Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw
Home > General > Bangladesh: The Shahbag Uprising - War Crimes and Forgiveness

Bangladesh: The Shahbag Uprising - War Crimes and Forgiveness

7 November 2013

print version of this article print version

Economic and Political Weekly - Vol - XLVIII No. 10, March 09, 2013

by Nadine S Murshid

The uprising at Shahbag in Dhaka is perhaps a sign that the conflict of 1971 will finally see a resolution, and that Bangladeshis, as individuals, will be able to come to terms with their violent history.

Nadine S Murshid (smurshid at is a PhD Candidate at the School of Social Work, Rutgers University, the US.


On 5 February, in a spontaneous move, thousands of young people gathered at Shahbag Mor (intersection), Dhaka, at the behest of activist-bloggers of the Bangladesh Online Activist Network (BOAN) to protest against war criminals. So intense have been the demonstrations that the Shahbag intersection has been renamed Projonmo Chottor (New Generation Roundabout), where demands are being made for justice for war crimes committed by rajakars, allies of the state of Pakistan and its army, against Bengalis during the Bangladesh War of Liberation in 1971.

It all began when the International War Crimes Tribunal found Abdul Quader Mollah – current secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh – guilty of actively participating and abetting the murder and rape of unarmed civilians and was given life-imprisonment when the expectation was a death penalty.

In Shahbag the common goal of justice has brought together thousands of people, who now have put forward a six-point demand, that was delivered on 21 February, coinciding with the International Mother Language Day that recognises those who fought for their right to speak in Bangla in 1952: (1) Within seven days, the killers of martyrs killed at the hands of Jamaat-Shibir will have to be arrested; (2) By 26 March legal processes have to be initiated to ban Jamaat-Shibir as a war criminal organisation, which opposed the freedom of Bangladesh and led mass genocides; (3) With no further delay, an independent investigative committee should be established to identify Jamaat-Shibir’s funding organisations and bring them under legal process; (4) The international war crimes tribunal has to be given a permanent set-up to ensure continued momentum of the judiciary process; (5) To ensure safety of the common masses, enforcers of law and order should immediately mobilise to arrest terrorists and root out their hideouts, and facts about their reign of terror have to be published in national and international media; (6) Steps have to be taken against media outlets protecting the war criminals and instigating fundamentalism.

In response, the Jamaat-e-Islami and their student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir, have issued death threats against the protesters, and even warned that they will use suicide bombers to uproot the “atheists” at Shahbag if the protesters there were not disbanded; they then proceeded to act upon the threat by turning the streets of Dhaka into a battleground on 22 February and then with support from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) called a nationwide strike on the 24th. This violence, vandalism, and strike follow the gruesome murder of Rajib Haider, who was a core member of BOAN, on the 15th (BDNews24 2013).

Crimes and Forgiveness

The word ‘forgiveness’ insults me. It makes me a victim again. I have never been in [a] fight with anybody hence there is no need to forgive the other. Nobody has the right to demand from the victim to forgive or to reconcile with the offender. We want neither forgiveness nor reconciliation. All we want is that each perpetrator gets its name and surname, hence to be punished. It is a shame to talk about forgiveness while the main perpetrators who have killed our children and husbands still have not faced legal prosecutions.

– M Subasic, president of the Association of Citizens “Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa Enclaves”, 2005.

These words by a Bosnian Muslim leader resonate with those of many in Bangladesh; the atrocities that were committed against Bengalis during the War of Liberation by Pakistanis and the rajakars have not been forgotten, or forgiven. The forgiveness literature suggests that forgiveness is associated with facing the perpetrators, rather than avoiding them (McCullough, Worthington and Rachal 1997). Where do Bangladeshis stand on that? In my estimation, Bangladeshis have not had the opportunity to face the enemy in the post-liberation era. The Pakistani prisoners of war in India were sent back to Pakistan as part of a 1973 tripartite treaty signed in New Delhi, none of them were tried for war crimes. Their local collaborators enjoyed immunity because of political interference. As Rao and Murshid (2013) point out:

Mujib succeeded in banning the Jamaat and four other groups that had collaborated with the Pakistani forces, and passed ordinances such as the Collaborators Order and the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act to bring them to trial. However, he was unable to paper over the factionalism within the newly-formed Bangladeshi armed forces. In 1975, a military coup overthrew Mujib’s government, assassinated him, scrapped the Collaborators Order, allowed the hitherto banned groups to resurface, and permitted leading perpetrators of war crimes to return to the country.

