HOUSTON, Texas — Himmler. Heydrich. Hoess.
The very mention of these reviled names conjures up indelible images associated with the deliberate and coordinated murder of millions of innocent civilians by National-Socialist Germany during the Second World War.
The Polish jurist Raphael Lemkin used the term “genocide” to describe what had transpired in the German concentration camps — an organized and planned destruction of Jews, the Romani, the disabled, homosexuals and other groups targeted by Adolf Hitler and his regime.
After the end of that conflict and within a few years of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, civilized nations vowed never again to allow perpetrators of such horrors to escape justice with impunity by adopting a Genocide Convention through the United Nations Organization.
Despite this pledge against such willful barbarism, another genocide took place within a quarter of a century, in 1971, in the nation now known as Bangladesh.
This genocide was not widely known at the time. The American journalist Gary Bass recently called it “forgotten.” It took place amidst the tensions of the Cold War and went decades without any justice for the victims — until now. A domestic war crimes tribunal is now underway in Dhaka.
Quader Mollah. Delwar Hussain Sayedee. Matinur Rahman Nizami.
The preceding names may not be as familiar as the names of German war criminals, but the very act of uttering those names in Bangladesh causes people to recoil in revulsion and horror. Mollah, Sayedee and Nizami are members of a group that participated in Pakistan’s genocide against Bengalis in the then-Pakistani province of East Bengal.
In South Asia, the ignominious departure of British imperialist rule in 1947 had taken place amidst the carnage of partition. It was predicated on the so-called two-nation theory, which stated that the people and communities of the subcontinent were defined by their religion and not their language or culture. The post-empire nation-state boundaries of India and Pakistan were formed on that premise.
Bengal, which in 1757 was the first of the independent sub-continental states to fall to the darkness of British colonial rule, was partitioned with a western portion that went with India and an eastern portion that was majority Bengali Muslims and was attached to Pakistan. Despite forming the majority in Pakistan, the Bengalis were about to experience a second reign of colonialism.
The final straw for the Bengalis came in 1970 when Pakistan’s military generals refused to hand over power to the Awami League, which by virtue of its electoral mandate was poised to take power in Pakistan.
Instead the Pakistani military generals stalled, feigning negotiations, and flew their troops to East Bengal and then unleashed a terror against unarmed Bengali civilians that would have made Himmler proud. By their side were local Bengali collaborators who were ready and willing to murder their compatriots in cold blood.
Sayedee and Nizami are currently on trial in Bangladesh for their roles as part of that group of Bengalis quislings in the service of the Pakistan army. Quader Mollah was found guilty last December and, after the exhaustion of his appeals, finally came fact-to-face with the hangman’s noose. It was a long time coming, but at last a measure of justice was given to the victims and their families.
The International War Crimes Tribunal in Bangladesh has been criticized from abroad. One accusation is that the tribunal is politically motivated and that several of the defendants are members of the current political opposition in Bangladesh. This is untrue.
The tribunal was created with the backing of a majority of the Bangladeshi people and despite threats and intimidation against its architects.
The current government promised to create a tribunal that would seek justice for the demonic destruction inflicted on the Bengali people in 1971. Such a quest cannot be a mere action against political opponents. The tribunal was designed with many safeguards that ensure that the rights of the accused are protected against arbitrary sentencing.
A nation in a corner of South Asia struggles to obtain some measure of justice for the crimes imposed on it four decades ago. People around the world should disregard the blare of insidious propaganda and survey the facts, then decide on which side of history they would rather stand — with a people and their quest for justice or with those who would, with impunity, escape the consequences of the crimes that they perpetrated.
T.H. Ali, formerly on the faculty of East West University in Bangladesh, teaches South Asian history at the University of Houston-Main Campus in Texas.