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Bangladesh - Liberation War

Almost from the advent of independent Pakistan in 1947, frictions developed between East and West Pakistan, which were separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory. East Pakistanis felt exploited by the West Pakistan-dominated central government. Linguistic, cultural, and ethnic differences also contributed to the estrangement of East from West Pakistan. Bengalis strongly resisted attempts to impose Urdu as the sole official language of Pakistan. Responding to these grievances, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1948 formed a students' organization called the Chhatra League. In 1949, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhasani and some other Bengali leaders formed the East Pakistan Awami Muslim League (AL), a party designed mainly to promote Bengali interests. This party dropped the word Muslim from its name in 1955 and came to be known as Awami League. Mujib became president of the Awami League in 1966 and emerged as leader of the Bengali autonomy movement. In 1966, he was arrested for his political activities.

After the Awami League won almost all the East Pakistan seats of the Pakistan national assembly in 1970-71 elections, West Pakistan opened talks with the East on constitutional questions about the division of power between the central government and the provinces, as well as the formation of a national government headed by the Awami League. The talks proved unsuccessful, however, and on March 1, 1971, Pakistani President Yahya Khan indefinitely postponed the pending national assembly session, precipitating massive civil disobedience in East Pakistan. Mujib was arrested again; his party was banned, and most of his aides fled to India and organized a provisional government.

During the 1971 civil war, a number of factional paramilitary bands, which included communist forces dedicated to a rural-based revolution along Maoist lines, fought against each other and engaged in terrorism. The strongest of the new paramilitary bands, and the one that would have the greatest impact on future events, was organized under the Awami League's military committee headed by Colonel M.A.G. Osmany, a retired Pakistan Army officer. This band was raised as Mujib's action arm and security force. As the political struggle between East Pakistan and West Pakistan intensified, the Awami League's military arm assumed the character of a conventional, albeit illegal, armed force.

At first, Osmany recruited his force from three main sources: the East Pakistan Students League (the Awami League's youth branch); the security militia called Ansars (ansar is Arabic for helper) and Mujahids (mujahid is Arabic for holy warrior), who were trained, respectively, by the police and the army; and urban toughs known throughout the subcontinent as goondas. Osmany's group collected arms and ammunition and conspired with Bengali-origin officers and troops in the regular Pakistani forces and the East Pakistan Rifles. Initially, Osmany's band was called Sevak Bahini (Service Force); after its expansion, it became known as the Mukti Fauj (Liberation Force; more loosely, freedom fighters), a name that evolved into Mukti Bahini, a term of more common Bengali usage having the same meaning as Mukti Fauj. The very existence of an underground army responsive to Awami League directives convinced West Pakistani leaders that Mujib was intent on leading the secession of East Pakistan.

On March 25, the Pakistan Army launched a terror campaign calculated to suppress the resistance movement and intimidate the Bengalis into submission. Within hours a wholesale slaughter had commenced in Dhaka, with the heaviest attacks concentrated on the University of Dhaka and the Hindu area of the old town. Bangladeshis remember the date as a day of infamy and liberation. On March 26, 1971, following a bloody crackdown by the Pakistan Army, Bengali nationalists declared an independent People's Republic of Bangladesh.

The Pakistan Army came with hit lists and systematically killed several hundred Bengalis. Mujib was captured and flown to West Pakistan for incarceration. To conceal what they were doing, the Pakistan Army corralled the corps of foreign journalists at the International Hotel in Dhaka, seized their notes, and expelled them the next day. One reporter who escaped the censor net estimated that three battalions of troops--one armored, one artillery, and one infantry--had attacked the virtually defenseless city.

Archer Blood was the US Consul General who sent a famous dissent cable on 06 April 1971 , signed in Dhaka 20 members of the U.S. Consulate General, prompted by the Pakistani military's operations. This famous "Blood Telegram" charged that: "In our most recent policy paper for Pakistan, our interests in Pakistan were defined as primarily humanitarian, rather than strategic. But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely internal matter of a sovereign state. Private Americans have expressed disgust."

After the tragic events of March, India became vocal in its condemnation of Pakistan. An immense flood of East Pakistani refugees, between 8 and 10 million [mainly Hindus] according to various estimates, fled across the border into the Indian state of West Bengal. In April an Indian parliamentary resolution demanded that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi supply aid to the rebels in East Pakistan. She complied but declined to recognize the provisional government of independent Bangladesh.

During the ensuing month, military operations spread throughout East Pakistan. The East Bengal Regiment, the East Pakistan Rifles, and most of the East Pakistani police and their auxiliaries joined the revolt. They seized West Pakistani officers serving with these units and killed some of them. The wholesale, planned defection of the Bengalis from the Pakistan Army in the early weeks of the war came as a surprise to the Pakistani command and was of supreme importance to the Bangladesh cause. The Bengali units, after fighting numerous actions against West Pakistani regulars, gradually withdrew and merged with the Mukti Bahini, providing the essential core of leadership and organizational basis for the rest of the war.

The West Pakistani press waged a vigorous but ultimately futile campaign to counteract newspaper and radio accounts of wholesale atrocities. One paper, the Morning News, even editorialized that the armed forces were saving East Pakistanis from eventual Hindu enslavement. The civil war was played down by the government-controlled press as a minor insurrection quickly being brought under control.

Gradually this amalgamation of forces grew into a unified military as it confronted the Pakistanis. Retired officers and troops helped train the revolutionary forces. On April 14, Osmany officially became the commander in chief of the Mukti Bahini. Although most of this force, estimated at over 100,000 strong at the height of the conflict, maintained unswerving allegiance to Mujib and the Awami League, many partisan bands operated independently. East Pakistani civilian members of the resistance operated out of Calcutta. The high command divided the country into eight military sectors, each commanded by a Pakistan Army major who had defected. India granted sanctuary to the Mukti Bahini and provided bases and substantial matériel and training.

The initial operations by the Pakistan Army failed to destroy the Mukti Bahini or to prevent its expansion and development, but by late May 1971 Pakistani authority had been widely reasserted. Rebel forces were largely confined to the areas near the Indian border states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura. Pakistani forces received reinforcements and the assistance of an internal security force called Razakars (Keepers of Public Order) and other collaborators that had been raised in East Pakistan by the Pakistani administration. Denounced by the resistance for collaborating with Pakistani authorities, most Razakars were Urdu-speaking Muslims who had emigrated from the Indian state of Bihar at the time of partition. The weary Pakistani regulars, however, were able to contain a July monsoon offensive by the Mukti Bahini.

Various informants, including missionaries and foreign journalists who clandestinely returned to East Pakistan during the war, estimated that by March 28 the loss of life reached 15,000. By the end of summer of 1971 as many as 300,000 people were thought to have lost their lives.

A propaganda war between Pakistan and India ensued in which Yahya threatened war against India if that country made an attempt to seize any part of Pakistan. Yahya also asserted that Pakistan could count on its American and Chinese friends. At the same time, Pakistan tried to ease the situation in the East Wing. Belatedly, on 7 April it replaced Tikka, whose military tactics had caused such havoc and human loss of life, with the more restrained Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi. At the end of August a moderate Bengali, Abdul Malik, was installed as the civilian governor of East Pakistan. These belated gestures of appeasement did not yield results or change world opinion.

Despite the setback, the Mukti Bahini had gained valuable experience and shown increased capability. Back in their border base area, they regrouped. Recruitment was never a serious problem, and numerical losses were easily replaced. Indian aid and participation materially increased, and the tempo of fighting again picked up by October, when Pakistan had raised its army troop strength to about 80,000. Border clashes between the Indian and Pakistani armies became frequent.

In response to Indian military incursions into East Pakistan in late November, Pakistan launched a series of preemptive air strikes against Indian airfields on December 3, 1971. Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi then ordered national mobilization, and Indian forces launched a full-scale invasion of East Pakistan the next day.

The initial Pakistani air strikes had been ineffective, and the Indian Air Force attained air superiority within the next twenty-four hours and held it. The Pakistan Air Force detachment in East Pakistan was destroyed, and supply and escape routes were cut off; in West Pakistan the Indian Air Force systematically struck aircraft and airfields, base installations, communication centers, and troop concentrations. At sea an Indian Navy task force immobilized East Pakistani port facilities and landed an amphibious force to cut off escape routes to Burma. At the same time, an Indian task force contained Pakistan's fleet and bombarded port installations at Karachi, West Pakistan.

On December 4, 1971, the Indian Army, far superior in numbers and equipment to that of Pakistan, executed a 3-pronged pincer movement on Dhaka launched from the Indian states of West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura, taking only 12 days to defeat the 90,000 Pakistani defenders. The Pakistan Army was weakened by having to operate so far away from its source of supply. The Indian Army, on the other hand, was aided by East Pakistan's Mukti Bahini (Liberation Force), the freedom fighters who managed to keep the Pakistan Army at bay in many areas.