In 1975, the rajakars were allowed to form a political party, Jamaat-e-Islami and they have been contesting elections since 1986 and won two seats in Parliament in the last election. The acceptance of Jamaat-e-Islami as part of the democratic process, perhaps, created a form of mass amnesia surrounding the 1971 war crimes, and it took four decades to set up another tribunal to try the war criminals, the known rajakars (while an international tribunal is yet to be set up to try Pakistani war criminals). Some argue that the democratic process should have disallowed their entry into Bangladesh in the first place for their involvement in atrocities committed during the Liberation War, and more importantly, they should have been debarred from forming a political party, as suggested by Veena Sikri, former Indian high commissioner in Bangladesh, because their party constitution is directly in defiance of the constitution of Bangladesh (Tehelka 2013). As such, the people of Bangladesh did not get a chance to face the enemy, ask for redemption, or get an apology in the way that McCullough and colleagues would have wanted; instead, they had to accept them as political leaders.

A study by Wohl and Branscombe (2005) found that when Jews thought of the atrocities committed during the holocaust as atrocities against humanity it allowed Jews to forgive Germans and assign them less guilt for the holocaust; when they were induced to think of the atrocities as those committed against Jews, they had a harder time forgiving Germans. In essence, highly identified Jews were less likely to forgive Germans for the holocaust.

Would it then follow that in Bangladesh, people are highly identified Bangladeshis? Is that why Pakistan and the rajakars have not been forgiven? The answer is a complicated one.

The events at Shahbag today would lead one to think: yes, that is why they have been unable to forgive the atrocities committed against them. But if that were the case, Shahbag would have happened a long time ago. Why is it that they have only now arrived at Shahbag? The instigation was perhaps the infamous flashing of the victory sign by Quader Mollah when he was sentenced to life-imprisonment for his role in mass murder and rape during 1971. But what is at the root? Others have cited: the culture of impunity, the years of inciting violence in the name of Islam, the rise of political power by Jamaat. But I believe the issue at hand is the unresolved trauma of the violence that Bangladesh was willingly or unwillingly a part of. The victory sign was a trigger that recreated that trauma. And, in a way, Shahbag is a response to that trauma, as well as the third-party (un)forgiveness effect, which is “the tendency to be more forgiving for transgressions committed against the self than a close other”. On behalf of parents and grandparents, the Bangladeshi youth have been unable to forgive Quader Mollah and his ilk, and the reactions we see on the streets are a response to that (un)forgiveness. All of these emotional processes intersect with the notions that the narrative of the war is primarily about being victimised, and the history of Bangladesh has not been accurately documented amidst politically co-opted, and conflicted narratives, including constant revisions in textbooks by the party in power. These notions lead to angst associated with not having an accurate sense of one’s history. Ergo, the trauma of war remains (with the angst), and has been intergenerationally transmitted, along with its unresolved component.

International War Crimes Tribunal

The formation of the International War Crimes Tribunal allowed Bangladeshis an opportunity for redemption and closure, one can argue. It was finally time for justice, and an opportunity to perhaps assuage the deep-seated collective trauma. As scholars such as Cehajic, Brown, and Castano (2008) point out: “legal accountability may well be essential for the restoration of moral equality between ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ and for the creation of a just society”. However, as they also suggest, that is only the first step towards closure; for deep-rooted conflicts, forgiveness by those who were victimised is important for psychological and political reconciliation (Lederach 1997; Staub 2006; Tutu 1999). In Bangladesh, there has been no climate for “forgiveness” to occur because of the institutionalised support that the perpetrators received, and the complete disregard of the heinous acts as evinced by the carte blanche freedom that they have enjoyed till the present day, and accordingly, there has been no psychological or political reconciliation – in the absence of which three generations of Bangladeshis are still “victims”.

Scholars studying trauma suggest that in the short run it works to ascribe meaning such as “they were awful people” to deal with the trauma; but in the long run unless those experiencing the trauma make meaning of it in a way that allows them to deal with it (for example, believing that those who suffered did not suffer in vain), they will remain in trauma. The successful completion of the International War Crimes Tribunal is, conceivably, a step towards forgiveness.

However, forgiveness will not come easily, not even in the event of an apology. Scholars such as Wohl, Hornsey and Bennett (2012) suggest that the “outgroup” is more likely to be seen as people who are not able to experience “complex, uniquely human emotions such as remorse”, and in the absence of remorse, they are not likely to be forgiven. And in the case of Bangladesh, there are two sets of outgroups: Pakistan and the rajakars. The chances of getting an apology from the latter group are perhaps too much to ask for, even though the present-day Jamaat-e-Islami party would benefit from delinking itself from the known war criminals on trial, while Pakistan may still have the impetus to make an apology, especially if their connection with Jamaat-e-Islami is loosened as a result of a [hypothetical] ban of religion-based politics, and conviction of the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders who were involved in war crimes and are awaiting trial.

