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
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Labour must reclaim English patriotism if we are to beat Ukip and the Tories

We can't talk about the future of our country unless we can discuss the past. 

I was a parliamentary candidate for Thurrock, but the place which I currently call home is Hackney, London. This distinction is worth explaining. The questions of Labour and Englishness – what exactly is the English problem that we’re trying to solve, why do we need a progressive patriotism, does it already exist, if not why not and if we had one what would it look like? – are, above all, questions of identity and place. We need to build a patriotism that includes and resonates with residents of both Hackney and Thurrock. Currently they are very far apart. 

I’m the little girl who sat on her dad’s shoulders to wave a flag at Princess Anne’s first wedding. And I was also, like Sadiq Khan, waving a flag at the Silver Jubilee in 1977. I’m an ex-Catholic, I’m a Londoner, I’m English and I’m a woman, and all of those identities are important although not necessarily equally so and not necessarily all of the time.

But I’m also a member of the Labour party, not only as a candidate, but now as an activist in Hackney. And that is where I see the difference very strongly between Hackney and what I experienced in Thurrock. 

Thurrock was Ukip ground zero last year - 12,000 people voted for Ukip in a general election for the first time, on top of the 3,500 that had voted for them before in 2010. Most of those 12,000 people had either not voted before, or had voted Labour. 

This isn’t just about being in two different places. Sometimes it feels like more than being in two different countries, or even like being on two different planets. The reality is that large swathes of Labour’s members and supporters don’t identify as patriotic, fundamentally because patriotism has been seized and colonised by the right. We need to understand that, by allowing them to seize it, we are losing an opportunity to be able to reclaim our past. 

We do not have any legitimacy to talk about the future of our country unless we can talk about our past in a better way. We have tried but our efforts have been half-hearted. Take Ed Miliband's call for One Nation Labour, which ended up amounting to a washed-out Union Jack as a visual for our brand. It could have been so much better – an opportunity for an intellectual rebranding and a seizure of Conservative territory for our own ends. Ultimately One Nation Labour was a slogan and not a project. 

There is a section of the left which has a distinct discomfort with the idea of pride in country. It has swallowed the right-wing myth that England’s successes have all been Conservative ones. This is a lie, but one that has spread very effectively. The left’s willingness to swallow it means that we are still living in a Thatcherite paradigm. It is no wonder progressives revolt at the idea of patriotism, when the right’s ideas of duty and authority quash our ideas of ambitions for equality, opportunity for all and challenging injustice. But we risk denying our successes by allowing the right to define Englishness. It’s England that helped establish the principle of the right to vote, the rule of law, equal suffrage, and the fight against racism. 

If Englishness is going to mean anything in modern England, it needs to be as important for those who feel that perhaps they aren’t English as it is for those who feel that they definitely are. And a place must be reserved for those who, though technically English, don’t see their own story within the Conservative myth of Englishness. 

Although this reclaiming is electorally essential, it is not an electoral gimmick. It is fundamental to who we are. Even if we didn’t need it to win, I would be arguing for it.

We need to make sure that progressive patriotism reclaims the visual language that the Conservatives use to dress up their regressive patriotism. Women need to be as much in the pantheon of the radicals as part of the visual identity of Englishness. Women tend to either be there by birth or by marriage, or we are abstract manifestations of ideals like "justice" or "truth" – as seen on city halls and civic buildings across the country. But English women need to be real, rather than just ideal. Englishness does need to be focused on place and connection, and it should include Mary Wollstonecraft and Sylvia Pankhurst as well as Wat Tyler and Thomas Paine. 

We can’t pretend that we’re always right. The most patriotic thing you can do is to admit sometimes that you’re wrong, so that your country can be better. I love my country, for all its faults. But I do not live with them. I try to make my country better. That is progressive patriotism. And I know all of us who want to be part of this can be part of it. 

This article is based on Polly’s contribution to Who Speaks to England? Labour’s English challenge, a new book published today by the Fabian Society and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester.