Forty Years After Its Bloody Independence, Bangladesh Looks to Its Past to Redeem Its Future

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Bengalis wander over the grounds of a massacre near Dhaka, in newly-independent Bangladesh, December 1971.

Forty years ago on Dec. 16, in front of massed throngs in Dhaka, the commander of the eastern wing of the Pakistani army tendered his country’s unconditional surrender to an Indian counterpart. That act signaled the end of a brief war between the bitter foes and the liberation of East Pakistan, a territory ruled from Islamabad but separated by 1,000 miles of India, and its transformation into the independent state of Bangladesh. But while triumphant cries of “Jai Bangla” echoed across the new capital, they were shouted by a shell-shocked, war-ravaged people. An official in the then nascent country’s government told a TIME reporter: “It is a dream come true, but you must also remember that we went through a nightmare.”

That nightmare — more than half a year of brutal, arguably genocidal repression by the West Pakistani military against a Bengali populace seeking self-determination — claimed anywhere between one and three million lives, led to some half a million rapes and roughly ten million refugees fleeing across the western border with India. By any metric, the events that birthed Bangladesh in 1971 are among the bloodiest in the post-World War Two era.

(PHOTOS: Bangladesh and Pakistan — the forgotten war.)

Given the trauma of its founding, forty years on, Bangladesh has done fairly well for itself. Derided initially as a “basket case” state that spends half the year submerged under floodwaters, Bangladesh boasts development indicators superior to Pakistan, the country to which it was once unnaturally conjoined. Its economy grows at a healthy clip, boosted by one of the world’s most prominent textiles industry. Its women are among the most empowered in any Muslim-majority country. Its democracy, though at times dysfunctional, is still robust. (I last visited Dhaka when the military was the de facto ruling power, the main force behind a caretaker administration of technocrats that ostensibly were seeking to reform Bangladesh’s corruption-prone political parties. They bowed out following free and fair elections and, unlike in Pakistan, the army casts a far smaller shadow over politics in Dhaka.)

Yet the skeleton in Bangladesh’s closet has always been the violence of 1971. As I’ve written here, here and here, the country failed for decades to reckon with its traumatic past, a legacy of both domestic divisions and the exigencies of the Cold War — former President George H.W. Bush, the Nixon administration’s ambassador to the U.N. in 1971, denounced the Indian intervention that ended the massacres and won Bangladesh its freedom as “aggression.” (India was closer to the Soviet Union; neighboring Pakistan and China had warmer ties with Washington.) Many of Islamabad’s top military officials behind Operation Searchlight — the spectral name for West Pakistan’s campaign of slaughter — slipped away back west, exonerated by governments in Dhaka, Islamabad and New Delhi that hoped to move beyond the horrors of 1971. Others, including some of the leading Bangladeshi collaborators with West Pakistan’s military junta, remained and even managed to enter mainstream political life in Dhaka. One of them, Ali Ahsan Mojaheed, a leading member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party, told me in an interview in 2008 that the issue of war crimes was “dead” and could not be raised.

But this was a past that could not be buried, at least not in a country where virtually every household can offer tales of parents lost or disappeared, sisters raped and children murdered. It’s a black mark on the nation that only in the past year, with the return to power of the secularist Awami League — the same party that led Bangladesh’s freedom struggle in 1971 — has the country made significant progress in prosecuting four decade-old atrocities. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up a tribunal and had Mojaheed and six others arrested; most have been charged with war crimes. The international community has cautiously applauded the move, though rights groups and observers have expressed concerns about Dhaka’s reticence to allow international mediation of the proceedings. Critics within Bangladesh say the tribunal is really a platform for Hasina to target key political opponents — the Jamaat has long been allies with the Bangladesh National Party, the main opposition and a sworn Hasina foe. Haroon Habib, a Dhaka-based journalist who has contributed to TIME in the past, shrugged off these concerns on the eve of the fortieth anniversary in an op-ed in the Indian daily The Hindu:

Whatever challenges the Hasina government faces today and whatever its failures and shortcomings are in delivering good governance, the trial of the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity is fundamental for Bangladesh. It is the answer to an aggrieved nation of countless bereaved families, widows and orphans, wounded and immobilised. It is an unfinished task which needs to be completed to remove a national stigma.

Still, a tribunal is no panacea for all of Bangladesh’s ills. A long history of violence and extrajudicial killings, in keeping with the brutal episodes of 1971, remains, irrespective of which government is in power. Rights groups report at least 40 people, including dissidents and opposition activists, have been disappeared since January 2010. Fingers point to the long arm and heavy hand of the government’s ominously named Rapid Action Battalion, an elite police unit.

To be sure, Bangladesh is hardly the only country in the region whose security forces and political elites behave with impunity. And the politics of South Asia is still tinged with a legacy of partitions, zero-sum games, existential divides and bitter conflict that simmers both within the countries there and the relations between capitals. More the shame then that the government in Islamabad has for many years attempted to wipe its hands clean off its military’s actions in 1971. A number of heartfelt, thoughtful articles written by Pakistanis recently lament their national amnesia over the Bangladesh genocide. 1971 is something of a taboo in classrooms and features little in the often conspiratorial, overheated conversation of Pakistan’s national media. In Bangladesh, too, knowledge of the massacres is clouded. Researchers have precious little physical, forensic evidence of the 40 year-old killings. To this day, investigators and historians struggle to come up with a clear number for those killed: Bangladesh is situated on an alluvial floodplain; its genocide victims weren’t interred in killing fields, but flushed away via streams and rivers into the ocean.

In August 1971, as Bengali rebels resisted the West Pakistani crackdown, a TIME correspondent sent in this dispatch:

The evidence of the bloodbath is all over East Pakistan. Whole sections of cities lie in ruins from shelling and aerial attacks. In Khalishpur, the northern suburb of Khulna, naked children and haggard women scavenge the rubble where their homes and shops once stood. Stretches of Chittagong’s Hizari Lane and Maulana Sowkat Ali Road have been wiped out. The central bazaar in Jessore is reduced to twisted masses of corrugated tin and shattered walls. Kushtia, a city of 40,000, now looks, as a World Bank team reported, “like the morning after a nuclear attack.” In Dhaka, where soldiers set sections of the Old City ablaze with flamethrowers and then machine-gunned thousands as they tried to escape the cordon of fire, nearly 25 blocks have been bulldozed clear, leaving open areas set incongruously amid jam-packed slums. For the benefit of foreign visitors, the army has patched up many shell holes in the walls of Dhaka University, where hundreds of students were killed.

The article goes on:

Commented one high U.S. official last week: “It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland.”

Bangladesh must travel a long road before it can reconcile with the ghosts of its creation, but at least, four decades on, it is finally, imperfectly, taking those first steps.