Lipika Pelham
Author of Jerusalem on the Amstel

Questioning a genocide in Bangladesh

A war crimes tribunal is demonizing a Jewish-British expat journalist for challenging the casualty figures

When I left home, I was barely 17. I took a bus from a southern town, heading for Dhaka. My friends at Dhaka University had invited me to stay with them at Rokeya hall, one of the women’s halls of residence.

Rokeya Hall was named after Rokeya Shakhawat Hussain, a social reformer and writer on gender equality in undivided India in the early 20th century.

On my second day, I was taken on a tour, by one of the guardians of the women’s hostel, surprisingly a man in his late 50s, whom the students called dadu, grandfather.

He took me to the fifth floor of the red brick main building, encircled by long, ornate verandas on each floor. We stood on the highest spot, at the farthest end of the chest-high balcony.

“From here the women jumped to their death when the razakars, the collaborators came with the Pakistani army.”

I looked down, there was a krishnachura, a flame tree below, in crimson blossoms. I contemplated on the gory history of the still new country. Bangladesh, born of the ashes of the latest phase of the disintegration of India, was yet to find its own identity.

My earliest memory of the aftermath of the war comes from 1972-73. I remember my mother shouting, razakar, razakar ashchhe, razakar is coming, whenever I refused to come inside at meal times.

I never tried to analyse the veracity of dadu’s comments, when he went on saying that some 200,000 women and children had been raped during the nine-month war. In the same way, I never questioned the obligatory commemoration of the thirty lakh, or three million victims of the war of 1971 in which Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan.

I was surprised when I heard that in April this year, Bangladesh’s International War Crimes Tribunal (ICT) had started contempt proceedings against a Dhaka-based British journalist, David Bergman, who’s married to a prominent human rights lawyer, Sara Hossain.

The case against Bergman is that he wrote some articles in his personal blog, questioning the way in which an in-absentia trial took place at the tribunal, and reported about the dispute around the extent of evidence supporting the official number of three million people said to have been killed in 1971.

Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal was set up in 2009 to investigate crimes against humanity committed by the Pakistani army and its collaborators during the 1971 War of Independence. An important milestone in Bangladesh’s history, it is long overdue and time sensitive in a country riven by past coup d’etats.

I could not quite fathom the absurdity of the Bergman trial. He was a pioneer of the investigative research that traced the whereabouts of many of the collaborators, which he then documented in an award-winning film in 1995: The War Crimes Files.

In November last year, Chowdhury Mueenuddin, a Muslim leader based in the UK and Ashrafuz Zaman Khan, who lives in the US, were sentenced in absentia after the tribunal found them guilty of murdering eighteen intellectuals, among them nine Dhaka University teachers. From Bergman’s film we learned that since fleeing the newly-born Bangladesh, Mueenuddin had become chairman of Muslim Aid charity in the UK. He was also one of the Muslim leaders of the book-burning campaign against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

Many, including human right lawyers in Bangladesh, have said that one must not get too preoccupied with the processes of accountability, however flawed, and focus on the need to bring the collaborators to book for their evil deeds in the Bengali genocide. There may not be another opportunity.

Bergman was venerated by Bangladesh’s legal establishment, until he started voicing his criticism, along with Human Rights Watch and other rights bodies, of the trial proceedings, in the dispassionate tone of an analyst and a truth-seeking journalist. The establishment immediately changed its tone and accused Bergman of being “pro-Jamaat-i-Islam,” “pro-Islamist.”

It is true that the three million figure is sacrosanct, as is the six million of the holocaust victims for the Jews. During my eight years living in Israel, I came to believe that it would be unthinkable for anyone to question that “sacred” number. Jewish Israeli children, like the Bengalis, grow up with certain inviolable accounts of their respective histories.

In the blog article dealing with the numbers of 1971 war time death, Bergman writes that whether three million, 300,000 or 30,000 were killed, the levels of atrocities in the war were very extensive and a process of criminal accountability was required – but that any judicial process should not be beyond scrutiny.

Hannah Arendt, the German-American political theorist, was critical of the way the 1961 trial of the former Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, was conducted in Israel. Arendt faced severe criticism from prominent Jewish leaders who accused her of being insensitive to the victims of the holocaust.

Legal experts say that, although for this kind of charge of contempt there is a defence of “fair criticism,” courts in Bangladesh tend to interpret it conservatively, and that offering an unconditional “apology” to the ICT might be the only way for Bergman to get out of trouble. However, so far, he has shown no signs of a willingness to apologize. The Hague Tribunal also came under criticism when it failed to adhere to legal ethics.

In her 1905 feminist science fiction, Sultana’s Dream, Rokeya Shakhawat Hussein created a utopian city that abolished war, violence and traditional faiths, where apart from gender role reversals, a new religion ruled people’s lives. It was one of truth and tolerance.

Bergman’s criticism of the ICT’s conduct is as important as the tribunal itself, and, by launching this vile campaign to demonise him, the tribunal is at risk of being dismissed by the very “history” that it claims it’s making.

About the Author
Lipika Pelham worked in the BBC newsroom for over a decade and also reported from the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. In 2005-13, she lived in Jerusalem, where she learnt Hebrew, made award-winning films and wrote a memoir. Her latest book, "Jerusalem on the Amstel:The Quest for Zion in the Dutch Republic", was launched at Jewish Book Week, London, 2019.