Bangladesh—United by Election
Mullah had been found guilty in February by a much-criticised domestic tribunal of having been a leader of a pro-Pakistan militia that fought against the country's independence and killed some of Bangladesh's top professors, doctors, writers and journalists.
He was convicted of rape, murder and mass murder, including the killing of more than 350 unarmed civilians. Prosecutors called him the "Butcher of Mirpur", a Dhaka suburb where he committed most of the atrocities. As expected, large scale violence and protests have erupted in various towns of Bangladesh sparking unrest and pitched battles between Islamic fundamentalists and the police. Meanwhile, a couple of jihadists hurled a Molotov cocktail and a crude bomb at the village home of Justice Jahangir Hussein Selim, a member judge of International Crimes Tribunal-1, in Senbagh, Noakhali. However, initial reaction to Mullah's execution seems to be fairly muted. There have been reports of scattered violence and small-scale protests in some parts of the country, but this was part of a rail and road blockade by the BNP and its allies.
"It's an historic moment. Finally after four decades, the victims of the genocides of 1971 liberation war have got some justice," deputy law minister Quamrul Islam is reported to have announced. The International Crimes Tribunal ICT was set up in 2010 to investigate abuses committed during the 1971 conflict. The ICT has so far convicted 10 people, eight of whom have been given the death sentence.
The US which supported Pakistan in 1971 described the situation as a "very sensitive moment" and the state department stated “We've long urged the authorities to assure that trials are free, transparent and in accord with international standards. Meanwhile, Human rights groups have also expressed concern that the special court falls short of international standards. UN human rights commissioner Navi Pillay had written to the Bangladeshi authorities urging them to stay the execution of Abdul Quader Mullah, saying the trial had not met the international standards required for the death penalty.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had come under pressure not to carry out the death sentence from the UK, US, the EU and the UN's human rights body fearing derailment of negotiations over general elections scheduled for 5 January. But political observers are of the opinion that while Sheikh Hasina has taken up the task of getting rid of the war criminals seriously, her calculated risk may give her enough elbow space in political negotiations. The Main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is unable to openly condemn the hanging but is a very close ally of the radical Jamaat-e-Islami party.
Jamaat, barred from contesting elections held on 5 January, continues to play a key role in the opposition movement led by the BNP. The BNP had rejected the 5 January date set for general elections, and had called for direct action to bring down Sheikh Hasina's government. The Jamaat-e-Islam’s election manifestos promised enactment of ‘blasphemy law’ to prevent anti-religious publicities or criticism of Islam in books, or media. They also sought to frame rules for military training to the youth, albeit, under the supervision of the army. This would have given them elbow space to instil militancy in public and radicalise the army by inducting these youth into the army. Awami League’s victory in 2009 stopped the Jamaat’s Islamisation agenda.
Meanwhile, it was widely feared that the rise of Hifazat-e-Islam, the new radical Islamist force in the country, led from its headquarters in Chittagong by the 93-year-old Deoband educated cleric, Ahmad Shafi, (also the chairman of the Bangladesh Qaumi Madrassah Education Board that oversees all such schools across the country), will seriously impact the elections so as to defeat the ruling Awami League. Hifazat-e-Islam was expected to fill the space created by the Jamaat. If this had become a reality, the Hifazat, Jamaat and the BNP would have posted a spectacular victory and posed a serious threat to peace in the region, signalling the revival of terrorism in India’s Eastern border.
Keeping this strategy in mind, the BNP and its allies demanded for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls, arguing that Sheikh Hasina cannot be trusted to conduct free and fair elections. But in a deft move, Sheikh Hasina had set up an all party committee to choose the Election Commissioner and all political parties had then agreed for elections to be held under the supervision of the EC and the Constitution.
During a similar crisis in 2007, the military stepped in and installed a caretaker government to carry out political reforms. They failed in that task, but managed to steer the country back to constitutional rule through largely free and fair elections. The Awami League came to power in 2009 through a landslide victory.
The landslide victory of AL that won 232 of the 300 seats, half of them uncontested, has had the opposition and a section of the media crying foul. But soon after the results were declared, the Prime Minister Hasina called for truce and reached out to the opposition leader Khalida Zia, who appeared to be willing to talk though it is too early bet on reconciliation. The BNP in any case is a greater loser and will have to sever all ties with the Jamaat and the Hifaza-e-Islam if it wants credibility and acceptance. On the other hand it will be difficult for Sheikh Hasina to carry on with one party Parliament and convince the world and India of her democratic credentials.
The BNP’s logic that punishing 1971 war criminals will fuel fundamentalism and goad a section of the clergy to extend political support to the BNP against a promise of dissolving the International Crimes Tribunal, seems to have failed to appeal to the people. Now the BNP expects the international community to step in and set another date for fresh round of elections.
If this happens and a regime change does occur in Dhaka, India will have to be prepared for a greater vigil especially in the bordering states like Assam or Northeast. The Awami League Government of Sheikh Hasina cracked down on terror and radical Islamist groups and ISI sleeper cells. Since 2008, with help from Dhaka, India has been able to tackle trans-border insurgency.
India has every reason to watch the events in the neighbourhood very closely. A radicalised polity next door will compound terror related problems for New Delhi. While India has supported Dhaka on its counter terrorism moves, it has appealed to the BNP leadership not to lend support and credibility to terrorist elements by excessively aligning with them. New Delhi has earned the goodwill of the people of Bangladesh and should now play a decisive role in the region in the larger national interests and regional geo-political balance of power.
Pakistan—Divided by Election
Pakistan’s tryst with elections and democracy began in 1970 when the first election was held. Ironically this very first election tore the Pakistani society apart socially and geographically.The election results clearly demonstrated the conflicting character of the two sides of Pakistan. The Awami League (AL) led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman posted a landslide victory winning 160 out of 169 seats (and 7 out of 13 seats reserved for women) allotted for the then East Pakistan by the Legal Framework Order giving them a simple majority in the National Assembly. The AL insisted on a Constitution strictly in accordance with its Six-Point formula. Incidentally, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto won 81 out of 138 seats allotted to West Pakistan. The PPP also put forward its own demands for the Constitution. The military government led by General Yahya Khan refused to hand over power to Sheikh Mujibur Rehman or concede to AL’s Six-point Formula and decided to postpone the National Assembly session of the Assembly, challenged by the Awami League through massive and violent street protests. The writ of the military dictator of Pakistan did not run in Dhaka.
The resounding victories of the PPP and AL in the 1970 elections effected drastic changes in the political setup and the map of Pakistan. Though Pakistan was founded on Islam, the fundamentalist religious parties were totally rejected by the public who were more concerned about better standards of living and strongly protested state’s attempts to govern according to the dictates of Islam. The election results also proved beyond doubt the fallacy of one Pakistan, and challenged the very foundation of Pakistan thus confirming the supremacy of provincialism over Islam in politics and society. [Long after the formation of Bangladesh and the hanging of Z.A.Bhutto, his daughter contested elections on the slogan “charon subon ki zanzeer, Benazir, Benazir (Benazir is the link of all four provinces)”].
The PPP and AL challenged Gen. Yahya Khan who invited Sheikh Mujib for talks little realising the deep discontent and distrust of the Bengali population. Spurned by Mujib, the President Gen. Yahya Khan himself went to Dhaka to convince Mujib to visit Islamabad and later sent Bhutto as his emissary. But the chasm between the two sides of Pakistan had, by now, widened far beyond repair.
In order to break the political deadlock, Yahya Khan announced holding of National Assembly session in Dhaka on 3 March 1971 to discuss the Constitution. After the announcement, elected members of the PPP took oath on Quran to quit if their demands are not met. Similarly the AL members insisted on Six-Point Program and refused to yield. Yahya Khan, caught literally between the devil and the deep blue sea, postponed the NA session, only to face more protests and opposition. On March 03 East Pakistan province went on strike against the postponement of the National Assembly session.
