On July 23, 2018, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, conferred on me the Citizenship of Bangladesh. It is indeed a great honour and during the ceremony, held at Ganabhaban, many things were going through my mind. Behind where we were standing and then sitting was a painting of the Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu. My mind went back to January 1972 when, as a representative of Oxfam-UK, I met Bangabandhu. I am able to reflect, albeit in brief, on my journey with Bangladesh.
Trial of Collaborators: In January 1972, there were feelings of happiness and euphoria because Bangladesh was free and Bangabandhu had returned to the country. I recall that when I was in Dhaka at that time an order was made to bring to trial those Bangladeshis who had collaborated with the Pakistan Army in acts of genocide. Later on, in November 1973, there was a general amnesty which applied to all persons except those accused of rape, murder, attempted murder and arson. Those still detained were to be tried under ‘The International Crimes (Tribunals) Act of 1973’, but all activities ceased after the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975.
In 2009, however, with the establishment of The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), trials of the local collaborators were initiated.
Honouring Foreigners and War Crimes Trials: In 2011, the Government of Bangladesh announced that they planned to honour foreigners who had contributed in some way at the time of the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. This was a remarkable decision by the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina and her Government as I do not believe that any country has ever said ‘Thank you’ in this way. I was honoured to receive the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in the first batch of awardees in March 2012. The media while interviewing me at that time often asked what I thought of the, then, ongoing war crimes trials and if I thought it was very late to be bringing people to trial. My reply was that it is never too late to seek justice and I pointed out that even more than 60 years after the end of the Second World War people were still being brought to trial for their war crimes.
Ensuring Accurate History: I am often asked to write about my memories and experiences of 1971 and when I express my inability to write the very same thing year after year, I am told that I must keep writing because it is important to remind everyone, particularly the younger generation, of the true history of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, over the years, the history books used at schools and colleges have been wrongly changed or distorted and so I am glad to hear that work is now being undertaken to ensure that the true history of the Liberation War is preserved.
National Genocide Day: On February 15, 2017, I attended the launch of a book entitled, ‘On Recognition of Bangladesh Genocide’, which is published by the ‘Forum for Secular Bangladesh & Trial of War Criminals of 1971’ and in which there are writings by a number of experts. At this book launch at which the Minister of Commerce, Mr Tofail Ahmed was the Chief Guest, a book was shown to the Minister entitled, ‘Creation of Bangladesh: Myths Exploded’, written by Junaid Ahmad and published in Pakistan. It is full of lies and says, among other things, that the members of the Mukti Bahini were responsible for any genocide which took place in 1971. The Minister, who was in a hurry to join Parliament discussions that day, took the book with him and later that day in Parliament, raising a point of order, he made the demand that March 25 be observed as National Genocide Day and he made this demand while holding aloft the book written by Junaid Ahmad.
It is only right and most just that Parliament voted that March 25 be observed as Genocide Day and I am very proud to have been a very small part of the demand that led to this. It is now up to the government to contact Members of Parliament, especially of Bangladeshi origin, or with strong connections to Bangladesh, in many countries of the world so that they can have debates in their parliaments to recognize that what happened in Bangladesh in 1971 was indeed genocide. For instance, in the British Parliament’s House of Commons, there are, to my knowledge, three Labour Party members of parliament, Tulip Rizwana Siddiq, the niece of the Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina; Rushanara Ali and Rupa Asha Huq.
After national parliaments of different countries have officially recognised that genocide did indeed occur in 1971, pressure can be brought to bear on different world bodies to officially recognize the Bangladesh Genocide in the same way that the Holocaust of the Second World War is recognised. March 25 each year can then become recognised in Bangladesh in the same way and with the same respect as with February 21, EKUSHEY, International Mother Language Day.
Role of Women: An important part of the accurate history of the Liberation War is the role of women. While the men left home to join the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters, the women had to manage everything else. In addition, as many as 400,000 women are estimated to have become victims of rape by the Pakistan Army. It has taken a long time to recognise these women as Freedom Fighters but officially they are now are able to receive the same treatment as men Freedom Fighters. It is good to hear that the monthly allowance for Freedom Fighters has increased over the years from Tk 900 to Tk 10,000.
Overall Reflection: Earlier this year I attended a seminar which was mostly looking at Opportunities and Challenges that lie ahead for Bangladesh but I could not help but remember the challenges that Bangladesh faced immediately after the Liberation War. I dipped into my archives of that time and found an editorial piece in the Wall Street Journal published one day after Victory Day, December 16. The editorial of December 17, 1971 was entitled “Bengal’s Dim Future……”. I recalled that only two days earlier on December 15, 1971, I had attended a meeting in Kolkata called by Government of Bangladesh officials to discuss the needs of Bangladesh and how international NGOs such as Oxfam could contribute. The participants of the meeting were reminded that in addition to the 10 million refugees that were expected to return to Bangladesh by the end of February at the latest, there were an estimated 20 million Bangladeshis internally displaced. Immediate needs we were told were 500,000 tonnes of foodgrains per month, 1000 trucks, 500 buses and bamboos for shelter construction as the Pakistan Army had destroyed most shelter material and thousands of villages, burnt by the Pakistanis, needed to be rebuilt.
When I drove overland from Calcutta in late January 1972 there were lines and lines of jubilant Bangladeshis trudging home but many with a certain amount of apprehension regarding what would they find when they got back to their homes. By March 1972, when there was a more accurate picture of the needs for Bangladesh’s survival, I met much older UN experts who were of the opinion that unless the food imports materialised and the infrastructure was repaired quickly, they doubted if Bangladesh could survive as a state. Before Bangladesh could make much headway, there was a devastating famine in 1974, and so in 2018 we can reflect on the great progress that the country has made in food production and the amazing strides that Bangladesh has taken in economic activities, particularly in the very successful readymade garments industry.
The last paragraph of that editorial of December 17, 1971 read as follows:
“In other words, Bangladesh is not a victory for anyone. Whether it will remain a continuing source of tragedy will depend very heavily upon the ability of richer nations to submerge their own differences and help with reconstruction efforts. If the events of the last few weeks are any indication, the prospects for that are not terribly bright either.”
It is not often that one can witness the birth of a nation but I have been fortunate to be a passenger on and an observer of the whole journey. It has been an amazing experience and the hardworking people of Bangladesh should be immensely proud of their achievement. The people of Bangladesh have ensured that there is no“Dim Future” for Bangladesh.