Honoring the Heroes of Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War

Bangladesh commemorates the valor of its 1971 Liberation War heroes and victims, seeking justice and global recognition of the genocide.

Honoring the Heroes of Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War
Photo of the Flag of Bangladesh, by MD. Ahsan Mahmud, via Pexels, February 20th, 2022


Shahad Ghannam

Legal Human Rights Researcher, 

Global Human Rights Defence

Since 1977, Bangladesh has continued to honor the resilience and human spirit that defines its nation by presenting the Independence Award on March 25th, 2024. This prestigious award, conferred upon remarkable individuals on the eve of Bangladesh’s Independence Day, spans achievements in 1971 Liberation War efforts, science, technology, medicine, culture, sports, and social service. Recalling Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's sentiments, the ceremony is a tribute to those who serve the public good, often without recognition, underlining the importance of acknowledging selfless contributions to the nation's welfare and progress. Notably, the ceremony, rich in memory and gratitude, honored freedom fighters such as Prof Mollah Obaidul Baki and Kazi Abdus Sattar Bir Pratik, Flight Sergeant Md Fazlul Haque, and Shaheed Abu Nayem Md Nazib Uddin Khan, posthumously. 

This annual honoring of liberation efforts serves as a national reminder of the sacrifices made for Bangladesh’s (previously East Pakistan) sovereignty during the nine-month Liberation War. It began on March 26, 1971, with 'Operation Searchlight' where military troops were deployed into East Pakistan, at the Dhaka University campus, and multiple other areas. It aimed to (1) reestablish military control in East Pakistan, (2) neutralise the Awami League leaders, following the party's victory in national elections, and (3) disarm Bengali soldiers within the Army, the East Pakistan Rifles, and the police force to thwart any organised rebellion. 

During the conflict, the actions of the Pakistani army, supported by local allies such as Al Badr and Al Shams, unfolded as a strategic onslaught of extensive violence towards the Bengali community on the grounds of ethnic identification and political orientation. This involved mass murder (with estimates ranging from 300,000 and 3 million), sexual assaults with (approximately 400,000 cases), and the forced displacement of around 10 million people. 

The International Commission of Jurists in their 1972 report and the resolution adopted by the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IASG) in 2023, provide pivotal corroborative evidence and acknowledgment of these atrocities. The Commission report highlighted the indiscriminate killings of civilians, including women and children; efforts to substantially reduce or completely expel the Bengali community; the detention, torture, and extrajudicial execution of suspects; the widespread sexual violence against women such as gang rapes, sexual slavery and torture, and forced maternity; and the destruction of villages and towns alongside rampant looting. The report highlighted the extensive nature of these crimes, though it acknowledges the difficulty in quantifying their full extent. Further emphasising these points the IASG’s resolution, not only underscored the systematic nature of the violence and persecution perpetrated but also aligned with the Commission's findings by reinforcing the perception of these acts as violations of both national and international law. Specifically, it underlines the existence of a strong prima facie case that international crimes were committed, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, as defined by the laws of armed conflict, and acts of genocide as per the Genocide Convention of 1949. 

The legacy of the 1971 Liberation War and the genocide has deeply influenced Bangladesh's national identity, its politics, and its society. The commemoration of the victims and the valor of those who fought for independence is a significant aspect of Bangladesh's cultural and historical narrative. March 25th is now recognised as National Genocide Remembrance Day in Bangladesh with a one-minute nationwide blackout commencing at 21.00, the approximate starting time of the Operation, with symbolic lighting of candles to pay tribute to the victims and the valor of the 1971 genocide. March 26th is celebrated as Independence Day, a fusion of somber remembrance and celebration, while December 16th marks Victory Day, the day the war officially ended in 1971 with the surrender of Pakistani forces, a day to honor those who fought for freedom and to motivate continued advocacy for human rights, justice, and dignity for every Bangladeshi.

The Government of Bangladesh's continued efforts to gain international recognition for these acts are supported by the aforementioned definitive statements and resolutions, among others, underlining the importance of global acknowledgment and the pursuit of justice for the victims and their descendants.

Sources and further readings:
[1] UNB Dhaka, 'Recognise Those Who Work Silently for Public Welfare: PM' (The Daily Star, 25 March 2024) <https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news/recognise-those-who-work-silently-public-welfare-pm-3574606> (accessed 25 March 2024).

[2] UNB Dhaka, '10 Distinguished Individuals Get Independence Awards' (The Daily Star, 25 March 2024) <https://www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/news/pm-hands-out-independence-award-10-distinguished-individuals-3574566 > (accessed 25 March 2024)

[3]Human Rights Watch, 'Bangladesh: Unique Opportunity for Justice for 1971 Atrocities' (19 May 2011) <https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/05/19/bangladesh-unique-opportunity-justice-1971-atrocities> (accessed 25 March 2024)


[4]Pradip Kumar Dutta, 'Truly Honouring the 1971 Genocide Victims' (Dhaka Tribune, 25 March 2024) <https://www.dhakatribune.com/opinion/op-ed/342619/truly-honouring-the-1971-genocide-victims> (accessed 25 March 2024)

[5] 'Lemkin Institute Issues Formal Statement on Bangladesh Genocide 1971' (The Business Standard, 4 January 2022) <https://www.tbsnews.net/bangladesh/lemkin-institute-issues-formal-statement-bangladesh-genocide-1971-352966> (accessed 25 March 2024)

[6] International Commission of Jurists, 'Events in East Pakistan, 1971: A Legal Study' (1972) <https://icj2.wpenginepowered.com/wp-content/uploads/1972/06/Bangladesh-events-East-Pakistan-1971-thematic-report-1972-eng.pdf> (accessed 25 March 2024)

[7]  International Association of Genocide Scholars, 'Resolution to Declare the Crimes Committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War as Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes' (2023) <https://genocidescholars.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/IAGS-Resolution-Bangladesh-Genocide-2023.pdf> (accessed 25 March 2024).