Guarding the legacy of courage

Courier Briefing
Wednesday, March 15th, 2017


 

It was possibly the first visual document to pronounce a verdict that must have been all too apparent “on the ground”, as it were. It’s possible that many who knew him, even those who had the opportunity to gain an appreciation for his skilled filmmaking in a tragically short-lived career, would be unaware of the fact that before he quite literally disappeared, nearly six after the Pakistani army’s surrender had secured the birth of Bangladesh, Zahir Raihan would leave behind his debut in the documentary genre.

 

Raihan was said to be influenced by the Cuban filmmaker Santiago Alvarez, who returned from the US to Cuba and joined the Communist Party, staying loyal to the revolution under Fidel Castro till his death in 1998. Alvarez can also be expected to have influenced Raihan’s principal collaborator for the project, Alamgir Kabir, a journalist and filmmaker, whose colourful upto that point had taken him first to Oxford University to study physics, where he fell in love with the cinema after watching The Seventh Seal, and also found time to join the Communist Party of England. Before returning to what was then still East Pakistan, Kabir had even spent time in Cuba after its revolution. Indeed, Alvarez’s influence, which manifests itself in the use of the ‘nervous montage’ technique, may well have been more pronounced thanks to the younger Kabir, who is also the narrator of ‘Stop Genocide’.

 

The ‘nervous montage’ in Stop Genocide is composed of newsreels, still photographs and footage shot using 35mm, although still grainy in black-and-white. It hardly runs to 20 minutes, but within that time, it succeeds in transporting the reader to a time almost unimaginable to those who didn’t live through it. Here in the same lands where today our complaints run to construction companies and utilities working negligently and perennially intrusive development getting in the way living a normal existence, a generation had witnessed a campaign so viscerally opposed to the concept of life itself. The Pakistani army’s programme of mass cruelty, whether out desperation or frustration, had transformed a disciplined and ambitious force into unspeakable horrors that make you shudder to consider the inhumanity that had consumed them. All in the name of nationalist integrity and territorial sovereignty. But the low to which they stooped was its own guarantee that in the final analysis, natural justice ordained that their heads would never be held high.

 

Raihan was never in doubt, and it is notable that his film actually came out very early on in the war, not even halfway. He had decided to make it around April, and completed it promptly in the next two months. The Mujibnagar government failed to fund it at first, but a group of eminent Indian filmmakers came forward to fill the gap. Eventually it was produced by the Bangladesh Chalachitra Shilpi-O-Kushali Swahayak Samity. The release date was July 6, 1971, and the Mujibnagar Cabinet, along with some other exiled politicians, witnessed the first screening of Stop Genocide at a secret place in India.

 

Although Bangladeshis have long maintained that what they witnessed during their country’s birth was unsurpassed in the scale of cruelty and destruction, there has never been a sustained effort on the international stage to draw the world’s attention to what happened. For that, one may blame the tumultuous birth presaging decades of disunity within the country itself, as it flailed and faltered in efforts to get its own house in order first. The scale and sheer range of challenges facing Bangladesh at independence must be appreciated. It came into being as one of the most densely populated corners of the planet, to go with being arguably the most disaster-prone as well. No government in its right mind would wish to take on the challenge, but as the freedom fighters often say, in Raihan’s documentary and others, besides conversations over tea cups and around dinner tables in every corner of the country till today, their hand was forced by the horrors unleashed upon them by the Pakistani forces. Once that happened, they knew it was all or nothing from that point onwards. They were pushed into a corner, and then no matter how, they had to wrestle independence out of it, the future after that be damned.

 

After getting by somehow in the first two decades, it was only after the advent of democracy in 1991 that a sense of nationhood started dawning upon the population. The economy really only got going around the millennium. But since then it has been a tale of steady, incremental progress, which over a decade solidified to help develop a quiet confidence in the masses. Today it is emergent on the world stage, almost unrecognisable from even just 15 years ago, as it seeks out avenues where it can even provide the lead either regionally or globally, and negotiates partnerships not from a position of dependence, but rather the sharing of mutually beneficial experiences. If you’re looking to answer the question that has arisen out of the bill pertaining to genocide that was passed in the Bangladesh parliament this past week, (‘Why now?’) therein lies your answer. Quite simply, there has never been a better time for it. And with nothing in any statute in the world to prevent, indeed why not? For surely the far greater crime in history’s reckoning, would be to allow the atrocities perpetrated here to be washed away.

 

And it might be most pertinent here, to quote the UN Secretary General at the time U Thant, who on June 3, 1971 made a comment that you could even interpret as a future call to arms, in the event of geopolitical shenanigans preventing any action at the time:

 

“[T]he happenings in East Pakistan constitute one of the most tragic episodes in human history. Of course, it is for future historians to gather facts and make their own evaluations, but it has been a very terrible blot on a page of human history.”

 

Vindication, not vindictive

 

The Jatiya Sangsad on March 11 unanimously adopted a motion for declaring March 25 as ‘genocide day’ and taking steps to earn international recognition of the day commemorating genocide carried out by occupation Pakistan army against unarmed people of Bangladesh.

 

The crackdown on the unarmed people on the night of March 25 set off the nine-month War of Independence led by the Mujibnagar government in exile, which ended with the emergence of independent Bangladesh on December 16, 1971, following the supreme sacrifice of over 3 million people and heroic fight of freedom fighters of all ages and class.

 

The parliament session chaired by speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury passed the motion by voice vote at about 10:00pm after more than six hours of general discussion by 54 treasury and opposition bench lawmakers on the motion moved by Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal lawmaker Shirin Akter, under the Rule 147(1) of the Rules of Procedure to observe “Gonohatya Dibos” on March 25 as the House began its sitting at 3.11pm with Speaker Dr Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury in the chair.  In her notice, Shirin Akhter proposed taking necessary initiatives to earn international recognition to one of the brutal genocides in the world history committed by the Pakistani occupation forces on the night of March 25.

 

The JSD lawmaker said the aim of the cruelty of Pakistani Army in Bangladesh was to destroy the nationhood of Bangalee people.

 

“The gravity of killing perpetrated by Pakistani Army in Bangladesh in 1971 is as same as described by the United Nations in its convention on the nature of genocide,” Shirin Akhter said in her motion.

 

She said the Pakistani army brutally killed 30 lakh Bengalis and raped three lakh women during the nine-month bloody war in 1971 following attacks on March 25 night under the codename “Operation Search Light”.

 

Taking part in the discussion, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that she wholeheartedly supported the proposal of Shirin Akter as on March 25 Pakistani army with tanks and others military equipment carried out attack on sleeping and unarmed people in Rajarbagh, Peelkhana, Dhaka University and old Dhaka.

 

‘All newspapers across the globe had reported about the genocide taken place in Bangladesh during the liberation war,’ she said adding that village after village were set into fire, women were picked up and raped, youths were killed.

 

‘But Pakistani people are still providing false and fabricated information and some Bangladeshi collaborators are helping them. A former major general of Bangladesh Army, ZA Khan, a black sheep, said in his book that liberation war was a result of conspiracy of RAW,’ she said.

 

Opposition leader in the parliament Raushan Ershad said that March 25 night was the blackest and horror night for the country when ‘Pakistanis carried out genocide to make the future Bangladesh meritless.’

 

Jatiya Party chairman Hussain Muhammad Ershad said that Pakistani army and political leaders tried to destroy Bengali nation from the root through the genocide. ‘Each year we should inform rest of the world what Pakistani army had done to us.’

 

Placing the motion, Shirin Akter said that coward Pakistani army carried out ‘worst genocide’ attacking unarmed sleeping Bengalis. Marauding Pakistani army led by Tikka Khan with the order military dictator Yahya Khan launched ‘Operation Searchlight’ to carry out the worst genocide of the world. She proposed declaring March 25 as genocide day and taking steps to earn international recognition of the day in memory of genocide.

 

State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said that his ministry would take necessary steps to earn international recognition for the day in memory of genocide.

 

Commerce Minister Tofail Ahmed proposed for March 25 as National Genocide Day and for observing December 1, as freedom fighters day. Awami League lawmaker Mahiuddin Khan Alamgir supported both the proposals. Information minister Hasanul Haq Inu, said that the declaration of the genocide day was needed to stop the way of Pakistani ghost’s taking state power.

 

Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Rashed Khan Menon said that through Shimla treaty Pakistan itself took the responsibility for the trial of the 195 Pakistani war prisoners but they had not kept their word. AL lawmakers Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, Faruk Khan and Bahauddin Nasim and Tarikat Federation lawmaker Nazibul Bashar Maizvandary also supported Shirin Akter’s motion.

 

Road to Recognition

 

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948 as General Assembly Resolution 260. The Convention entered into force on 12 January 1951. It defines genocide in legal terms, and is the culmination of years of campaigning by lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who even came up with the word, making use of the  the Greek word génos (“race, people”) and the Latin suffix -cide (“act of killing”). The UN Convention defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It followed what is universally held to be the most stark and glaring instance of the crime in recorded history – the Holocaust.

 

Even so, Samantha Power, who just completed an assignment as the US ambassador to the UN under President Barack Obama, in her 2003 book A Problem from Hell, held up numerous examples of genocidal actions by various states or state actors throughout the 20th century where the UN Convention could have been applied to justify intervention aimed at preventing genocide, but wasn’t. Although Power devotes only a small subsection of her book to what transpired during Bangladesh’s bloody War of Liberation, enough scholarship exists from reputed sources at universities around the world, to state the case strongly and with the conviction that comes from being armed with the truth.

 

If there was one thing the Bangladesh MPs kept missing, during the discussion leading to the passage of the bill on March 11, it was their insistence on gaining recognition for March 25, that now stands as a national day of commemoration, on the international stage. As it happens, this should be of secondary importance, and in all likelihood is unlikely anyway, since a UN-declared day against genocide already exists. The real challenge for the likes of Shahriar Alam and those in his ministry, will actually lie in gaining recognition for the genocide itself. Over and over again, this has proved nefariously difficult for victim nations.

 

A notable example that stands out for its recent prominence is the 100-year struggle of the Armenians, to have the slaughter of 1.5m Ottoman Armenians which began in April 1915 and continued till 1923 under the Ottoman Imperial authorities, recognised as genocide. The fraught political difficulties of the endeavour is evident from

 

How despite the recognition of the genocidal character of the massacre in legitimate scholarship as well as in civil society, at the governmental level nations have been “reticent to officially acknowledge the killings as a genocide on account of political concern over their relations with the Republic of Turkey (the Ottoman Empire’s successor state)”.

 

Our counterpart in any such movement, were it to originate in line with the dictates of the bill parliament passed, will of course be Pakistan. Far from any favours, we may only expect Islamabad to try and disrupt our efforts at every opportunity. They may have some powerful friends, but they may have something to atone for as well. Ultimately it will take a long term commitment that stands as the ultimate test of our patriotic zeal. Can present and future generations of Bangladeshis, who didn’t have to survive the genocide, for the victims if nothing else, convince the world it took place?

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