Abdul Quader Mollah certainly did himself no favours when, earlier this month, he flashed a smile and a V-sign as he emerged from a hearing of the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Dhaka that had just sentenced him to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity committed during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence in 1971.
The culprit’s body language, interpreted as an indication that he felt he had got off lightly, helped to spark off mass protests in the Bangladeshi capital’s Shahbagh area, with thousands demanding the death penalty for Mollah and others who are believed to have collaborated in the Pakistan army’s alleged campaign of mass extermination nearly 42 years ago.
Following several days of sustained demonstrations in Shahbagh and other parts of the country, as well as clashes between police and activists of the Jamaat-i-Islami that Mollah belongs to, Bangladeshs parliament has approved legislative amendments that permit government prosecutors to appeal the sentence.
The changes have elicited cautionary statements from organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of which justifiably abhor the death penalty, amid concerns that the trial process itself has failed to measure up to international standards.
The ruling Awami League fulfilled a campaign promise by setting up the ICT in 2010, but the subsequent legal process has been beset by allegations that it is part of a political vendetta. The list of accused thus far features mostly members of the Jamaat, plus two members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The latter is the League’s chief political rival and the Jamaat is its long-standing ally.
However, no one can seriously question the Jamaat’s collaborationist role in the nine-month gestation period that foreshadowed the birth of Bangladesh. A quarter-century earlier, its all-India incarnation had resisted the formation of Pakistan, albeit for all the wrong reasons. In 1971, its cadres in East Pakistan made common cause with what was widely perceived as an occupation army and supplied many, if not most, of the recruits for the so-called razakar (or volunteer) brigades Al Badr and Al Shams that perpetrated and facilitated atrocities on a barely imaginable scale.
Sure, they may have been puppets in a historical tragedy, but they cast themselves in that role. It is all but impossible, in this context, to argue with the concept of trials for the guilty. Justice delayed is better than justice denied. But it is crucial that the legal process to be above suspicion. And whereas one can appreciate where the demand for capital punishment is coming from, it deserves to be deplored. Inhumane punishment can only tarnish the otherwise understandable urge for a reckoning.
It should — but, unfortunately, doesn’t — go without saying that war crimes trials in relation to the atrocities in East Pakistan ought to have been conducted in Pakistan, with the primary perpetrators in the dock. That wasn’t to be. In fact, quite to the contrary, the general internationally derided as ‘the butcher of Bengal’ became the army chief in what remained of Pakistan and received a carte blanche, barely a couple of years after his exploits on Bangladeshi territory, to deal with ‘miscreants’ in Balochistan.
The consequences of that monumental folly are still being played out four decades later, but there’s at least equal cause for consternation in the Pakistan Army’s enduring tendency to deploy surrogates to do its dirty work, which first surfaced during 1947-48 in Kashmir. Recent echoes of the razakar militias deployed to assist in the attempted abortion of Bangladesh can, meanwhile, be found in outfits such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
The latter has claimed responsibility for both the unconscionable instances of carnage in Quetta this year, yet ostensibly remains untouchable. After the first massacre of Hazara innocents, the regime in Islamabad eventually sacked the provincial administration and instituted governor’s rule. That proved to be a futile gesture, and now even Balochistan’s governor has noted that either cowardice or incompetence is bound to be responsible for the security agencies’ failure to thwart a repeat of the January bomb attack.
The Guardian quotes Hamid Mir, not renowned as a military critic, as saying: “Some of these people who go by the name of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are part of the same private death squads created by the security agencies against Baloch militants. Yes, sometimes they oblige the security agencies by taking action against the Baloch militants, but on the other hand they quietly organise their own actions against the Shia community.”
The nexus between segments of the army and the forces of fundamentalism, forged long ago and solidified during the years of General Ziaul Haq’s odious misrule, continues to be a debilitating aspect of Pakistan’s structure. In 1971, it helped to bury the residue of what was arguably anyhow an unsustainable concept, contributing considerably in the process to the pain and misery of separation. Its role in the relatively short-term future may well entail putting paid to what remains.
Representatives of the Hazaras have used the word “genocide” to describe the hunted community’s predicament. The same term frequently surfaces in descriptions of the unforgivable events of 1971. One of its earliest uses was as a headline in the Sunday Times above a groundbreaking article by the Pakistani journalist Anthony Mascarenhas, who had been given a tour of the battleground by the army but felt free to describe what he had witnessed only once he and his family found refuge in Britain.
Just a couple of years after the catastrophe, the poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz memorably lamented: Kab nazar mein aaye gi bedaagh sabze ki bahaar / Khoon ke dhabe dhulein ge kitni barsaaton ke baad [When will we gaze upon the untainted verdure of spring / How many monsoons will it take to wash away the bloodstains?]
He was writing about Bangladesh following a visit to Dhaka. A few decades hence, it has become pertinent to pose the same questions about Pakistan.