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Bangladesh and 1971

On Sunday, Bangladesh executed two opposition leaders for war crimes committed during the 1971 war of Independence. It is a move, which is likely to heighten tensions among Islamist groups, political parties and the general populace. Islamist opposition leader Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a former legislator from former premier Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), were executed after their clemency appeals were rejected by the President on Saturday. Given the political sway these leaders once held, these executions will reverberate across Bangladesh. From 2001 to 2006, Salauddin Chowdhury was the adviser of parliamentary affairs in the BNP government and a seven-time Member of Parliament. 

Meanwhile, Ali Mojaheed was the secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which is Bangladesh’s largest Islamist political party and a key ally of the BNP. Mojaheed also served as the country’s Minister for Social Welfare from 2001 to 2006. For the uninitiated, both leaders were sentenced to death by the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic court set up by the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government in 2008 to try war criminals from the 1971 war. As a senior commander of Al Badr, an auxiliary force of the Pakistan army in 1971, Mujahid was found guilty of torture and the murders of intellectuals and minority Hindus. Chowdhury, meanwhile, was convicted on charges of torture, abduction, genocide and religious persecution during the war.  

In response to these executions, the Jamaat had called for a complete shutdown of Dhaka. Leaders from the BNP and Jamaat have argued that the legal process followed by the International Criminal Tribunal was flawed. However, unlike previous occasions, the city has not witnessed serious bouts of violence. As a precautionary measure, though, the government has suspended social messaging services such as WhatsApp and the social media website, Facebook. 

Until now, the tribunal has convicted 15 people for war crimes, of which nine have been from the Jamaat-e-Islami and two leaders from the BNP. During the nine-month-long Bangladesh war for independence in 1971, members of the Pakistani military and supporting militias killed an estimated 26,000 to 3,000,000 people. Moreover, according to more recent statements by Bangladeshi and Indian sources, some have estimated that between 200,000 to 400,000 Bangladeshi women were raped in a systematic campaign of genocidal rape. 

Suffice to say, these judgments have come at a time when Bangladesh, which was called East Pakistan, until 1971, has seen a recent resurgence in Islamist violence. Moreover, at stake here, is the secular character that many Bangladeshis want to espouse. The war of 1971 is often used as an anchor for modern-day struggles in Bangladesh to maintain its secular identity. These struggles reached their zenith during the Shahbag protests that demanded the death sentence for Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Molla, who was accused of numerous war crimes in collusion with the Pakistani forces. The ruling Awami League government has used these struggles to not only prosecute people involved with war crimes but also perpetuate its “secular” credentials, as opposed to the BNP and Jamaat. To provide further context, Bangladesh has witnessed a series of targeted murders of secular writers and intellectuals by banned Islamist groups, working allegedly on the behalf of the Islamic State. Most recently, an atheist blogger Niladri Choudhary was hacked to death in Dhaka. 

Although the Bangladesh government has denied the any IS presence in the country, banned Islamist groups continue to strike fear and mayhem.  More pertinently for India, in October 2014, a bomb blast occurred in Burdwan, West Bengal, where two suspected members of the Jamaat-ul-Bangladesh (JMB) terror group were killed.

A subsequent probe by the National Investigation Agency had reportedly unearthed a vast JMB terror network that had spread its tentacles across certain eastern Indian states. It was during Khaleda Zia’s tenure that Bangladesh had witnessed the rise of the JMB on its soil, despite constant denials by her regime. The arrest of key JMB leaders back in 2010 by Bangladeshi authorities had also proven beyond doubt that a close relationship existed between the BNP’s political allies, the Jamaat and the JMB. Both groups have stated their desire for an Islamic state based on Sharia law.  However, since the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League took office in 2009, Dhaka has taken stringent action against the terror group and its affiliates. 

The Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, declares itself to be a secular party that is protective of minority Hindus and Buddhists.  Under such circumstances, it is safe to suggest that New Delhi should issue a favourable response to Sunday’s events. India also cannot ignore the role it played in Bangladesh’s struggle for Independence. The Indian Army had roundly defeated their Pakistani counterparts in 1971, under the leadership of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, paving the way for the formation of Bangladesh.
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