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16 December 2022 commemorates the fifty-first year of India’s victory in the Liberation War and the birth of Bangladesh. This followed nine months of brutal repression of the Bengali population in what was then East Pakistan, by the Pakistan army in a crackdown called Operation Searchlight, which began on 25 March 1971. Innocent men, women and children were taken out of their homes and shot, the orgy of killing, rape and loot continuing for months on end till the Indian Armed Forces, along with the Mukti Bahini intervened militarily on 3 December and in a swift 13-day war, forced the Pakistani military to unconditionally surrender. 16 December is commemorated as Vijay Divas since then, to pay homage to the gallant soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces and the Mukti Bahini who fought for freedom, and for all those who laid down their lives for the cause.
Great sacrifices were made by the people of Bangladesh in liberating their country from the tyranny of Pakistan at huge costs in terms of loss of human lives and destruction of property. In her address to the UN General Assembly in September 2017, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stated that the genocide launched by Pakistan on the people of Bangladesh resulted in the killing of three million innocent people. To pay homage to the victims of this heinous military operation launched by the Pakistan army, Bangladesh has declared 25 March as Genocide Day.
It is important to commemorate the war, not only to pay homage to those who laid down their lives but also to keep the memory alive of what brutal regimes can do and to ensure that such history is never repeated again. Susan Brownmiller, an American feminist, wrote very poignantly of the horror of those days, in her book, “Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape”. She compared the rapes of Bangladesh with the rapes of Chinese women by Japanese soldiers at Nanjing in 1937-38, stating that Pakistani soldiers not only violated Bengali women on the spot, but abducted tens of hundreds and held them by force in their military barracks for nightly use. Forty years later, the Bangladesh Government finally set up an international crimes tribunal to investigate the crimes of that era. Some of the more heinous cases have been tried and the perpetrators hanged, but the passage of time has ensured that the vast majority of people in authority who used rape as an instrument of war have got away. The shame of it all was that rape as an instrument of coercion had state sanction. General AAK Niazi, the commanding general in East Pakistan made perhaps the most shameful comment when he said, “You cannot expect a man to live, fight, and die in East Pakistan and go to Jhelum for sex, would you?”
Why do genocides happen? Why is it that in some conflicts, there is a failure to account for the crimes of sexual violence against women? A look into recent history in South Asia is revealing. There is little mention made of genocides and sexual abuse of women in war, which is why there is so little knowledge available in the public domain of this dark side of history. it is precisely because of a lack of accountability that genocides have occurred in the past and will continue to occur in the future too.
The genocide of Hindus in August-September 1921 in Malabar by the Moplah Muslim community finds no mention in history textbooks, despite the fact that over 10,000 Hindus were slaughtered. While the perpetrators of those ghastly crimes were never punished, the absence of these accounts from our history texts seeks to whitewash the crime from public memory.
Soon after independence, a large force of tribals from Pakistan descended on J&K led by Pakistani military officers. This wanton indisciplined lot, murdered, looted and raped at will. The state forces with the Maharaja of J&K consisted of just a handful of infantry battalions, which were widely dispersed across the state and hence could not act against the perpetrators. No international condemnation took place of the violence unleashed by these groups where the Hindu population in Mirpur-Muzzafarabad was killed or forced to flee their homes. And even after a UN brokered ceasefire took effect in January 1949, no attempts were made to record the brutalities inflicted on a hapless population. Denial of occurrences of genocides and mass rapes in war lead to such acts being repeated in future. Because we denied the Moplah genocide, we witnessed killings on a mass scale of innocent civilians in J&K by the Pakistan military during the 1947-48 India-Pakistan War. Had we taken action against the brutal slaughter of Hindus in Malabar in 1921, perhaps there would have been an element of deterrence imposed on the Pakistan tribal raiders led by Pakistan military officers in 1947-48. And had we taken serious note of the killing fields of 1947-48, perhaps the subsequent killings that took place in Baluchistan in Pakistan would not have occurred.
The horrific killings that took place in 1971 in Bangladesh followed a pattern wherein certain groups had the licence to murder, loot and rape, and the crimes so committed were swept under the carpet, never to see the light of day. A culture of impunity prevailed, shielding the perpetrators from the consequences of their actions. By denying the existence of such crimes, the ground was simply being prepared for the occurrence of similar crimes in the future. It is no surprise then, that because we failed to act against the perpetrators of genocide in Bangladesh, and bring them to justice, the Kashmiri Hindus were subjected to yet another wave of brutal assaults in 1989-90, resulting in yet another genocide. We have failed to acknowledge this genocide too, so in the not too distant future, will yet another horror story appear on the Indian landmass, with yet another group of people being subjected to murder, loot and rape on an unimaginable scale?
It is still not too late to act. First, we must name the perpetrators of genocide in the Bangladesh War. Some of them have been brought to trial by the Bangladesh Government, but no action has been taken against the Pakistan military. In Kashmir, none of the perpetrators have been tried for the crimes they committed. That remains a dark blot on our democracy. Worse, our history books remain silent on the crimes committed against the Indian people over the centuries. This must be rectified at the earliest. The purpose is not to rake up the past, but to acknowledge the truth of what happened. Living in denial will only see a repeat of acts of inhumanity in the coming years.
While paying homage to India’s braves who sacrificed their life in the cause of freedom, let us go a step further this time and give a loud call for justice for the victims of genocide. We can make a start with the correct recording and teaching of history and by holding those in power in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1989-90, accountable. That is the finest tribute we can pay to our soldiers who continue to lay down their lives for their nation.