On the verdict
I missed the liveblogging of the final verdict on the 15 August trial. Perhaps just as well, because this has given me the time to gather my thoughts. It goes without saying that I unambiguously and unreservedly welcome the verdict. This post is going to touch on some points that I feel have not been covered well in the discussions in the blogosphere, print media, or in television. Not being in Dhaka, I am in no position to reflect the public mood. But I claim that be a good thing because it allows me raise contrarian points and uncomfortable questions.
My main points are these.
1. Many have said ‘this is not about vengeance, it’s about justice’. What is the theory of justice here? How does that relate to death penalty?
2. I offer my personal views, where vengeance is a part of justice. But more importantly, we need our leading thinkers to spell out their concepts of justice for the People’s Republic.
3. ‘The nation gets a sense of closure after 34 years’ — goes a very common refrain. I think this notion is profoundly wrong.
4. Real closure may come when the generations whose hands are bloodied are gone, but only if we actiely make the right choices. We made a right choice with this trial, and that’s the real significance here, not some confused notion of justice or closure.
These contrarian views may hurt people’s feelings, for which I apologise. But these are important issues that we must reflect on, and this sombre morning is as good a time as any.
1. What is justice?
This may appear to be a philosophical question that would get branded as atlami in Dhaka. But we, the self-proclaimed thinking class (and human rights activists), do have to ask ourselves this question. It is easier to answer what is injustice — a 10-year old boy was shot in cold blood, that was injustice.
Let’s be specific here, is ‘death penalty’ justice? It is easy enough to say ‘I am against death penalty’ when the condemned person is guilty of killing the spouse over an extramarital affair. It would require someone courageous to say ‘I am against death penalty, even for those who committed the 15 August massacre’.
If you cannot say this, then on what do you base ‘justice, not vengeance’ claim?
2. Vengeance is (partly) justice.
I can offer my personal view. I believe when a wrong is done, the victim has a right of reparation or compensation — and one can very well call this vengeance or retribution. In addition to this private right of the victim, there is a public need for deterrence, and the perpetrator’s right to repent and seek a second chance. To me, vengeance is a part of justice, and the state’s role is to reconcile the victim’s right with that of the perpetrator’s in the context of the public need.
Specific to the 15 August case, the condemned men had ample time to repent and seek forgiveness. And the public need of deterrence is clear. These men massacred the country’s president and changed the nation’s political trajectory at gun point. By hanging them, 34 years after the event, the state sends out a clear signal to the would be coupmakers that ‘be ware, you too may end up this way’. Therefore, I have no qualms for supporting the death penalty here, and I do believe vengeance aka reparation is part of the equation — it is not up to any of us but the victim to forgive these men.
My views here are heavily influenced by Islamic study circles I frequented in a misspent youth. Bangladesh isn’t an Islamic Republic. Its justice system isn’t founded on the tenets of Islam or their interpretation by Islamic scholars and philosophers. Notionally, Bangladesh gets its legal system from the British.
What is the theory of justice here? When someone says ‘justice, not vengeance’, what do they mean?
If we don’t discuss this question, then we will neve eradicate crossfire aka gunfight aka extra-judicial killing in Bangladesh. If we don’t discuss what justice means in Bangladesh, we will never stop torture, or abuse of those who are less powerful than we are. Until there is a discussion about it, ‘justice, not vengeance’ will be just a rhetoric.
3. It’s not a closure for the nation.
The victims of the 15 August massacre may get a closure when they have the verdict implemented, and the perpetrators executed. But let’s not equate one family with our republic. Bangladesh has many festering wounds that this verdict will not heal. By saying that as a nation we get closure, we are making a profound mistake.
War crimes, jail killing, political assassinations under the last elected government, torture and state sponsored violence after 1/11, Pilkhana — where do we stop? And this doesn’t even include the crimes committed in the name of, and by, the majority Bengali Muslims against Biharis, Hindus, and Paharis.
On what ground do we say that 15 August was above all those other injustices? We can say that a journey has to begin somewhere, and this was as good a place as any. But let’s not call this a closure.
4. It’s the end of the beginning.
The real closure may come some day when events like the 21 August attack or Pilkhana will not remain in a shroud of secrecy. But there is no certainty that we will ever get that. We, as a people, need to make the right choices for that.
The real significance of this trial, and the verdict, is not that it has provided a sense of justice and closure to the victims. The real significance is that this has been done through as close to a transparent process as is possible in a country such as ours. This wasn’t done through a military tribunal. This wasn’t done through some kangaroo court. The killers were not crossfired.
If the 15 August killers can be tried in an open, transparent manner, then so can the war criminals, or 21 August attackers, or the Pilkhana killers. This is the real significance.
When the United States entered World War II, Winston Churchill said: This isn’t the end, not even the beginning of the end, but it’s the end of the beginning.
Let the verdict be the end of the beginning for Bangladesh.