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Bangladesh: On the Verge of 1971 Closure

The execution of Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) Assistant General Secretary Abdul Quader Molla on December 12, may be a watershed in the political life of Bangladesh. This comes just before the celebration of victory day “December 16” when the occupying Pakistani army surrendered to the Indian army in Dhaka in 1971. On December 13 that year, the Pakistani army and their Bangladeshi collaborators (JEI) known as Razakars, decided to execute top Bengalee intellectuals who they believed instigated the “independence from Pakistan” movement.

Immediately after liberation, the JEI was banned in Bangladesh. This was done following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Raheman by a group of young army officers, with major backing from several quarters inside and outside Bangladesh. Inside Bangladesh, Gen. Zia-ur-Rehman was a central figure in the conspiracy along with Trojans horses like Khondakar Mustaque and Taheruddin Thakur inside the ruling Awami League, which led the freedom movement. Zia became President and rehabilitated the JEI politically. He also formed his own party, the BNP. Obviously, the close relationship between the BNP and the JEI is not surprising.

When the Awami League returned to power in 2009 with an unprecedented majority in an election recognized by all as free and fair, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed made two promises to the people. One, perpetrators of crimes against humanity in 1971 would be brought to justice. Second, terrorism would be eradicated from Bangladesh.

Sk. Hasina’s second promise was achieved with a lot of effort. She became one of the leading figures in the world fighting terrorism. But terrorism, especially terrorism promoting religious extremism, is difficult to root out permanently. Religious extremism and terrorism are closely linked to the JEI and sections of the BNP. If the Awami League and its alliance partners are defeated in the coming general elections, it can be said for sure religious extremism and terrorism will return.

The bigger challenge, however, was to bring the 1971 mass murderers to justice. For one, the JEI and it students’ wing, Islamic Chaatra Shibir (ICS), had established themselves across the country and were in power in alliance with the BNP (2001-2006). This was a cruel irony of fate for Bangladesh. The killers of 1971, though vanquished, returned to rule over the victors. They had managed to sabotage liberation. They also remained linked to their old mentors in Pakistan as seen in post Qader Molla execution statements from JEI Pakistan and Pakistan’s government leaders. Interior Minister Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan expressed “deep grief” and concern over the execution of Qader Molla, adding he was undoubtedly hanged because of his loyalty to and solidarity with Pakistan in 1971. Officially, however, Pakistan treated the issue as an internal affair of Bangladesh. Khan called the action an effort to revive old wounds.

There are eight others in line to be executed. One of them is Salauddin Qader Choudhary (SQC), who was an advisor with a cabinet rank in Begum Khaleda Zia’ government. His father, the late Fazlul Qader Choudhary was with the Pakistanis, and SQC himself worked with Razakars. A shipping magnate, it is alleged he used one of his ships in 2004 to land the ten truckloads of illegal arms and ammunition in Chittagong, destined for Indian insurgents especially the United Liberation front of Assam (ULFA).

Sk. Hasina set up two International Crimes Tribunals (ICTs) which held open hearings to try these cases. Eye witnesses presented evidence. There were documented evidence against the culprits, including writings by some young Pakistani army officers who served in Bangladesh at that time. In his book “Witness to Surrender”, Major (Rtd) Siddiq Salik has descried some of these activities.

The work of the tribunals have faced many criticism but at the end of the day countries and groups like the European Union have accepted the process. US secretary of State Kerry again asked Sk. Hasina on the process following Qader Molla’s execution, but seemed satisfied with the explanation. At the end of the discussion over telephone, Kerry appreciated the development path implemented by the present government, expressed concerns over terrorism, and assured continuing US support to Bangladesh.

The European Union was concerned about the execution as they have abolished the death sentence, and are also in the forefront in human rights issues. The experience of World War-II and the holocaust changed the mindset. During the cold war the NATO and Warsaw Pact members were armed to destroy the entire world many times over. These experiences sobered the European countries and made them respect human rights. But in their efforts, the EU failed to make any major dent on China’s human rights, where execution is a normal affair. China holds the key to EU’s economic stability and hence cannot be talked down to.

Execution is still very much in existence in the US. The US concern over Qader Molla’s execution was much more political. Kerry expressed his concern that the execution will disturb the elections and cause further instability.

But the point is that the elections slated for January 05 next is under threat for reasons other than Qader Molla. The opposition alliance led by the BNP demands elections conducted by a caretaker government, a provision introduced in 1996 in the constitution which was removed in 2011 by the present government, following the mess made by the caretaker government in 2006.

Leaving aside 1971 to 1975 when the US stood against the liberation of Bangladesh, otherwise known as the break up of Pakistan, the US policy in Bangladesh continues to be somewhat curious. US diplomats and the intelligence community, especially the CIA, have declined to see the JEI as terrorist inclined despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. This only suggests looking at circumstantial evidence, that they want to hold up the JEI Bangladesh as a moderate Islamic political party, friendly to the USA, and that USA is not against Islam, an image that jehadis and terrorists of the middle east and north Africa have projected.

It is well known that the US has packed the biggest guns and bags full of money, and its sense of hubris has pushed it to intervene in foreign countries and change regimes. Unfortunately, American foreign policy executors whether overt or covert, pay scant time to learn the history, culture and tradition of Asian and African countries to appreciate that sense and sensibilities.

The US concept of “good Taliban and bad Taliban”, or recruiting “moderate” salafist – jihadists in Syria for its fight against the Al Qaida, is deeply flawed. These policies do not work, and seen time and again, they explode. Iraq is a country today where people die every day in sectarian conflicts and has become a haven for terrorists.

What the people of Bangladesh suffered in 1971 is still bleeding them. The pain of 1971 can be brought to some closure if the main culprits are brought to justice according to the laws of the land. Outsiders cannot imagine the sufferings in almost every Bangladeshi have, with 10 million refugees fleeing to India. World War II created 6 million refugees.

The JEI, which refuses to comply with the constitution of the country and its electoral laws, have resorted to rampaging, killing innocent man women and children are nothing other than terrorists.

If elections have to be postponed for this reason, so be it, but 1971 must be brought to a closure.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail

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