Each year when the month of December descends, it reminds us of the massacre at the fag end of the Liberation War.
The horror of December 14, 1971, when Jamaat, Al-Badr and Al-Shams brutally killed renowned academics, litterateurs, doctors, engineers, journalists and other eminent personalities with a view to leave the nation intellectually crippled on December 14, 2007, still rings the bell.
This story of impunity over last 35 years and the political movement in Bangladesh to bring alleged war criminals to justice remains a nebulous conclusion.
One of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's first political promises as leader of the nation was to bring to justice those who had committed war crimes during the nine months of Liberation War, in which over a million Bengalis were killed. The genocide, perpetrated by the Pakistan army, began in March '71, and ended last few days before the surrender of the Pakistan army with an attempt to eliminate the Bengali intellectual elite.
The Bangladesh state has never been able to deliver on this pledge. Initially, international pressure coupled with Sheikh Mujib's desire for “national reconciliation' contributed to its failure. Later the imposition of military rule (following Sheikh Mujib's assassination in 1975) and the re-emergence of forces in Bangladesh, which had collaborated with the Pakistan military, paralyzed any possibility of accountability for war crimes.
Is it that the blanket amnesty issued by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in January, 1972 due to the pressure from Islamic countries (including the OIC), chaotic internal situation, or the necessity to encourage peace and development steps to be considered for recognition and International Aid without which Bangladesh had the Famine of 1973-74? Whatever may be the cause, the general amnesty was the first among many political mistakes which opened the door for rehabilitation of the war criminals of 1971.
Thirty-six years on, the unsettled scores of the Liberation war continue to haunt politics in Bangladesh. One legacy of this history of impunity is the success of many alleged war criminals in acquiring positions of leadership and influence, both inside Bangladesh and within Bangladeshi communities abroad.
In 1990, with return to democracy, the nation demanded prosecution of local 'Bengali' collaborators' for war crimes resurfaced. This chimed with a new national mood that sought to recover the histories of the Liberation struggle.
The main local collaborators of Pakistan military were the followers of the Islamist group Jamaat-e-Islami. The party's support was based in part on its total antagonism to avowedly secular politics of the Awami League. During the war, the Jamaat turned its youth into armed militia, Al Badr, which hunted down supporters of the independence movement whom it identified as enemies of Islam. The slaughter of the Bengali intellectuals in the week before the surrender of the Pakistan military was its work.
The new state of Bangladesh faced demands for war crime trials of both the Pakistan army officers who were then held in India as well as their local collaborators who had failed to escape from Bangladesh. In the meantime, many of the leaders of Jamaat and Al Badr had already fled the country fearing retribution.
The few trials that did take place in Bangladesh faced international criticism for their failure to distinguish clearly between political collaboration and war crimes. In addition, two years later, Mujib issued a general amnesty for those who had committed 'political crimes'. Although this specifically excluded those involved in serious violence, in effect the whole process of accountability came to a halt.
In 1973, the government instituted new legislation in order to be able to proceed against Pakistan military officers still held in India. It allowed for war crime trials within Bangladesh and provided the Indian government with the names of the 195 officers whom Bangladesh wished to stand trial.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had declared only 195 Pakistani soldiers as war criminals in the liberation war of Bangladesh. However, by 1974, under pressure from the Indian government, which was by then seeking some sort of peace with Pakistan, and concerned about the thousands of Bangladeshis held in West Pakistan since the beginning of the war, Sheikh Mujib signed an agreement that pardoned and repatriated the 195 Pakistani soldiers through Bhutto-Indra Simla pact.
Jamaat had been constitutionally banned in Bangladesh up until 1976 since the independence of the country, until late president Ziaur Rahman, who was the chief martial law administrator at the time, reinstated it in mainstream politics despite their fundamentalist ideology. It has steadily rebuilt itself into a strong political force, and was often courted by other parties for support in elections and first came to share state power with BNP in 2001 as part of the immediate past ruling alliance.
The government ban on the Jamaat and other fundamentalist parties had made legitimate political activity impossible. Many escaped to Pakistan, some to England, others to the USA and Canada.
Any further moves by the Awami League were abruptly curtailed by the assassination of Mujib in August 1975. This led to 15 years of military dictatorship that depended for support on 'collaborationist' political forces. In 1977, General Ziaur Rahman, ironically, a celebrated freedom fighter in 1971 war, allowed the Jamat to return to active politics in Bangladesh; many of its member returned to Bangladesh, including its leader Golam Azam, who had lived the intervening years in Britain. In their interest, the true history of the liberation war was suppressed and distorted.
Although the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, Golam Azam's citizenship was revoked, the whole political scenario was changed after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. General Ziaur Rahman granted Golam Azam Bangladeshi citizenship, released all the war criminals imprisoned on various criminal charges and by amending the constitution allowed them to be involved in politics. Many of them were also awarded and posted with high designation both nationally and internationally.
In the meantime, Al Badr leaders who lived abroad established sister Jamaat organizations in their respective countries. In Britain, for instance, at least two of the leaders of Dawatul Islam were senior members of the Al Badr accused of many killings. By the early 1980s, Dawatul Islam had gained total control of the biggest mosque serving the Bangladesh community in Britain.
In an interview with a Dhaka based Bengali daily newspaper on August 8, 2007, Matiur Rahman Nizami, chief of Jamaat-e-Islami and former Industrial Minister, blasted how could they be called or accused as war criminals when none has even filed a general diary with the police against them.
When a person or a group is involved against national, racial or religious groups to destroy their political and social institutions, culture, language, national feelings, religion, economic existence, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups, what is left to mark them as war criminals?
The impunity the Jamaat has enjoyed may, however, be coming to an end. The government has initiated the trial - now in progress - of the alleged murderers of Sheikh Mujib. There is also growing support within the country for trial of Jamaat leaders who have been involved in the atrocities of 1971 and still resident in Bangladesh.
The author is a columnist and researcher.