Rehabilitating the razakars — blame game and a synthesis
A good working rule for bloggers is to keep the post to one point. If you have more than one point, then do more than one post. In this post, however, I break this rule. This post makes two points.
First, I use an old UV debate about who’s to be blamed for the failure to try the Bangladeshi war criminals of 1971 as a ‘teachable moment’ to show how it is possible to advance the discourse through thesis-antithesis-synthesis if we are so inclined.
Second, I draw a distinction between failure to try the war criminals and rehabilitating them politically. While both are regrettable, they are different failures by our leaders. And if we want to have honest debate, then we need to keep the distinction in mind.
Let’s begin with the summary of the debate.
One set of thesis and antithesis goes like this.
Thesis: It was Mujib who gave amnesty to the razakars, therefore the failure to try the war criminals is his fault.
Anti-thesis: Given the problems of post-war reconstruction and the need for reconciliation, Mujib forgave those collaborators against whom there was no criminal charge. But war criminals were still being tried. Therefore, it wasn’t Mujib’s fault.
Another set of thesis-antithesis goes like this.
Thesis: Zia abandoned the trial process, so it was his fault.
Antithesis: The trial process that Zia inherited was a farce given most of the ringleaders of war crime were already free under Mujib. Given the problems of post-1975 breakdown in state machinery, Zia prioritised away from pursuing the trial. Therefore it wasn’t Zia’s fault.
Is it possible to have a synthesis of these views? The answer is clearly ‘no’ for anyone who believes Mujib’s primary motivation was to establish a Stalinist dictatorship or Zia was a closet ISI agent.
However, anyone who doesn’t hold such extreme negative opinions of Mujib or Zia should be able to see this.
Synthesis: Both Mujib and Zia faced practical constraints on war crimes trial. We can disagree with the way both of them went about facing these constraints, and criticise their actions. But one doesn’t need to question their sincerity. We don’t need to say ‘it was all one’s fault, and the other one was completely innocent’.
That is, a synthesis is possible once we accept that Mujib and Zia were sincere in the tasks bestowed upon them, but were susceptible to making mistakes under very difficult circumstances.
It is possible to have this kind of synthesis on most issues, only if we are so inclined. And the public discourse can only advance through such synthesis. If we believe that everyone on the other side is India’s dalal / anti-Islam / fundamentalist / razakar, then we will never have any synthesis.
Having done the lecture, let me now get to my second point. There are two separate issues: failure to try war criminals, and rehabilitating/legitimising them into politics. We can note that actions of both Mujib and Zia contributed to the failure to try war criminals. But it is a different matter when we are talking about rehabilitation.
It is self-evident that Zia rehabilitated some collaborators (though not necessarily war criminals — there is a distinction). For example, Shah Aziz was a collaborator and a political opportunist who supported Pakistan in 1971. And Zia made him his prime minister. Zia’s defenders might justify this by saying he needed a parliamentarian of Shah Aziz’s calibre to build his party (and by extension, demilitarising politics). Or, one can criticise Zia for this action.
However, Zia was not the last politician to rehabilitate razakars. Ershad put war criminals like Maolana Mannan and SQ Chowdhury in cabinet, and allowed Jamaat to do politics in its own name (contrary to popular myth, Jamaat did not start open politics under Zia). Awami League joined 1986 election with Jamaat, and both AL and BNP took Jamaat in the fold of anti-Ershad moement. Since 1990, both AL and BNP have played footsie with Jamaat and other war criminals. And the supporters of each party or leader can tell a justify themselves with some story or other.
On the rehabilitation point then, everyone from Zia to Hasina are guilty — the difference is of degree, not kind, and dictated more by political circumstances and opportunities than any ideology. If we are honest about the blaming our leaders, then we should hold all of them on this point. We shouldn’t pick and choose.