Justice delayed

The long-delayed war crime trials in Bangladesh and the convictions they result in do not right the wrongs done to the victims, but there is succour in the thought that justice is finally being meted out.

Published : Feb 04, 2015 12:30 IST

January 12, 1972: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (left) signs the oath of office in Dhaka as the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh. With him is the new President, Abu Sayeed Chowdhury.

January 12, 1972: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (left) signs the oath of office in Dhaka as the first Prime Minister of independent Bangladesh. With him is the new President, Abu Sayeed Chowdhury.

Shamsun Nahar still curses her birth, which is inextricably linked with the bloody birth of Bangladesh 43 years ago. Her mother, Majeda Begum, was just married. Within weeks, she was caught, along with her father and uncle, by a local militia group.

Majeda was quickly separated from the male members of her family and kept in a hole dug by the militia, where unspeakable horrors awaited her. Every night, the militiamen picked her up from the hole and took her to the nearby Pakistan Army camp. Majeda narrates: “The Pakistani soldiers abused and tortured me every day. I heard the screams of other women who were detained at the camp. When I too began screaming out of pain and humiliation, they gagged me by stuffing a rag in my mouth.”

Forty-three years later, on December 23, 2014, a Bangladesh war crimes tribunal sentenced to death Syed Mohammad Qaisar, who led the militia of 500-700 local collaborators of the Pakistan Army to put down the uprising for Bangladesh’s freedom. He was convicted of, inter alia, abetting the multiple rape of Majeda Begum at a Pakistan Army camp at Jagadishpur High School in Habigonj in mid-August 1971. The tribunal also sentenced Qaisar to death on the charge of abetting the rape of a tea garden worker, Hiramoni, On May 11, 1971.

Testifying before the tribunal, 60-year-old Majeda, said: “The Pakistan Army continuously and immensely tortured me for eight to 10 days. At one stage when I became sick and had collapsed, Qaisar came. Seeing my condition, he asked the members of his force to dump me somewhere.”

Majeda told the tribunal: “My whole body was in blood and my clothes were torn. I lay under the open sky the whole night. I could feel ants and insects climbing on my body. At dawn, I struggled to my knees and made my way to my father’s house, less than half a mile away.”

That was not the end of her tragedy.

“A month after, I noticed that my periods did not start. My mother, paternal aunt and grandmother guessed I was pregnant. I realised that I had become pregnant.” Eventually, Majeda’s husband sent her to her father’s house, where she gave birth to a baby girl. The baby was raised by her paternal uncle, a Mukti Bahini man, Abdul Matin.

The baby girl, Shamsun Nahar, grew up and married Askir Mia. But when her husband came to know that her father was a Pakistani soldier, the marriage ended abruptly.

Shamsun Nahar is the first-ever war child to testify in Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunals. “When I grew up, I asked my grandfather and grandmother why I could not go to my father’s house. They told me I was the child of a Pakistani soldier…. After my marriage, when my in-laws learned that I was a war child, they tortured me.”

While her mother is now old and sick, Shamsun Nahar works at a nursery to support them both.

While adjudicating this rape charge, Justice Obaidul Hassan, chairman of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2), said: “It was not an isolated event…. The perpetrators had carried out the act of sexual violence as an instrument of threat to the civilians who took stance in favour of independence.”

The tribunal observed, “War-time rape victims are the integral part of our Bangladesh’s liberation war. True, the trauma they sustained can never be minimised. But, however, they should never be left uncared for as it makes the society, the nation, the humanity and our conscience seriously humiliated.”

During the liberation war, the Pakistani military and their local cohorts, mostly belonging to Jamaat-e-Islami and Muslim League parties, raped 2,000 to 4,000 women in a systematic campaign of rape. These rapes caused thousands of pregnancies, abortions and suicides, and produced war babies.

Most Bangladeshi estimates suggest that the Pakistan Army and their collaborators caused the death of up to three million people. The unprecedented terror created up to 10 million refugees who fled to India for safety. Atrocities committed by the military over nine months displaced a further 30 million within the territory of what now constitutes Bangladesh.

The onslaught on civilians was designed to frustrate the results of the historic 1970 general election and to prevent Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League from ruling Pakistan democratically. Ordered by General Yahya Khan, the military President, the genocide and mass rapes were led by General Tikka Khan, the military commander, who had vowed to “reduce the majority to a minority….”

While speaking with a group of journalists in western Jessore, Gen. Tikka Khan was reported to have said, “ Pehle inko Mussalman karo ” (First, make them Muslim). Bina D’Costa, a researcher, argues that Tikka’s remarks show that in the highest echelons of the Pakistani armed forces, the Bengalis were perceived as being “not true Muslims”.

The political scientist Prof. Rounaq Jahan alleges there were elements of racism in the Pakistan Army, who considered the Bengalis a “racially inferior—and physically weak—race” and carried out “organised rape as a weapon of war”. The political scientist R.J. Rummel wrote that the Pakistan Army looked upon Bengali Muslims as “subhuman” and that the Hindus were “as Jews to the Nazis, scum and vermin that best be exterminated”. This racism was then expressed through a belief that Bengalis, being inferior, must have their gene pool “fixed” through forcible impregnation.

With the support of local fundamentalist cohorts loyal to the military, the army conducted raids, by night and day, assaulting women, often in front of their families. Time magazine reported on 563 girls who had been kidnapped and held by the military; all of them were between three and five months pregnant.

In what has been described by Jenneke Arens as a “deliberate attempt” to destroy an “ethnic group”, many of those assaulted were raped, murdered and then bayoneted in the genitalia. Adam Jones, a researcher, has said that one of the reasons for the mass rapes was to undermine Bengali society.

The International Commission of Jurists concluded that the atrocities carried out by the Pakistani armed forces “were part of a deliberate policy…”. The late Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand has said that the rapes were so systematic and pervasive that they had to be a part of conscious Army policy, “planned by the West Pakistanis in a deliberate effort to create a new race” or to “dilute Bengali nationalism”. Amita Malik, reporting from Bangladesh following Pakistan’s historic surrender in Dhaka on December 16, 1971, quoted one West Pakistani soldier as saying: “We are going, but leaving our seed behind.”

The German radio Deutsche Welle, interviewed two raped sisters. One of them, Aleya, said she had been taken by the Pakistan Army when she was 13 and gang-raped for seven months. She was five months pregnant when she returned home. Her sister, Laily, was pregnant when she was taken by the armed forces. Later, Laily fought alongside the Mukti Bahini.

The scale of the atrocities forced the United States embassy to send telegrams to Washington indicating that a genocide was in progress. One such telegram was sent by Archer K. Blood, then the U.S. Consul General in Dhaka. It was signed by Blood and officials of the USAID and the USIS based in Dhaka. The signatories denounced American “complicity in genocide”.

In an interview in 1972, Indira Gandhi, then the Indian Prime Minister, justified Indian military intervention, saying, “Shall we sit and watch their women get raped?” The events were discussed extensively in the British House of Commons as John Stonehouse proposed a motion, supported by 200 other members, condemning the atrocities.

While many of the raped women were happy to abort their unwanted babies, others had to go full term against their wishes.

Perhaps the first such war child taken away from the fledgling nation was Joy. He was rescued from a war ravaged house in Dhaka on December 6, 1971. A Swedish journalist covering the Bangladesh war took him to Stockholm where he grew up.

Monwara Clerk, a Canadian citizen, came to Dhaka in November 2014 in search of her origins. She only knew that her biological mother was rescued from a Pakistani camp and that she was adopted by a Canadian family. Monwara, born at the Mother Teresa Home in the old part of Dhaka, where many rape victims were sheltered, got educated in a Canadian university. She has a daughter, Julliet. She never feels bad about identifying herself as a Bangladesh war child. She is also happy to see that the war crimes trials, even though much delayed, are in progress.

Ryan Good, a war baby-turned-Canadian citizen, met this writer when he came on a mission years ago to search for his mother. This writer covered the plight of the rape victims as a young journalist in 1972. With the support of the World Health Organisation and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government started a programme to organise abortion facilities to help rape victims terminate their unwanted pregnancies. The Bangladesh Women’s Rehabilitation Board was set up on February 18, 1972, in order to help the rape victims. But very few were able to return to normal lives because of the stigma that rape carried. Mujib, the founding father of Bangladesh, called the victims “birangana” (war heroine), but the label only served as a reminder that these women had been “violated”. The official strategy of marrying the women off also did not yield much results. Those who did marry were eventually mistreated, and the majority of the men, once having received a dowry, abandoned their wives.

The new nation of Bangladesh faced a major problem with the high number of unwanted pregnancies, which, according to Bangladeshi estimates, resulted in the birth of 25,000 to 70,000 war babies.

However, a publication of the Centre for Reproductive Law and Policy gave a total of 250,000. Most of the victims also contracted sexual infections. Many suffered from feelings of intense shame and humiliation or committed suicide.

Dr Geoffrey Davis, an Australian abortion specialist, who worked for the programme of rape victims, estimated that there had been about 5,000 cases of self-induced abortions. He said he heard of numerous cases of suicide by victims and infanticide. His estimate of the number of rape victims was 400,000.

A report from the International Commission of Jurists said, “Whatever the precise numbers, the teams of American and British surgeons carrying out abortions and the widespread government efforts to persuade people to accept these girls into the community testify to the scale on which raping occurred.” The commission also said that Pakistani officers not only allowed their men to rape, but enslaved the women themselves.

The Pakistan government decided on a policy of silence regarding the genocide and mass rape conducted by its soldiers. It set up the Justice Hamoodur Rahman Commission to prepare an account of the circumstances surrounding the atrocities of 1971 leading to the humiliating surrender of the Pakistani forces. The final reports were submitted in July 1972, but all were subsequently destroyed except for one held by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then the Prime Minister. The full findings were never made public.

In 1974, the commission was reopened and it issued a supplementary report, which remained classified for 25 years. The report said that 26,000 people were killed and that the rapes numbered in the hundreds.

However, not all Pakistanis were aware of the tragedy in erstwhile East Pakistan. Many of those who knew did not support the barbarity. A number of military officers resigned in protest. Ghaus Bakhsh Bizenjo and Khan Abdul Wali Khan, too, protested. Many Pakistani intellectuals, including the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, were humiliated or imprisoned for their dissenting views on the military persecution.

The brutality continued until the 93,000 Pakistani soldiers led by Lt Gen. A.A.K. Niazi surrendered in Dhaka on December 16, 1971.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment