Bangladesh's Quest for Closure

Can the execution of Mujib’s assassins finally deliver the country from its darkest chapter?

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s historic declaration of independence, 7 March 1971: “Our struggle this time is for freedom. Our struggle this time is for independence.” JALALUDDIN HAIDER / DRIK / MAJORITY WORLD
01 April, 2010

AQUARTER CENTURY AGO I met a man who calmly told me how he had organised the massacre of a family. He wasn’t confessing out of a sense of remorse; he was bragging about it, grinning as he spoke to me.

I was a young reporter on assignment in Dhaka, trying to figure out what had gone wrong with Bangladesh, which had emerged as an independent nation after a bloody war of liberation 15 years earlier, in 1971. The man I was interviewing lived in a well-appointed home. Soldiers protected his house, checking the bags and identification of all visitors. A week earlier he had been a presidential candidate, losing by a huge margin.

He wore a Pathani outfit that looked out of place in a country where civilian politicians wore white kurtas and black vests, and men on the streets went about in lungis. He had a thin moustache. He stared at me eagerly as we spoke, curious about the notes I was taking, trying to read what I was writing in my notepad. He sat straight on a sofa, his chest thrust forward, as if he was still in uniform. He looked like a man playing a high stakes game, assured that he would win, because he knew someone important who held all the cards.

His name was Farooq Rahman, and he had been an army major, and later, lieutenant-colonel. He had returned to Bangladesh recently, after several years in exile in Libya. Before dawn on 15 August 1975, he led the Bengal Lancers, the army’s tank unit under his command, to disarm the Rokkhi Bahini, a paramilitary force loyal to President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League party. When he left the Dhaka Cantonment, he had instructed other officers and soldiers to go to the upscale residential area of Dhanmondi, where Mujib, as he was popularly known, lived. Soon after 5:00 am, the officers had killed Mujib and most of his family.

I had been rehearsing how to ask Farooq about his role in the assassination. I had no idea how he would respond. After a few desultory questions about the country’s political situation, I tentatively began, “It has been widely reported in Bangladesh that you were somehow connected with the plot to remove Mujibur Rahman from power in 1975. Would you…”

“Of course, we killed him,” he interrupted me. “He had to go,” he said, before I could complete my hesitant, longwinded question.

FAROOQ RAHMAN BELIEVED he had saved the nation. The governments that followed Mujib reinforced that perception, rewarding him and the other assassins with respectability, political space, and plum diplomatic assignments. One of Mujib’s surviving daughters, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who inherited his political mantle and who was to become the prime minister of Bangladesh, was marginalised for many years. She lived for a while in exile, and for some time, was detained. The political landscape after Mujib’s murder was unstable. Bangladesh has had 11 prime ministers and over a dozen heads of state in its 39-year history. Hasina was determined to redeem her father’s reputation and seek justice, and her quest has larger implications for Bangladesh’s citizenry. Hundreds of thousands—and by some estimates perhaps three million—people were killed during Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971. Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis now wait for justice—to see those who harmed them and their loved ones brought to account. But the culture of impunity hasn’t disappeared. It took more than three decades for Sheikh Hasina to receive some measure of vindication.

The courtyard outside the jail where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s killers were executed. ANDREW BIRAJ/REUTERS

SOMETIME IN THE AFTERNOON of 27 January this year, Mahfuz Anam received a call from an official, saying that the end was imminent. Anam was in the newsroom of Bangladesh’s leading English newspaper, The Daily Star, which he edits. He knew what the message meant: perhaps within hours, five men—Farooq, Lt-Col Sultan Shahriar Rashid Khan, Lt-Col Mohiuddin Ahmed, Maj Bazlul Huda, and army lancer AKM Mohiuddin—would be hanged by the neck until dead at the city’s central jail. Anam told his reporters to be prepared, and sent several reporters and photographers to cover the executions.

“We had hints that the end was near, particularly when the relatives of the five men were asked to come and meet them with hardly any notice,” Anam told me during a long telephone conversation a week after the executions. “The authorities had told the immediate families that there were no limits on the number of relatives who could come, and they were allowed to remain with them until well after visiting hours. We knew that the final hours had come.”

Once the families left, the five men were sent to their cells. They were told to take a bath and to offer their night prayers. Then the guards asked them if they wanted to eat anything special. A cleric came, offering to read from the Qu’ran. Around 10:30 pm, a reporter called Anam to say that the city’s civil surgeon, Mushfiqur Rahman, and district magistrate Zillur Rahman had arrived at the jail. Police vans arrived 50 minutes later, carrying five coffins. The anti-crime unit, known as the Rapid Action Battalion, took positions providing support to the regular police force to prevent demonstrations. Other leading officials came within minutes: the home secretary, the inspector general of prisons, and the police commissioner. Rashida Ahmad, news editor at the online news agency,, recalls: “Many media houses practically decamped en masse to the jail to ‘experience a historic moment’ firsthand.” Anam told me, “By 11:35 pm, we knew it would happen that night. We held back our first edition. The second edition had the detailed story.”

Bazlul Huda was the first to be taken to the gallows. He was handcuffed, and a black hood covered his face. Eyewitnesses have said Huda struggled to free himself and screamed loudly, as guards led him to the brightly lit room. An official waved and dropped a red handkerchief on the ground, the signal for the executioner to proceed. It was just after midnight when Huda died. Muhiuddin Ahmed was next, followed by Farooq, Shahriar, and AKM Muhiuddin. It was all over soon after 1:00 am.

Earlier that day, the Supreme Court had rejected the final appeal of four of the five convicts. Shahriar was the only one not to seek presidential pardon. His daughter Shehnaz, who spent two hours with her father that evening, later told, “My father was a freedom fighter; and a man who fights for the independence of his country never begs for his life.”

Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, was at her prime ministerial home that night. She was informed when the executions began, and she reportedly asked to be left alone, and later offered namaz-e-shukran (a prayer of gratitude). Many people, most of them supporters of the Awami League, had gathered outside her house that night, but she did not come out to meet anybody. A few days later, she told a party convention that it was a moment of joy for all of them, because due process had been served.

The mood was sober and subdued. Dhaka residents I spoke to told me the celebrations were only in certain localities. Ahmad, who was at her news desk until late at, wrote to me, saying the mood was sombre, and many looked at it as a time for reflection, although that night and the following day there was muted rejoicing in some areas. Many could understand Hasina thanking God, and other politicians welcoming the closing of a dark chapter, but some felt it a bit much that parliament itself thanked God and adjourned for the day, she said.

The chapter is not yet closed. In early February, Awami League activists ransacked and set afire the home of the brother of Aziz Pasha, one of the self-confessed conspirators who had died in exile in Zimbabwe a few years ago. Six other conspirators remain at large, and the Government says it is determined to bring them back.

CALL IT JUSTICE, REVENGE, or closure. It has taken 34 years for this particular saga to reach its end. Khondaker Mushtaq Ahmed, who took over as Bangladesh’s president after Mujib’s assassination, had granted the officers immunity and praised the assassins. General Ziaur Rehman, who later became president, confirmed the immunity. A series of articles in August 2005 were published simultaneously in The Daily Star and Prothom Alo, commemorating the 30th anniversary of the coup d’état that killed Mujib and much of his family. Lawrence Lifschultz, an American journalist who had been South Asia Correspondent of the Far Eastern Economic Review in the 1970s, revealed that one of his principal sources, alleging CIA links with the political leadership of the coup, was the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Eugene Boster.

While Boster sought anonymity during his lifetime, Lifschultz disclosed after Boster’s death that the ambassador had in 1977 informed he and his colleague, the American writer, Kai Bird, that the US Embassy had contacts with the Khondaker group six months before the coup, and that the ambassador had himself ordered that all links with Khondaker and his entourage be severed. Boster claimed he learned later that behind his back the contacts continued with Khondaker’s associates until the actual day of the coup.

In their book, Bangladesh: The Unfinished Revolution (1979), Lifschultz and Bird document Khondaker’s prior links to a failed Kissinger initiative during the 1971 war. Khondaker’s colleagues in Bangladesh’s government-in-exile had discovered his covert contacts with Kissinger, and it ended with him being placed under house arrest in Calcutta. Four years later, Khondaker—who was in Mujib’s cabinet—became president after the military coup, and once in office, he granted immunity to the assassins.

Later governments gave some of the assassins high-ranking posts, even though these men had conspired to eliminate the country’s elected leader. Lt-Col Shariful Haq Dalim represented Bangladesh in Beijing, Hong Kong, Tripoli, and became high commissioner to Kenya, even though he had attempted another coup in 1980. Lt-Col Aziz Pasha served in Rome, Nairobi, and Harare, where he sought asylum when Hasina first came to power in 1996. She removed him; he stayed on in Harare, and died there. Maj Huda was briefly a member of parliament, and also served in Islamabad and Jeddah. Other conspirators served Bangladeshi missions in Bangkok, Lagos, Dakar, Ankara, Jakarta, Tokyo, Muscat, Cairo, Kuala Lumpur, Ottawa, and Manila.

The Oxford-trained lawyer, Kamal Hossain, who was Mujib’s law minister, and later foreign minister, told me, “The impunity with which Farooq operated was extraordinary. When he returned to Bangladesh, the government facilitated him and President [Hussain Muhammad] Ershad, who wanted some candidate to stand against him in the rigged elections. [Ershad] let Farooq stand to give himself credibility.”

Former Lt-Col Syed Farooq Rahman, convicted in the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, being led to court in a prison vehicle. RAFIQUAR RAHMAN/REUTER

It was clear that a trial of the assassins would only be possible if Mujib’s party, the Awami League, came to power. That happened in 1996, and Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, became prime minister. The cases began and the court found all 12 defendants guilty. But Hasina lost the 2001 elections, and the process stopped, resuming only after her victory in the elections of December 2008. The government now wants to bring the surviving officers back to Bangladesh: Noor Chowdhury is reportedly in the United States; Dalim is in Canada; Khandaker Abdul Rashid, Farooq’s brother-in-law, is in Pakistan; MA Rashed Chowdhury is in South Africa; Mosleuddin is in Thailand; and Abdul Mazed is in Kenya. Bringing all of them back may not be easy, because they will face executions. Canada and South Africa have abolished the death penalty, and Kenya put a stop to it recently, making it harder for those governments to extradite them.

How does a nation, whose independence was soaked with blood, which lost a popular leader of its freedom struggle in a brutal massacre, reconcile with that crime? What form of justice is fair? Does the death penalty heal those wounds?

Bangladesh thinks so. It is among the 58 countries (including India) that retain the death penalty, but it applies it only in rare cases, like murder. In 2008, five people were executed in Bangladesh. Many governments oppose the death penalty on principle, and the European Union appealed to the Bangladeshi government to commute the sentence of Mujib’s assassins. The human rights group Amnesty International also sought clemency, while agreeing that the men should face justice.

Bangladeshi human rights lawyers have found it hard to challenge the death penalty because it is not controversial in Bangladesh. There are also political exigencies. One human rights activist told me, “We are against [the] death penalty but the dilemma is that we are in a country where life imprisonment really means imprisonment guaranteed until your party is in power. The death penalty is almost seen as the only way to guarantee justice for such a grisly crime.”

Grisly, it certainly was. This is what happened.

IN 1975, Dhanmondi hadn’t changed much from how it looked at Independence, with roads lined with two-storey houses dating back to the 1950s. Today, there are multi-storey buildings, English-medium schools, new universities, shopping malls and hookah bars to lure younger crowds. Back in 1975, the area was quieter. In the evening, people strolled along the periphery of the large lake in the middle of the neighbourhood and at night you could hear the tinkle of the bells of the cycle rickshaws plying the roads.

On 15 August 1975, before dawn, 700 soldiers with 105 millimetre weapons left their barracks and headed for the three homes where Mujib and his family lived. Everyone was still asleep at Mujib’s home, number 677 on road 32 in Dhanomondi. Mujib’s personal assistant, Mohitul Islam, was at his desk when Mujib called him, asking him to call the police immediately. Mujib had heard his brother-in-law Abdur Rab Serniabat’s house at 27 Minto Road was being attacked. Serniabat was a minister in Mujib’s government.

Mohitul—who lived to tell the tale—tried calling the police, but the phones weren’t working. When he called the telephone exchange, the person at the other end said nothing. Mujib snatched the phone and shouted into the mouthpiece.

The flag of Bangladesh raised at Mujibur’s residence on 23 March 1971, three days before the official independence from Pakistan. © BEGART INSTITUTE / DRIK / MAJORITY WORLD

The guards outside were hoisting the national flag when the soldiers arrived. The guards were stunned to find army officers rushing in through the gate, ordering them to drop their weapons and surrender. There were a few shots.

A frightened servant woke up Mujib’s son Kamal, who got dressed and came down when Maj Bazlul Huda entered the house with several soldiers. Even as Mohitul tried telling Huda that it was Kamal, there was a burst of gunfire; Kamal lay dead. Huda quickly went to the landing of the staircase when he heard Mujib’s voice.

“What do you want?” Mujib asked Huda, whom he recognised.

The soldiers pulled their triggers, spraying Mujib with dozens of bullets. Before his burial the following day in his birthplace, Tungipara, the imam noticed at least ten bullets still lodged inside Mujib’s body. When I visited the house in 1986, I saw dozens of bullet marks on the wall and staircase where he was killed. Mujib had collapsed on the stairs; his trademark pipe in his hands. He was dead by the time his body stopped tumbling down the stairs.

The killers then went inside the house, and one by one, killed everyone they could find: Mujib’s wife Fajilutunessa, Kamal’s wife Sultana, Mujib’s other son Jamal and his wife Rosy, and Mujib’s brother Naser, who was heard pleading, “I am not in politics.”

Then they saw Russell, Mujib’s ten-year-old son, who was crying, asking for his mother. He, too, was killed.

Around the same time, another group of soldiers had killed Mujib’s brother-in-law, Serniabat at his home, and a third group had murdered the family of Fazlul Haque Moni, Mujib’s nephew, an influential Awami League politician who lived on road 13/1, about two kilometres away from Mujib’s home. At that time, Mahfuz Anam was a young reporter at the Bangladesh Times. He lived across the Dhanmandi Lake, and had a clear view of Sheikh Moni’s house. “I saw what happened,” he recalled. “Early that morning I was awakened by the sound of firing. I got up. My room was on the side of the lake. I ventured out to the boundary wall. I saw troops enter Sheikh Moni’s house. I heard plenty of firing, followed by screaming. I heard shots—some random, some from sub-machine guns. I saw the troops leave the house. It was all over in four to six minutes. I could hear the people inside groaning; it continued for some time.”

The junior officers’ coup had proceeded exactly as planned. There had been no resistance from the moment Huda and his team had reached Mujib’s home. After taming the Rokkhi Bahini, Farooq arrived at Mujib’s gate, eager to know what had happened at Mujib’s home. Huda told him calmly, “All are finished.”

When we met a decade after those killings, I asked Farooq, one of the leading conspirators, “And the ten-year-old boy: did he have to be killed?”

“It was an act of mercy killing. Mujib was building a dynasty; we had to finish off all of them,” he told me with a degree of finality, his arm slicing ruthlessly in the air, as if he was chopping off the head of someone kneeling in front of him. There was no mercy in his eyes, no remorse, only a hint of pride.

They had tried killing the entire family, but they could not get Mujib’s two daughters, Hasina and Rehana, who were on a goodwill tour in Europe. Hasina was in Bonn, Germany, where her husband, MA Wazed Miah, a nuclear scientist, was a researcher at a laboratory (He died in May 2009). Kamal Hossain, Mujib’s cabinet minister, was on an official visit to Belgrade. Speaking a week after the executions of Mujib’s killers, he told me, “I first heard there had been a coup. Later, at the home of the Bangladesh Ambassador to Yugoslavia, we sat listening to French radio, and more information began coming out. We heard about Mujib’s death, then we heard about the other family members. My first thought was Hasina’s safety.” He met her in Bonn and decided to sever his relations with the new government. He handed in his official passport to the ambassador, and left for England, which had better links with Bangladesh, and where getting information would be easier. Hasina, too, decided there was no need for her to go back. She was granted asylum in India and lived in New Delhi with her husband until 1981. Hossain returned to Dhaka in 1980.

IN OCTOBER 1986, I visited Mujib’s house, the mute witness to the ghastly events of that dawn. As if to ensure that no one will forget the tragedy, Hasina, who showed me around, had made only minimal changes to the house, preserving the crime scene. The bare walls bore bullet marks. Shattered glass lay on the ground of what was once Mujib’s library. On the staircase on which Mujib was shot, and on the wall which he tried to grip for support as he fell, darkened blood stains were still visible.

Sheikh Hasina was inconsolable when she returned to her homeland in 1981, after six years in exile. © RASHID TALUKDER / DRIK

Mujib was 55 when he was killed. He had been in and out of Pakistani jails, and was widely regarded—and initially revered—as Bangladesh’s founding father. At the time of Partition, what is now known as Bangladesh formed the eastern wing of Pakistan. The two parts of Pakistan were divided by thousands of kilometres of Indian territory. Islam united the two, but culture, language and the idea of nationhood divided them. The eastern half was more populous, and should legitimately have commanded greater resources, but the generals and politicians in power in the western half disregarded eastern demands, responding to eastern claims with contempt, if not repression. Punjabis dominated the Sindhis, Baluchis, and Pathans in the west, and they had even less regard for their Bengali compatriots.

Things came to a head in 1970, when in nationwide elections, Awami League secured a majority. Mujib should have been invited to become Pakistan’s prime minister, but the generals and politicians in the west thought differently. Mujib’s negotiations with Gen Yahya Khan, Pakistan’s ruler, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, leader of the Pakistan People’s Party which had won a large number of seats in the west, continued interminably. Meanwhile, Yahya Khan sent Gen Tikka Khan to Dhaka. Many Bangladeshis remember planeloads of young men arriving on flights from the west. They were military men but not in uniform, and they did not carry weapons. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s navy was shipping weapons through ports like Chittagong, keeping Bengali officers in the dark, and secretly arming the men who had landed in Dhaka.

The crackdown began on 25 March 1971, as the Pakistani army brutally attempted to crush Bengali aspirations. Mujib was jailed in West Pakistan. In the east, hundreds of thousands were killed, and millions of refugees made their way to India. A civil war followed, and India aided the Mukti Bahini, as Bangladeshi freedom fighters were called. In early December, Pakistan attacked India on its western front; India retaliated, and its troops defeated Pakistan on both fronts within a fortnight. Indian troops entered Dhaka, and thousands of Pakistani troops surrendered. A few weeks later Mujib returned to the Tejgaon airport. A sea of humanity greeted the leader of the new nation, Bangladesh.

Three and a half years later, Farooq and his men annihilated most of Mujib’s family. “Even dogs didn’t bark when we killed Mujib,” Farooq told me.

THE SHEIKH MUJIBUR RAHMAN of 1975 was not the Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of 1971. He squandered his unprecedented goodwill for two reasons. First, he could not meet the phenomenal expectations Bangladeshis had in his leadership. Lifschultz, who was based in Dhaka in 1974, remembers the day when Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Zulifikar Ali Bhutto, visited Bangladesh for the first time since its independence from Pakistan. As Bhutto’s motorcade moved from the airport into central Dhaka, a section of the crowd lining the street shouted, “Bhutto Zindabad (Long Live Bhutto).”

Lifschultz thought this was rather bizarre. He told me there were conflicted feelings among some Bangladeshis who in 1974 were living through the first stages of a severe famine. Clearly, some believed their hopes had been belied, but to him, the cheering of Bhutto seemed particularly perverse, given the circumstances of Bangladesh’s emergence.

BANGLADESHI FRUSTRATION with Mujib was understandable. By mid-1974, Bangladesh was reeling from a widespread famine that experts believe was at least partly due to political incompetence. Citizens were also stunned by the ostentatious weddings of Mujib’s sons at a time of economic crisis. Food distribution had failed, and people were forced to sell their farm animals to buy rice. Thousands of poor people left their villages looking for work in the cities. Irene Khan, who was until recently the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, was a schoolgirl in the early 1970s. She recalls hungry voices clamouring for food outside the gates of her family home every day.

With public criticism over the mass starvation growing, Mujib clamped down on dissent. He abolished political parties and created one national party called Bangladesh Krishak Shramik Awami League (BAKSAL); removed free-thinking experts who did not agree with his policies; nationalised newspapers (closing most), and allowed only two each—in Bangla and in English. He stifled dissent within the party, suspended the constitution, and declared himself president. Now editor of The Daily Star, Anam calls those measures the greatest blunder Mujib made. “It is still a mystery what led him to do that. He had it all. There was nothing, nobody in the parliament opposed to his policies, except for a few voices. He was the tallest man in the country. Why did he do it? It was in total contrast to his political heritage. It was a dramatic transformation from a multiparty system to a one party state.”

The only time I met Farooq, in 1986, he expressed outrage at those changes, “How do you pass an amendment in Parliament which abolishes party membership in just 11 minutes? No discussions, nothing!” Bangladesh, in his opinion, was becoming a colony of India, and as a freedom fighter, he thought he had to stop that. “I tried to save the country,” he told me,  his tone rising, “Mujib had changed the constitution so that the court could not do a thing. All power was with the president.”

None of Farooq’s explanations justified the terrible manner in which he and his family were killed, but the famine and his increasingly authoritarian rule partly explains why there was little outward expression of grief after his assassination. At the same time, it was not just Mujib’s killing, but the brutality of it, that many Bangladeshis felt justified the death penalty for the assassins.

Justice moves slowly in Bangladesh. According to a recent study, Bangladesh’s jails can hold only 27,000 prisoners, but there are some 70,000 inmates in jail, and some 47,000 are still awaiting trial, according to the inspector-general of prisons. One reason for the backlog is the shortage of judges. The other is that some defendants are too poor to afford legal help.

Sheikh Hasina, 10, with her younger sister Sheikh Rehana and younger brothers Sheikh Kamal and Sheikh Jamal in 1957. The two brothers were killed during the 1975 coup. © BABY MOUDUD COLLECTION / DRIK

The trial of Mujib’s assassins falls under a different category. There was little political will to try the assassins. That changed when Hasina came to power. The five officers were sentenced to death as early as 1998. They appealed, but higher courts upheld the sentence in April 2001 and November 2009 respectively. They sought a Supreme Court review, and later, four of the five applied for presidential pardon. While the government meticulously followed the constitutional procedures, many have noted the speed with which the final appeals were dealt with.

A four-member special bench of the Supreme Court’s appellate division met at 9:25 am and issued a verdict at 9:27 am, on 26 January 2010, rejecting the review petition. Senior civil servants of the law and home ministry met at noon, and discussed the issue for three hours. Farooq, who had resisted writing his mercy petition, did so that afternoon. Officials received and dispatched his petition within minutes, as they were all in one room with colleagues whose approval was needed. A report on said that President Zillur Rahman rejected the petition at 7:30 pm (the hangings occurred soon after midnight).

The quick turnaround of the documents was remarkable. One lawyer told me, “What you saw wasn’t due process; it was process with undue speed.”

THERE IS A SENSE IN DHAKA NOW, that the executions have brought the tragedy to a close. Perhaps; but many other wounds continue to fester. On the day of Mujib’s killing in 1975, the officers had also arrested Tajuddin Ahmed, Nazrul Islam, Kamaruzzaman, and Mansur Ali—four leading Awami League politicians suspected of being pro-Mujib. On the night of 3 November 1975, soldiers came to the jail, and asked for the four to be brought to one cell. The jail authorities tried to find out what was going on, when a call from the president asked them to cooperate. The soldiers then took out their weapons, and, without reading out any charges, without any trial or any authority, sprayed bullets on them, killing them instantly. Mosleuddin, involved with the 15 August killings, proudly claimed to have played a role in the jail killings. Khondaker gave the killers immunity. Some pro-Mujib officers overthrew Khondaker two days later. A counter-coup followed, and the situation was stabilised weeks later when Gen Ziaur Rahman took over, ending the pretence of civilian rule. Tajuddin’s daughter, Simeen Hossain Rimi, has compiled her father’s writings and sought justice. The government has said it will pursue that case, too.

And then there are the war crimes.

When Hasina came to power in 2008, one of her electoral promises was to seek justice for the victims of the 1971 war. Without getting into the technical debate over whether what happened in Bangladesh in 1971 was a genocide—which is a legal term with a precise meaning in international law—there is enough evidence to prove that both war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed in Bangladesh. Many of those who committed those acts are still free: some live abroad, some in Pakistan and some in Bangladesh, living with the same impunity as some of Mujib’s killers did until recently. These individuals resisted an independent Bangladesh, and successive governments in Bangladesh haven’t pursued the matter. Some governments lacked the political capital and will, some had little moral authority, and some have even been complicit with some of the crimes.

That context has changed with Hasina’s recent victory.

Irene Khan, who worked for many years at the UN High Commission for Refugees before leading Amnesty International, told me:

You can have debates about whether particular acts constitute war crimes or genocide. You can debate whether what happened was a war or an internal conflict. But they were crimes against humanity. There was obviously culpability and collusion of some locals with the Pakistani army. For instance, in December 1971, before the formal handover to the Indian army, there was a whole list of intellectuals who were picked up and killed. These were not political cases; these were civilians. Those crimes have remained uninvestigated; it is extremely important that there is a commission of inquiry, if Bangladesh is to put a closure to this chapter of its history. Even if you will have only a limited number of prosecutions, you need a full record of what happened.

