As the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal continues to award death sentences in quick succession to those who committed heinous crimes against humanity during Bangladesh’s war of Independence, I wanted to share why this saga offers hope for all countries of the South Asian region.
The story starts in 1971 when the Islamist forces in Bangladesh – namely the Al-Shams, Al-Badr and the ‘Razakars’ colluded with the Pakistan army to unleash an orgy of terror on anyone remotely supporting the idea of Bangladesh. An estimated 5 million people were killed and over 940 mass graves have been located thus far.
Even after independence, the perpetrators continued to enjoy some popular backing and became a part of a political party – the ultra radical Jamaat-e-Islami. Since the 1980s, JeI has continued to align with the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and has had ministers in the two governments led by Khaleda Zia of the BNP. This period saw a tremendous growth of radical elements culminating in the black year of 2005, when several bomb attacks were orchestrated throughout the country. The Awami League website gives a detailed chronological account of these attacks here.
Things turned around in 2008 when the Awami League made ‘initiation of the trial on the 1971 war criminals’ as its principal election manifesto. The Jamaat-e-Islami was thoroughly rejected by the voters and it won a total of 2 seats. The Bangladeshi voters gave a decisive mandate to bring the war criminals to justice. The Awami League led alliance won a two-thirds majority in the Jatiyo Sansad. I feel this was a victory for the moderate voices in the country battered by terrorism. During the terrible days of 2005, it felt as if Bangladesh would become a second Pakistan – a nation being run and ruined at the same time by the radical elements, but things have changed for the better. As the South Asia Terrorism Portal’s 2013 assessment notes, the number of deaths due to Islamist Terrorism have significantly and consistently declined since the terror filled days of 2005.
Things came to a boil further when the tribunal started conducting trials and awarding punishments to the war criminals. The moderate educated class and the fundamentalists once again were at loggerheads in 2013 after Abdul Quader Mollah known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ was handed over a life sentence by the tribunal. The Shahbag protestors demanded capital punishment and a ban of the Jamaat and its affiliates from Bangladeshi protests. This movement witnessed tremendous participation by women, young online activists and moderate thinkers. To oppose this movement, the Jamaat held counter-demonstrations and once again unleashed terror.
On September 17th, 2013 the life imprisonment of Mollah was converted to a death sentence. On October 1st 2013, Salauddin Chowdhary, a leader of the BNP was awarded death sentence too, sparking fears of further tensions on the streets.
What happens in the future remains to be seen, but at this moment I want to congratulate the Bangladesh people for taking a stance against the radical elements of the society. The BNP, which until a few years back, openly backed Mollah, was forced to silence, sensing a popular mood against the radicals.
However, I fear that the intense rivalry between the Awami League and the BNP might undermine the legitimacy of the tribunal and its verdicts. If the government manages to convince the people about the fairness of the trials, Bangladesh may well be on the process of deradicalization.
For now, the conviction offers hope to the other nations of South Asia.