Monday, 17 January, 2022

The 1971 Bangladesh Genocide: Fixing Responsibility

Dr. Syed Anwar Husain

The 1971 Bangladesh Genocide: Fixing Responsibility
Dr. Syed Anwar Husain

To be a victim of genocide was one of the major costs of Bangladesh’s resistance to Pakistani political and economic exploitation for nearly two and a half decades; and, finally, to the military crackdown on 25 March 1971. Bangladesh is, however, not a unique and lone example of such an experience under similar circumstances; indeed, there have been many such examples throughout ages across the world. But shamefully, the local collaborators of the Pakistani genocide have at times been provided with space in politics and governance of the country by the political element whose ideological stance is contrary to the spirit of the Liberation War. Generally speaking, in doing so we have turned ourselves into what the American historian Bernard Lewis said, albeit in a different context, ‘blunderring amnesiacs’.

Those who share political platforms with the anti-liberation forces do blunder into being amnesiacs in an independent country that has had a blood-stained birth through a bloody Liberation War. The enormity of crime that underlay the genocide of 1971 is perceived rightly and talked about widely at home and abroad. It is good echoing the dictum of Gladstone that, justice delayed is justice denied; but it is certainly bad not to see the justice through, however delayed. Although delayed justice has been done since 2010 by bringing the war criminals under trial.

This is an exercise that entwines both theoretical and empirical perspectives in getting across the core point of fixing the responsibility for the genocide. The opening section picks up genocide etymologically and phenomenologically. The second section, the core one, deals with the responsibility for the genocide factor from a number of perspectives. The two sections that follow look at the track-record of some sporadic and scattered attempts, mostly by civil society elements at home, and lately by the government at bringing the war-criminals under trial.

Genocide: Definition, Meaning and Ramifications

In 1944, thanks to Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959), a Polish-Jewish legal scholar, the term genocide came into legal vocabulary. By way of defining this neology he wrote, “Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”

According to such a broad definition, genocide was perpetrated by the Pakistani rulers right from 1947 and through to 1971. A legal definition came off the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG). Article2 had it that, “genocide would mean  . . . any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group condition of life, calculated destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; children of the group to another group.”   

But even as of today, a consensus definition of genocide has not yet emerged. The explanation, as postulated by Jonassohn and Bjornson, is to be found in the fact that “academics have adjusted their focus to emphasize different periods and have found expedient to use slightly different definitions to help them interpret events.”    

A survey of the current literature reveals at least three different meanings of genocide:

A) The ordinary meaning is murder by government of people due to their national, ethnic, racial, or religious group membership.

B) The legal meaning of genocide refers to the international treaty, the convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This also includes non-killings, that in the end, eliminate the group, such as preventing, births or forcibly transferring children out of the group to another group.

C) A generalized meaning of genocide is similar to the ordinary meaning but also includes government killings of opponents or otherwise international murder. To avoid confusion regarding what meaning is intended Rummel created the term democide for the third meaning. In 1996, Gregory Stanton developed a paradigm, in which he suggested following eight stages through which genocide takes place:

1. Classification: People are divided into ‘us’ and ‘them’.

2. Symbolization: When combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of pariah groups.

3. Dehumanization: One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases.

4. Organization: Genocide is always organised. Special army units or militias are often trained and armed.

5. Polarization: Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda.

6. Preparation: Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity.

7. Extermination: It is extermination to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human.

8. Denial: The perpetrators deny that they committed any crimes. It was, however, not suggested that all these eight characteristics would fit all cases of genocide. Emerging out of a survey of the cases of genocide this paradigm appears to have been developed as a generalization to be used as an analytical tool. The Bangladesh genocide fits generally both the academic and legal definitions; and this is a fact that hardly needs any elaboration and reiteration. But a few explanatory words are in order here as to how the Bangladesh genocide fits the Stanton paradigm, if not wholly, but partially.

Characteristics Bangladesh Case-study

1. Classification: The Liberation War involved the Pakistani rulers and Bangalis as ‘us’ and ‘them’; and it had been so since 1947.

2. Symbolization: The Pakistani rulers used at least three hate symbols vis-à-vis Bangalis: “not pure Muslims”, “lowly born people”, and finally, “miscreants” during the Liberation War.

3. Dehumanization: In February 1971, Yahya Khan was reported to have stated “Kill three million of them, and the rest will eat out of our hands”. General Niazi considered Bangladesh a “low lying of low lying people.” He considered Hindus as Jews to the Nazis-scum and vermin that should be best exterminated. Journalist Dan Coggin quoted one Punjabi captain as telling him, “We can kill anyone for anything. We are accountable to no one.”

4. Organization: That Pakistani genocide was organized and pre-planned becomes evident from the statements of Yahya Khan and Niazi quoted above. Moreover, the killing spree was aided and abetted by the locally raised militias generically called razakrs, who were ideologically linked with the Jamaat-i-Islami and its student wing Islami Chhatra Sangha.

5. Polarization: During the Liberation War, Pakistani propaganda was launched to the effect that all Muslims in Bangladesh had turned into Hindus, and the Liberation War had been provoked by India.

6. Preparation: In her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape Susan Brownmiller mentions how Bangali women were targeted for gender-selective atrocities and abuses, notably sexual assault and rape/murder from the earliest days of the Pakistani genocide. According to her statistics, eighty percent of the raped women were Muslims, but Hindu and Christian women were not exempt. But Bangladeshi researcher Dr. M. A. Hasan comes up with different statistics. According to him the ratio of persecuted Muslims was 53.50, Hindus 41.44, Christians and others 2.06.

