Four days before the end of the Bangladesh war, on Sunday, December 12, 1971, a group of Pakistani officers came together at Dhaka’s presidential residence.
They knew they were about to lose the war: Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had intervened on Bangladesh’s behalf, and the Indian army was advancing on the capital.
Deciding to hobble the nation they could no longer prevent, the officers put together the names of 250 people to be arrested and killed: journalists, artists, doctors, and university professors. The arrests were made on Monday and Tuesday by marked bands of extreme right-wing collaborators belonging to an organisation called Al-Badr Razakar.
Then, on the evening of December 14, hours before the official surrender was signed, the victims were taken in groups to the outskirts of the city, where they were executed.
My grandfather, once a prominent political dissident, was in his 70s by then, and had already spent almost a decade of his life in Pakistani jails. Upon hearing of the arrests, he went into hiding, and escaped. But hundreds of other intellectuals were not so lucky.
They were shot into a mass grave in a place called Rayerbazaar, only discovered a few days after independence.
Photographs and newsreels of that time show the families of the victims standing around a wide ditch, staring in disbelief at the bodies strewn within.
During those nine months in 1971, the world watched while the Pakistani army conducted a campaign of mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing against an unarmed civilian population. In the name of religious unity, they killed up to 3 million people, displaced another 10 million into India, and are alleged to have raped hundreds of thousands of women.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh, and the country has come a long way. Born out of that brutal war of secession, battered by floods, cyclones, coups and political assassinations, it was once a country that had little chance of surviving. Against all odds, Bangladesh has not only survived, but flourished.
It’s gone from an aid-dependent country to one that has enjoyed 5-6 % growth over the last three years. It has a vibrant women’s movement, a functioning democracy, a free press, and a track record of investing in health and education. You only have to visit Dhaka to get a sense of the pace of change and transformation.
The indisputable heroes of Bangladesh are its farmers. Though the population has doubled in the last 40 years, the agricultural sector has been able to keep up, and through one natural disaster after another, the farmers have produced crop after bumper crop.
Also crucial to Bangladesh’s success are the men and women who have left the country to seek their fortunes abroad. They send home approximately $ 10 billion a year, outstripping all other contributions to the country’s GDP. Add to that the success of the readymade garment industry, and you can explain the glossy shopping malls and boutiques that have sprouted all over the cities.
Progress and stability were hard won. The first decade of the country saw a series of unstable governments and the murders of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Ziaur Rahman, two of its best known and beloved politicians.
Their deaths were followed by the nine-year dictatorship of Hossain Mohammad Ershad, appearing to confirm the suspicion that democracy could not flourish in a country with so many other problems. But in 1990, a popular movement not unlike the ones we are witnessing in West Asia today ousted Ershad. Democracy was restored, and there have been four successful parliamentary elections in the last two decades.
In 2008, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina, won a landslide electoral victory. The party campaigned on a platform of secularism and progressive politics, reversing decades of political pandering to far right groups. Last year, the Supreme Court restored Bangladesh to its status as a secular republic.
Soon thereafter, the high court declared that fatwas were illegal. Harkatul Jihad, the terrorist organisation that had been behind a spate of suicide bombings in 2005, was outlawed.
But most importantly, after waiting for four long decades, the victims of the 1971 genocide are finally getting justice. Last year, an international war crimes tribunal was set up, and prosecutors have begun collecting evidence of rapes, killings and arson in preparation for war crimes trials expected to take place later this year.
Arrest warrants have been issued against five members of far right Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, which is accused of siding with the Pakistani army during the war.
Pakistan has never officially apologised to Bangladesh, and the 1974 Delhi treaty has prevented Bangladesh from charging the soldiers and officers responsible for orchestrating the genocide. But their local collaborators, including the ones who participated in the killing of intellectuals on December 14, have thus far been free to remain citizens of Bangladesh, to run for office, and, in some cases, to brag about their past as razakars.
With the tribunal, this culture of impunity may finally come to an end. In dealing with the deep wounds of the past, Bangladesh may find a way forward as a progressive, secular nation.
Tahmima Anam is the author of
A Golden Age and her novel The Good Muslim will be published by Penguin Books India in May
The views expressed by the author are personal