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1971 is dividing Bangladesh again and there's nothing India can do

It was the morning of the tenth day of Shravan, recalled Korfuly Bewa, that morning when her husband was marched home from the fields by Pakistan army troops and their local collaborators.  The soldiers demanded to know whether Bewa’s husband was a mukti, a Bangladesh guerrilla.  He wasn’t, but he was shot dead anyway.  Bewa fled.  Three days later, she returned to bury what remained of her husband’s corpse, eaten to the bone by dogs and foxes.  The soldiers arrived again soon after, this time with rape on their minds instead of murder.

Bewa recognised one man among the rapists: Muhammad Kamaruzzaman, then head of Pakistan army’s jihadist ally, al-Badr, now the head of Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political group, the Jamaat-e-Islami.

 1971 is dividing Bangladesh again and theres nothing India can do


Kamaruzzaman was sentenced to death on Thursday by Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal for his role in the Sohagpur massacre—one of dozens of mass killings conducted by the Pakistan army and its collaborators in the course of the Liberation War of 1971. The court said at least 120 unarmed civilians were killed in the massacre, designed to show residents of the Mymensingh area the terrible consequences support for the independence struggle would have.

For Bangladesh, Kamaruzzaman’s sentencing is the latest step in an epic reckoning with history.  The war crimes judgment comes amidst violence in Dhaka that has claimed dozens of lives, and signs that both secular groups and Islamists are preparing for a decisive battle that will shape the country’s future.

India also has huge stakes in this contest: with Pakistan’s jihadists resurgent, a triumph for Islamists in the east is a nightmare scenario. We’ve already seen crypto-fascist supporters of Bangladeshi Islamists marching on the streets of Kolkata—supporting men who fought, and killed, Indian troops. Pushed by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s local concerns, though, India hasn’t been able to deliver on promises that would strengthen Sheikh Hasina’s hand—among them, deals on disputed territories and on the sharing of water.

Back in March, 1971, Pakistan had launched Operation Searchlight—a brutal crackdown on pro-independence forces, which claimed the lives of thousands. In the summer, Bangladesh guerrillas trained and armed by India began staging retaliatory attacks. In July, 1971, India’s official war history records, the first group of 110 guerrillas began operations; that month alone, 124 bridges, 70 telecommunication lines, 67 power pylons and 53 river-craft were destroyed.  The Mukti Bahini succeeded in ending all rail transport between Dhaka and the key port of Chittagong. Pakistan’s troops were claimed to have suffered over 4,000 casualties in 825 ambushes.

From testimonies given in the Kamaruzzaman trial, we know pro-independence sentiment was strong in Mymensingh, just across the border from India: Syed Abdul Hannan the pro-independence Principal of Sherpur College, was flogged as he was paraded around the town naked, his face covered in lime and soot.

The Pakistan army responded by seeking to terrorise the population into submission—and picked local collaborators to help them. Kamaruzzaman was one of thousands of Islamists—both ethnic-Bengali, and drawn from the region’s Bihari migrants—recruited into al-Badr and al-Shams, the Pakistan-army backed militia.  The Jamaat-e-Islami house-organ Sangram’s August 16, 1971 issue, shows him proudly posing at a symposium held to commemorate Pakistan’s 25th independence day. The newspaper identified him as “chief organiser of Al-Badr force”.

Mohammad Jalaluddin described the morning of 25 July, 1971, when Kamaruzzaman accompanied Pakistani troops who surrounded the village, perhaps looking for guerrillas. Jalaluddin and his brother, both children, hid in the granary, listening to the sounds of gunfire. Several bodies were lying on the ground when they emerged:  one was Mohammad Safiruddin, their father.

Hafiza Bewa, lost her husband Ibrahim Bewa, her brother Abul Hossain, and her her uncles Seraj Ali and Khejur Ali that same morning. Then, she told the court, she was beaten with a rifle and raped among the dead bodies—as Kamaruzzaman watched.