Yahya Khan’s military council decided to crack the whip and ordered direct military action to curb the rebellion once and for all. Thus, “Operation Searchlight” was launched at midnight of March 25, 1971 under Lieutenant-General Tikka Khan, the newly appointed Martial Law Administrator and governor of the Eastern wing. The army came into action and within no time killed lakhs of protesting students and also raided police headquarters and East Pakistan Rifles to ensure peace in the province. The West Pakistan under Martial Law muzzled the media and kept the brutal genocide a total secret, only for some time. The result of the army assault on civilians and mass killings of over five million and half that number of rapes and mass graves fuelled greater resistance and violence. The bloodshed that followed completely alienated the Bengali population of East Pakistan. Their resolve to be free from the clutches of their oppressors intensified. Nearly seven million Bengalis had migrated to India. Every one of them was received with open arms and looked after. On 17th April a Bangladeshi government-in-exile was formed in Kolkata (then Calcutta) of which Mujib was named the president. Mujib was arrested at the orders of the President while those who managed to be free joined the government-in-exile.
The displaced persons slowly organised themselves into combat groups and soon “Mukti Bahini” was launched and swelled to over a lakh combatants getting trained in about hundred camps. India provided logistic support and the Indian army was kept in readiness to swing into action if necessary. The situation turned with Pakistan declaring war on India on the Western sector and Gen. Tikka Khan’s army attacked Indian border posts in the Eastern sector. As if waiting for the signal Indian army met the Pakistani army in full strength.
Pakistan lost the November-December war to India and Pakistani troops surrendered to India in East Pakistan on December 16. The cease-fire on West Pakistan-India border was enforced on December 17. On 16 December 1971, Lt. Gen A. A. K. Niazi, CO of Pakistan Army forces located in East Pakistan signed the Instrument of Surrender and Bangla Desh was finally established the following day. Three days later, on December 20, General Yahya Khan resigned and power handed over to Bhutto who headed the first civilian government.
At the time of surrender only a few countries had provided diplomatic recognition to the new nation. Over 90,000 Pakistani troops surrendered to the Indian forces making it the largest surrender since World War II. The new country changed its name to Bangladesh on January 11, 1972 and became a parliamentary democracy under a new Constitution. On March 19 Bangladesh signed a friendship treaty with India and sought admission to the UN. While all countries voted in favour, China vetoed in opposition to favour Pakistan, its key ally. The United States, also a key ally of Pakistan, was one of the last nations to accord Bangladesh recognition. (The Nixon-Kissinger duo considered Yahya Khan as an ally in the Cold War and allowed illegal supply of arms to Pakistan even as the genocide had begun, thus supporting the military crackdown on the civilian population. The US Congress had opposed this move. The US ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating, reportedly confronted Nixon and Kissinger on the news of Pakistan committing genocide. The US Congress was never officially informed of the genocide, nor did Nixon administration express any hint of compassion for the refugees or support India. On the other hand, Nixon ordered the USS Enterprise (Seventh Fleet) to the Bay of Bengal thus openly threatening India).
Simla Agreement signed between India and Pakistan ensured that Pakistan recognised the independence of Bangladesh in exchange for the return of the Pakistani PoWs. India treated all the POWs in strict accordance with the Geneva Convention, rule 1925.
Further, as a goodwill gesture, nearly 200 soldiers who were booked for war crimes by Bangladesh were also pardoned by India. In another historic blunder, probably under international pressure, India returned more than 13,000 km2 (5,019 sq miles) of territory that Indian troops had seized in West Pakistan during the war, though India retained a few strategic areas in Kargil (which again turned focal point during a war between the two countries following Pakistan’s misadventure there in 1999). The peace overtures were a measure of promoting "lasting peace" and many in the international community acknowledged India’s maturity. The Simla accord was seen as being too lenient to Bhutto, who had pleaded for leniency, arguing that the state of Pakistan would disintegrate and democracy will be in danger in Pakistan. India made another historic blunder and strengthened the hands of Bhutto thereby giving Pakistan another lease of life.
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