The war between East and West Pakistan in 1971 lasted only nine months. But the atrocities were cowering – an estimated three million people dead, 400,000 women raped, 600,000 children killed, and scores of targeted intellectuals slaughtered in an attempt to cripple East Pakistan’s social and cultural backbone.
Besides politics, atrocities against the people of East Pakistan by the West Pakistani army stemmed from ethnic hatred. In his book, Death by Government, R. J. Rummel wrote, “Bengalis were often compared with monkeys and chickens.” It was a statement West Pakistani General Niazi once made about how he viewed the people of East Pakistan. The dead are long gone. But many of the rape victims still bear scars from shame and loss of their dignity. The government of Pakistan has not yet apologized for its crime against humanity, much less has it shown any remorse for the rape victims. Former Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf came close to apologizing for the atrocities of 1971.
During his visit to the National War Memorial in Savar, a city 50 km from Dhaka, in 2002, he merely expressed his regrets for the “excesses committed” by the West Pakistan army. That was about as close as the Pakistani government came to offering penitence for the horrific acts of 1971. Soon after the war, West Pakistan published a report on the 1971 war. While the report acknowledged that the West Pakistan army took part in “senseless” and “deliberate” killings of the civilians, businessmen, intellectuals, and Hindus and “raping” of a “large number” of East Pakistani women as an act of “revenge,” it deliberately justified their acts. It also blamed Awami League, the political party that advocated for an independent East Pakistan, for the “provocation” of the West Pakistan army to commit these “alleged” acts.
The report cites: “Some of the incidents alleged by those authorities did not take place at all, and on others fanciful interpretations have been deliberately placed for the purpose of maligning the Pakistan army and gaining world sympathy. We have also found that the strong provocation was offered to the army owing to the misdeeds of the Awami League. It has also been stated that use of force was undoubtedly inherent in the military action required to restore the authority of the Federal Government.”
Rancor between Bangladesh and Pakistan over the bitterly fought war and the subsequent division of the two countries cannot be denied. Moreover, the citizens of both countries struggle to find solace from their own struggles for democracy. Pakistan is embroiled in a chaotic political mess with the U.S. over Afghanistan and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Bangladesh, on the other hand, continues to manumit from its weak governance and corruption.
Harboring a decades-long resentment and anger is not going to solve the rift between the two countries. Bangladesh needs to work with the international community to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 1971 war based on evidence and facts, not on the manifestation of moral indignation. Pakistan must recognize that there must be consequences for the atrocities of the war.
That said, the current Bangladeshi government of Sheikh Hasina has been actively advocating for bringing the war criminals to justice since she came to power in 2008 by a landslide victory in a historic democratically-held election. Her government is hell-bent to make this is a national issue. During the tumultuous periods of the mid-70s, the corrupt governance of the 1980s, and the military rulings of the 1990s, the issue of bringing the war criminals to justice remained virtually unnoticed in the national agenda. But that may change.
The United Nations recently agreed to assist Bangladesh with the trial of the war criminals. The Law Minister of Bangladesh assured that the UN will provide “assistance for the trial of hundreds of alleged war criminals.” According to a report by One World South Asia, an independent war committee in Bangladesh identified more than 1500 war criminals who collaborated with the Pakistani army in the killings of the intellectuals and the civilians. The Pakistani government remains silent. It has yet to make a formal statement of apology. Further, Pakistan has failed to provide any “form of compensation for the harm inflicted or for rehabilitation purposes, to the State of Bangladesh or to any of the victims.”
Susan Brownmiller, an American feminist, described the horrors and magnitude of the raping of Bangladeshi women during the war. She wrote, “Accepting even the lowest set of figures for Bangladesh forces a horrifying comparison — the 1992-95 Bosnian war saw one-tenth the number of rapes as did the Bangladesh war.” The rape of Bosnian women during the war in 1992-95 has become a standard of crimes as humanity. Yet, the rape victims of Bangladesh are still waiting for justice. No one has ever been convicted – not yet.
Late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Founding Father of Bangladesh and father of Prime Minister Hasina, tried to restore the dignity of the rape victims by pronouncing them “war heroines” of Bangladesh. It was a noble effort. But it failed largely because the rape victims were “completely ostracized by the society.” Some women even wanted to go back to Pakistan to escape humiliation from our own fervid society.
It would be utterly unacceptable, after more than 40 years since the independence, not to have abrogated the stigma and indifference towards the vilifying acts of war. The victims of war deserve an apology and legal and financial restitution. The perpetrators deserve an absolution but not without consequences for their actions.