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The Politics of Bangladesh’s Genocide Debate

By David Bergman

April 5, 2016

In 1971, Bengali nationalists and the people of what was then called East Pakistan waged a war of independence against the Pakistani Army. The conflict culminated in the birth of a new nation, Bangladesh. The war, which lasted nine months, was a brutal one: Depending on the source, some 300,000 to three million people were killed, and millions were displaced.

There is no question that there were many atrocities, including rape, deportation and massacres of civilians, carried out by the Pakistani Army, aided at times by pro-Pakistani militias. Some of these included members of the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that remains a powerful force in Bangladesh today. There is an academic consensus that this campaign of violence, particularly against the Hindu population, was a genocide.

In the decades since the war, there have been efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice. The most recent attempt started in 2010, when the current government established two International Crimes Tribunals that together have convicted 26 people on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. International human rights organizations have criticized the tribunals as falling far short of proper due process, but the trials appear popular within Bangladesh.

So far, four men have been executed, including three leaders from Jamaat-e-Islami and one leader of the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Most of the others are on death row, awaiting the outcome of appeals.

To the government of the Awami League, the party that originally spearheaded the campaign for independence, the genocide of three million Bengalis is a foundational element of the struggle for national liberation. For many, particularly Awami League supporters, to allow any equivocation about the numbers of victims in the 1971 war is to open the door to the apologists for Pakistan and the enemies of Bangladeshi independence.

The three million figure is totemic, which is one reason that, in February, the Bangladesh Law Commission opened consultation on a draft law called the Liberation War Denial Crimes Act. The proposed legislation uses the precedent of the Holocaust denial laws enacted in Europe after World War II.

Some of the proposed offenses are so broad that they would significantly hinder free speech and stifle legitimate historical research. The proposal would outlaw the “inaccurate” representation of war history and “malicious” statements in the press that “undermine any events” related to the war. Efforts to “trivialize” information related to the killing of civilians during the war would also be forbidden; this would almost certainly be used to prosecute anyone who questioned the official death toll.

Even before this legislative plan, there was a clear drift toward censorship here. In 2014, I was prosecuted for contempt of court in relation to a blog post written three years earlier looking at the research into war casualties. While the International Crimes Tribunal did not convict me for that offense (though it did for other articles), the court ruled that the number of three million dead “is now settled” and that “the issue of ‘death figure in 1971’ involves highest sacrosanct emotion of the nation.”

More recently, a sedition case was filed by an Awami League activist against Khaleda Zia, the leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, because of a speech she gave in December. “There is a debate about how many hundreds of thousands were martyred in the liberation war,” she said. “Different books give different accounts.”

For this, Ms. Khaleda was strongly criticized. Mofidul Hoque, a trustee of the Liberation War Museum, said that her “comment shows utter disrespect to the millions who laid down their lives and perished in the black hole of genocide in 1971.” Although it is difficult to see how her comment could amount to sedition, the government has given a go-ahead to the legal action.

Where does the truth about the numbers lie? The three million figure was popularized by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the leader of the Awami League in 1971, the country’s first president and the father of the current prime minister. Mujib, as he is popularly known, is a revered figure, particularly within the Awami League. But his biographer, Sayyid A. Karim, who was also Sheikh Rahman’s first foreign secretary, viewed the number as “a gross exaggeration.”

In his book “Sheikh Mujib: Triumph and Tragedy,” Mr. Karim reported that the prime minister’s office told him the figure was taken from Pravda, the Soviet newspaper. According to the American writer Lawrence Lifschultz, a survey by the Mujib government that was projecting a death toll of 250,000 was “abruptly shut down.”

A 1976 study in the journal Population Studies estimated that the number of deaths caused by the war was about 500,000, many as a result of disease and malnutrition. A 2008 article in The British Medical Journal concluded that the number of violent deaths during the war was about 269,000 (allowing a possible range of 125,000 to 505,000).

Many Bangladeshis sincerely believe in the three million figure, which symbolizes the huge sacrifices of the war. M. A. Hasan, convener of the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, said, “The figure of liberation war martyrs is one such issue which no one should question.”

For others, however, questions are necessary on this and other aspects of the 1971 war, including the widespread killings of members of the Bihari ethnic group, who supported the Pakistanis during the conflict, by Bengali nationalists. We should question this because nationalist narratives about the past often serve contemporary political interests, and we should beware of an orthodoxy being used to silence dissent.

Since the Awami League came to power again in 2009, it has tried to use the emotions surrounding the 1971 war to justify a move toward authoritarian one-party rule. In its version of history, only the Awami League is the party of liberation, and therefore of government, and opposition parties are branded as “pro-Pakistan,” and therefore dangerous and disloyal.

Freedom of speech in Bangladesh is already under threat both as a result of religious extremists’ murdering secular bloggers, and the government’s pressure on the independent news media (including a campaign of harassment against one newspaper editor).

The proposed genocide law might work to the political advantage of the Awami League in the short term. But in the long term, curtailing free expression for sectarian political purposes is dangerous for democracy.

David Bergman is an investigative journalist based in Bangladesh.