Towards Celebrating Independence

It is in the Bangladeshis’ best interests to move on from the tragedy of war and celebrate the independence that they have attained but have been unable to enjoy. It is in the people’s best interests to find it within themselves to accept the violence committed against them and learn the value of peace, by resolving it first through due process, and second, by making a concerted effort to accurately document the history of Bangladesh. The uprising at Shahbag is perhaps a sign that the conflict of 1971 will finally see a resolution, and that Bangladeshis, as individuals, will come to terms with their violent history. Eventually, Bangladesh may even forgive Pakistan and the rajakars for their crimes during the Liberation War, but it is unlikely that any of this will ever be forgotten.

Today, in Shahbag, there is hope for a new Bangladesh, a Bangladesh that has taken charge of dealing with the trauma of war. The people have spoken and they have been heard; public opinion has swayed public policy and new legislation allows government to charge institutions with war crimes, and appeal verdicts during the Tribunal (The Daily Star 2013). They have found ways to be inclusive of indigenous people, have conversations about Islam and atheism, about humanity. Some, such as David Lewis from the London School of Economics, have even wondered if they are the “third force”. But most importantly, the silent majority, as they have been termed, is no longer silent; finally, democracy has been democratised. As Dan Mozena, the United States Ambassador to Bangladesh said in a comment to the author: “Shahbag is a manifestation of a democratic right to peacefully express your views.” As such, calls for capital punishment at Shahbag, for many, are a data-reductionist term that encompasses the demand for justice, freedom, democracy, and conflict resolution.

Ultimately, Shahbag is important because it gives Bangladesh a chance to resolve its harrowing past by ensuring the successful conclusion of the ongoing trials under the International War Crime Tribunal with attention to due process. Moreover, it gives Bangladesh a chance to demand a Nuremberg-like trial for the war criminals in Pakistan. And therein lies a chance of a resolution of the conflict of 1971. This is important not only for Bangladeshis but also for the conscience of a fair and just world.


Bangash, Y K (2013): “Shahbag Will Haunt Us”, The Express Tribune, retrieved 25 February 2013 from:

BDNews24 (2013): “Killers Hacked Rajib First, Then Slit His Throat: Police”, retrieved 22 February from: bangladesh /2013/02/16/brutal-murder-of-rajib-haider

Cehajic, S, R Brown and E Castano (2008): “Forgive and Forget? Antecedents and Consequences of Intergroup Forgiveness in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Political Psychology, Vol 29, No 3.

Lederach, J P (1997): “Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies” (Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press).

Lewis, David (2013): “What Future for NGOs? Creativity and Contradiction in Bangladesh’s Third Sector”, Bangladesh Development Initiative Conference, Berkley.

McCullough, M E, E L Worthington and K C Rachal (1997): “Interpersonal Forgiving in Close Relationships”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 73, 321-36.

Rao, N and N Murshid (2013): “Lessons from Delhi and Dhaka: Nagesh Rao and Navine Murshid”, retrieved 22 February 2013 from:

Staub, E (2006): “Reconciliation after Genocide, Mass Killing, or Intractable Conflict: Understanding the Roots of Violence, Psychological Recovery and Steps toward a General Theory”, Political Psychology, Vol 27, 867-94.

Subasic, M (2005): “Pathways to Reconciliation and Global Human Rights”, National Conference in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo.

Tehelka (2013): “In Conversation with Veena Sikri: Decoding the Shahbag Movement in Bangladesh”, retrieved on 22 February 2013 from:

The Daily Star (2013): “Jamaat-Shibir Mayhem in City”, Retrieved on 22 February 2013 from: news.php?nid=44940.

Tutu, D (1999): No Future without Forgiveness (London: Rider).

Wohl, M J A and N R Branscombe (2005): “Forgiveness and Collective Guilt Assignment to Historical Perpetrator Groups Depend on Level of Social Category Inclusiveness”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 88, 288-303.

Wohl, M J A, M J Hornsey and Shannon H Bennett (2012): “Why Group Apologies Succeed and Fail: Intergroup Forgiveness and the Role of Primary and Secondary Emotions”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 102, No 2, 306-22.


The above is reproduced here for Economic and Political Weekly, for educational and non commercial use