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
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.