The burden of truth

The ongoing trials can be described as the resumption of a quest for justice that was short-circuited. Supporters feel that only by confronting its grim past can Bangladesh’s democratic future be secured.

The escalating violence in Bangladesh triggered by the opponents of the war crimes trials raises important questions about the country’s past as well as its future. The trial aims to bring to justice individuals who actively collaborated with the Pakistan Army in its brutal efforts to quash the movement for an independent Bangladesh in 1971.

These efforts at “pacification” resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the rape of thousands of women, and the forcible eviction and displacement of millions. Many of these collaborators had been associated with the Jamaat-e-Islami (which opposed independence for Bangladesh) and its affiliates, the student body called the Islami Chhatra Sangh and the paramilitary outfits, Al-Badr, Al-Shams and the Razakar.
The Jamaat’s political fortunes have since revived. In 2001, it was invited to join a coalition government led by Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). Unsurprisingly, supporters of the BNP and the Jamaat have challenged the legitimacy of the trials. Following the sentencing to death of its leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, the Jamaat unleashed a wave of violence that has claimed several lives. The Jamaat insists that the trial is nothing but political vendetta and that this verdict was delivered in response to the popular (but peaceful) protests against the life sentence handed to other leaders. Besides, the Jamaat has launched an orchestrated campaign to undermine the trials by mass circulation of propaganda through email and social media. Indeed, anyone who has ever written anything about Bangladesh seems to be on the Jamaat’s list server these days.
The Jamaat attempts to establish innocence by dissociation. Had there been specific allegations, it argues, there would have been trials in the past 38 years. The mere fact that these did not occur is proof of the innocence of Jamaat cadres who are being victimised in these trials. More plausibly, the Jamaat underlines the evidence that has surfaced in recent months about unfair procedures adopted by one of the judges.
Both these issues merit closer examination. Why was there a delay in holding these trials? Initially, the war crimes trials were supposed to include Pakistani soldiers (in the joint custody of Bangladesh and India) as well as their collaborators.
On January 1, 1972, the interim government of Bangladesh resolved to establish a “Genocide Investigation Commission”. The Awami League led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman repeatedly proclaimed its intention to bring to justice all individuals culpable of these crimes. Under the Collaborators (Special Tribunal) Order of 1972, over 37,000 individuals were arrested and the trial of 2,842 was completed. Mujib proclaimed a general amnesty in November 1973 — largely as a step towards fostering national reconciliation. This acquitted those accused of petty crimes, but specifically excluded collaborators who were charged with serious offences such as rape, murder and arson.
During this period, the Bangladesh government was also contemplating war crimes trials against Pakistani Army officers. The initial list of 400 was pruned to 195 against whom the government had strong evidence. In July 1973, the International War Crimes (Tribunals) Act was brought into effect. President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan was virulently opposed to trials of Pakistani Army officers. “So far as prisoners of war are concerned”, he told the Indians, “you can throw the whole lot in the Ganges, but I cannot agree to the trials.” If Bangladesh went ahead with the trials, he would charge 203 Bengali civilian officials in Pakistan with espionage and high treason. This coupled with Bhutto’s refusal to accord recognition to Bangladesh, led Mujib to agree to the repatriation of the Pakistani officers in August 1973.
By the time the Bangladesh government reverted its focus to trials of its own nationals, Mujib and his senior associates were murdered in a military coup. The new regime revoked the Collaborators Order and blocked moves towards the trials. It also began gradually rehabilitating groups that had opposed the struggle for independence. The ongoing trials, then, can be fairly described as the resumption of a quest for justice that was short-circuited. Supporters of the trials quite properly feel that only by confronting its grim past can the Bangladesh’s democratic future be secured.
And yet, some features of the pro-trials demonstrations in Shahbag are disquieting. For one thing, there is the call for handing out death sentences to those awarded life terms. Such a move muddies the line dividing the search for reconciliation by recognising the truth with mere revenge. For another, many of these protesters are oblivious to the flaws and failings of some aspects of the trials. To be sure, all war crimes trials are by definition political. But this does not mean that they should not adhere to certain standards of procedural and substantive justice. Moreover, by brushing aside such concerns they merely fuel the propaganda of the Jamaat and its associates.
More worrying is the Awami League government’s attempts to make political capital out this situation. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s rationale for going ahead with these trials was robust. Yet her attempts to retrospectively question the outcomes could do severe damage to the independence and credibility of the judiciary in Bangladesh.
The Jamaat’s resort to street violence may strengthen her position in the short run. But the longer term consequences for the country are likely to be harmful. The spirit of 1971 — with its commitment to inclusiveness, secularism and democracy — can hardly be reclaimed on these terms.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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