NEW DELHI – The sea of humanity besieging the Shahbag area in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, for the last two months, has had an unusual demand – unusual, at least, for the Indian subcontinent. The demonstrators have been clamoring for justice for the victims of the genocidal massacres of 1971 that led to the former East Pakistan’s secession from Pakistan.
The demonstrations have been spontaneous, disorganized, and chaotic, but also impassioned and remarkably peaceful. Many of the several thousand demonstrators at Shahbag are too young to have had personal experience of the killings that marked the Pakistani Army’s brutal, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to suppress the fledgling independence movement. But they are animated by an ideal – the profound conviction that complicity in mass murder should not go unpunished, and that justice is essential for Bangladeshi society’s four-decade-old wounds to heal fully.
What is curious about this development is that the subcontinent has preferred to forget the monstrous injustices that have scarred its recent history. A million people lost their lives in the savagery of the subcontinent’s partition into India and Pakistan, and 13 million more were displaced, most forcibly. But not one person was ever charged with a crime, much less tried and punished.
An estimated million more were massacred in Bangladesh in 1971, and only this year have some of the perpetrators’ local allies been tried. Almost every year, somewhere on the subcontinent, riots, often politically instigated, claim dozens – sometimes hundreds and occasionally thousands – of lives in the name of religion, sect, or ethnicity. Again, investigations are conducted and reports are written, but no one is ever brought before the bar of justice.