Updated: March 26, 2021 9:08:51 am
On March 26, Bangladesh will recall three glorious chapters of its young history: Fifty years of the Liberation War of 1971; the birth centenary of the founder of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman; and 50 years of India-Bangladesh bonding. This is the story of how peace was brokered by West Germany between Pakistan and Bangladesh after the war.
The frosty relations between Islamabad and Dhaka turned hostile after the recall and expulsion of each others’ diplomats in 2015/16 over allegations of indulging in activities exceeding diplomatic license, that is, spying and subterfuge. These mutually-inimical exchanges were already exacerbated by Pakistan’s condemnation of Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal, established in 2010 to prosecute Bangladeshis who actively collaborated with the Pakistan military’s crackdown on March 26, 1971, resulting in war crimes by members of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who were also opposed to the country’s independence and separation from Pakistan. Of the 24 convictions, six death sentences were promulgated between 2015-17. After Pakistan’s defeat in 1971, Bangladesh had identified and separated 195 military personnel from the 90,000 POWs for war crimes who Pakistan had promised to put on trial but which never happened. Unknown to many, including history books, the Federal Republic of Germany (then West Germany) played a stellar, transformative role in cooling tempers and creating an environment for the safe passage of 195 Pakistani soldiers, allowing them to return home.
Stanley Wolpert, in his book Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times, says that if Bhutto had abided by the election results, there would have been no Bangladesh nor any reason for India to step in. India also facilitated the return of 195 POWs charged with war crimes by persuading Bangladesh to be lenient. But the heavy lifting was done by German Chancellor Willy Brandt and his foreign minister, Walter Scheel, in 1973. Through protracted negotiations with the emissaries of Zulfiqar Bhutto and Mujibur Rahman and by exchanging letters with them, they succeeded in convincing Rehman that he should forego the trials, citing the German experience after the war and the Nuremberg trials.
Bhutto had made the recognition of Bangladesh contingent upon the repatriation of all POWs and Pakistani nationals in Bangladesh. Brandt’s pleas for leniency were laced with Deutschmarks, badly needed by Dhaka. I have read the collection of letters and interviewed leaders of the Brandt regime surviving in Germany in December 2015 and made a presentation in December at the Berlin Centre for Cold War Studies on these little-known facts.
On April 9, 1974, a tripartite agreement was signed by India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in which Dhaka showed clemency to 195 Pakistani POWs for war crimes, which, in turn, led to the two countries’ mutual recognition of each other. Bonn played a deeper role in the 1971 war than is known by becoming one of the first western and European countries to recognise Bangladesh on February 4, 1972, with Bhutan becoming the first country to raise the new Bangladesh flag. According to an article in Der Spiegel on November 30, 1975, the price Germany paid for persuading India to delay establishing full diplomatic relations with the German Democratic Republic( East Germany) so that it could be the first to sign a treaty with GDR was its early recognition of Bangladesh, which was not in sync with the US’s thinking, as it would encourage other western countries to follow suit. That is precisely what happened.
Forty years on, between 2015-17, Bangladesh — sensing the international mood towards war crimes and human rights violations as one of zero tolerance — took the cold and courageous decision to bring to retributive justice its nationals who colluded in the perpetration of war crimes. In post-conflict Sri Lanka, the template is different. It is part of the accountability, reconciliation and transitional justice on which the UNHRC voted this week against Sri Lanka and India abstained. In Nepal, due to political instability and lack of willl, the accountability process following the civil war between Maoists and the Nepal Army has not taken off. The recent political turbulence in the Maldives involving paramilitary excesses will also require an accountability mechanism and so will Afghanistan if the war ever reaches an end where the Taliban can be tried.
Many countries have formally apologised for war crimes, including Japan and Germany in World War II. An apology from Prime Minister Imran Khan on behalf of Pakistan on March 26 would be a grand gesture of regional reconciliation. Khan, when he was not prime minister, Khan Abdul Wali Khan, late human rights activist Asma Jahangir and journalist Hamid Mir have all recommended that Pakistan should own responsibility for war excesses in 1971. It would be a victory for accountability and humanity and a new beginning for Pakistan-Bangladesh relations. In his writings, BJP leader Jaswant Singh used to call Bangladesh geography’s revenge over history, in which India lost nearly 2,000 soldiers.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 26, 2021 under the title ‘1971: War and peace’. The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army. He took part in the liberation war of Bangladesh and recently researched the role of Chancellor Willy Brandt in ironing out Pakistan-Bangladesh differences after the 1971 war.
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