Friday, November 20, 2009

Bangladesh: A Murder Unhealed

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh upheld the death sentences of the five ex-soldiers in the murder case of Sheikh Mujib, the first President of the country. Mujib was assassinated, along with most of the rest of his family, in a coup on 15Th August 1975. The coup plotters accused Mujib of various misdeeds, including nepotism, corruption, dictatorship and selling out to India. Mujib, the enormously popular leader who played a part in starting the liberation struggle of East Pakistan, which eventually become Bangladesh, clearly lost control of his country by then: The coup plotters simply marched out of the Dhaka Cantonment, surrounded his house with tanks and armoured cars and shot him, along with his wife, sons, daughters-in-laws and nephew, dead.

To start with, it was a grizzly murder and needed to be punished. It was long viewed as a political act. The subsequent governments of Bangladesh actually granted amnesty to the coup leaders, including those directly involved in the killing. This amnesty was upheld for more than thirty years, by various governments, for reasons ranging from being direct beneficiary of the act to not wanting to rock the boat. In the meantime, this one event remained unhealed and at the centre of the divide of this fractured country. Murder begot murder and the cycle of violence continued, the military always watching the civilian government with the corner of their eye, and the country going through as many as three mass movements, ones that had to be organized to throw governments out of power, in the last fifteen years. And, all this time, indeed, what used to be South Asia's richest agricultural country, continued to slip behind, into the abyss of poverty, illiteracy and religious fundamentalism.

If there was ever a competition among countries with good people and bad leaders, Bangladesh will surely make it to the top five, if not to the top. It is rare of find such a combination of entrepreneurial, hospitable people led by such a group of unscrupulous administrators for such a long time. Indeed, there were other examples, but the wheel often turned and the charlatans were thrown out. In case of Bangladesh, while it seems unstable from outside, justice seems to take forever. One glaring example is now - it has taken more than thirty years to try the murderers of the first President of the country.

But, it is not actually about the First President. That could be seen as a political act. The accusation of misgovernment were indeed right. Mujib's sons and relatives were conducting a reign of terror at the time. The corruption was endemic. Mujib was, fresh from the success of creating a new country, obsessed with himself, ruling arbitrarily and was pushing for an One party rule through a compliant parliament. He was, rather insanely, planning to undermine the army by creating an elite Presidential Guard, with logistical help and training from India. He made the classic mistake of leadership - he was building a small cocoon around him and started seeing the world through the eyes of sycophants. He lost touch. So complete was his megalomania that he lived in his bungalow, with minimal security, two kilometers away from the Dhaka Cantonment. When attacked, he confronted the attackers empty-handed and asked them to shoot him. They promptly obliged.

We obviously know that you don't go around shooting your presidents every time they misgovern. The debate in Bangladesh, funnily, is exactly about this: Whether it was right to shoot Mujib because he was destroying the country. But, beyond that, the coup plotters did not stop by shooting him. They killed everyone, including a baby. And, then, walked out Scot-free. This current trial is as much about killing Mujib as for killing Baby Russel, and there can not be any political justification of killing a baby.

However, despite its inherent justification, this verdict will still be seen as a political act. The reason is, primarily, that it is Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina, who is currently the Prime Minister. Hasina, along with her sister Rehana, were away in England on the day of the killing, and therefore, survived. This trial, which was long overdue, was brought about by her election win last year, and since then, indirectly caused a mutiny in Dhaka. Bangladesh desperately needs to bury the past and get moving. Besides, the point that the government so far is committed to such trials, but failed to start a broader truth-and-reconciliation initiative, which would have brought out various Mujib-era misdeeds and cleared the air somewhat, will be seen as political, yet again.

Lastly, I saw the debate on the Internet whether death sentence must be handed out. The point of such trials is the trial itself, the recognition of the crime. In fact, it would have been better if lives were spared in this trial. That would have communicated the message: the trial was not about revenge, but about punishing such acts and ensuring that they don't happen again. There is, unfortunately, no point hanging the criminals more than thirty years after the act.

The danger, obviously, is that instead of healing the wounds, this may actually put in motion a new cycle of violence and revenge.

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