Part V: Debating Genocide

Dec 2012

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Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

The exact definitions of what were “genocidal” actions during the war matters tremendously, especially in the context of the ongoing legal challenges around unresolved issues of 1971. War crimes trials for Pakistani officers is possibly a lost cause by now. The opportune time for that was 1972, but at that time the officers were chess pieces to be exchanged for the Bengali officers imprisoned inside Pakistan. The issue of repatriation for the “Biharis” or “Stranded Pakistanis” is also largely settled through their relative assimilation over 40 years—and also due to the court verdict (shamefully late) which gave them full voting rights ahead of the 2008 elections. What remains unsettled is war crimes trials for the Bengalis who were involved in death squads with the support of the Pakistan army. This has a direct impact on current politics, as many of the accused belong to the main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. The head of the Jamaat, Ghulam Azam, has already retired (possibly pushed out by young Turks who wanted to remove the 1971 stigma from the party), but the second tier is now under investigation by the current Awami League government in Bangladesh.

The potential trial of alleged war criminals remains a highly emotive issue, and the Awami League party hopes to strengthen its hold on Sreeti Ekattur (1971 memory)—which has consistently helped them, especially with the youth vote in recent elections. But as the legal structure of the war crimes tribunals is weak, some analysts worry that the verdicts will lack credibility. (33) The Jamaat has already shown itself ready to deploy international lawyers. Its members have legally challenged an Economist magazine article which named the current Jamaat chief, Matiur Rahman Nizami, as head of the Al-Badr death squad. (34) The Channel Four documentary War Crimes File, a collaboration between Gita Sahgal, David Bergman, and others, has also been subject to libel action by the British-Bangladeshis alleged to have committed war crimes.

One of the key strategies deployed by Jamaat has been to redefine the nature and vector of wartime violence. A Jamaat advocate appeared on television in 2007, denying that there had been any death squads and arguing instead that anyone who participated in “pro-Pakistan actions” was defending the legal unitary structure and that therefore their actions were not “war crimes.” In a context where the ongoing war crimes trials are now under various legal and political challenges, new attempts by certain journalists and academics to remove “genocide” as a descriptor from the war (as in the recent New York Times op-ed piece by one of the alleged war criminals’ defense lawyer) is hardly a neutral or disinterested act. (35)


33. David Bergman, Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal,

34. “Guilty at birth?” The Economist, December 8, 2007.

35. John Cammegh, “In Bangladesh: Reconciliation or Revenge?” New York Times, November 17, 2011.

This is the fifth essay of a multi-part series “Waiting for a Real Reckoning on 1971″ by Naeem Mohaiemen. Part I | Part II  Part III | Part IVA version of this essay appeared in the edited collection Lines of Control: Partition as Productive Space (2012). 

Naeem Mohaiemen is a visual artist ( and a PhD student in anthropology at Columbia University. He is the editor of Chittagong Hill Tracts: In the Blind Spot of Bangladesh Nationalism (2010) published by Drishtipat/Maunsher Jonno Foundation in Dhaka. 




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One Response to Part V: Debating Genocide

  1. Qres on Jan 2013 at 6:32 PM

    The present ledaers of PP are fools,incapable and coward characters, that they don’t know what to do and what to say.Almost all of its ministers including chieftain stupid PM are proving to be quite chracterless cowards in all respects.Leader of them is Mr.Zardari,who is doing business for him and every other country except Pakistan. Look at his statement The indian planes did’nt do that on purpose and it was a technical mistake I just want to ask him that he should better go to India and start their spokesman job,is he anything to do with Pakistan? and to proving himself to be the most incapable president after (resigned due to fear of impeachment)Musharraf.I am certain that for the future to come the PP party is buried,along with all of present ledaership.I see no future of its coming back in Pakistani politics in the decades to come.Its all due to the most visionless,impotent, and characterless ledaership.

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