‘A younger generation of Bangladeshis feels the need to have a secular, multicultural society with a progressive nationalism’

Face to face: Srinath Raghavan, author of the acclaimed 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh

Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

Senior fellow at CPR and author of the acclaimed 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh Srinath Raghavan has been a keen observer of the political upheavals in Bangladesh since the birth of the state. He spoke to Hardnews about the historical contingencies that form the bedrock of the mass churning in Dhaka, the need for closure to the injustices of the war, and on India’s perceived stance with its neighbour  

What do you make of the turbulent situation in Bangladesh?

 In a sense, the war crimes trial that took place in Bangladesh was planned even when the country became independent. The war crimes Act was passed in Bangladesh soon after the Constitution was drafted in 1972. The Awami League had intended for the war crimes trials to be conducted from the very beginning. Initially, the idea was to put through trial not only the collaborators who worked with the army, which is happening now, but also the army people. Recall that, at the end of the war, there were 93,000 prisoners of war jointly, in Indian and Bangladeshi custody, and they had drawn up a list of 180 officers who had participated in atrocities and so on. Mujibur Rehman, on an undertaking by Pakistani president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, agreed to not try the Pakistani officers for war crimes. The trials of the collaborators were about to commence, but then the 1975 coup happened. From then on, the collaborators have been given amnesty, even the murderers of Mujibur, and this business remained unfinished. When the Awami League rode to power this time, they were very clear about going ahead with the trials, as part of their agenda to recapture the spirit of the liberation war. It is not simply a matter of historical justice. Even today, Bangladeshi politics is pretty much polarised along the lines of those who think the liberation war was just, and those who opposed it. Supporters of the Awami League strongly feel this is an issue that needs to be seen through to its conclusion. But because the BNP and Jamaat have been coalition partners of the League, it was inevitable that the trials would be heavily politicised.


So you see it as a continuation of the liberation war?

In a sense, that is the ideological project behind it. Obviously, there are immediate political imperatives in terms of wanting to cement your hegemony, cutting the BNP to size, and other things. But even if you account for those things, the larger political ideological project that the Awami League thinks it’s the bearer of – the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 – is something that is really animating. The people who came out on the streets in Shahbagh earlier this year are the products of the generation that had fought the liberation war; they grew up hearing the stories of their youngster parents, some of them students, caught up in the war. These children and their friends think there is some legacy to be reclaimed. At the same time, however, I too have reservations on the way the movement took a turn, especially the demand for death sentences, which I think was a betrayal of what that movement stood for. Justice needs to be served but it cannot be decided by a mob.


In some ways, Shahbagh was a
rightwing mobilisation…

Not necessarily. In fact, it is much more of a progressive movement because the idea for many of those people was the liberation struggle and the creation of a new State in 1972. Even if you look at the Constitution, it’s very progressive for its time. Many of the people who wrote the Constitution, like Kamal Hossain who later became the foreign minister and law minister, were themselves in their mid-thirties at the time. The Constitution was written by a group of idealists who believed that this country’s future was in their hands and it could take a right turn. Politically and historically, things have not turned that way. But it’s easy to understand why a younger generation of Bangladeshis feels those values matter, and wants a multicultural secular society with a progressive nationalism.


A section of the bloggers involved in the movement also believes that the Awami League has betrayed the secular cause many a time and indulged in appeasement of the Islamist forces…

Absolutely! That’s why I said that the movement in support of the war crimes trial is not necessarily a movement in support of the Awami League as a party. There might be an overlap, but the popular movement had a greater ideological and political affinity with the Bangladeshi Constitution as it was originally created. It was supposed to be a secular country. It was supposed to be a progressive country. Social justice was enshrined in the Constitution. It’s not only the BNP that has given legitimacy to these things but also the Awami League. However, we still need to recognise the reasons why the Awami League undertook this project—in order to cement their political standing, in order to cut the BNP and Jamaat to size, etc. This is one of those classic moments in politics; there are calculations, cynicism, expediency, but also idealism and a deep belief in certain kinds of political values that are coming together.  


It is a polarised society at the moment. You think the war crime trials can bring a sense of closure?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014