My grandparents, for some reason saved their copies of the Illustrated Weekly from the fifties onwards. They only stopped saving them during the Emergency in the mid-seventies, the censorship of that era probably made the gesture meaningless. We spent our winter holidays at their home in Allahabad, and I would spend hours leafing through those old magazines. Which is how I found out about the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971, years after the fact. From the BBC:

The crisis was precipitated when East Pakistanis (who later became Bangladeshis) voted overwhelmingly in favour of autonomy and West Pakistan responded by sending in its army.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed, including Hindus, political activists, intellectuals and students. The Pakistani army carried out “collective punishment” where they suspected villagers of helping the freedom fighters.

Thousands of women were raped, millions fled into India. Bangladeshis say the killings amounted to a genocide and that three million people died.

Sometimes one can pin-point the exact moment one’s sense of self and the world changes irrevocably. Reading about that war was a moment like that. I must have been about ten, and it dawned on me that the world could be an anonymously cruel place. I did not know what the words ‘rape’ or ‘massacre’ meant, but it didn’t matter. The horror of 1971 was hard-wired into my brain.

I had an occasion to recall that feeling on reading about an effort in Bangladesh to prosecute perpetrators of the atrocities for war-crimes. One of the main organizations behind this effort is the War Crimes Fact Finding Committee, which is pressuring the Government of Bangladesh to go over its documents, gathered over 19 years and prosecute those responsible. Interestingly, many of the people it wants to be brought to justice are those who collaborated with the Pakistani army in the massacres:

In one of the most notorious incidents of the war, more than 150 academics and journalists (including BBC reporter Nizamuddin Ahmed) were rounded up in Dhaka on the eve of Pakistan’s defeat and killed by members of a group call Al-Badr, which was allegedly made up of members of the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami.

Jamaat-e-Islami is a coalition partner in the present government, so this is a very large skeleton rattling in its cupboard. And true to form, as things go in these circumstances, Dr. Hassan, one of the organizers of the movement, has received death threats for his trouble.

To find out more about this particularly dark period in Bangladesh’s history look at the Bangladesh Genocide Archive. I didn’t quite have the stomach to go through it. Wikipedia has a good entry about the war and its political and cultural context.