Pakistan’s own war inquiry commission report of 1974  mentions that tens of thousands of civilians were killed, and many women were raped. Bangladeshis find that report incomplete because it barely scratches the surface of what happened.

Justice for those crimes against humanity won’t be easy. At the time of the final handover of Pakistani prisoners of war, India and Bangladesh signed a tripartite treaty with Pakistan, which effectively granted immunity to Pakistani soldiers. While Bangladesh passed a law subsequently to try war criminals, that law only focused on Bangladeshi collaborators, leaving out the Pakistani army. “That issue has always been brushed under the carpet,” Irene Khan told me. “The real question is: can an international treaty sign away the rights to justice of victims? The treaty absolves the Pakistani army and political leaders.”

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with his elder daughter Sheikh Hasina during happier times. Hasina became Prime Minister in 1996. © BAL KRISHNAN / DRIK / MAJORITY WORLD

Realpolitik may have prevented going after Pakistanis, and domestic politics made targeting local collaborators complicated. Hasina’s rival was Khaleda Zia, Ziaur Rahman’s widow. She led the Bangladesh National Party, which has had an electoral alliance with Jamaat-i-Islami, a fundamentalist party. Some of the Jamaat’s leaders and many followers are accused of being collaborationists.

The Bangladeshi government had said it would commence trials in March. A tribunal was expected to be set up in Dhaka by 26 March, Bangladesh’s Independence Day, but nobody has been indicted yet, no prosecutors or investigators have been appointed, and only Bangladeshi ‘collaborators’ will be tried. Some observers fear that the process will be seen as an attack on Jamaat-i-Islami. If the initial indictees are only from the Jamaat, they will claim they are being victimised, and the credibility of the process will suffer. A fair process would also investigate the conduct of the Mukti Bahini, the Bangladeshi freedom fighters who are alleged to have committed atrocities against Urdu-speaking Biharis, many of whom supported Pakistan.

And all this, to what end? It is a people’s quest for justice; a society’s desire to break the imposed silence. It is to reassert the norms that govern a nation, to re-establish the foundations on which civilisation can rest.

Irene Khan is not sure if the recent executions will help turn the tide against the culture of impunity. “This is a systemic problem in Bangladesh,” she says. “There is impunity from the local policeman who beats up a suspected thief, to the security forces who tortured and killed suspected mutineers in interrogation cells.” She refers to the failed Bangladesh Rifles mutiny last year. Guards of Bangladesh Rifles objected to army officers commanding them, so they held officers hostage, killing many of them and ransacking the barracks, before surrendering. Hundreds of mutineers were tortured later, and over 60 died.

THE CULTURE OF IMPUNITY runs deep. Hasina may think of reaching closure for her personal grief. For millions of Bangladeshis, that remains an elusive goal. Projonmo 71 is a social movement, bringing together the children of those who died during the independence war. Staunchly Bengali in their nationalism, many of its members are secular. Meghna Guhathakurta, an academic who taught international relations at Dhaka University and is now the director of Research Initiatives, a development think tank, is one of them.

She vividly remembers the midnight of 25 March 1971. Her father, Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta, who was a professor of English at Dhaka University, was correcting examination papers. Schools and colleges were closed, as Bangladeshis had embarked on a non-cooperation movement. She feared her father would get arrested, and they had been warned.

An army convoy came to the campus. There were six apartments in the building. The soldiers began banging on the doors. An officer and two soldiers entered their ground floor apartment through the back garden. The officer asked in Urdu, “Where is the professor?” Her mother asked why they wanted to meet her husband. The officer said they had come to take him away.

“Where?” she asked. The officer did not reply.

Guhathakurta told me what followed in a calm voice:

My mother called my father. The officer asked my father if he was the professor. My father said yes. ‘We have come to take you,’ he said. Meanwhile, several other professors were being brought down. Some families tried to hold them, but we told them—‘let them go, otherwise they will shoot you.’ We turned around, and we heard the firing of guns. And we saw all of them lying in a pool of blood. Some were shouting for water. We rushed out to the front part of our compound. I saw my father lying on the ground. He was fully conscious. He told me they had asked him his name and his religion. He said he was a Hindu, and they gave orders to shoot him. My father was hit by bullets in his neck, his waist, and it left him paralysed. The soldiers had run away. We took my father to the house. We could not take him to the hospital because there was a curfew.

He remained in pain, and they could only take him to the hospital on 27 March, when the curfew was lifted. He died three days later.

I asked her about the executions of Mujib’s assassins. “I am against impunity, and I am very much happy justice has been met,” she said. “But I am not happy that we have the death penalty. Not every crime has been tried yet.”

She is a peace activist and has thought of forgiveness, but there is a moral dilemma around that idea. British writer Gillian Slovo, who was born in South Africa, had faced such a moral quandary in the years after apartheid was lifted. During apartheid, Slovo’s father, Joe, led the South African Communist Party, and he and her mother, Ruth, first lived in exile in Mozambique, from where they carried on their anti-apartheid activism. They were among the few whites to take on the South African regime (her mother had been detained without trial in 1963, and the couple fled South Africa after the African National Congress leadership was rounded up). Tragedy struck in Mozambique, when agents of apartheid sent her a letter bomb, which exploded,

killing her.

Slovo ended up confronting the man responsible for sending that lethal parcel to her mother. She discovered a copy of her book, which she had autographed, had ended up with that man. I met Slovo in late 2008, soon after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and I asked her if it was possible to forgive. After all, South Africa had astounded the world with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which offered a non-violent way in which the oppressor and victim could resolve differences face to face. Slovo told me, “Lots of countries like truth commissions because they look at South Africa and think of the miracle. But I am not sure if it was entirely miraculous; it had its flaws, too. The commission was a compromise to stop people from fighting. People need to see if the two sides want to stop fighting first. It is impossible to otherwise start a process that goes so deep. There is a difference between individual and collective responses. South Africa’s experience reflected the thinking of an archbishop [Desmond Tutu], whose church believed in forgiveness.”

Guhathakurta had studied at a convent, and the Christian ideas of mercy were ingrained in her as a child. She was 15 when her father was murdered, and the impression of those school lessons was strong. She told me, “I remember the first thing I did was to say: I forgive those who killed my father. But in a multicultural system it doesn’t always work. Not all religions are about forgiveness. Revenge is permitted in many religions. Human beings have a primordial urge to take revenge.”

Many years later, Guhathakurta was interviewing victims of 1971 for a film. She was talking to those who escaped from killing fields, and families of people who were victims. That’s when it occurred to her: trauma never really ends. Her nightmares will always stay. She acknowledged her anger. She did not want revenge; she wanted justice. She said:

For me, justice would be when the Pakistani government realises what it did. But they have not even recognised the genocide. For me, justice means something like Berlin’s Holocaust Museum is constructed in Islamabad. I want to see signs where they say that such an event took place, and it was our fault, because we did it, and we are sorry. You can’t ask the daughter to forgive the murderer of her father. Revenge doesn’t make sense, either. Just because my father died doesn’t mean yours has to die. But recognition, that something took place, and the fact that it should not take place again—that’s justice. The Holocaust museum says it happened, therefore it can happen again.

Slovo had put it slightly differently: Real reconciliation only happens when the terrible is acknowledged, so that you can’t say it did not happen.

TOWARDS THE END of the Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s novel, Kartography, Maheen tells her niece Raheen, “Bangladesh made us see what we were capable of. No one should ever know what they are capable of. But worse, even worse, is to see it and then pretend you didn’t. The truths we conceal don’t disappear, Raheen, they appear in different forms.”

Bangladesh abounds with victims—each family has a horror story of its own, where a loved one has been hurt grievously, and the ones who have committed those atrocities have not faced justice, nor expressed remorse. It is impossible to heal everyone. But honest accounting of what happened would be a good start. Trying Mujib’s killers, seeking the extradition of those living abroad and solving the mystery of the jail killings are useful steps in making sense of their warped politics, where individuals bragging about killing defenceless people were being rewarded.

Removing the culture of impunity will be a small step towards justice—not necessarily through death penalties, but through remorse, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Until that happens, the question Projonmo 71 left inscribed on the plaque commemorating the martyred intellectuals at Rayer Bazaar in Dhaka will continue to resound across the wounded rivers and valleys, awaiting an answer: “Tomra ja bolechhiley, bolchhey ki ta Bangladesh?” (Is Bangladesh saying what you had wanted to say?)