When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajid invited President Nelson Mandela to visit Bangladesh in 1997 for the 25th anniversary of the country’s independence, it appeared to be a signal of a new direction towards reconciliatory politics away from the path of vengeance.
It was, therefore, ironic that just as Mandela lay in state and world leaders gathered in South Africa to pay homage to this iconic man and his universal message of ‘reconciliation not revenge’, Bangladesh chose to do just the opposite by hanging Abdul Quader Mollah. It also declared three days of mourning for Mandela but it leaves one wondering what the country was mourning if it had so blatantly ignored all that he stood for.
Mollah, 65, had been a key leader of Jamaat-e-Islami and had been elected to the country’s parliament three times in the past. He was the first person to be hanged for war crimes by Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), established in 2010 to investigate atrocities committed during the 1971 civil war. The tribunal convicted him for killing a student and 11 members of a family and aiding 369 other people during the nine-month long strife. The death sentence was reviewed upwards after a petition by the government against life sentence awarded a few months ago.
It was hoped that after its independence, Bangladesh would be more at peace with itself but this has proved fallacious. Hanging a 65-year-old man 42 years after alleged war crimes will, it appears, bring little peace to the country.
Contrary to general belief, the concept of war crime trials didn’t begin with Nuremburg. There had been such trials earlier at St Helena for Bonapartists, Leipzig after World War I for Kaiser and other senior German officials and Constantinople again after WWI, for the Turks accused of slaughtering Armenians. In all these trials, there had been little doubt about the nature of ‘victor’s justice’. Stalin, a man known to strongly despise longer routes to issues, balked at the US notions of a complete trial, as he merely wanted defendants proclaimed guilty for the inevitable death sentence at Nuremburg.
In the well-researched book by Gary J Boss ‘Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Trials’, the opening statement of allied prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, is of considerable historic significance: “The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, so devastating, that civilisation cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive that being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgement of the law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.”
However, it is always this disequilibrium in application of ‘power’ versus dictates of ‘reason’, with which people have an issue. For instance, were the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki less ‘stung’ by the ‘calculated, malignant and devastating’ wrongs (to use Jackson’s words) perpetuated by the US wartime leaders, especially when Imperial Japan was crumbling?
If the argument to bring the war to an abrupt end in favour of dropping the first nuclear bomb is accepted, then why is Sri Lanka today criticised for human rights abuses? Isn’t the 37-year long civil war in Sri Lanka considered long enough for the state to use greater force to spare further bloodshed? Is the use of force by nation-states for internal and external security, in discharge of their constitutional responsibilities, always as clean as a football match?
Justice Jackson’s statement is also important because it brings out ever more clearly than before the difference between the period when the prosecutor starts to read his opening statement and the long period preceding it. While the trial itself is all legalities with foregone conclusions, the real issue is the entire political process which makes such trials possible, impossible or impractical. It is, therefore, not surprising that even in 1945 when the war had just ended and anti-German sentiments were at its peak, the chief justice of the US Supreme Court called Nuremburg trials a farce. The ICT has come under global criticism as falling well short of international standards while the motives behind Mollah’s hanging have also been unmistakably political.
Much has been made of the article by Anthony Mascarenhas in the Sunday Times of June 13, 1971, which reads more like a ball-by-ball commentary of every shooting. There is no denying that on occasions the Pakistan Army in East Pakistan did engage in activities of which we should be downright ashamed of as a nation. But there has also been much exaggeration which tarnished the image of the military.
Mercifully, Mascarenhas acknowledges that up to 100,000 non-Bengalis were killed before the crackdown started in East Pakistan. If only he had pointed out who those non-Bengalis were, who their collaborators were and who started this vicious cycle. Anthony Mascarenhas was formerly of the Morning News, Karachi and the article, it is generally believed, was published after he moved to London with his family. In every era, it seems there are people in Pakistan who instantly recognise an opportunity for personal advancement when they see one.
It was not only Mascarenhas who was unbalanced in his reporting. In another book ‘Blood Telegram’, also authored by Gary J Bass, he describes how Archer Blood, the then US Consul General in Dhaka, reached a hasty conclusion of ‘genocide’ – a word which Turkey, a hundred years to this date, has not accepted about its actions in Armenia, where by a conservative estimate over a million Armenians perished.
Archer also overstated the use of US supplied jets, tanks, transport aircraft and ammunition to quash the rebellion. For the record, there was only one squadron of F-86 aircraft and one armour regiment which were put to limited use, while it was the infantry equipped with POF manufactured G-3 rifles and AK-47 assault rifles that was engaged in larger ground operations. If ever the chaff of propaganda and Indian role in this fiasco is fully exposed, only then will a different story of the events of 1971 finally emerge.
Mollah did not seek presidential clemency and chose death. In doing so, he embraced martyrdom as perceived by the common man in countries where religious undercurrents are strong, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan – recent debate notwithstanding. The issue with martyrdom, however, is that it catapults a person beyond the pale of actual historical narrative. For followers of martyrs, it doesn’t matter any longer what did or did not happen – all that matters is to follow him.
It is here that Bangladesh could have taken a more prudent approach instead of opening old wounds. Unwittingly, it may also have caused new ones which could fester for a long time.