In 1971, the United States abetted a genocide in what is today Bangladesh. President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, provided diplomatic and military succour to the Pakistan army and its Islamist allies as they slaughtered three million people, displaced ten million, and forced half a million Bengali women into sexual servitude. There has never been an apology from Washington. But 42 years after it got into bed with Islamist genocidaires in Bangladesh, the U.S. appears once again to be espousing their cause.
On Sunday, Bangladesh held the 10th general election since it became an independent state. The principal opposition—made up of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its chief ally, the Bangladesh Jamat-e-Islami, a clerical ensemble of alleged war criminals and aspiring theocrats—boycotted the vote. Their walkout was prompted by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s refusal to transfer power to a caretaker administration. Yet in spite of their withdrawal the polls, being constitutionally mandatory, went ahead. The ruling Awami League party, without a formidable opposition, won in a landslide. But, far from being a perfunctory show, this election was the most violent in the country’s history. Eighteen people were slain as the opposition, having sworn to keep out, showed up on election day to deter people from exercising their franchise. Polling stations were torched, voters threatened not to step out of their homes, and volunteers of the Awami League were assaulted by mobs. The warriors of the Jamat expressed their “disaffection” by raiding the villages of feeble religious minorities. As one Bangladeshi commentator put it: “In its 42 years of existence, Bangladesh has never seen such violence. It seems like someone has just opened the gates of hell.”
Hasina’s decision not to vacate her office, in defiance of a recent convention, was a grievous mistake. Attempting to remedy it by pushing her to concede to the opposition as it stands now—which is what Washington and its allies are doing—would be suicidal for Bangladesh. The violence that has devoured parts of Bangladesh over the last week was not a spontaneous outburst by disgruntled democrats. It was a campaign of terror calibrated to delegitimize the election and generate chaos, invite a crackdown, depict Hasina as a tyrant to Western governments while weakening her at home, and ultimately halt Bangladesh’s arduous effort—initiated by Hasina—to achieve a sincere reconciliation with its past.
The opposition is afraid of the past because its revered members are culpable for some of the most agonizing memories it evokes. Thirteen battalions of mostly Bengali Islamists assisted the Pakistan army in carrying out the single largest massacre of Muslims since the birth of Islam—“a jihad against Hindu-corrupted Bengalis,” as one American witness to the events in 1971 in what was then East Pakistan called them. Kissinger and Nixon, having recruited Pakistan as a conduit in their effort to broker relations with Mao’s China, condoned the massacres. They told each other jokes about the killings. After independence, when East Pakistan established itself as Bangladesh, the new state gave itself a secular constitution. Sheikh Mujib, the father of the new nation, was fierce in the beginning. An act of parliament was passed in 1973 to set up a tribunal with jurisdiction to punish the perpetrators of the genocide. Two years later Mujib, along with almost every member of his family, was assassinated in a coup. Hasina, who was then living in Germany, survived. She was barred from entering the country. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, who took over the country in 1977, scrapped secularism and made “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah” a fundamental feature of the constitution. When Rahman was assassinated in 1981, his wife, Khaleda Zia, took charge of his Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Islamists who a decade ago had slaughtered their compatriots in service of the Pakistan army became active once again in Bangladeshi politics.
There are no innocents in Bangladeshi politics and every politician is tainted by accusations of corruption. Yet Hasina, for the sheer resolve with which she combated the religious right, must rank among the most formidable women in recent history. At a time when Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto was aiding the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan, Hasina was taking on Islamists cut from the same ideological cloth as the Taliban. She overcame exile, survived assassination attempts, and rebuilt the Awami League. Her party, the secular alternative in Bangladesh, has provided a modicum of protection to religious minorities. In 2010, she revived the war crimes tribunal: nearly four decades after the crimes, a whiff of justice. Oddly, instead of welcoming the trials, some of the world’s leading Islamic leaders urged Hasina to drop them. Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the world’s leading authority on genocide denial, wrote to Hasina asking her to spare some of the convicts. But this was Bangladesh’s moment. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women poured into the streets of Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, demanding harsher punishments than the tribunal awarded.
Zia, in bed with the Islamists who were being dispatched to the gallows by the tribunal, found her appeal ebbing. Women are key drivers of growth in Bangladesh. The $12 billion garment industry is virtually dependent on their labour. But if Zia’s allies had their way, women would be forced out of the workforce and into the veil. At home, Zia’s “nationalist” outfit has supported men who are enemies of the Bengali nation. Abroad, Zia has vigorously projected herself as a victim. She has accused Hasina of suppressing democracy. But she’s hardly innocent: it’s her party which pulled out of the elections and forcibly stopped people from voting.
Now that elections are over, violence is the only instrument at Zia’s disposal. She and her allies will attempt to disrupt normal life to the point where the government will either have to assume authoritarian powers or negotiate with her. The status quo is untenable. Hasina will almost certainly dissolve the government and call fresh elections. But it’s important to grasp that democracy is not in peril in Bangladesh. Secularism is. Sanctions, now being contemplated in some capitals, will hurt ordinary Bengalis and assist the far right. They may reverse the gains of the previous half-decade. To get a sense of Hasina’s accomplishment during this time, consider these words by the author Salim Mansur: “a democratically elected government in a Muslim majority country for the first time in fourteen centuries of Arab-Muslim history arranged for, and brought to trial, Muslims charged with crimes against humanity.” Is there a leader in the contemporary Muslim world with a profile quarter as courageous as that?
Any attempt to interfere in Bangladesh’s affairs must begin with the realisation that Zia is not the victim. She is the force behind the unrest. Washington, given its awful history in Bangladesh, has a special obligation to ensure that it doesn’t, in the name of upholding democracy, end up once again giving succour to mass murderers and their political allies.