40 Years After Horror, Bangladesh Is Free

December 16, 2011


I get very squeamish over military intervention. Often it results in more human rights violations that it was intended to stop. But the case of Bangladesh makes me less cynical about military-led humanitarian interventions than I would otherwise be. Bangladesh is better off than it could possibly have been under the brutal military rule of Pakistan.

On December 16, 1971, a dramatic ceremony took place at the Rama Race Course in what was then East Pakistan. The picture was beamed across the world showing Pakistani General A.A.K. Niazi signing an “instrument of surrender” with Indian General J.S. Aurora watching. Forever more, Bangladeshis know this day Bijoy Dibosh or Liberation Day.

As George Harrison put it succinctly in his song during the now iconic Concert for Bangladesh in the summer of 1971, something needed to be done:

Bangladesh, Bangladesh
Where so many people are dying fast
And it sure looks like a mess
I’ve never seen such distress

In the end, this Indian military intervention was an important victory for human rights. The Pakistani Army was engaged in brutal massacres of intellectuals and minorities, forcing an estimated 10 million people from their homes and leaving upwards of 3 million dead. The scenes of families living in sewage pipes outside of Calcutta, India was seared into the memory of the world. The UNCHR called the 1971 crisis as the “most dramatic exodus of the 21st Century”.

So, the deed was done. Bangladesh was free. No longer would it be called East Pakistan or the “Eastern Wing”. No longer would West Pakistani elites treat their language with disdain. No longer would West Pakistani elites willfully violate the economic, social and cultural rights of the Bengali people.

It hasn’t been easy for the country in these 40 years. There have been some incredibly violent political struggles that have scarred the landscape of the country to this day. Between 1975 and 1982, there were at least 12 violent coup attempts, 7 of them successful.

Women’s rights have come a long way but much work remains to be done. During the 1971 civil war, there were thousands of reported cases of rape by Pakistani soldiers. No one has ever faced justice for these war crimes.

Security forces continue to engage in disappearances and violent suppression of protests. There has been only rather sloppy efforts at justice for the crimes of 1971.

But, Bangladeshis across the economic, social, cultural and political divide understand the importance of human rights and engage in the slow process of ensuring human rights for all. This is done by organizations such as the Grameen Foundation or  BRAC which uses rights-based models of development to ensure that economic livelihoods are improved without causing harm. Ain-o-Salish Kendra is a force to be reckoned with as the Bangladesh equivalent of the ACLU.

George Harrison started the song with a rationale about why he organized the Concert for Bangladesh:

My friend came to me
With sadness in his eyes
He told me that he wanted help
Before his country dies

Well Ravi Shankar’s country (the friend that George Harrison was referring to in the song) not only did not die, but it is alive and thriving. Happy birthday, Bangladesh!