Students sing Bangladesh’s national anthem as they attend a mass demonstration at Shahbagh intersection in Dhaka, demanding capital punishment for those accused of war crimes in the War of Liberation. (Photo: Reuters)
| 3 min read

1970 Bangladesh War Trials: Justice, Revenge, History and Acrimony

On December 16, 1971 Pakistan surrendered to India. But before the victory, there was a civil war and a genocide, the ripples of which are being felt both within and outside Bangladesh even today.

In the 1970 Pakistan elections, the pro-Bangladesh Awami League, with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as its leader, emerged as the single largest party. The military and political establishment in Islamabad did not respect the verdict and a brutal regime of oppression followed.

Operation Searchlight and the Fight For Independence

The government in West Pakistan launched ‘Operation Searchlight’ in East Pakistan – what is now Bangladesh. From March 1971, military juntas and radical groups like the Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams were called in to ‘assist’ the military to eradicate ‘traitors’.

Members of Bangladesh Muktijoddha Sangsad, a welfare association for combatants who fought during the war for independence from Pakistan in 1971 demand that Jamaat-e-Islami leaders accused of war crimes be hanged. (Photo: Reuters)
Members of Bangladesh Muktijoddha Sangsad, a welfare association for combatants who fought during the war for independence from Pakistan in 1971 demand that Jamaat-e-Islami leaders accused of war crimes be hanged. (Photo: Reuters)

What followed was a brutal genocide against the Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan. While Pakistan government estimates put the death toll at about 26,000, other estimates by noted academics have pegged the number at as high as 3,00,000. There was violence across the country, from Dhaka to the countryside. In a particularly brutal incident, about 700 students at the University of Dhaka were murdered.

In retaliation, there was also violence against the Urdu-speaking population of Bihari-origin in Bangladesh.

Peaceful Protests Demand a Hanging, Religious Radicals Want the Opposite

Cut to 2008. The Awami League wins the election in Bangladesh and Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister decides to make good on her campaign promise to form a tribunal to convict war criminals involved in Operation Searchlight. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) is formed in 2009 to punish those that assisted the Pakistan establishment with the genocide.

Police try to stop a rally as protesters try to surround and block access to the High Commission of Pakistan in Dhaka December 2013. (Photo: Reuters)       
Police try to stop a rally as protesters try to surround and block access to the High Commission of Pakistan in Dhaka December 2013. (Photo: Reuters)      

Among those first convicted, were members of the Pakistani military, now out of reach of the Bangladesh authorities.

However, the ICT isn’t just dealing with a historical problem. The Jamaat-e-Islami, a major opposition party, had its roots in the pro-Pakistan radical groups – the Razakaars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams.

By February 2013, 12 leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami were convicted of war crimes. Among them was Abul Kader Mullah, who was sentenced to life in prison for murder, rape and torture. Abul Kalam Azad, a former chief of the Jamaat was sentenced to death in absentia.

Protests from workers and supporters of the Islamist party engulfed Bangladesh. Many began calling the ICT a witch-hunt to target political foes.

Then a peaceful student protest began in Dhaka’s Shahbag Square. These young people wanted the death penalty for those they believed tortured, raped, maimed and murdered their countrymen. Many of those leading and organising these protest were young bloggers, who used the internet to spread their message.

Pakistan Unhappy: An Opportunity for India?

The ICT’s trials and executions are still on, and Pakistan for one isn’t too happy about the way they are going. After all, one of the main themes of the entire process is the state-sponsored genocide that Pakistan unleashed on its own territory.

On November 22 this year the Pakistan Foreign Office put out a statement questioning the executions of Nationalist Party leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Jamaat-e-Islami secretary general Ali Ahsan Mohommad.

We have noted with deep concern and anguish the unfortunate executions of the Bangladesh National Party Leader, Mr. Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury and Mr Ali Ahsan Mujahid.
Qazi Khalilullah, Spokesman, Pakistan Foreign Office

Bangladesh has retaliated by summoning the Pakistan envoy in Dhaka and asking them not to “interfere in Bangladesh’s internal affairs”.

One expert in the region put it succinctly,

The ICT has brought up old wounds for Bangladesh, wounds it is trying to heal. India has been silent, rightly so, on this matter. If Pakistan continues to alienate our eastern neighbour, it can only further improve our diplomatic and strategic relationship.