The 1971 Liberation War between East and West Pakistan saw the Pakistan army commit countless atrocities, mostly against Hindus. Hundreds of thousands of Hindu women were raped.
The war was sparked when East Pakistan seceded, declaring itself the independent nation of Bangladesh.
To call the war brutal would be an understatement. Mass graves were still being discovered decades later.
The ghost of the 1971 war still refuses to disappear. Over the last few months -- ignored by the Western media, which always reveals itself to be myopic and provincial whenever opportunity arises -- the International Crimes Tribunal has been hearing the case of Delwar Hossain Sayedee (usually known simply as "Sayedee"), leader of the extremist Islamist movement Jamaat-e-Islami.
We will probably never know how many women were raped by Pakistani forces in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), but the most frequently cited figure is over 200,000. Some authorities believe the number of victims to be considerably higher; possibly up to 400,000. Whatever the case, the brutalization of the Bangladeshis was at once savage and calculated.
Sayedee is accused of helping the Pakistani army rape Hindu women, and of forcibly converting a number of Hindus to Islam.
We should not lose sight of the fact that the conflict was one primarily about land and culture, and the war about independence verses the loss of territory, and the loss of face on the world stage. The East Pakistanis (now Bangladeshis) were more educated than the West Pakistanis, and their economy was stronger, largely as a result of East Pakistan's tea, jute, rice, and mango exports, among others. Although the two halves of Pakistan communicated in English, out of necessity, the two sides spoke different languages. The East Pakistanis spoke mostly Bengali. The West Pakistanis spoke mostly Urdu.
Nevertheless, Islam was used to justify, and to encourage, violence on a massive scale against the Hindus of East Pakistan. As the Indian Daily Star put it, "Islam cannot countenance the practice of Muslims brutalising and annihilating other Muslims. But the stark reality of the demons of radical religious forces raising ugly faces surfaced in the form of torture and killing of the people in the then East Pakistan. The way the whole country meaning the then East Pakistan inhabited by Bengali speaking people suffered and witnessed torture, rape and massacre nothing could stop its 75 million people from going the separate way after that fateful night of March 25, 1971."
Sayedee is innocent until proven guilty. Testimony so far, though, cannot but raise the specter of the mass raping of innocent women, and the hundreds of thousands of lives shattered by the war.
We know from history that if religion is used to justify war and violence, forced conversions -- along with forced rape -- will become a strategy of war. Jews, we know, were forced to convert to Christianity in some parts of late medieval Europe. At other times they were subject to pogroms, including into the early twentieth century. But it is something that we would hope had been left to history. Yet, today, in Bangladesh, there are still thousands -- possibly hundreds of thousands, whose lives are still affected by the war and the atrocities visited upon them.
Earlier in January, choking with emotion, one witness told the court, "They [Sayedee and his fellow collaborators with the Pakistani army] picked up three of my sisters and handed them over to a Pakistani soldiers' camp in Pirojpur." The man told the court that his sister "were raped at the camp... and sent back home after three days…" before breaking down, crying. ""They forced me, my parents and siblings," he said, "to convert to Islam and made us say prayers at the mosque."
The Daily Star reports that the witness believed Sayedee had forcibly converted between 100 and 150 Hindus to Islam.
In early February another witness described how he had returned to his house one day, only for his to tell him that she had been raped by Sayedee. They had been married only a few days before the war broke out.
Traumatized by the rape, the couple later agreed that she should go to live in India. The witness -- whose name is not being released for his own safety -- said that he had not seen her since. He was also forcibly converted to Islam at the time, but returned to his original religion after the war.
Court was adjourned as the witness -- who is now 81 years-old -- felt sick giving testimony.
Three witnesses for the prosecution have since disappeared. They had been in the custody of the prosecution, but were released to visit relatives in Dhaka. The three judges have adjourned the case while they are being searched for.
However the trial ends, it is a painful reminder of one of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, and of how religion can be used to justify the most barbaric forms of violence.