Bangladesh was born in violence, emerged in chaos and continues to live in tumult. The country is yet to come to grips with its past and its history, and its rival interpretations, have played havoc with its present day politics.
So it was not unusual that within hours of the country’s International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) delivering a guilty verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah on 5 February, protests broke out in Dhaka. Mollah, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, an ally of the opposition party the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was handed a life sentence. A death sentence was widely expected given the nature of his crimes and the evidence against him. This did not go down well with a large number of citizens. Soon the city’s Shahbag Square was blocked by a huge mass protesting the decision. The protests have only become louder since.
At one level, this is clearly a fight between secular and religious ideologies in that country. But on another plane, this is also a fight between the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP. The league rode to power in 2008 on the back of a promise that it would try those guilty of crimes perpetuated in 1971. Since then, it has tried to procure a judicial verdict at a speed that can only be called frantic. As a result, ICT has been mired in controversy and its presiding officer Mohammed Nizamul Huq—a sitting Supreme Court judge—had to resign last year amid allegations that he failed to maintain independence of ICT from a government hurrying to complete the trial.
It is equally true that such was the scale of violence of 1971 that it cannot be wished away. There are, however, better options to come to terms with historical memory. A truth and reconciliation commission, of the kind that was established in post-apartheid South Africa, offers one model. A simple desire to come to terms with the past in an honest fashion is at the heart of such exercises. They offer a solution that is non-partisan and broad-based in terms of representing all parties from past conflicts. Bitterness and a highly charged political environment cannot serve as excuses for the lack of honesty and diligence in such ventures. In South Africa, for example, were the crimes unleashed against the African National Congress any less than what Pakistan did to its citizens in East Pakistan? Bangladesh chose an easier and more adversarial option. It suits its politics well but it does not serve the ends of truth.
A judicial forum or a truth commission: what should have Bangladesh chosen to come to terms with its past? Tell us at email@example.com