The long healing of 1971

As Bangladesh attempts to memorialise a bitter past, the government’s moves to address the growing cries for justice and reparation have deepened the fault lines at a time when it is already grappling with extremism and terror, reports Suhasini Haidar

Updated - April 08, 2017 05:29 pm IST

Published - April 08, 2017 12:02 am IST

New foot soldiers: “We don’t fear bullets and bombs, we are all part of Mujib’s army,” shouts a  student ... And that’s when it strikes you… it is no longer 1971 but 2017. The canteen at Dhaka University, run by Madhusudan Dey’s son, and who witnessed the Dhaka University massacre, remains a focal point for student protests.

New foot soldiers: “We don’t fear bullets and bombs, we are all part of Mujib’s army,” shouts a student ... And that’s when it strikes you… it is no longer 1971 but 2017. The canteen at Dhaka University, run by Madhusudan Dey’s son, and who witnessed the Dhaka University massacre, remains a focal point for student protests.

It is the morning of March 28 and there is a sea of students milling around the canteen of Dhaka University. They encircle the iconic building, making their way to Madhur Canteen (Madhu’s canteen). “ Pakistani Razakar, ei muhurtey Bangla chad (O collaborators of Pakistan, leave Bangladesh this minute), Pakistani pretata Pakistaney choley jao (O ghosts of Pakistan, go back),” they shout, reaching a crescendo in the yard outside the canteen. As the chants of “Direct Action” grow louder and louder, one could almost be forgiven for imagining being transported 45 years back in time, to 1971, when rivers of blood flowed through the university.

On March 25 that year, at the beginning of a crackdown called “Operation Searchlight”, Pakistan Army troops stormed this campus, killing professors and students in house after house, classroom after classroom, hostel after hostel. The brutality of the operation was immortalised by singer Joan Baez, who protested U.S. support to Pakistan at the time in ‘Song of Bangladesh’: “The soldiers came and shot them in their beds / And terror took the dorm awakening shrieks of dread / And silent frozen forms and pillows drenched in red.”

Madhusudan Dey, or ‘Madhu da’ as he was known to all at Dhaka University, was picked out specifically, not just because he was a Hindu, but because his canteen was the meeting ground for the student league leaders rebelling against West Pakistan. In the 1940s, the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was a regular here too, and legend has it that Madhu da’s book of outstanding bills included an amount against Mujib too.


The soldiers killed Madhu da’s wife and a son first, and then dragged him out of his home, to the Jagannath Hall playground, near where we stand watching protests, and executed him along with several students.

Today the canteen, run by a son, who witnessed the university massacre, remains a focal point for students’ protests. The entire ceiling length of the room, once a long ice-skating rink, is painted with the Bangladesh flag: a deep forest green with a single red sun in the middle of it, that one has to crane one’s neck to see properly. And in the yard outside, a bust of Madhusudan Dey stands in his memory.

Bhoy kurina guli boma, amraa shobai Mujib sena (We don’t fear bullets and bombs, we are all part of Mujib’s army),” shouts 19-year-old Lipi Akhter, who commandeers the girls into the canteen to discuss further protests planned over a cup of tea.

And that’s when it strikes you… it is no longer 1971 but 2017. ‘Mujib’s sena’ is the ''army of Bangladesh'', and it has been nearly half a century since the nation was liberated. The ‘direct action’ the students are demanding instead is for a crackdown against terrorist groups, including the Neo-Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (Neo JMB) that is responsible for the recent three-day shootout in Sylhet and accused of carrying out last year’s Islamic State inspired Dhaka café siege in which 22 people were killed.

Some students go further in their slogans, linking the terrorists to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami, conflating all ‘anti-secular’ forces into the enemy. “We want to be safe,” says Lipi. “Our fight is against jangibadis (extremists), and every generation of Bangladeshis has had to fight them in some way or another.”


The pain of the past

It is this narrative that has most driven the discourse in Bangladesh in the past few decades, as it struggles with the wounds of its post partition history, its liberation war, and the military rule that followed the assassination of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s father Mujib and most of her family in 1975.

Each tragic and gruesome chapter has eclipsed the nation’s ability to fully deal with the one before: West Pakistan’s brutal attempt to colonise the East with its military regime, subversion of its ruling classes and its language ended in 1971, but only after a genocide that saw 4% of Bangladesh wiped out by Pakistani troops and their paramilitary forces called the Razakars who together are held responsible for the death of three million, and the rape of more than 200,000 women in the period between March 1971 and December 1971.

Bangladesh barely had the chance to savour its liberation or celebrate its President and leader Mujib, when members of its army carried out a coup on August 15, 1975, killing every member of his family across three homes in Dhaka: Mujib, his wife, sons, including Hasina’s youngest brother Russell, who was all of 10 years old.

The assassination, which Hasina escaped as she was abroad, paved the way for more assassinations and a series of military rulers who sought to wipe out the official history of the liberation war, until a parliamentary system was restored in the early 1990s. These rulers, including current opposition leader and former PM Khaleda Zia’s husband Gen. Ziaur Rahman, didn’t just erase the history, they set Bangladesh on an Islamist course, and moved the country away from its left-wing secular past, and from India, which had played a pivotal role in the liberation.

“The war was the greatest moment in every Bengali’s life, but the war was being lost from memory,” describes 72-year-old Ziauddin Tariq Ali, a former Muktijoddha (freedom fighter), of the school textbooks, newspaper narratives and official accounts of the time. “We fought for liberation, and now we were struggling to remind people of what we had done,” he adds.

Museum of memories

In 1994, Ziauddin and a few other Muktijoddhas decided to set up a museum to the cause. The Liberation War Museum in Segun Bagicha, Dhaka, had humble beginnings, which coincided with Hasina’s first term in power in 1996.

Ziauddin and the others then set about collating what they could of the past, recreating through memories what was erased from evidence. Over the years they have built up an impressive collection of documents, official letters, photographs and military transcripts piecing together Bangladesh’s war. Ziauddin says only half their funds came from the government, as ordinary people donated the rest for the museum or “Jadughor”, which will move to a massive new complex in Agargaon on April 16.

Families of Muktijoddhas have donated personal diaries, weapons, blood-stained clothes and other documents they had as keepsakes of lost loved ones. Over 40,000 schoolchildren helped with a unique project: each of them interviewed parents and grandparents who had survived the war and the genocide, and wrote accounts that contributed to an oral history project.

The most horrifying, yet important exhibit is that of the skulls and bones recovered from mass graves, some from right in the heart of Dhaka’s Mirpur area. The effort is not just one of remembrance, but in order to ensure future generations acknowledge the past, says Ziauddin.

To that end, the government’s Information and Communication Technology Department has gone virtually, and quite literally into the past, as no memorabilia can: with a series of video games that allow you to be a Muktijoddha killing Pakistani officers.

Inaugurated by Hasina’s son, Sajeeb ‘Joy’ Wazed, who is her adviser on IT, the latest in the series “Heroes of 1971: Retaliation” features Anila, a gun-toting, knife-wielding young woman who helps the other freedom fighters liberate women from a torture camp run by Pakistani troops, and blow up key bridges.

Others virtually train you to be a Mukti Bahini cadre, taking you from level 1 where you ambush and kill soldiers to level 8, where you blow up key bridges and Pakistani bases. The series has seen millions of downloads in the past two years, mainly by teenagers and young Bangladeshis, and is considered one of the most popular video games in the country.

“Without knowing our history, we cannot have a future,” says student Bijoy Haldar emphatically, when asked why all this harking back to a history half a century ago is necessary.

Endless cycle of revenge

Clearly, remembrance is only part of the effort, as the success of the video games series indicates. Many Bangladeshis want both reparations and revenge as well.

Perhaps the most contentious project in this effort, one which sears many homes across the country even today, is that of the ongoing International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic tribunal tasked to dispense justice to about 1,600 war criminals identified by an enquiry. Its verdicts have already sent six men, mostly political leaders of Jamaat and the BNP, to the gallows since 2009. In 2010, five ex-army officers were also hanged for Mujib’s assassination.

The hangings have had street backing: in 2013, hundreds of thousands gathered in Dhaka’s Shahbag Square, demanding all those convicted of war crimes be hanged. The picture was vivid, and the contrasts stark: even as students and protesters sang songs praising the Bangla ethos of plurality, of harmony and love, they took out marches holding nooses in their hands, recreating a mock gallows on a stage next to their protests as they chanted “ Phansi chai, phansi chai ” (Hang them, hang them). I remember a young journalist at the Shahbag protest rejecting the idea there was any contradiction in the two streams. “No Bangladeshi family was untouched by what happened,” he said, adding, “Remember, for us, liberation was also a second Partition, in terms of the killings, and everyone knows what each of these Razakars did.”

Even a suggestion that the demand to hang those accused, most of whom are well into their seventies, maybe seen as ‘bloodthirsty’, gets Ziauddin visibly agitated. “I resent the thought, and am shocked that anyone would see our search for justice for the atrocities perpetrated by Pakistan as anything but fair. That is an insult to three million Bangladeshis, and only those who haven’t lost anyone in the war can make it,” he says, angrily.

From the time Ziauddin and other Muktijoddhas began the plan for the war liberation museum, Dhaka has seen more than seven other museums built, each on the foundation of this sense of injustice.

The strength of those feelings ensures that very few inside Bangladesh publicly question the effectiveness of the trials, despite the fact that most of the main figures responsible for carrying out the atrocities either fled to Pakistan, or were allegedly allowed passage in the tripartite agreement of 1974, or are dead.

India has stood steadfastly by Bangladesh and Prime Minister Hasina on the issue, but countries like the U.K., the U.S. and others in the Islamic world led by Pakistan have also asked about the fairness of the trial process, where evidence mostly rests on testimonials. In the trial of former BNP minister and seven-term MP Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, for example, the prosecution presented 41 witnesses, while his defence was restricted to four. When he was sentenced to death, his wife pleaded that Chowdhury, whose father was the Speaker of Pakistan’s Assembly pre-liberation, was studying in Lahore during the war. But in its 172-page verdict the tribunal rejected that, detailing charges of torture and murder of 200 people, mostly Hindu, including the killing of well-known philanthropist Nutan Chandra Sinha, whose family members testified against Chowdhury. He was executed in November 2015.

There are others one meets: civil society activists, lawyers and journalists who echo the same sentiment, but will not want to be identified saying it publicly, for fear of being painted traitors to the cause.

Threat of Islamic radicalisation

At the same time, the threat of Islamic radicalisation threatens the civil society too. This has taken a vicious and violent form since 2013, when five ‘bloggers’ or writers against religious extremism have been hacked to death by machete wielding gangs that were able to attack with impunity.

As they did during Partition, and 1971, minority Hindus have borne the brunt of the violence, and in 2016 thousands were forced to flee their homes in eastern Bangladesh’s Nazirnagar after mobs set them on fire, demolishing temples and assaulting priests.

“Within Bangladesh we have been embroiled in a civil war post 1975. There have also always been external influences that have fuelled this civil war,” says former Ambassador Tariq Karim. Some of it is political, no doubt. “Sheikh Hasina is convinced 200% that Khaleda Zia’s husband either knew about her father’s killing or ordered it. On her part, Zia accuses Hasina of being involved in the plot to assassinate her husband General Ziaur Rahman. They are both bound by these very strong bonds of revenge and it seems hard to see any way out for them,” he adds.

In the narrative of secular and pluralistic Bangladesh, there is now little difference between Mujib’s assassins, the opposition parties, Islamist extremists, terror groups and the ‘Razakars’ of the Pakistani Army — they have all been conflated together.

“Terrorists, Jamaatis, all are inspired by the same kind of jangibad (extremism),” explains 18-year-old Samia, who is studying for her degree in Islamic Studies at Dhaka University.

Finally, many say it is impossible to heal without a proper apology from the Pakistani government and army for the atrocities.

Pakistan has, however, remained in denial of the genocide, apart from a half acknowledgement by President Pervez Musharraf in 2002 during a visit to Dhaka, when he regretted “the excesses committed during the unfortunate period” and asked Bangladeshis to “bury the past”.

I ask Ziauddin Tariq Ali what a final reconciliation will take, given that the memorial he and his fellow fighters dreamed of will be opened next week, the war crimes trials are ongoing, and an effort is now underway to declare March 25 the “International Day of Genocide” by the United Nations. “For my generation and perhaps the next generation, it is simply not possible. But perhaps by educating the generation after that, showing them what justice means, and teaching them that histories can’t be forgotten, we have some chance of peace,” he says.

( The writer travelled to Dhaka as part of a media delegation hosted by the Bangladesh government ).

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