Raking Up The Past In Bangladesh Will Help No One

09 March 2016

By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi

I devote this week's column to answering Syed Badrul Ahsan, associate editor of the Bangladesh newspaper, The Daily Observer, whose letter was published in this newspaper (Feb. 6). His comments were in reaction to a previous column of mine titled ''The blunders of the past and distortion of facts'' (Jan. 27), which contained observations about an article published by senior journalist Shamsul Huda in The Daily Observer.

I would like to respond to the points raised by Ahsan one by one. First, I lived in Bangladesh for a few years during which I read a lot about the incidents of 1971. I mixed with people from all segments of society but I never read or heard from anyone I met anything about the alleged sexual assault on Bangladeshi men, particularly about frisking them at checkpoints to ensure that they were circumcised to prove their identity as Muslims. Ahsan says emphatically that there is photographic evidence to prove his claim but he did not mention who took the pictures of whom? Are these pictures of abusers or victims, and where are these pictures now?

Second, as far as the issue of sexual assault on Bengali women is concerned, I objected to making a comparison between what happened to Bengali women and Korean women, by saying that there is no point of comparison between the atrocities committed during the Second World War and during the civil war in East Pakistan. I agreed with Shamsul Huda in condemning and denouncing everything that happened to women on both sides.
But at the same time, I disagreed with him because of his disregard for the sexual assault meted out to Pakistani women, especially Bihari women, at the hands of Mukti Bahini, the militia of the Awami League party. One should not differentiate between the victims of sexual assault whether they are Bengali or Bihari women. I am of the conviction that this was what Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, meant in resorting to the principle of ''forget and forgive''.

Third, Ahsan objected to my remark that the Pakistani soldiers who suffered defeat at the hands of the Indian army were taken to India as prisoners of war. Was this not what happened? Was General Aurora a Bangladeshi? Who gave the surrendered Pakistani general a solemn assurance that the surrendered army personnel should be treated with the dignity and respect that soldiers are entitled to in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Convention? Are any of these soldiers still in Bangladesh? As far as the issue of civil war is concerned, international law says that civil war implies any armed conflict between different organized groups of citizens within an independent country. This is what happened in East Pakistan until the intervention of the Indian army.

Fourth, the Simla Agreement, signed by Indira Gandhi and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was the basis that defined the relations between India and Pakistan with regard to the handling of prisoners of war and their subsequent release. The significant thing is that all of these soldiers, including 195 war crime suspects, were released. I mentioned this issue only because of the politically motivated trials that resulted in the execution of a number of opposition leaders in Bangladesh. None of these leaders were included in the list of the 195 war crimes suspects.

Fifth, regarding the atrocities perpetrated against the Biharis, Ahsan said that this is a relatively new issue. But that is not correct. The Biharis have been subjected to crimes during the civil war and afterwards when Pakistani troops were taken to India as prisoners of war. The unarmed Biharis remained insecure and were subjected to killing, rape and looting in addition to being driven out of their homes. Thus, they were forced to live in squalid camps in different parts of Bangladesh, and they are still languishing in these overcrowded camps. I visited some of these camps when I was in Bangladesh and saw the extremely pathetic condition of these people. How is it possible for Ahsan to disregard the miserable living conditions of Biharis or stranded Pakistanis? How can he say that their issue was raked up only recently when the trial of opposition leaders started at the war crimes tribunal?

Ahsan also described these leaders as notorious Bengali collaborators of the Pakistan army. In fact, this despicable description is not accurate. Take the case of Jamaat-e-Islami leader Prof. Ghulam Azam as an example. He was one of the most honest men I ever met in Bangladesh. He was also well-known in the Islamic world for his righteousness and piety. The large number of people who took part in his funeral procession is evidence of his popularity in Bangladesh society.

Sixth, Ahsan criticized my reference to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto assuming power as prime minister of Pakistan instead of his actual post of president. In the article, my emphasis was on his taking power as the head of the state, whether as president or prime minister, immediately after the end of the war.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that raking up old issues and exaggerating them by recalling unfortunate incidents and stories that have been forgotten with the passage of time is quite undesirable as it will help no one. Such a tendency is doing harm even to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who folded the pages of the past and unveiled a new chapter of ''forget and forgive.'' Raising these incidents after a gap of four decades is in a way doing injustice to the undisputed leader of the Bangladeshi people and calling into question the decisions taken by him and the amnesty granted by him.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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