On trying the war criminals

Posted in politics by jrahman on October 10, 2008

About a year ago, senior figures associated with Jamaat-e-Islami created a furore by making extremely provocative statements about Bangladesh’s Liberation War – a war in which Jamaat’s members actively fought against the country’s independence, perpetrating some of the worst war crimes of that conflict along the way.  Indeed, some of the very people making these statements themselves are alleged to be war criminals.  The statement reignited the demands to bring the war criminals to a trial. 

Here is a summary of the controversy.  The reasons for Jamaat’s offensive wasn’t clear to me then (see here), and they’re no more clear now.  What is clear to me though is that people like Matiur Rahman Nizami or  Ali Ahsan Mujahid — the party’s two top ranking leaders — should be brought to justice for their actions in 1971.  What is also clear to me is that the strategies — Shahrier Kabir’s writings linking war crimes trial with secularism or the Sector Commanders’ Forum’s call for banning Jamaat — adopted by those seeking a trial are not going to work.  In this post, I offer an alternative approach.  

Let’s start with couple of inconvenient facts about our politics.  First, parties that have never shown any interest in even talking about trying war criminals, parties representing the politics of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism and Islamic values’ have represented a majority of our voters since the mid-1970s.  This means that as long as the demand to try war criminals remains limited to the opposing political camp, it remains a minority demand.  Second, there is no ‘good guys’ in Bangladeshi politics when it comes to trying war criminals – no one has done it.  So there is absolutely no reason to prefer one set of politicians over other. 

This means that if we are serious about trying the war criminals, we have to create a coalition that includes both jatiyatabadis and Awamis.  This can only happen if we realise the following: a demand for trying the war criminals is not the same thing as promoting secularism or the so-called Bengali nationalism; nor is it about combating Jamaat or political Islam per se; and it most definitely is not about Awami League or Gen Moeen’s political fortunes. 

At this point, it is important to stress that by war crime we don’t mean thought crimes.  War criminals are those individuals who did real crimes against real people — they killed, raped and burnt in a systematic fashion — during the Liberation War.  Their ideology is not the issue here.  There perpetration of genocide and other such crimes are. 

When I’ve raised this line of argument in different forums or in private conversation with people who passionately believe in the cause of the war crimes trial, I’m met with a common refrain: BNP/JP are non-secular, therefore they are not going to support the trial of war criminals, we’ll be wasting our time inviting them to join the coalition.

I think this line of thinking is logically faulty because it makes the mistake of linking the trial of war criminals with secularism.  Just because many of those seeking a trial also want to see a secular Bangladesh (however interpreted — a separate debate for another day) doesn’t mean that the trial of war criminals is the same thing as secularism.  It’s irrelevant whether BNP/JP are secular or not, or whether their interpretation of nationalism is different from the secular one.  It is not at all clear that a BNP/JP supporter is ideologically opposed to a war crimes trial. 

I’ll go even further.  I’ll say that one can be Islamist — meaning that they want a theocratic state — but still demand a trial.  Why?  Because the crimes we are talking about — indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, systematic rape, arson — are contrary to basic Islamic tenets.  

So logically, it is a non sequitur that BNP/JP types are not secular so they are against the trial of war criminals.  

Having said all that, it is certainly the case that most BNP/JP supporters are sceptical of any talk of a trial.  Those of us who so passionately seek a trial, and so vociferously demand one, should ask ourselves why is it the case that the majority of our voters who support BNP or JP do not demand a trial? 

Part of the answer is that BNP/JP have benefited from the support of war criminals.  But then, so has Awami League — the party a majority of those seeking a trial identify with.  The difference between AL and BNP/JP here is one of degree, not kind.  Once again, that AL has a formal commitment to secularism and BNP/JP doesn’t, or that AL and BNP/JP differ in their interpretation of nationalism, these are not the issue here.    

A more important reason, in my opinion, is that the first Khaleda government found itself in a confrontational position with those seeking a trial, whereas the issue remained dormant during the AL years.  I’ll not wade into the AL-BNP argument here, but consider the issue from the perspective of a BNP voter: ‘isn’t it suspicious that this whole thing keeps coming up at times to bludgeon us politically?’ — I think the BNP voter has a right to feel cynical about it.  

And at the same time, if those of us seeking a trial pin our colours to the AL mast, if we say that ‘anyone who sincerely wants war criminals be punished cannot belong to any of these parties because they are not secular’ — don’t we just confirm the BNP voters’ cynicism?  

This then sets off a vicious cycle.  If you are a BNP/JP supporter who in principle supports the trial, you’d have to think thrice before voicing your opinion.  Why?  Because doing so would mean supporting AL.  And if you’re an AL leader, you’ve got it really easy — you can rely on the trial supporters to vote for you, so you don’t actually have to deliver: ora aar koi jabe, election-e to nouka tei vote dibe, oder vote niye chinta nai, borong dekhi kemne BNP’r vote komano jai

And why wouldn’t AL think this way?  They are in the business of winning elections.  If I was running AL, I too would do the same.  So the net result is that AL will have little incentive to actually deliver on the trial, BNP/JP will see any demand for trial as an AL tactical ploy, and a trial will never happen.  

When you think about it this way, AL’s attitude to meet or not to meet Jamaat becomes crystal clear.  It’s all about winning the election, stupid.

Now let’s consider an alternative strategy that is compatible with both the electoral preferences of our voters and the election strategies of our parties.   

Suppose there is an awareness campaign that highlights the war crimes.  Not secularism, not the interpretation of nationalism — important as those issues are — but war crimes.  The efforts by Muktijuddho Jadughar or Mash’s collections are examples of what I have in mind, except that these reach only a fraction of our population.  So let there be an awareness campaign that reaches the millions outside Dhaka.  Let this awareness campaign establish that there were real war crimes — not ideological or intellectual differences, but real crimes against real people and property.  Let these awareness campaigns pin point the individuals who perpetrated those crimes.  Not political parties, not ideologies, but real criminals — Nizami, Mujahid, SQ Chowdhury etc.  

If we can convince the majority of the people about the crimes and criminals, the battle is half won.  Once Nizami/Mujahid/SQ Chowdhury become political liabilities, no one will court them for votes.  It will be much easier then to convince the government of the merits of a trial.  If nothing else, their elimination from the political scene will be a benefit in itself.  If it is really the case that AL leadership is sincere about holding the trial, it will be easier to do so in an environment where there is a broad agreement about the trial across the party line.  And that will never happen so long as the trial is identified as a pure AL issue. 

And once a trial is held, once Nizami is found guilty by a transparent justice system, it will be well nigh impossible for a future government to rehabilitate these criminals.  

If anyone thinks that this is not practical, I present precedence from our recent history: trial of the killers of the Sheikh family. 

Far more than the war criminals, BNP/JP politics benefited from the murder of Sheikh Mujib.  Had he lived, it is quite unlikely that the BNP/JP politics would have appeared in the form that it did, let alone thrive.  BNP/JP had never shown any interest in bringing the killers to justice.  AL, for its part, spent a lot of effort in the 1980s to monopolise Mujib (and BNP/JP for their part spent much time trying to marginalise him).  

But then something changed in the 1990s.  Mujib and AL were allowed to decouple.  When the house in Rd 32 Dhanmondi was opened as a museum for the public, a new generation learnt that a heinous crime was committed on 15 August 1975.  The result is that there is a near consensus that the massacre of the Sheikh family was a tragedy and the killers should be punished.  

And then when AL returned to power in 1996, they wisely chose to concentrate on the killers and the key conspirators: Khondoker Mushtaq and the majors.  As a result, Farooq-Rashid-Dalim, who were courted by Ershad in 1987, became political pariahs by the 1990s.  Even the BNP-Jamaat government couldn’t gather enough political will to pardon the killers.    

If instead AL had concentrated on the broader ideological significances of the coups of 1975, if they had said all those who support BNP are beneficiaries of the massacre and thus should be tried, if they had kept the trial of those killers a purely AL issue, we’d probably have seen Col Farooq become a minister in the second Khaleda government!

The lesson here is not that ideological issues don’t matter.  They do.  But they should not be mixed up with the trial of war criminals.  If we are serious about the trial, then let’s build awareness and a coalition so that not having a trial becomes politically impossible.

(Cross-posted at UV.  Based on a discussion in Uttorshuri in Feb 2008).

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3 Responses

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  1. bitterboy said, on October 11, 2008 at 4:18 am

    Whenever I see the issue of the trial of “War Criminal” resurfaced I do certainly say something about it. Browsing through the current write-up of Jyoti I have to first comment about people like Jyoti “Etodiney Orindab Kohila Bishadey…it is as of today a minority demand” as he writes and I quote,
    “This means that as long as the demand to try war criminals remains limited to the opposing political camp, it remains a minority demand.”