There’s little in Kamaruzzaman’s story to explain this addiction to sadism.  Born in 1952, he joined the Jamaat-e-Islami’s student wing, the Islami Chhatra Sangha, as a class X student. Later, in 1967, he became active in the Mahmud Degree College in Sherpur, unsuccessfully standing for election as—perhaps improbably—the college’s cultural secretary. In 1970, he was given charge of the Islami Chatra Sangha’s greater Mymensingh unit, and became its office secretary on the eve of the 1971 war.

From the statements of witnesses to the tribunal, we know the killings continued through November—targeting suspected guerrillas, their political sympathisers, and people guilty of no crime other than being alive.

Early in December 1971, troops of India’s 101 Communications Zone Area, under the command of  Major-General Gandharv Nagra, broke through towards Dhaka.  Jamalpur, the main military garrison near Sherpur, was surrounded by Brigadier HS Kler’s 167 Mountain Brigade on December 8.  Pakistan’s garrison commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Sultan Ahmad, sent a grandiose reply to Kler’s demands that he surrender—enclosing a bullet, and saying he hoped to see the Brigadier “with a sten [-gun] in your hand the next time, instead of the pen”.

Less than 24 hours later, following a massive air and land bombardment, Lieutenant-Colonel Ahmad slipped away with 100 men, abandoning their equipment.  Three hundred of their 31 Baluch regiment troops had been killed, among them, it is believed, Major Muhammad Riaz, Kamaruzzaman’s handler; Another 379 surrendered.

Kamaruzzaman himself fled together the al-Badr camp two days before Sherpur was liberated, we know from the testimony of a camp guard.  He was arrested, though, on December 12, 1971 and sent to Dhaka jail.  The Jamaat-e-Islami was proscribed—but the story hadn’t ended, quite.

In 1975, Bangladesh’s generals mounted a coup, murdering the nation’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and allying with the Islamists in an effort to garner legitimacy.  The Jamaat-e-Islami leadership came out of prison, and flourished with official patronage.  It wasn’t until Sheikh Hasina Wajed—Rahman’s daughter—took power in 2009 that the wheel began to turn again.  Backed by Bangladesh’s supreme court, Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League restored the secular principles of Bangladesh’s 1972 constitution, and outlawed faith-based political parties.

Earlier this year, the moment of decision came. In February, secular groups in Bangladesh began the Shahbag protests, demanding capital punishment for 1971 war criminals.  It proved to be an unexpected success, drawing tens of thousands of supporters. Islamists counter-mobilised. In a 6 April rally in Dhaka, the Hefajat called for an anti-blasphemy law, gender-segregation that would effectively push women out of educational institutions and the workforce, action against the secular bloggers who provided a voice for Shahbag, and a Pakistan-style constitutional amendment declaring that the heterodox Ahmadi sect were outside the pale of Islam.

The crisis has grown inexorably. Rajib Haider, one of the Shahbag bloggers, was murdered by Jamaat activists on 15 February.  Thirteen days later, 40 people were killed in clashes between Islamists and the ruling Awami League. There were large-scale communal attacks on Hindu and Buddhist-owned properties and places of worship. More violence seems likely.

Bangladesh’s key opposition formation, the Bangladesh National Party, is backing the Jamaat, hoping religious voters will push Sheikh Hasina out of power. The veteran politician Monjurul Ahsan Khan notes the Jamaat has always been adroit at leveraging its small, but committed vote-base. “BNP is still allied to Jamaat”, he recently said, “which had opposed the war of independence in 1971. The Awami League had time and again tried to reach an understanding with Jamaat and that process is still underway," he said. “Taking advantage of these and the religious majority in the nation, religious parties like Hefajat are gaining popularity”.

“The main question in front of us”, wrote the young blogger Subrata Shuvo, now under arrest “is whether we will make our golden Bengal another Afghanistan or an adobe for Bengalis. There’s no way to be so called neutral in this issue or to deviate from this question. The time has come to decide whether the state will embrace fundamentalist power or support the progressive block to move the nation forward. Either you are pro-fundamentalist or pro-progressive. There is nothing in between”.

India gets it—but mired in a political landscape where municipal concerns trump geopolitics, remains impaled to the fence.

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Updated Date: May 10, 2013 17:07:16 IST

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