The Politics of Justice
By Sreeram Chaulia
Feb 12, 2013
As soon as a tribunal prosecuting war criminals of the liberation struggle of Bangladesh pronounced a life sentence on Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) leader Abdul Quader Mollah, hundreds of thousands of citizens spontaneously jammed the streets demanding death penalty for a man notorious as “Mirpurer kosai” or “The Butcher of Mirpur”. Mollah was found guilty of killing 381 civilians as a member of the dreaded Razakar militia unleashed by the Pakistan Army in 1971 to suppress Bangladesh’s freedom struggle.
Although the birth of Bangladesh involved a decisive armed conflict between India and Pakistan, the bulk of the casualties occurred in erstwhile East Pakistan, where over three million people were killed by the Pakistan Army and its local Islamic fundamentalist collaborators. An estimated 200,000 women were raped and over 10 million refugees fled to India to escape the carnage. Hardcore Islamists like Mollah served under the Pakistan Army’s directions in the savage bloodbath.
The frustration in Bangladeshi society at Mollah being “let off” with just life imprisonment is compounded by the fact that this man was convicted 42 years after his participation in the genocide. Justice has been agonisingly delayed in Bangladesh, despite the tremendous popular urge in the country to bring the culprits of 1971 to book, due to internal politics after independence. The coup d’etat and assassination of Bangabandhu (“Friend of Bengal”) Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975 and subsequent Islamist military dictatorships were instrumental in covering up the horrific crimes against humanity committed by the Pakistan Army and the JI.
Not until Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, returned to power as Prime Minister for a second time in 2009 did the process of setting up an International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) and trying prime suspects of the JI got underway. The mass protesters appealing for death sentence to all the indicted must be understood as Bangladesh’s long-anguished soul seeking a release and closure to the national trauma of 1971, whose legacy was carried forward under spells of military rule and civilian governments backed by the Army. For Bangladesh’s national psyche to be free and reborn in a spiritual sense, the ICT is playing a crucial role as midwife.
Since its commencement in 2010, the tribunal has been marred by controversial claims that it is a weapon being used by Ms Hasina to victimise the nation’s main Opposition force, the Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The ICT has indicted two BNP politicians alongside several JI members, but this is to be expected because of the historical reality that the BNP’s top brass is a product of the same military-clerical combine that oversaw the atrocities in 1971.
Some media and human rights organisations have picked holes in the Hasina government’s attempts to hurry up the ICT’s trials, and in the failure of the tribunal to follow international legal standards. Leaked diplomatic cables from the WikiLeaks tranche show that the JI had secretly approached the US embassy in Dhaka to warn that Ms Hasina’s pursuit of hasty justice against JI leaders was “breeding the discontent that led to the September 11 attacks”. Brandishing the blackmail of terrorism is a time-tested strategy of the JI, whose history in South Asia is soaked in bigotry, hate and mass murder.
While the JI’s preceptor and the father of contemporary political Islam, Maulana Maududi, initially opposed the formation of a nation-state called Pakistan, he and his green brigades readjusted to align with Pakistani dictators for ushering in Sharia rule and harassing minorities like Ahmadiyas, Shias, Sufis, Sikhs and Hindus left behind after Partition in 1947. The JI’s closeness to Gen. Yahya Khan and the coordinated massacres of minorities, intellectuals and secular Bengali nationalists in 1971 by its Al-Shams (a paramilitary wing of several Islamist parties in erstwhile East Pakistan) shock troops dovetailed with its overall agenda of establishing an Islamic state through coercive state power.
In recent years, sensational bomb blasts and the hounding of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh are traceable to the JI and its conservative student branches. The JI’s blueprint of “Talibanisation” of Bangladesh and the whole of South Asia is under challenge from the ICT’s proceedings. The cause of restitution of millions of innocents who were slaughtered by the JI and the Pakistani military in 1971 is thus tied to the fate of Bangladesh as a moderate Islamic country free from terrorism.
Justice is a dynamic flow rather than a static point in time. It is politicised precisely because the stakes are not limited just to relief from the past, but also relate to the future direction of a society. Could justice be even imagined in Bangladesh if the military, the BNP and the JI had remained in power? Naysayers and nitpickers who are casting aspersions on Ms Hasina and the ICT would do well to realise that unless there is a conducive political milieu, i.e. a regime sympathetic to or composed of victims of past crimes, the wheels of justice will never move forward.
The obstructionism of the Hun Sen government in Cambodia, for instance, is the main reason why the trials of the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s have been so disappointing and dragged out.
If the youth of Bangladesh are today causing ripples by seeking “complete justice” and speedy trials, it is because of the existence of a political authority wielding power in Dhaka that shares their anguish. There is no factual basis to slam the ICT in Bangladesh as a flawed institution dishing out political vendetta, since the Mukti Bahini freedom fighters under Mujib never resorted to heinous crimes against humanity. 1971 was a one-sided pogrom by the JI and its Pakistani masters, not a civil war in which all parties to the conflict were to blame. Rapping the ICT as biased is undermining justice that has trodden a tortuous journey in Bangladesh.
Even if political conditions permit the ICT to fulfil its mandate and deliver judgments on all accused persons, the question remains as to who will hold accountable the stalwarts of the Pakistan Army, like Tikka Khan, the infamous “Butcher of Bengal” in 1971, who was accorded a state burial with full military honours in 2002. The JI was just the executioner on the ground in 1971. Who will try the Pakistan Army commanders who planned the genocide and are now living in comfort with their dignities intact? The sufferings of 1971 will not heal until Pakistan itself introspects about the dark and violent history of its exalted military brass.
Sreeram Chaulia is a professor and dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs