Whilst those who suffered in Bangladesh’s fight for independence were Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and secular, these were atrocities committed overwhelmingly by Muslims who wished to keep together the world’s first Islamic republic. Those committed to Britain’s multicultural society have no desire to pick through those bones.
As Bangladesh approaches 50 years as an independent nation, this is a time for retrospectives and analysis. Yet so far, very little has been written in the United Kingdom: the former colonial power which birthed the distinctly odd state of independent Pakistan, with the Muslim-majority territories of East and West Pakistan on opposite sides of the Indian subcontinent.
This amnesia is not new. In the memoirs of Sir Edward Heath, the Conservative Prime Minister in 1971, the index does not directly refer to Bangladesh at all. There is little more than a page on that year’s epoch shaping events in the Indian subcontinent, and the war of independence is covered largely in terms of Britain’s discussion of international matters with the United States. To Heath, whilst strong feelings had been aroused, “There was never any question, however, of outside interference in the internal affairs of an independent Commonwealth country”. That of course placed responsibility on India, engulfed in West Bengal by those fleeing the Pakistani army, to act, both in defence of its own borders and against the atrocities being committed by those fighting to keeping Pakistan together.
The Cold War context of these events also needs to be stressed. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger placed developments in a framework of Pakistan being supported by China, and India having the sympathies of the Soviet Union. In his telling to Prime Minister Heath, “Pakistan was weaker than India, and China weaker than the Soviet Union. You had two weaker countries lined up against the two stronger ones. We supported the two weaker nations so as to restore the balance.” On such “principles” were international relations conducted during the Cold War. In the meantime, between 500,000 and a million people were killed and millions displaced from their homes. Pakistan launched two particularly disgusting initiatives—the mass rape of Bengali women, and a policy of deliberately targeting local engineers, intellectuals and doctors, in an attempt to ensure that the new state would be unable to maintain itself.
The genocide and war crimes conducted in Bangladesh, both by the Pakistani army and Islamist paramilitaries in organisations like Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), are little understood in today’s United Kingdom. Children are generally well educated about the Holocaust and WWII Nazi war crimes. Muslim representative organisations have brought knowledge of the genocide of 8,000 Muslims during the Bosnian Civil War by Serbian forces into the public arena, producing literature for schools and holding events attended by British elites. But the huge numbers killed in 1971 are largely overlooked. At the time of writing, there appears to be no mention of 50 years of Bangladesh on the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) website. Tower Hamlets in east London is the heartland of Britain’s large Bangladeshi community. One of its most important institutions, East London Mosque, has recent events advertised on Islam and racial justice, Quran recitation and courses for new Muslims—but at the moment nothing to reflect on the momentous events of half a century ago. Let us see if that changes as the year progresses.
Why is there so much reticence, and as we approach the anniversary of Bangladesh declaring independence on 26 March, is this likely to continue? Firstly, the events of 1971, and indeed those of the “Bengali-Urdu” language riots in what was East Pakistan in 1952, undermine concepts of inter-Muslim solidarity. They are contrary to the narrative Islamists wish to develop and are therefore best glossed over by all those with the best wishes of the “Ummah” (the global Islamic community) at heart. Secondly, whilst those who suffered in Bangladesh’s fight for independence were Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Buddhist and secular, these were atrocities committed overwhelmingly by Muslims who wished to keep together the world’s first Islamic republic. Those committed to Britain’s multicultural society have no desire to pick through those bones. This failing seems to apply even to British MPs of Bangladeshi origin, a reluctance arguably rooted in the prevalence of the view Muslims form an oppressed population in the UK. Once accepted, this position makes it far harder to acknowledge historic atrocities committed by Muslims.
Finally, the actions of JeI, and accusations of war crimes involving some of its ageing members are particularly awkward in the British context. Many of the institutions of British Islam, including the East London Mosque and the MCB were assisted in their development by the organising skills and energy of Jamaat-e-Islami exiles. Whilst their importance within British Islam has faded as younger British born activists come to the fore, questions about Jamaat-e-Islami are still distinctly unwelcome.
Since independence, Bangladesh has reversed a number of disadvantages. It is now ahead of Pakistan on metrics such as GDP per capita and female labour market activity. It has avoided some, but not all, of the problems with extremism that have dogged Islamabad. There is no possibility, or desire, to go back. But this year it will be noticeable who looks back and reflects on 1971, and who does not.
Dr Paul Stott is an Associate Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London. He tweets @MrPaulStott