7. Extermination: The extent and ramifications of the perpetrators of genocide confirm their extermination objective. Neither the Pakistani perpetrators nor their local cohorts have ever accepted any responsibility for genocide in Bangladesh. This theoretical discussion, especially the section relating to the Stanton paradigm, juxtaposed against the Bangladesh phenomenon of genocide makes it abundantly clear who were the perpetrators. The following section makes a specific case for responsibility.

Fixing Responsibility for Genocide    

Hard evidence of both local and foreign provenance abound to the effect that the primary responsibility is to be fixed on the Pakistani military that authored the “Operation Searchlight” and unleashed the genocide. To be added to this category of complicity is the role of the local collaborators called razakars.  

Robert Payne gives a chilling account of the Pakistani genocide in his widely read book Massacre, “For month after month in all the regions of East Pakistan the massacres went on. They were not the small casual killings of young officers who wanted to demonstrate their efficiency, but organised massacres conducted by sophisticated staff officers, who knew exactly what they were doing. Muslim soldiers sent out to kill Muslim peasants, went about their work mechanically and efficiently until killing defenseless people became a habit like smoking cigarettes or drinking wine.”  

Such a narrative, among the many blood-curdling and heart-rending ones, clearly demonstrates that the mass killing in Bangladesh was among the most carefully and centrally planned of modern genocides. Records suggest that a group of five generals planned and orchestrated the genocide: Yahya Khan, Tikka Khan, Chiefof staff Pirzada, security chief Umar Khan, and intelligence chief Akbar Khan. None of the generals or the lower ranking officers involved on the ground has ever been brought to trial.   

In a secondary sense, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto is to be accused of complicity in the genocide. But the Jamaat-i-Islami, in both wings, was the main back-up political force that had its distorted and obscurantist Islamic ideology at the services of the genocidal military junta.   

But as far as trial of the perpetrators of genocide in Bangladesh is concerned our immediate focus is on those who are called razakars, who in 1971, belonged to Jamat-i-Islami in the then East Pakistan and its student wing Islami Chhatra Sangha. Moreover, there were other collaborators who did not belong to these organisations, they had their own political platforms, but shared the ideology of razakars in opposing Bangladesh and actively participating in the genocide. To this category belonged such rightist political, parties as the Muslim League, (Council/Convention) and Nejam-e-Islam. Of the many political personalities who aided and abetted genocide special mention should be made of late Fazlul Quader Chowdhury and his son Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury.  

A close look at the complicity factor brings out information about external input to genocide, if not directly but in an effective indirect manner. The role of the United States and China was anti-Bangladesh ab initio. The U.S. government, long supportive of military rule in Pakistan, supplied some $ 3.8 million in military hardware to Yahya Khan’s regime even after the onset of the genocide, Similar complicity is found in the case of China, and Chinese military equipment were used in the genocide. Finally, of the external actors’ complicity, mention should be made of the Muslim countries. In supporting Pakistan and opposing Bangladesh, they not only compromised Islamic values but also became a party to the genocide.

Trial of War Criminals in Bangladesh: A Track-Record 

On 1 January 1972, the interim government of Bangladesh decided to set up a Genocide Investigation Commission. On 10 January 1972, in his address to the nation Bangabandhu made the point: “The world must investigate this atrocious massacre. My wish is for an international, impartial team to probe this barbarity?” He was more forthcoming when he said, “Those who have collaborated, killed millions of our citizens, disrespected our sisters and mothers, can they be forgiven? They cannot be forgiven; they will be punished after trial.”With this end in view the Collaborators Act of 1972 came into operation. 37,413 people were arrested under this Act; and the trial of 2,848 was completed. But in the legal process this Act revealed some lacunae in the specific context of differentiating between war crimes and crimes against humanity. In other words, it was found out that war crimes were of special nature and needed special acts and special tribunal. Two Consequences followed from this experience. First, a general amnesty on 30 November 1973 freed those who had committed petty crimes, but with the clear provision that collaborators punished or accused of rape, murder, attempt to murder or arson would not come under general amnesty. Second, on 20 July 1973, the International War Crimes (Tribunals) Act was passed accommodating the extraordinary nature of the war crimes of 1971.

But after the assassination of Bangabandhu on 15 August 1975, Bangladesh began on a course not charted by the Liberation War. The Articles 12, 38, 66 and 122 banning denominational politics and barring the anti-liberation forces from political process was deleted. Consequently, on 31 December 1975, the eleven thousand under trial war criminals were released. Moreover, all the anti-liberation political elements have since been systematically rehabilitated. The cycle of rehabilitation was completed as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) formed a government in alliance with Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) and Islami Oikyo Jote (IOJ) in 2001.

The present Awami League (AL) government that swept into power through a landslide victory in the 29 December 2008 general election has the mandate as well as parliamentary nod to try the war criminals afresh. To this end, the International War Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973 has been updated and strengthened. The trial process is going on. Some of the major perpetrators of crimes against humanity including Matiur Rahman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Mujahid and Kader Mullah have been tried and hanged. 

Concluding Observations

Winston Churchill had it to say by way of advice, “If you look longer back, you can look farther ahead.” If we look longer back to our Liberation War over the intervening years, we find cues to look farther ahead. The first cue is for crafting Bangladesh as per the spirit of the Liberation War. The second cue is for bringing the local anti-liberation elements having complicity in the genocide under trial. If the second cue is not acted upon, as experience over the years suggest, the first cue can never be acted upon. Moreover, if we fail to complete the trial of the war criminals, we, on moral grounds, would also be accused of complicity in the genocide of 1971. Condonation of crime is an offence equal to that of countenance.


The writer is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Bangladesh University of Professionals (BUP)