and left deep fault lines in Bangladesh, and academic Dr. Shaheen Amany* told me that ‘for the country to progress, the government needs to put the national interest first, then political interest, and then self-interest.’ 

The great injustice is that there is no way of knowing how many people died. Estimates are between 300,000 to 3mn dead and 200,000 women raped by Pakistani troops, and these figures are frequently used in political discourse and have shaped the dominant historical narrative. This matters and it is astonishing that there isn’t enough adequate academic source analysis, especially when the 3mn figure is so contested. There’s a continuous rewriting of history, and a change of government leads to the change in the list of freedom fighters – all 5 lists have been condemned for partisanship and for including the names of frauds. It’s an issue as those on the list receive special patronage including monthly food, rations and special educational provisions to their children are given, and according to the ministry of liberation war affairs budget, an allowance will be provided for 1,57,838 freedom fighters.

Furthermore, old wounds have been slashed open, hampering any attempts for closure. In 1973, after the birth of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujib declared a general amnesty for the Pakistani army officials, and despite being main perpetrators, were returned to Pakistan and 26,000 detainees under the Collaborators Order were released. However, Hasina, leading Awami League, in 2008 resurrected this issue which had been resolved by her father, and made a manifesto pledge to hold accused “war criminal and collaborators” on trial. It was an election winner.

A domestic International Crimes Tribunal was set up; bearing little sign of international standards, and this issue has been the cause of the recent protests and bloodshed. Those on trial are from the opposition – most are longstanding members of the Jammat-e-Islami party, who in 1971 were a small party who didn’t want a split from Pakistan, civilians holding no seats or positions of state authority, or military power in the army. So blaming the defendants of war crimes, genocide and rape considering their diminutive status is highly problematic.

I recently heard Toby Cadman, international criminal barrister representing the Jammat-e- Islami defendants, speak at the LSE about the serious irregularities in the Bangladesh war trial, and failures to abide by the minimum standards of due process. Crucially, as there is no jury and as the death penalty can be implemented, there should be extra caution. Not a single judge has heard all the evidence in the case of Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, in total three different judges have presided over the case, with the first two resigning. “Skypegate” revealed emails and 17 hours of extrajudicial discussions about the workings of the tribunal between the presiding judge Mr Nizamul Huq and a third party. The cases of abducted defence witness es is especially concerning, and in the Professor Ghulam Azam case, an arbitrary limit was placed on the number of defence witnesses dropping from 16, to 12 and then to a single witness. With a lack of resources and international assistance, the trial has been shambolic. One young woman in the audience put it to Cadman that these issues are just “legalities”: the will of the people should be heard. This concerned me. No, these irregularities are not just technical legal issues: justice can not be done without adequate evidence and impartial judgement.   

The war trials will not help solve anything, and are being rushed through before elections in Bangladesh are later this year. If anything, it is hampering stability and the economic progress that has been made. Efforts for unity have been hacked to pieces. I sometimes think about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and how restorative justice for victims was at its heart: it wasn’t about political point-scoring. The TRC wasn’t perfect, but huge strides were made to bring about closure in post-apartheid South Africa. This is a highly emotive subject and is discussed in binary terms, but Bangladesh would do well to focus on unity and closure – revenge gets you nowhere, and two injustices won't make anything right. Progress cannot be made if there is no will to break from the haunting memory of the past, and this drive should come from the youth.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of sources.

Bangladesh fans wave flags during a cricket match. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder