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War crimes of 1971 still reverberate in today's Bangladesh

The bloody crimes of 42 years ago, during Bangladesh's war of independence, are still dividing the country, and claiming lives, today.

The strikes called by two opposition parties on two separate days last week have muted, at least for now, the month of protests demanding the death penalty for those guilty of serious crimes during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence.

The demonstrations, in Dhaka's Shahbag Square, brought thousands of people out on the streets of Dhaka over the last month, as they grew into the biggest mass demonstrations the country has seen in decades.

But in the last week at least 60 people have died in violent clashes between supporters of the ruling Awami League, on one side, and the Jamaat-e-Islami and its coalition partner, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), on the other.

The whole issue is more than 40 years old. The Awami League, which spearheaded the creation of a new country in 1971 as Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan, has been ranged against the BNP and Jamaat ever since.

The spark for the latest violence was the February 28 death sentence issued by Bangladesh's special tribunal on war crimes against Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee. He was convicted of murder, rape, abduction and torture during the 1971 war. During the war Jamaat leaders tried to keep Bangladesh in Pakistan, arguing that the shared Muslim religion outweighed differences of ethnicity and language.

On February 4, 24 days before Sayedee was condemned to death, the same tribunal had handed down a sentence of life imprisonment to another Jamaat leader, Abdul Quader Mollah, known as "the Butcher of Mirpur" for his proven and alleged 1971 crimes: torching Hindu homes, raping women and killing 344 people in Mirpur, a Dhaka suburb.

As he left the court, and despite his life sentence, Mollah flashed the "V for victory" sign. His satisfaction at avoiding capital punishment outraged many, and started the Shahbag Square protests.

Mollah's victory sign can also be said to symbolise the violence and division that have persisted and wracked the country for 42 years.

In 1975 Bangladesh's President Mujibur Rahman and most of his family were murdered, in their home in the heart of Dhaka, by military officers. The ensuing decades of political turmoil, with spells of military dictatorship, led the country to the more recent deeply debilitating rivalry between two women.

Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina - who was in Germany when her relatives were killed - took over the Awami League, and is now prime minister. Her rival Khaleda Zia inherited the leadership of the BNP from her late husband and former martial law administrator, General Zia-ur Rehman.

The war crimes tribunal was set up in fulfilment of a 2008 campaign promise by Sheikh Hasina. Many of those accused of large-scale crimes have escaped punishment all these decades simply by escaping to the UK, Canada, India or elsewhere. Others, including Sayedee, stayed in the country and brazened it out in politics. He was elected to parliament twice.

Hasina insisted that Bangladesh needed closure from the bloody circumstances of its birth. During the "reign of terror" - as the US ambassador, Archie Blood, called it at the time - as many as 3 million Bangladeshis were killed and 200,000 women raped. The Pakistani military and Jamaat were implicated. For example, Mujib ordered the destruction of the list of 25,000 women impregnated by Pakistani soldiers, to spare the women from shame.

Blood pleaded with his own government not to support Pakistan in the subsequent war with India, even as another 10 million Bangladeshis fled to India's neighbouring provinces. Only by exposing the collaborators in this genocide, the Awami League argued, would Bangladesh be able to move on.

So the issue is still alive. The life sentence for Mollah was quickly protested by a few young Bangladeshis, who, via sites such as Facebook and Twitter, began a peaceful vigil at Shahbag Square near Dhaka University, the scene of a major massacre in 1971.

Soon, hundreds and thousands of students and other civilians joined a vast collective outpouring of emotion. This was an inchoate movement for change, a mass yearning for a new morning. Chanted slogans ("Phansi chai" or "Hang the criminals"), candlelight marches and protest poetry filled the interstices between speeches. Women led the movement. The Bangladesh cricket team showed up to give support.

By the time Sayedee's death sentence was announced on February 28, Jamaat (which won just one per cent of the vote in the 2008 election) and its student wing, Shibir, had decided to get even. They called a strike. Violence started. Rajib Haider, a blogger, was the first to be killed.

That night, the government deployed paramilitary forces to deal with the growing tension. The BNP came out in support of Jamaat and called the second strike, which coincided with the visit of the Indian president, Pranab Mukherjee, to Bangladesh.

In the violence that ensued, more than 60 people lost their lives. the protesting crowds dwindled away.

Nor is the trouble finished. Over the next few months, seven more verdicts against other Jamaat leaders, and two BNP members, are due. If they are all found guilty and hanged, the entire Jamaat leadership will be wiped out.

Already, Bangladeshis are asking if the spirit of Shahbag Square has been hijacked by the politically motivated and the deliberately violent.

At least for the moment, the catharsis of a nation seems to have been abruptly ended, incomplete.

 

Jyoti Malhotra is a political and foreign affairs analyst based in Delhi

On Twitter: @jomalhotra

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