12:00 AM, January 14, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 14, 2012

Commentary

Underlying meaning of war crimes trial

Giving Sheikh Hasina her due

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Mahfuz Anam

The arrest of Ghulam Azam marks a significant step forward in the trial of those accused of crimes against humanity. It is our hope and expectation that the trial will meet the highest standards of law and fairness. For this, as a Bangladeshi, as a Bangalee, and as someone who had the honour of being one among millions to have joined the Liberation War in 1971, I am, and I am sure millions like me, are most deeply grateful to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and proud of what she has done.
Those of us, who had the singular privilege of being involved in the independence war, are witness to the fact that with the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975 a deliberate deconstruction of the history of our independence war was set afoot.
To justify Sheikh Mujib's assassination, what he stood for and what he achieved -- the biggest of which was founding the state of Bangladesh -- had to be destroyed, or at the minimum, distorted. As dismantling the new born state was neither possible nor would it be acceptable to the people, so a state sponsored campaign was launched to distort the history of the greatest moment of the nation's existence, and the most treasured moment of the lives of those who participated in it -- namely our Liberation War.
Perhaps the most painful distortion was to deprive ourselves and our children from knowing about the great mass struggle that led to our birth, and about which country and whose army carried out the most heinous genocide of our people. So the name of Pakistan simply disappeared from the narratives of Liberation War. The soldiers who killed our people were termed "hanadar bahini" (attacking army) without any identification of who they were and where they came from. As if they dropped from the sky without any cultural, national, or political identity. Not only the identity but also the full description of what the so-called "hanadar bahini" did was removed from the accounts of the 1971 war. This we sight as a concrete example of how deep the attempt was to prevent our knowing of the truth.
Similarly those who opposed Bangladesh's liberation war were depicted as actually opposing Indian aggression, and not the legitimate aspiration of the Bangla speaking people of the then Pakistan. According to this version of "history" Jamaat-e-Islami was not a party holding the hands of killers who butchered the people of future Bangladesh, but protectors of the sovereignty of Pakistan. In this narrative the brutal suppression of the Bangla speaking people of the then East Pakistan, the genocide, the rapes, the destruction of homes and properties, stories of hundreds of bodies with hands tied at the back floating in rivers were totally removed, and replaced by stories of how the Indian army waged a war against Pakistan and took over its eastern wing.
It was even propagated that the killing of intellectuals on December 14, 1971 -- just two days before Bangladesh was to be born -- was carried out by Indian spies to intellectually dominate the new country.
However, the distortion of Bangalee culture started much earlier, from the very birth of Pakistan, when attempt was made to impose Urdu as the only national language. It was propagated that Bangalee culture and music, Bangalee dress, Bangalee traditions, in fact everything that had to do with our Bangalee identity, were all Hindu in origin. All of those needed to be shunned if we wanted to lead a pious Islamic life.
I remember hearing from my father how every attempt to demand our cultural, linguistic, economic and social rights were depicted as attempt by Indian agents to weaken Pakistan. As young students we remember hearing them also. As freedom fighters we used to hear the same thing over Pakistan Radio and in the speeches of the leaders of Jamaat and the so-called Peace Committees during the nine months that the war lasted.
In our wildest of nightmares we never thought we would hear it in post liberation Bangladesh. However, with greatest of pain we had to listen to such narratives in independent Bangladesh following the killing of Bangabandhu. From 1975 till 1996 this narrative, this falsehood, this distortion, this outrage continued.
We are justly proud of the defeat of autocracy and restoration of democracy in 1991. But even the democratically elected government of Khaleda Zia did not restore the proper narrative of our Liberation War. To the best of my knowledge even during 1991-1996, when BNP was in power, mentioning Pakistan and its army as the perpetrators of genocide was not permitted and the "hanadar bahini" narrative continued.
One does not have to hate Pakistan (in fact this writer only hates the Pakistan of 1971 and not the Pakistan of today) to mention that it was its army of 1971 that carried out the most heinous crime against our people. Do the French, the Poles, the Czechs, the English, other Europeans, or the Americans not mention the Nazis being Germans, and write history and make films of what atrocities they committed? This they did and do, in spite of their closest of relationships with Germany in the post Second World War era. So why did the regime of Gen Ziaur Rahman, HM Ershad, and Khaleda Zia shy away from acknowledging what was a fact of history, and matter of tragedy on one hand and pride on the other? Why did they continue to subscribe to the distortion of the greatest moment of our history? What sort of inferiority complex, and slave mentality made them disown the proudest moment of our history? We will wait for experts to give us the answer.
But meanwhile we know that it was only after the election of Awami League government, and Sheikh Hasina becoming the prime minister that Liberation War and the narratives of 1971 found their proper place. There are distortions in the AL narratives also -- like Tajuddin, Syed Nazrul Islam, Mansur Ali, and many other war heroes not being given their due honour. But that is a different debate and we will argue it separately.
Today, as a national of an independent Bangladesh and as a freedom fighter I am proud that we are able to put on trial those people who opposed our freedom, and our right to be ourselves. And in trying to deprive us of that right they did not hesitate to kill our people including women and children, and burn our homes and properties. What they were fundamentally trying to do was to destroy our very essence of being. Even after our birth as a nation, these people carried out international campaigns to prevent our recognition, so that we could not receive the support and assistance for our growth and prosperity. In fact they never gave up trying to destroy us.
As we know from our recent past, under no other leadership would we have the trial of war criminals and of those who committed crimes against humanity. For this we thank you, Sheikh Hasina.

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