THE BLOG

Bangladesh's "Day of the Martyred Intellectuals": A Search for Justice and National Healing

Imagine if, mere days before our independence from the British Crown, British troops had systematically rounded up, tortured, and killed most of the brightest minds in our country (including our founding fathers) as a final act of oppression against a nation yearning to be free.

One this day 42 years ago, that is exactly the tragedy that befell Bangladesh. The Bangladesh Liberation War had already been raging for nine brutal months. The nation, then known as East Pakistan, was administered by a regime located thousands of miles away -- a regime removed, both literally and metaphorically, from the needs, desires, and aspirations of its Bengali citizens. Rather than treated as an equal partner in a united Pakistan, the West Pakistani regime thoroughly exploited and subjugated its more populous and prosperous Eastern province. Despite the lofty rhetoric of Pakistan's charismatic and idealistic founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, envisioning democratic nation protecting the freedoms of South Asia's Muslims, the reality would prove to be sobering. Within a few short years, East Pakistan's 70 million citizens soon found themselves dominated by an elite junta of West Pakistani chauvinists who had always looked down upon their fellow Bengali citizens as culturally "impure" and genetically inferior.

With all the key ingredients for conflict already in place, the advent of two far-flung halves of a nation formed only on the basis of communal and religious solidarity remaining whole was perhaps always was a pipe dream. The grossly inept and transparently apathetic response by the West Pakistani government to the devastation of the 1970 Cyclone Bhola, one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, only reinforced the notion that the lives of East Pakistani citizens were worth infinitesimally less than their Western compatriots. Yet it was the outright refusal of the West Pakistani authorities to recognize the results of the 1970 general election, in which one of Bangladesh's would-be founders Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League party won an outright majority, which propelled the Bengali masses to begin the decisive phase of their long struggle for liberty, dignity, and self-governance.

The West Pakistanis subsequently launched a brutal campaign in which tens of thousands of Bengali soldiers, policemen, civil servants, students, activists, trade unionists, leftists, community leaders, and anyone else condemned as potential threats to West Pakistani hegemony were systematically detained, tortured, and executed.

Throughout the nine month occupation of East Pakistan, the total extent of war-time atrocities still remains unknown. Scholars generally agree that around 200,000 women raped, 10 million were forced to flee to neighboring India, and anywhere from 300,000 to three million men, women, and children were killed -- all for the crime of simply being Bengali and yearning for freedom. So monstrous were the killings that George Harrison and the recently-deceased Ravi Shankar launched their iconic "Concert for Bangla Desh" to raise awareness of the humanitarian catastrophe -- and the Nixon administration's role in supporting their West Pakistani Cold War allies.

Although students, scholars, intellectuals, and leaders within civil society were top-priority targets for elimination throughout the war, it was the infamous actions of Dec. 14, 1971 -- a mere two days before the nation's liberation -- which would prove to be a hideous scar against the infant nation.

Due to the decisive intervention of India, a joint Bangladeshi-Indian taskforce was making rapid advances on Dhaka, The West Pakistani regime knew that Bangladesh's independence was inevitable. Yet in a desperate, final act of vengeance, West Pakistani soldiers, along with their local collaborators, systematically rounded up hundreds of physicians, lawyers, engineers, academics, journalists, and artists from their homes in the middle of the night. They were subsequently taken to torture cells throughout the city, brutalized for hours, and finally assembled on various killing fields and executed en-masse.

Forty-one years later, Bangladesh has still not completely recovered from such a staggering loss of human capital. To be sure, there has been remarkable -- indeed almost "miraculous" -- social and economic progress made by the young nation. Indeed with Bangladesh declared a "Next Eleven" nation by economist Jim O'Neill and Goldman Sachs, Henry Kissinger (who as President Nixon's Secretary of State, was one of the key architects of U.S. support to West Pakistan) must surely feel a bit imprudent for reacting to Bangladesh's independence by immediately condemning the nation as a "basket case." Yet with the whole-scale loss of so many of its intellectuals, innovators, and would-be leaders, one can only wonder what more Bangladesh could have accomplished from the contributions of these citizens. Bangladeshis around the world continue to commemorate this day as Shaheed Buddhijibi Dibosh, or Day of the Martyred Intellectuals.

What is perhaps the most traumatic for the collective conscience of most Bangladeshis, including first generation Bangladeshi Americans such as myself, is the complete lack of accountability, or even official acknowledgement, of the killings by the government (although certainly not the people) of Pakistan. Not only have the surviving West Pakistani architects remained unpunished, but in an incredible display of "anti-history", the regime's surviving Bengali collaborators remain free men in a country they did not believe in. Rather than mandating their participation in any Truth and Reconciliation measures or even issuing any long-overdue apologies for their role in the 1971 atrocities, these war criminals have been allowed to operate a fundamentalist "Islamic" party. They continue to enjoy positions of power and influence in a nation they fought so savagely to kill in its cradle.

Yet there may finally be a measure of justice in the midst of so much misery and tragedy. After decades of activism by survivors, several of the top collaborationist leaders may finally have to face justice by the International Crimes Tribunal. As the world rightfully watches to ensure that due process is upheld in strict accordance to international legal standards, after four decades Bangladesh's 160 million people may finally experience a sense of closure.

In solemn commemoration of Bangladesh's Shaheed Buddhijibi Dibosh ("Day of the Martyred Intellectuals") and the upcoming Bangladesh Independence Day on Dec. 16. Bangladesh Zindabad, Joy Bangla.