Forty years ago on Dec. 16, in front of massed throngs in Dhaka, the commander of the eastern wing of the Pakistani army tendered his country’s unconditional surrender to an Indian counterpart. That act signaled the end of a brief war between the bitter foes and the liberation of East Pakistan, a territory ruled from Islamabad but separated by 1,000 miles of India, and its transformation into the independent state of Bangladesh. But while triumphant cries of “Jai Bangla” echoed across the new capital, they were shouted by a shell-shocked, war-ravaged people. An official in the then nascent country’s government told a TIME reporter: “It is a dream come true, but you must also remember that we went through a nightmare.”
That nightmare — more than half a year of brutal, arguably genocidal repression by the West Pakistani military against a Bengali populace seeking self-determination — claimed anywhere between one and three million lives, led to some half a million rapes and roughly ten million refugees fleeing across the western border with India. By any metric, the events that birthed Bangladesh in 1971 are among the bloodiest in the post-World War Two era.
Given the trauma of its founding, forty years on, Bangladesh has done fairly well for itself. Derided initially as a “basket case” state that spends half the year submerged under floodwaters, Bangladesh boasts development indicators superior to Pakistan, the country to which it was once unnaturally conjoined. Its economy grows at a healthy clip, boosted by one of the world’s most prominent textiles industry. Its women are among the most empowered in any Muslim-majority country. Its democracy, though at times dysfunctional, is still robust. (I last visited Dhaka when the military was the de facto ruling power, the main force behind a caretaker administration of technocrats that ostensibly were seeking to reform Bangladesh’s corruption-prone political parties. They bowed out following free and fair elections and, unlike in Pakistan, the army casts a far smaller shadow over politics in Dhaka.)
Yet the skeleton in Bangladesh’s closet has always been the violence of 1971. As I’ve written here, here and here, the country failed for decades to reckon with its traumatic past, a legacy of both domestic divisions and the exigencies of the Cold War — former President George H.W. Bush, the Nixon administration’s ambassador to the U.N. in 1971, denounced the Indian intervention that ended the massacres and won Bangladesh its freedom as “aggression.” (India was closer to the Soviet Union; neighboring Pakistan and China had warmer ties with Washington.) Many of Islamabad’s top military officials behind Operation Searchlight — the spectral name for West Pakistan’s campaign of slaughter — slipped away back west, exonerated by governments in Dhaka, Islamabad and New Delhi that hoped to move beyond the horrors of 1971. Others, including some of the leading Bangladeshi collaborators with West Pakistan’s military junta, remained and even managed to enter mainstream political life in Dhaka. One of them, Ali Ahsan Mojaheed, a leading member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party, told me in an interview in 2008 that the issue of war crimes was “dead” and could not be raised.
But this was a past that could not be buried, at least not in a country where virtually every household can offer tales of parents lost or disappeared, sisters raped and children murdered. It’s a black mark on the nation that only in the past year, with the return to power of the secularist Awami League — the same party that led Bangladesh’s freedom struggle in 1971 — has the country made significant progress in prosecuting four decade-old atrocities. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina set up a tribunal and had Mojaheed and six others arrested; most have been charged with war crimes. The international community has cautiously applauded the move, though rights groups and observers have expressed concerns about Dhaka’s reticence to allow international mediation of the proceedings. Critics within Bangladesh say the tribunal is really a platform for Hasina to target key political opponents — the Jamaat has long been allies with the Bangladesh National Party, the main opposition and a sworn Hasina foe. Haroon Habib, a Dhaka-based journalist who has contributed to TIME in the past, shrugged off these concerns on the eve of the fortieth anniversary in an op-ed in the Indian daily The Hindu: