On trying the war criminals
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).