In 1971, after power brokering for months on a supposedly level playing field, the Pakistani military ruler Yahya Khan and its minority party leader ZA Bhutto connived to crush the unyielding Bengalis and their leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with terror and violence. This was just the mindset of medieval tyrants leading marauding army in the plains of conquered lands to vanquish its population; just the way they viewed the Bengalis.
However, for the same modus operandi to apply, in the latter half of 20th century, there were some not so minor complications. For, by then there have advent on the world scene hundreds of nation states or assembly of diverse population under singular state identity, many of whose population was permeated with post enlightenment ideas of freedom of speech, egalitarianism and individual rights. Delusion with after death purgatory and various shades of divinity and omnipotence sans humanism already had slinked inside human minds, and the world was acquiescently divided into two camps, more or less along these lines.
So, when regiments of armies with modern combat armaments were unleashed on to the unarmed civilians of the then East Pakistan, its people’s sensibilities took jolts: of multiple dimensions. They woke up to rude realisation that it was, what they thought their own army, who had attacked them; that their country had been controlled by a minority sub-nation within the country, who held uninhibited hatred for them; that they would rather annihilate them than to consider them at par in every aspect of citizenry; that, during the crackdown, one only has to be a Bengali to get killed by the soldiers; and that the religious bond that was supposed to have tied them together under the cloak of one nation, was a big farce, per se.
Millions fled from the country; and its young men banded together to put up armed resistance. People proclaimed independence of their land freeing all ties from its previous statehood. During the next nine months, the army killed an estimated three million defenceless people and raped two hundred thousand women. This went almost unabated, with pockets of resistance put up by the freedom fighters; until irregular clashes with bordering India escalated into a full-fledged frontal war. Within weeks the Indian army and the Freedom Fighters crashed a demoralised and broken army to surrender; and the new government took over.
If, the crackdown by the army on the night of 26th March was a tremor in the acuity of the known realities in Bengali minds, then the onset of their collaborators, from among its own creed to the mayhem was shattering in its core of their faith in humanity and sense of nationhood. A traumatised and fearful people vowed to get equal from the very day it started. It took roots in every Bengalis grain to see that this is done by equal measures, in time, come hell or high water.
Up to that point it remained all very straight. Unadulterated realism stroked again, however, when the saga of our self-rule set on. The 195 officers and soldiers of the surrendered army, identified as the core band of war criminals and perpetrators of the genocide had to be repatriated back to where they came from, under the Geneva Convention rules for Prisoner of War. The newly enthroned and excitable ZA Bhutto put out threats to harm the Bengalis who were entrapped still then in Pakistan. The US, and Pakistan’s Islamist and regional allies were up into nipping in the bud the war torn country. International Marxism had taken a bizarre stand supporting the genocide, while their local cronies muddled the Chinese version of the doctrine with China’s foreign policy and its regional interest, proclaiming its Chairman as ‘our Chairman’. Famine followed when emergency food aid was blocked by the US. At home, and state principle of democracy was abandoned in favour of one-party rule under the very benevolent leader, who had earlier declared a general amnesty for war crimes, in the aftermath of inspiring his people to take up armed struggle for a free country.
A heroic freedom fighter, who became the army chief, assumed power after the leader was killed. Within less than a decade after its liberation, Bangladesh returned to the normalcy of East Pakistan, when known and high profile collaborators were winning ‘elections’ and assuming high offices under his patronage. Their rehabilitation process were further sanctified, when his regime, knocking the second state principle of nationalism, went onto a course of recreating a parallel Bangladesh – or at least an illusion of it – and a new slogan, a pseudo national anthem and a new definition of nationalism followed.
Rehabilitation continued when a second dictator took command at the helm and took the country further backward. His onslaught was on the third state principle, of secularism. As if inserting ‘Bismillah’ in the constitution did not go far enough, he decreed Islam as state religion in the constitution; all to gain favour of the Islamists, or at least what he thought would gain him a place in the hearts and mind of god fearing people.
However, by then the widow of the slain dictator and the daughter of the dead leader were out there on the streets to claim, what they thought was their inheritance. Both seemed under misplaced belief that the ex-collaborators and their brand of religion and politics mattered, when it comes to win the hearts of people. Islamisation began at home, and abroad: while dress code and the styles changed at home, visit to destinations abroad changed, making Saudi Arabia the most visited endpoint, pilgrimage as often cited reason.
While all these went on, war crimes trials were pushed back from the point of a distant wishful thinking, into national oblivion. But just as it happened, a housewife, and mother of a martyr in the name of Jahanara Imam, publicly reminded the unfinished issue; and she caught on people’s imagination by opening up a platform and even held public mock trials of collaborators. When this mother was a courageous voice in wilderness, the widow had assumed the control of the government riding high on people’s emotion by the cooperation of the collaborators and their likeminded allies.
Nearing the end of her regime, the daughter, in an uncanny twist, lured the mandarins to team up with her, thus opening the floodgate to stripe off the bureaucratic establishment of their work practice, ethics and values. She bought the widow down through street barricades and ‘ballot’, but then when in power her regime let loose in the country an unprecedented rise in state patronised terror by organised party men, somewhere becoming as much effective as de facto local government.
The second coming of the widow was defining moment in the history in many ways. Firstly, people realised that the democracy and the form of government they had salvaged through street fighting, has then emerged in to a system ‘of choice between the lesser of the two evils’. That voraciousness and pillaging of public coffer by the ruling family members, their cronies and party apparatchiks are sanctioned actions; that the democratic system is nothing but the rule of one of the two families; that parliamentary seats or nomination is an auction process that goes to the highest bidder whose presence in the parliament session, and that voicing of any issue in public are dependent on which side of the house they were sitting, the rigours of Article 70 of the constitution and, when applied are often their exercises in obsequiousness.
Her regime made mockeries of the judicial system, the office of the President and the caretaker system of government. When the daughter’s second term ensued, she took to the street with greater vigour. Stalemate in the power handover negotiation and anarchy on the streets of Dhaka prevailed over, leading to army takeover of the business of governing the country.
Everything was put into quarantine for two years. In the interlude of power politics sobriety returned, and introspection led Sheikh Hasina to vow trials of the war criminal. After forming the next government, when she initiated the trial process, just about four decades had passed on by then.
The protracted process ended up with letting loose of one criminal before his apprehension, and way before his death sentence. The next one secured a ‘life sentence’ when death verdict was the right order. People smelt political underhand complicity, and one small ‘event invitation’ in the facebook gathered cyber-savvy fresh citizenry into the Shahbagh Moar in thousands. These brands can now be seen as distinctly different from their previous compliant, fatalist and torn generation.
Now the country has got the just verdict in the third time. No doubt this is a testimony to the maxim: Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does (Margaret Mead).
Let thousand more flowers bloom for a very long time; for many of the escaped 195 are still alive and yet to face an International Court. And, for the ongoing trial process at home let’s not forget that, to make peaceful revolution impossible is just as well making violent revolution inevitable.
Latif Quader is Fellow Chartered Accountant and a businessman.