I stood there, not sure what to do or how to feel. The afternoon sun shone down on us with an angry might, but somehow that no longer bothered me. My friends and peers stood all around me equally shocked, equally speechless. A little distance away, a girl in a red shirt was sobbing hysterically. I tried to guess her age. This is something I have always been bad at. Luckily for me, on this instant all I had to do was get a ballpark number. For my purpose, all I needed to know was that the girl was at most in her twenties. That she was not even born in 1971. That she was most probably still a toddler in the early 90s.
15th July 2013. Shahbagh. Moments after the International War Crimes Tribunal have announced the verdict for Ghulam Azam, supreme commander of the Razakar forces during our Liberator War. The prosecution has been able to prove Ghulam Azam guilty of all the charges brought against him. The court is convinced that as leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami and organiser of the Peace Committee, Ghulam Azam is guilty of having superior responsibility for all the atrocities committed by militia troops like Al-Badr and Al-Shams. Yet somehow, he is not given capital punishment. The 92-year-old Razakar leader is sentenced to 90 years in prison. 90 years that he, if he even lives that long, will spend in the prison ward of the Bangabandhu Medical College Hospital under the supervision of some of the best doctors in the country, with first class facilities of every manner. Who will bear the expense of this cushy life? You and me, the taxpayers of this glorious nation.
A lot has already been written about this verdict, both for and against. Many feel that we should be happy with this verdict. That it is the ideal mix of justice for his crimes, and clemency for an old man at the tail-end of his life. We are reminded by many that it does not befit us as proper human beings to want the hanging of an old man who has but a few years left anyway. We are told that justice has been served, and if we do not agree with this justice then the flaw lies with us, not with the court of law. A lot has indeed been said, and yet I have something left to say, which is why I put my pen to paper today.
I will spare the readers the gory details, but anyone with any sense of history knows about the brutal acts of the Pakistan army and the Razakars. One trip to the Liberation War Museum should help you refresh your memory if you find it hard to recall exactly what acts I refer to. The army and their local aids raped women, often in front of their husbands and children. They raped teenage girls in front of their parents. They ripped little kids down the middle with their bayonets, and butchered old men for no reason other than their own perverse pleasure. Do you see what I am getting at? Probably not. We are a nation of such short-term memory and such myopic vision! The Pakistan army, and Ghulam Azam’s troops, did not show mercy based on age or physical state or any other factor for that matter. They murdered, raped and massacred anyone and everyone. To them, little Bengali infants were no more than animals that they enjoyed hunting and eventually killing. On July 15th, our court showed mercy to a man who did not spare an iota of mercy for our ancestors, no matter how old and frail they may have been.
I can almost sense a whole group of people jumping up and down, mumbling how we are better than them, how we cannot pay them back in their own coin, how the rule of the law leaves no room for petty thoughts of revenge or retribution. I most humbly request you; spare me your superior moral platitudes. If you must exercise your eloquence on this matter, please go do so to the widow who had to raise her children all by herself, because her husband was murdered by Razakars. Too hard? How about the mother whose sons were killed in a brushfire while she begged the Pakistan army for mercy? Still can’t do it, can you? Then spare me the agony of having to listen to the so-called moderate arguments and counsel on how to respect the rule of law. See, that is the biggest different between you and me. I have no hesitation, no qualms whatsoever in standing in front of Ghulam Azam’s family and stating how I feel he is one of the most base human beings ever to walk on earth, and how the only thing he deserves is the most painful and humiliating death. I wish for death upon him, and I am not ashamed of it.
Newspapers and TV shows everywhere are chock-full of people asking us to be happy with this verdict, to acknowledge how justice has been served. What justice? In a country where people die every winter for want of warm clothes, Ghulam Azam will wrap himself in a state-provided blanket. In a country where freedom fighters work as labourers and rickshawpullers, Ghulam Azam will catch a siesta in an air-conditioned cabin. In a country where mothers sell off their children for lack of food, Ghulam Azam will have three proper meals, some snacks and the occasional dessert, all on state funding. If this is justice, if this is civilisation then I want no part of it. I feel shame today, for the first time in my life, for being a citizen of a country that spends its money to provide for its greatest enemy. This is no justice. This is the biggest humiliation one could heap on anyone who honours the memory of 1971. This is an outrage. This is a failure to execute our historic duty.
But I do not lose hope. Maybe that makes me naïve. Maybe it opens me up to even more disappointment in the future. Yet I do not lose hope. Ghulam Azam may have escaped the gallows. If there is a change in regime in the near future, he might even get out of prison. But in one sense he has lost the purpose and meaning of life. I gravely doubt he cares about it, but that does not change the fact that Ghulam Azam is now undoubtedly the most hated individual in the history of Bangladesh. He is a symbol of betrayal, of cowardice, or senseless brutality against one’s own fellow men in return for some minor benefits in political career. I hope all that he has amassed in this life was worth this shame.
The day when people at Shahbagh found out that Ghulam Azam has escaped capital punishment, there was, understandably, a lot of anger. People threw shoes at his photo; people screamed for their demands to be met that he deserves nothing short of death sentence. But the one thing that outshone all of these was what I have already mentioned at the very beginning. People cried. They cried tears of bitter disappointment. Old men with flags in their hands cried. Young girls wearing bandanas cried. Mothers cried. Angry young men set aside their boiling rage and wept like little children. The most seasoned of men struggled to their tears. Even I finally gave in and let the tears come unbidden.
“Professor” Ghulam Azam, I doubt you have refined human feelings like shame and regret. I doubt you even know about such uniquely human traits. But I hope from the bottom of my heart that you are somehow granted those feelings for just one day. Then you would know the shame of having a nation cry because you have managed to escape the death sentence. Then you would know the humiliation of having an entire generation of Bangladeshis hating you so much that they refuse to grant you even the tiniest display of mercy. And once you have felt that shame, I hope you never forget it for as long as you live. “Professor” Ghulam Azam, I hope you then live a long life, the full 90 years you have been sentenced to. Maybe then you will come to learn that there are things far worse than death. Maybe then you would rather choose death over living with the knowledge that we all really, truly, deeply want you to die, and we cry in frustration when you escape death. “Professor” Ghulam Azam, your entire life is a failure. Ghulam Azam, your life gives millions of young men and women nothing but sorrow. Ghulam Azam, an entire nation curses you and wishes you nothing but shame, suffering and death. Your life is a waste.
Hammad Ali is a teacher of Computer Science and Engineering at BRAC University.