One of the truly significant aspects about the emotional upsurge at Shahbag in Dhaka—the hundreds of thousands of candles, the portrait of Jahanara Imam who lost her son in the liberation war in 1971 and fought for the rest of her life seeking justice—is that an overwhelmingly large number of the demonstrators are under the age of 40. Most were not born when Bangladesh emerged from its blood-soaked birth. Their fight is outwardly for an even harsher punishment (meaning death) for Abdul Kader Mullah, the Jamaat-i-Islami leader who foolishly flashed a victory sign when he was sentenced to life in prison for complicity in war crimes, and others against whom verdicts are awaited. But more fundamentally, they are trying to regain history, to assert their identity. Too often has the promise of Bangla nationalism been stolen, its national aspiration challenged, its spirit of unity based on language—irrespective of faith—reviled, its past rewritten, and the generation that fought for independence betrayed. Now it is time to reclaim the past.
For those who tuned in late: after Pakistan refused to let Sheikh Mujibur Rahman form the national government even after his Awami League had won the majority in elections, and unleashed a reign of terror in its eastern wing, hundreds of thousands of people were killed and women were raped. These criminal acts didn’t occur in isolation; pro-Islamist militia and Jamaat activists actively collaborated with Pakistani forces, leading them to the homes of nationalists, secularists, intellectuals, Awami supporters, Hindus, and others. They also participated in killing, looting, and raping. Ten million refugees arrived in India. In December 1971, Pakistan attacked India, providing India with the legal rationale to join the battle. In two weeks, Pakistani troops surrendered.
After the war, Bangladesh passed laws to try Pakistani troops and collaborators for war crimes. But India and Pakistan wanted to repatriate their prisoners-of-war, and Pakistan said it would try its officers and men who had committed war crimes. It never did, causing justified bitterness among many Bangladeshis who sought justice. A few recent memoirs of Pakistani officers admit some of the crimes, which is a small, necessary conciliatory step, but one many Bangladeshis don’t consider enough.
The assassination of Mujib in 1975 made justice more elusive. The governments that followed not only showed little interest in pursuing the collaborators, they even formed political alliances with the Jamaat, whose leadership comprised young men that most Bangladeshis say were collaborators, and in some instances, direct perpetrators. Adding to the humiliation of victims, some of the Jamaatis became ministers. The political paralysis made things worse.
While campaigning in the last elections, the Awami League promised to revive the prosecutions, and was stunned to receive a massive mandate from the young—many not born in 1971. It set up tribunals to try several accused, all except one from the Jamaat (the remaining accused is with the main opposition Bangladesh National Party, or BNP).
Justice should be firm and swift, and the trial fair. It isn’t Bangladesh’s fault that the trials could not begin for 40 years. But the trials could have been administered in a far better way. While the trials are conducted in a way that’s superior to regular criminal trials in Bangladesh, they do fall short of international standards. There have been serious questions about changed procedures. In one case, the defence has alleged that one of its witnesses has disappeared; in another case, a prosecution witness has died under mysterious circumstances; and rules and laws have been changed during the trial and now, after the verdict (allowing the appellate court to increase the sentence). And, in a sensational development, The Economist magazine revealed perplexing discussions about tactics between the judges and prosecutors with experts based abroad who had no official status. The presiding judge then resigned.
The life imprisonment verdict for Mullah had disappointed many Bangladeshis, but their simmering outrage boiled over when they saw in his “V” sign a message to his followers: wait for elections; we’ll be in coalition with the BNP, and I will be free. Calls for the death penalty for all collaborators intensified. Liberal human rights activists now face the dilemma of seeing a mass movement for justice, which they like, demanding the death penalty, which they dislike. The movement asks: if ordinary criminals get death penalty for murder, why not war criminals?
The government has hastily agreed to some demands, enraging the Jamaat youth, who rioted, vandalizing martyrs’ monuments in several cities. One blogger has been found murdered; four people have died in the violence. As the government is considering banning the Jamaat, the BNP is backing the Jamaat. The nation’s quest for closure threatens to morph into the paralysing dysfunctionality that has characterized its politics.
A dominant Jamaat will make Bangladesh look more like Pakistan, a joyless prospect Bangladeshis are rejecting loudly. But they must hold on to the principles of fair trial, and reject quick fixes and changing rules halfway. The stakes can’t get higher.