The scars of Bangladesh’s birth have yet to heal

The Pakistani army tried to cripple the new nation by murdering those who might become leaders


After the collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh, the forces of law there were swift to take action.

The owners were arrested and charged with neglect that led to the deaths of hundreds within days. The efficiency and directness of the action was impressive. But the law in that part of the world does not always move so swiftly, as a much graver and still more horrible series of crimes shows us.

This week, a British citizen, Chowdhury Mueen-Uddin, and a US citizen, Ashrafuzzaman Khan, were included in indictments issued by Bangladeshi courts. They were charged with collaboration with Pakistani forces and murder of victims in the genocide that accompanied the birth of Bangladesh. Mueen-Uddin’s British lawyer, Toby Cadman, said that the charges were “grossly defamatory”, and that they were “refuted [sic] in their entirety”.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” as Martin Luther King said. That arc is, in this case, exceedingly long, and justice may be served only when perpetrators as well as victims are long dead. It will be served only by history. These acts took place in 1971, as East Pakistan fought to achieve independence as Bangladesh. Very large numbers of people were murdered after the Pakistanis attempted first to suppress the general election result, and then to prevent independence. Very many women were systematically raped – perhaps 200,000, and we know that there were 25,000 unwanted pregnancies. Groups were specifically targeted – one of the most horrifying facts about the war of independence was that intellectuals, academics, writers and thinkers were identified and murdered in the very last days of the war, when the outcome was clear. The departing Pakistani forces wanted to cripple the new nation’s cultural identity from the start, by murdering people who might become its leaders.

How many? We don’t know. We know for certain that 10 million fled to India, and that the Pakistani leader Yahya Khan said that he wanted to kill three million, “and the rest will eat out of our hands”. The Bangladeshi government says that there were, indeed, three million dead. Pakistani or Pakistani-influenced historians still habitually scoff at this. Initial Pakistani claims were that there were only 26,000 dead, and some have gone on claiming that there were a few tens of thousands. We don’t know exactly how many women were raped, because the head of the new nation ordered lists of the victims’ names to be destroyed – he wanted them to go on with their lives without the label of shame.

For decades, nothing happened. The prospect of any trials in Bangladesh fell repeatedly by the wayside of political debate. Mueen-Uddin was named as a collaborator with blood on his hands as long ago as 1995 by a Channel 4 documentary. Nothing happened. Only in 2008 was an International Crimes Tribunal established in Bangladesh, and its work is controversial. When, in February, it passed sentence on a collaborator which fell short of the death penalty, hundreds of thousands of well-intentioned people turned out to demand the execution of the war criminal, Abdul Quader Mollah. They believed that only an irreversible punishment would see the criminals face any punishment at all; a prison sentence would be rapidly commuted by a change of government to one with Islamist sympathies.

It is important to understand, too, that the only people facing any kind of justice for this abominable episode are Bangladeshi collaborators, often connected to Islamist parties of the time. The crimes committed by such people are deeply shocking, and it is right that they should face justice at the end. But nothing whatever is being done about the original perpetrators of the massacres, inhuman torture and systematic rape. In the wake of Bangladeshi independence, Pakistan said that if a single Pakistani were prosecuted for war crimes by the new nation, not a single Bengali would be permitted to leave the western part of the country.

There are now elderly Pakistani men living in safety in Lahore, and perhaps in the West, who personally initiated and oversaw the torture and murder of dozens or even hundreds of individuals. There is no likelihood at all that they will face justice for their crimes. The nearest the law can come, it seems, is to bring actions against Bengali collaborators, those who aimed to please the occupying forces. Those actions proceed with anguished slowness and no real prospect of a successful unveiling of the truth.

What is to be done? We’ve seen in recent months that judgements of the Bangladeshi courts are too easily dismissed as political and, though justice could be done, it would need the brutal administration of the death penalty to preserve justice from being undone later. Bangladesh is not at the top of Western politicians’ agendas, but it should be: this huge national debate contains a division between religious fundamentalists, and those who believe in a secular Bengali culture above all. The consequences could be colossal, and disastrous for the West as well as for Bangladesh.

What is needed is that justice be done, and removed from domestic political concerns. Justice can’t be fully served by Bangladeshi courts passing judgement on Bangladeshi citizens. What is needed is the intervention of the International Criminal Court. Murderers should be tried, and imprisoned, away from the influence of national politicians – like Charles Taylor of Liberia, now imprisoned in The Hague.

The trial of those accused of collaboration is a start. The judgement of history is certain. We all know, in general terms, what it will conclude. But the judgement in this life, of murderers, rapists and torturers from 40 years ago – that cannot wait indefinitely.

Twitter: @PhilipHensher

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Business Analyst - Data Migration, £75,000, Manchester

£60000 - £75000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP B...

SAP Data Migration Consultant, circa £65,000, Manchester

£55000 - £75000 per annum: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP Data Migration ...

SAP Data Migration Consultant, circa £65,000, Manchester

£55000 - £75000 per annum: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP Data Migration ...

MS Dynamics NAV Developer

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: MS Dynamics NAV...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lyceum Theatre in the West End  

The West End might be beating Broadway, but think about who it is that can afford to fill the seats

Rosie Millard

L’Unita: The venerable organ of Italian communism breathes its last

Peter Popham
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star