‘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?

The trials by themselves cannot bring closure. The war for liberation was fought on many levels. At a macro level, it was a fight between Indian and Pakistani soldiers. Within Bangladesh, some people of East Pakistan supported the army, but Bengalis were killing other Bengalis too. If you talk of bringing closure, some of the grave injustices that were perpetrated during that period need to be addressed. This can only be seen as a first step towards reconciliation. Look at the fate of women. So many women were raped and we know that not all of them were raped by the army. Like any society that faces a civil war, there were crimes committed against the weaker sections, the children, women, and the elderly. There were many victims in this war, but the people of Bangladesh as a whole paid a heavy price. From the perspective of social justice, this has to be a first step to a much deeper and more lasting rapprochement. Even the Awami League government did not acknowledge the women who were raped. Although they were given the title of Beeranganas, their children were denied the rights to citizenship. You could look at historical parallels, the French Revolution, the immediate aftermath of fascism in Italy, all these societies went through a great degree of turmoil. There are always multifaceted problems and injustices that have to be tackled; this is one very important part of it and politically may be the most salient one.

 

Against this troubled background, how important are the elections?

One crucial development in the last 10 years of Bangladesh politics is that the military has taken a step back. The importance of this election is ensuring that the democratic processes get deepened in Bangladesh. Every election and its legitimacy matter precisely for that reason. If these elections are not perceived as a fraud perpetrated by one political party on the society, then it strengthens the democratic processes. But no doubt, the older legacy of the army’s involvement in politics, and other issues that Bangladesh has faced are still in the background.

 

How do you see these elections vis-a-vis Indo-Bangladesh relations?

The current Awami League government has done much more than others, in the past 25 years. To place Indo-Bangladesh relations on an even keel, Sheikh Hasina has gone almost half the distance in order to make that possible. But for a variety of reasons, like the internal politics in India, our inability to get our act together and come good on the kind of projects and promises that we have made, I don’t think the agenda has been seen through to the fullest potential. To that extent the elections are important. We want to have a government that has popular legitimacy, which comes into place and with whom India can deal with without being seen as favouring one party over the other. Already, there is a feeling in Bangladesh that India is all for the Awami League. Indians have made a conscious effort in the past many years that they don’t want to cut ties with the BNP. Their leader, Khaleda Zia, was invited to New Delhi. Even when Indian dignitaries visit Dhaka, it is ensured that there is a meeting with her on the sidelines. It is very important to get that bridge going. It isn’t desirable for only the Awami League to be seen as close to India, neither is it good for India to be seen as propping up one party.

 

You mean efforts should be made to ensure the BNP joins
the elections?

India should make all-out efforts to do it. It is true that India found the Awami League leader quite receptive in the past five years, but the BNP leadership has also made it clear that it favours many of the policies vis-a-vis India. There is no attempt to turn the clock back. In order to consolidate on these gains – and we are also going to have elections in our country – it shouldn’t simply be about which party in power here is dealing with which party in power in Bangladesh. There is a government -to-government relationship which has stability, irrespective of which party is in power. So, India should do as much as it can to make sure the BNP comes on board. 

 

Lately, many are also seeing it as a strategic battleground between India and the US…

I don’t think so. First, I don’t think Bangladesh is big enough to be a backyard to host a strategic competition between different countries. As the largest country in the region, India has the greatest interest in ensuring there is stability in the region. It would be difficult to understand how any external player can play a more important role than India which shares such direct physical, geographical and cultural ties with Bangladesh. We ought to be taking the lead. It doesn’t necessarily mean picking the winner but we need to ensure that the political, democratic system that is currently there is sustainable and works in the longer run.   

 

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