Bangladesh, most beautiful and tragic of countries, today risks tearing itself apart in renewed vicious and deeply personal squabbles over its violent creation.

It is as if the tormented ghosts of the country’s bloody past are rising to seek revenge. It is time for Bangladeshi and international leaders to set up a truth and reconciliation commission to exorcise the ghosts and try to heal the deep wounds before it is too late.

A twist in the tragedy is that it had begun to look as if — despite the terrible disasters of late in garment factories — Bangladesh was finally going to justify the golden dreams of its founding fathers and give the lie to Henry Kissinger who dismissed the country as an eternal basket case.

Thanks to economic growth of 6 to 7 percent a year, Bangladesh has joined a new elite of fast-growing nations, nicknamed the N11, standing for Next Eleven, by Goldman Sachs. It is in good company with Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and Turkey named among other N11 countries. Per capita income has reached almost $1,000 a year

Now all this is at risk because of political stalemate, demonstrations and widespread anger over death penalties imposed on some Muslim leaders for their part in the 1971 war that led to Bangladesh being created from the former East Pakistan. Islamist politician Abdul Kader Mullah, convicted of war crimes, was executed Thursday. Elections are due to be held early next year, but the main opposition parties are threatening to boycott them, claiming that they will not be free and fair.

Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds wounded the past few months in strikes and demonstrations that spilled over onto the streets of Dhaka and other cities.

The country’s origins are a testament to the cruel, sometimes criminal, cynicism of so-called leaders of the world. The territory that today is Bangladesh had a long colonial history as part of British India. When India and Pakistan were created in 1947, East Pakistan was separated from West Pakistan by 1,600 km of India.

As Salman Rushdie wrote, the new Pakistan was a weird creature, a “fantastic bird of a place, two wings without a body, sundered by the land-mass of its greatest foe, joined by nothing but God” (a reference to the Muslim religion that both wings of Pakistan shared). Effectively the East suffered a new colonialism: the military rulers based in West Pakistan derided the Bengalis of the East as inferior and unmilitary, although they were happy to use export earnings from the jute of the East to fund the infant industries of the West.

The capital was in the West, and 90 percent of the top jobs in the civil service were held by West Pakistanis, principally by Punjabis. Even the national language was Urdu, spoken mainly in the West. Bengali was the language of East Pakistanis.

The generals’ rule was undermined in 1969 and 1970 by student rebellions and then by natural disaster when a massive cyclone and tidal wave hit the Bay of Bengal and wiped up to half a million people from the face of the earth, far bigger than the recent disasters in the Philippines.

I remember landing in a seaplane just off Bhola island: It was a wasteland. A bewildered man with a straggly beard was the only person in sight, the sole survivor of his village, who had clung to the top of a palm tree that had not been swept away with the houses and rest of the village.

Fortuitously the cyclone struck days before Pakistan’s first free and fair general elections and played into the hands of the Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib campaigned for autonomy for East Pakistan, and complained of the unpreparedness for the disaster and the generals’ lethargic response to it.

The Awami League took all but two of the seats in East Pakistan and had a small absolute majority in the whole of Pakistan.But President General Yahya Khan, aided by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had won a majority in West Pakistan, blocked negotiations.

On March 25, 1971, the generals arrested Mujib and cracked down on the recalcitrant Bengalis in an orgy of destruction, including rape, slaughter of students who had been vociferous against army rule, and widespread murder, looting and pillage.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 people were killed, it’s impossible to be sure because the Pakistan Army did not keep records, and almost 10 million people fled to neighboring India as refugees.

Bangladesh got its independence only after a nine-month struggle in which India was the midwife that accomplished a bloody birth. Shamefully U.S. President Richard Nixon and Kissinger made common cause with Mao Zedong’s China in backing the Pakistani generals who were useful in forging the U.S.-China rapprochement.

The Soviet Union and, belatedly, the United Kingdom eventually broke the tortuous and tortured United Nations to give diplomatic cover to support India’s increasing intervention. Delhi reluctantly armed the ragtag army of rebel Bengali officers from the Pakistan Army, students and freedom fighters and Awami League leaders in exile. But only in the final weeks did elements of the Indian Army get involved, and only when Pakistan declared war and attacked India on Dec. 3, 1971, did India launch a full-scale attack in support of Bangladesh. The campaign lasted 13 days.

I detail this history because the latter-day commentariat has forgotten the brutality of the Pakistani forces and that much of the world stood by in useless handwringing at the suffering of the Bangladeshis.

At the time, traveling on the subcontinent, I remembered feeling with anger that Washington, and especially Kissinger, was trying to get China to do its dirty work by encouraging Mao to attack India, which Nixon and Kissinger feared was out to destroy West Pakistan.

Recently released American documents, notably quoted by Srinath Raghavan in his “1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh” (Harvard), show the depth of vulgarity of Nixon and Kissinger and their hatred of Indira Gandhi in particular — whom they called “a witch” and “a bitch” — and India, “a slippery, treacherous people.”

India comes off both well and badly from recent accounts: well, because there was no plot to dismember West Pakistan or even to take over what is now Bangladesh; badly, because India too was trapped in great power politics and did not have a clear plan. Its inaction, however honorable or cowardly, cost lives.

Even when Bangladesh got its independence, poverty and corruption continued. Then there was more bloodshed when the dithering Mujib was assassinated by junior army officers, and his successor Ziaur Rahman, not a party to the junior officers’ plot, was himself killed by disgruntled army colleagues.

Sheikh Hasina, Mujib’s daughter and the only survivor of the slaughter of Mujib and his family because she was in Germany, and Khaleda Zia, widow of Zia, are today’s bitter leading political rivals.

The women’s stubborn rivalry already threatened to bring politics and life in Bangladesh to a standstill before elections due by January. But then strikes and violence were triggered by death penalties given by a controversial war crimes tribunal to several people who allegedly aided Pakistan army atrocities in 1971.

In one case the judges increased the sentence from 90 years to death; in two other cases the defendants were not in Bangladesh, but in the U.K. and the U.S.

The war crimes tribunal has been criticized as flawed by organizations that support bringing the 1971 criminals to justice. The danger is that its controversial death penalties may get caught up in contemporary politics.

Hasina naturally wants justice for the sufferings of her family and party and set up the war crimes tribunal. Khaleda’s history is more complex, but she has allied with Muslim parties and may find herself cussedly on the other side.

It is time to set up an international tribunal, take the death penalties off the agenda, look for truth not vengeance and seek reconciliation and healing that will allow Bangladesh to kill its ghosts and seek to prove Kissinger completely wrong with more economic successes.

Kevin Rafferty is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.