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War Crimes, Militias, and Revisiting ’71

Two contrasting narratives played out in Bengal in 1971. For nine months, West Pakistan carried out a genocide against their eastern counterparts 2,000 km away. Then, after a refugee problem due to migration from Bangladesh to India, India entered the war and annihilated the Pakistani forces in Dhaka in just thirteen days. They consequently liberated East Pakistan, and announced the birth of a new country: Bangladesh.

The West, with its linguistic and economic stronghold, was startled by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – a Bengali, winning the Pakistan general election of 1970. Unfortunately, this shock swiftly turned to anger, and anger to  desire for control. What better way to control the population than by slowly eradicating its journalists and intellectuals? The Pakistani army, stationed far away in the west, carried out their attacks using militias and auxiliary forces; many of whom were Bengalis themselves. Much has changed since 1971, and in recent weeks Bengalis are taking legal action to bring history’s felons to justice. On the other hand, militias in Pakistan seem bent on causing more divide and ruin to an already ravished nation.

Bangladesh’s Watershed Moment

On January 21st 2013, the International Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh delivered its first verdict: sentencing Abul Kalam Azad, a former Islamist leader, to death for war crimes. He was found guilty in absentia for his involvement with Jamaat-e-Islami’s auxiliary force Razakar Bahini. The Razakar were notorious for targeting Hindus and civilians that sympathized with Bengali nationalists. Along with Al-Badr, another militia, they helped the Pakistan army rape, torture, and murder three million people (according to the Bangladeshi government).

This arrest signals a watershed moment in Bangladeshi history. The families grieving for over forty years can finally find solace in attaining justice. The current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has made it her goal to shed light on the demons of 1971. This task had too often been seen as impossible as the Jamaat-i-Islami still hold power in Bangladesh in an electoral alliance with the second largest party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Furthermore, the tribunal, first established in 2010, had been the cause for much controversy (not adhering to ‘international standards’, the ‘Skype scandal’ where information was leaked by a judge) – a major reason why the only tangible results are coming to light three years on. Jamaat-i-Islami, over the past week, have brought more controversy to the issue by protesting against the tribunal in the streets of Dhaka. However, the general Bangladeshi sentiment is support for the tribunal and the hope that other defendants like Motiur Rahman Nizami and Ghulam Azam (the current and former leaders of Jamaat-i-Islami) are also handed out strong punishments.

Pakistan’s Ruin

BBC’s South Asia Editor, Shahzaib Gilani, feels that a lot of the geopolitical patterns of Pakistan and the region were formed in the 1971 conflict. That was when Pakistan employed the use of militia groups, and today they are still deployed in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in Afghanistan. The dangerous nexus between militant and jihadi military groups is now threatening Pakistan from within. India also remains Pakistan’s greatest external threat with the ability to mobilize in only 72 hours. The remnants of 1971 for Pakistan are still deep rooted in the domestic and international environment.

The army remains a contentious issue in Pakistan. On the one hand, it serves to “unite the people” and “control civilian affairs better than corrupt government officials” according to Lt. Gen. Abdul Qadir Baloch. However, Baloch also argued that army tainted Pakistan’s democratic fabric.

In recent years, the growth in armed groups from all parts of society have brought ruin to Karachi, Quetta, and much of Pakistan’s northern areas. Sectarian groups that have established connection with the Taliban are committed to acts of terrorism. “Shia genocide” has become a reality with the Sipah-e-Sahaba and other Sunni militant groups carrying out frequent attacks.
The MQM militias fight with zeal for the Shia cause and for Mohajirs against Pakhtuns; derailing the ethnic wars to surmount religious ones. The Pakhtuns also have their armed groups that undertake violent acts, leaving the only innocent party (the moderates) subject to loss of life and human rights violations as collateral damage.

Acknowledging History

Pakistan and Bangladesh face great problems ahead, and the ghosts of 1971 can still be seen in the structure of both countries. Bangladesh, despite the the long road ahead, seems on its way to coming to terms with the past. Pakistan, however, struggles to recognize its darkest time. Many young students even dismiss the historical narrative as propaganda wherever it speaks of mass murder and genocide. It is important to accept and come to terms with failure, for, if individuals keep pitting their hopes on militias and armed groups that favour them, Pakistan will be left mourning a turbulent downward spiral of violence.

– Sameer Tayebaly


(Feature image:  thisismylife.co.uk. Creative Commons, Flickr)

About Sameer Tayebaly

Student of Economics and History at McGill University. Sameer’s interests include food, fiction, film, FIFA, fascinating (or farcical?) sports like cricket, philosophy, and music. Together with the Bouillon team, he strives to provide a fresh take on politics while remaining calculated and informative. His eighteen years in Karachi, Pakistan, the experience of travel, and an avid interest in writing arrange a toolkit equipped for specialization in the intriguing politics of South Asia from a broader, global, panorama.

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One comment

  1. Well written article Sameer. Pakistan should apologize for its mistake and show that its a mature Democratic State. The rampant lawlessness in the country requires leadership and, for the long-term, an emergency needs to be declared to further the cause of education in the country. Keep writing…

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