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Moment of truth
This week, Bangladesh celebrated its 41st independence day commemorating the great liberation struggle that overthrew the yoke of Pakistani imperialism in what was then the province of East Pakistan. The nine-month-long armed struggle that began on the night of March 25, 1971 when the Pakistani army initiated Operation Searchlight and unleashed a reign of terror was hardly an impulsive insurrection. The ideal of a sovereign Bangladeshi nation was set in motion as far back as February 1948 when Dhirendranath Dutta became the first to articulate the demand for making Bangla an official language of business in the Pakistani constituent assembly.
The subsequent Language Movement exposed a schism between the western and eastern wings of Pakistan. Nurtured over hundreds of years, Bengali culture refused to be erased by a Punjabi Islamic identity that wasn't respectful of the people who lived in the land of Padma and Meghna. That bullets wouldn't deter those fighting for the cause of their mother tongue was evident on February 21, 1952 when students in Dhaka refused to submit to the dictates of a parochial provincial administration. By the time the general elections in December 1970 took place, Bengali aspirations had reached a tipping point. President Yahya Khan's refusal to transfer power to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's Awami League - which had won the popular mandate - added fuel to the fire.
It was against this backdrop that the bloody civil war, which saw around three million Bengalis martyred, took place. With support from a sympathetic India, Bangladesh eventually emerged victorious on December 16, 1971. But four decades on, Bangladeshi society continues to yearn for closure. The wounds of the liberation war were indeed deep. The Pakistani forces and their collaborators such as the Razakar Bahini, Al Badr, Al Shams and the Peace Committee brutalised innocent men, women and children suspected of being sympathetic to the liberation cause or not vehemently denouncing it. Millions were forced to become refugees. Minorities, in particular, bore the brunt of the anti-liberation forces.
Justice, therefore, for those who suffered unimaginable miseries or made the ultimate sacrifice in 1971 is the minimum that Bangladesh needs to move on as a nation. However, thanks to the tumultuous political trajectory of the country in the aftermath of Sheikh Mujib's brutal assassination in 1975, such justice has hitherto eluded the Bangladeshi people. But hope remains in the form of the ongoing trial of war criminals. There is little doubt that the future of Bangladeshi democracy rests on how the constituted International Crimes Tribunal brings to book those responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against humanity.
For, positions on the liberation war continue to colour everything in Bangladeshi society. It is the reason for its highly polarised polity and the single-biggest stumbling block to its growth. Given Bangladesh's strategic location, it can emerge as a regional growth hub, serving as a vital link between the Indian subcontinent and South-east Asia. Its rivers can be important channels of trade and transit. Its impressive social indicators could serve as a model for its neighbours.
But for Bangladesh's true potential to be unleashed, it's critical that it makes peace with its own history. There is no denying that the legacy of the liberation war and the Language Movement needs to be preserved and commemorated. But it should not become a burden on the post-1971 generation looking to take Bangladesh to new heights in a globalised world. It's precisely for this reason that the war crimes trial must deliver on the justice and closure it is mandated to ensure and lay a permanent foundation for a strong, secular Bangladesh.
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