    Jyoti is far more objective here analyzing the practicality of trial of the war criminals. I do appreciate and thank him for being more objective. But I vehemently disagree with him on the relevance of the issue. It’s neither a minority nor a majority issue, rather a dead issue. When dead body reincarnates again and again we call it ghost. We should not waste time and energy to run after the ghost.

    I’m not protecting Jamat or other islamists or alleged criminals and it’s not my job or port-folio. But I do it as I love people and when I see it so dividing and feel the naive peace-loving people of the country are at the dark endless tunnel of tragedy.

    There is no denying that every damn thing has some good and some bad stuff latent in. But some has more good-side than hind-side and vice-versa. The trial of the war criminal at this point will be more harmful than beneficial for the nation. Already we are so divided and that’s why as a community we are so messed up and we can’t afford to be more divided with the dead issue.

    The so called war-criminals were given clemency in two phases by the two top most popular leaders late Sheik Mujib and Ziaur Rahman. Now is there any legal scope to retry the criminals once they had been pardoned. Can we demand for hanging or retrial for the same charge once a president had pardoned a criminal convicted of murder and had verdict of a death sentence or any punishment? Just a year before a murderer Muktijoddah of Debidwar of comilla was pardoned from death sentence by the president by the request or intervention of GMUA even clemency was rejected 1st time by the president. Can you Jyoti demand his execution now or revert the decision?

    And more weirdly while demanding war criminality we don’t even define war criminality. If you say Nizami, Mujaheed, SAQA are war criminals, why not Bagha Quder Siddiui is not a war criminals? He killed innocent Beharees without trial and intended to cleanse out that ethnic group from Bangladesh. Doesn’t this crime of ethnic cleansing fall under the domain of war criminality?

    And again by claiming to be progressive and advocate of human rights, freedom of speech, secularism, democracy etc how can you guy say that some kind of mere statements per se by Jamati’s or someone else can be equivalent to war criminality. Opps! makes a lot of sense!
    Jamati lenient intellectual Hannan Shah once equated the term war of independence with civil war and you people started to make so uproar. He didn’t make any big mistake. If jamatis say something, then that becomes war criminality. What will you say about if the same thing is said by international editors or reporters of world highly circulated Dailies and periodicals. Just go through the list of news paper reports compiled by great MASH on the issue of who declared independence of Bangladesh, You will see lots of them termed that war as the civil war in the east wing of erstwhile Pakistan. Go and visit ICDDR,B DSS [demographic surveillance System] branch how they used to affirm the age of unlettered people. The surveillance form had the question …Gondogholer Basar Apnar Boyosh Kato Chilo [How old were you in the year of civil disturbance?]. Those ICCDR,B officers who composed the forms should be brought to trial ‘ per Jyoti’s best judgment.

    So if somebody sees that way and then terms that as civil war it doesn’t make epic Mohabharat any wrong.


  2. logicat said, on October 11, 2008 at 10:43 am

    if the bnp were to support war crimes trials, it would aggravate a significant constituency within the party and fracture the bnp-jamaat alliance, without which the bnp would never be able to come to power. which is why the bnp will never support war crimes trials. qed.

    forget about bringing them to trial … do you think you could even convince the bnp to keep war criminals out of the cabinet? that would be a start.

  3. jrahman said, on October 14, 2008 at 10:31 am

    Logicat, you’re right that the BNP as it stands will not support war crimes trial. BNP under Zia had both left and right factions. Under his wife it became a centrist party with a strong right faction. Under his son it was a rightist party with many centrists. As things stand, it may very well become a rightwing party.

    This rightward evolution of BNP makes a bi-partisan coalition for war crimes trial difficult. Sure. But I don’t think that invalidates the central point that without such a coalition, a trial won’t happen.

    Two other points should be noted.

    1. For the trial to work, we don’t need it enshrined in BNP’s manifesto. All we need is for enough jatiyatabadi voters to be convinced that the trial is necessary. That’s the 15 Aug model I described above.

    2. If BNP strays too far to the right, it will probably not win an election anyway. And people who supported Zia-Ershad-Khaleda for the past 30 years but will be alienated by a rightist BNP seem to be exactly the kind of people who can be brought to the coalition.

    In practical terms then, people like Bitterboy will never be convinced about these issues, so forget about them. If we are serious about the trial, we should concentrate on people of good faith and open minds who can accept that rape and arson are crimes that ought to be punished. As long as the trial remains associated with the left or AL, this won’t happen because people who don’t subscribe to other left-progressive values will be turned off.

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