On the ground the Indian strategic plan was aimed at East Pakistan as first priority, while simultaneously containing West Pakistan. The Indian force that invaded East Pakistan consisted of nine infantry divisions with attached armor units and supporting arms. Separated into five invasion columns, Indian forces advanced rapidly, bypassing intermediate cities and obstacles and pressing relentlessly toward the capital at Dhaka. At the same time, guerrilla attacks intensified, and at least three brigades of the Mukti Bahini fought in conventional formations with the Indian forces.

Overwhelmed by the speed and power of the Indian advance, Pakistan's four divisions and smaller separate units fought a number of hard actions but soon had their escape routes cut off and were without air support. On 16 December 1971 Dhaka fell, and Pakistan's commander, Lieutenant General A.A.K. Niazi, with about 75,000 troops, surrendered to Lieutenant General J.S. Aurora, the Indian commander of the combined Indian and Mukti Bahini forces. On the western front, India's forces had effectively contained Pakistani attacks and had made limited advances into West Pakistan.

The Body Count Controversy

Bangladesh's War of Independence began March 25, 1971 when Pakistan launched a bloody crackdown against Bangladeshi civilians and ended on December 16, 1971 when the Pakistani commanding general signed an instrument of surrender on behalf of some 93,000 Pakistani troops. Exactly what happened between those two dates -- in particular the number of dead -- is still the subject of controversy. Anthony Mascarenhas in "Bangladesh: A Legacy of Blood" estimates that during the entire nine-month liberation struggle more than 1 million Bengalis may have died at the hands of the Pakistan Army.

Hindus had been a disappearing minority in Bangladesh at the hands of Bangladeshi forces who employed human rights abuses, atrocities and ethno-religious cleansing tools. In 1941, Hindus comprised 28% of the Bangladeshi population but by 1991, the Hindu population dwindled to a meager 8% by some estimates. A large part of this decrease in the Hindu population in Bangladesh can be attributed to the 1971 genocide by the then Muslim East Pakistan Party where by some accounts 2.5 million Hindus were murdered and 10 million Hindus fled to India as refugees. Reminiscent of the Jewish holocaust, Hindu homes were marked by a yellow "H", which in fact guided the pillagers to their homes.

Those advocating for war crimes trials allege that 3 million Bangladeshis died during the nine months of conflict. A Pakistani commission appointed to look into allegations of misconduct by Pakistani troops concluded in 1974 that 26,000 civilian deaths had occurred. Representatives of Jamaat-e-Islami (JIB), Bangladesh's largest Islamic party - whose senior leadership has long been reviled by many as 'collaborators' and 'war criminals' - claim that less than 100,000 Bangladeshis died and that a significant proportion of those were pro-Pakistani local 'collaborators.'

As the new nation confronted the myriad challenges post-independence, there was little done to gather specific information about alleged atrocities. Indeed, it seemed the whole process of dealing with alleged war criminals quickly became overshadowed by political squabbling over other issues and quietly ground to a halt. Many Bangladeshis today believe the GOB lost the moral high ground when it agreed to repatriate Pakistani POWs as part of the 1972 Simla Accord, which brought the Indo-Pakistani conflict to a close.

The Awami League government enacted a Collaborators Act in January 1972, followed by an International Crimes Tribunals Act in July 1973. The former targeted collaborators and the latter, members of "armed forces, defense or auxiliary forces" for commiting crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. Some 37,000 Bangladeshis were detained under these acts between 1972 and 1975. The Awami League government subsequently amnestied 26,000 held for relatively minor offenses. Some 11,000, linked to cases of murder, rape, arson or looting, remained in custody, and the courts handed down about 750 sentences in connection with these cases. After the 1975 assassination of Awami League president Mujibur Rahman, his successor, Ziaur Rahman, abrogated the Collaborators Act and amnestied all remaining prisoners. The International Crimes Tribunals Act of 1973 remains in force, and some have argued it should be the basis for future prosecutions.

The Ekaturrer Ghatok Dalal Nirmul Committee (Committee to eliminate killers and collaborators), also known as the Nirmul Committee, was formed in the early 1990s. In 1992, the Nirmul Committee convicted alleged war criminals in a series of mock trials in Dhaka that resonated powerfully with many; the BNP-led government of the day charged with treason 25 of the intellectuals who organized the trials. Committee representatives reject the idea of direct international involvement in a Bangladeshi war crimes process, asserting this is a Bangladeshi matter that should be settled by Bangladeshis, under the International Crimes Tribunal Act.

A group of retired military officers who commanded the newly-formed Bangladeshi Army and the 'mukti bahini' (freedom fighters - an independent guerrilla force formed by Bangladeshis) during the 1971 conflict established in 2007 the Sector Commanders Forum (SCF - www.sectorcommandersforum.org). About half a dozen of the 1971 sector commanders were active and formed the SCF in response to what they termed "regrouping by collaborators" over the years. "Today, these collaborators have regrouped in Bangladesh as several ragtag religious fundamentalist parties, whose only agenda is to oppose any move made by the people towards becoming a modern, democratic and religiously tolerant nation," claims the SCF website.

A number of former freedom fighters, including individuals who are members of the SCF, established the Liberation War Museum (www.liberationwarmuseum.net) in Dhaka in 1996. The primary purpose of the museum is to document the nine-month period of the war and commemorate those who fought and died in it. The exhibit on international reactions to the conflict includes the declassified text of the April 6, 1971 strongly-worded dissent cable sent by then-U.S. Consul General for Dhaka Archer Blood, criticizing the hands-off US approach to the conflict. The US has provided support to the museum in the past through the Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation. An affiliated committee, the War Crimes Fact Finding Commission (which has overlapping membership with the SCF), focuses on finding and preserving documents that may be used in a war crimes trial process.

The SCF argues that the 1971 war was fought to assert Bengali identity against Pakistani cultural and economic oppression. On the side of right are the secularist-nationalists who fought and died under this banner. On the side of wrong are those who supported Pakistani imperialism and were responsible for atrocities. The SCF claims that chief among the latter are senior leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, although a museum trustee also accused representatives of other parties, including Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a Member of Parliament and senior member of the BNP.

The SCF claims the conflict led to the death of three million Bengalis, the rape of more than 200,000 Bengali women, and the flight of 10 million refugees (who fled to India to escape the fighting). According to the SCF, local collaborators joined one or more of several entities which aided and abetted the Pakistani military in its campaign to subjugate the Bengali population: a paramilitary force known as Razakers; volunteer militias known as Al Badar and Al Shams; and Peace Committees, which served community outreach and other purposes for the Pakistani administration.

During the caretaker government period (2007-2008), sector commanders did not highlight their strong ties with the Awami League. After the new Awami League government took office, however, these ties became more apparent. The sector commanders were led by A. L. Khandker, a retired Air Vice Marshal who served as Deputy Chief of Staff of the pro-independence forces in 1971. Khandker won a seat in parliament on the Awami League ticket and Sheikh Hasina named him to a cabinet position (Ministry of Planning). Khandker was but one of a large group of AL bigwigs certain to use their new-found influence to pursue the war crimes issue.

A resolution the Awami League-dominated parliament passed unanimously 29 January 2009 said the new government must immediately take steps to try those suspected of committing war crimes during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence. Those pushing for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal were generally former pro-independence combatants and Awami League supporters, who claimed the issue played a major role in the party's recent electoral victory. Some players went beyond a desire to punish war criminals and instead seek nothing less than eliminating Jamaat-e-Islami (JIB), the nation's largest Islamic party, from the political process.

Four decades after Bangladesh’s violent struggle for independence from Pakistan, in November 2011 the country began the first trial of those accused of war crimes. Senior leader of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party, Delawar Hossain Sayedee, became the first to stand trial for the 1971 crimes. A prosecutor charged him with crimes against humanity, such as genocide, murder and rape. Sayedee was among seven senior Bangladeshi politicians charged with war crimes during the violent nine-month struggle that led to the country’s independence from Pakistan.

Convicted of committing war crimes during the nation's war of independence against Pakistan in 1971, Abdul Quader Mollah [ known as Koshai (butcher) Quader in 1971] was hanged 12 December 2013, after the Supreme Court rejected his last-minute appeal. In a country in which every aspect of life is party politicised, Mollah and his gang needed only to wait for the government to change (which it does regularly) to get their release. So it was said they had to be hanged to ensure they got the punishment they had earned.

By the end of 2013 the International Crimes Tribunals (ICTs) conducting the War Crimes Trials that began on March 25, 2010, had indicted 15 leaders, including 12 Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) leaders and three Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leaders. Nine verdicts have already been delivered by the two ICTs, in which seven persons had been awarded the death sentence, while three had been given life imprisonment.



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