December at the Pakistan Embassy
by Irfan Chowdhury for AlalODulal.org
December often sees an out-pouring of emotions in Bangladesh for the 1971 war. This December, the victory day was commemorated by making the largest human flag as thousands gathered to celebrate. The joyous scene and the pride exhibited, however, would easily deceive untrained eyes. The month has been mired by blockades, agitations, violence, state repression, and loss of lives, as the BNP-Jamaat opposition combine has been protesting to force the AL government to accept its demand for a election under a non-partisan caretaker administration.
Yet, the upsurge in violence around December was not all related to that; rather, it was a response to the first execution of a convicted war criminal (Quader Mollah) of the 1971 liberation war. Two days after the execution, when the nation was bracing for more violence, out of the blue, the parliament of Pakistan passed a resolution condemning the execution.
Young Bangladeshis responded, maintaining their rebellious history (students had traditionally been the key force to protest against Pakistani oppression dating back to 1952, when they took the street to fight for the right to speak their mother tongue), with angry demonstrations in front of the Pakistani embassy in Dhaka.
Even if my impulse and reactions toward Pakistan have mellowed over the years, and therefore I have not fully grasped the furor, as a very young person I do recall one such incident:
During the first international cricket game I ever watched, an abandoned match in Chittagong, Asif Iqbal led a team from Pakistan to play two matches in their time off from the Indian tour of 1979-80. On the second day of the match, a crowd broke into the field and attacked some Pakistani cricketers. Police were called as chaos erupted in the stadium. I will always remember having to jump from the high walls of concrete galleries, the sting of teargas, and the panic stricken run to safety with my family members . I was later told that angry students from the University of Dhaka had intruded to protest against the derogatory greetings and comments (a ‘namaste’ insinuating that we all were Hindus) exchanged by some Pakistani players on arrival. Cricketing relationships only became normal in 1986, when Omar Kureishi brought a team led by Imran Khan on a short tour.
While the recent protests around the Pakistani embassy and call for boycott of goods from Pakistan, may, at first appear surprising, this rage is deeply rooted. Pakistan and Bangladesh have never had a warm relationship since the brutal war that led to the breakup of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh (the former East Pakistan). Contemporary Pakistan, with the help of its allies, even resisted formally recognising Bangladesh as late as 1974.
Kamal Hussain, the author of the constitution of independent Bangladesh, details in a recent book (Bangladesh: Quest for Freedom and Justice, Oxford University Press, 2013), how Pakistan committed to making reparations after the war – for example, sharing joint asset of united Pakistan, including the gold reserve resting with the International Monetary Fund, or taking back the stranded non-Bengalis, only to back away from all these promises.
Pakistan never repented or showed remorse for the brutal and inhumane 1971 war. Even after 42 years, they only delayed responding to our requests for the repatriation of stranded Biharis (in the end, the Bangladesh high court granted them citizenship in 2008), compensation, or reparation for the unspeakable violation of women.
According to Bangladeshi novelist Tahmima Anam (The Golden Age, The Good Muslim)’s op-ed in the New York Times, the army’s atrocities are glossed over in Pakistan’s schoolrooms and text books. Bangladesh has recently been trying to come to terms with the result of Pakistan’s savagery in 1971 through the process of War Crimes Trials. The trial process has gone through a myriad of inappropriate short cuts, and a series of questionable court proceedings, as well as extreme politicization by the ruling AL. In this already problematic process, things have been made far worse by Pakistan’s anger over the trials in the form of an official parliamentary resolution on our Victory Day (December 16th) — a day that Pakistan possibly mourns.
If, as often claimed, Pakistan wants the relationship between the two nations to improve – “healing past wounds”, why did their parliament pass a resolution condemning the 1971 war crimes trials?
Bangladesh has had its share of political misfortune. Its people are paying a hefty price for it; they do not know when this will stop. The government has turned the war crimes trial process into a political hostage. The process could have been, should have been, much better. It should have matched an international standard. The dead of 1971 deserved far better than this.
But none of these problems can cause us to ignore the desire of the majority of Bangladesh, to see the war criminals brought to justice for their crimes.
Bangladesh has sought a formal apology for 1971 war crimes from multiple Pakistani governments, but only received obfuscated answers. Their strategy of evasiveness only confirms that even after all these years, Pakistan’s politicians — and perhaps a significant segment of the population — are still content to deny the country’s horrible acts.
While it is understandable that the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, with close ideological ties and associations with its sister organisation Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh (the top leadership of which is among the accused in the trials), raised the resolution in the Pakistani Parliament, why did the other political parties support the move? Did they listen to the PPP leader Abdul Sattar Bachani who said: “Pakistan should not interfere in the internal matters of an independent and sovereign country.” The answer is simple — they still do not see or are not prepared to admit to the 1971 war crimes.
No Pakistan, you do not have the moral high ground from which to criticize these trials. The 1971 war involves you. Only those who accept that war crimes trials should happen can then urge that the process be better. You must be part of that process. War crimes trials for 1971 war crimes cannot happen without the active participation, cooperation, and humility of Pakistan, the state and the people.
We take solace knowing that some of the Pakistanis have come out expressing their concern over the resolution. However, it was disappointing to hear Imran Khan’s remark. In months leading up to his election campaign, he had referred to the horrible wrong that was committed by the West Pakistani junta, when he was advocating non-military peaceful solutions to resolve the Kashmir or the Afghanistan issues. So why has he made such a remark? To support his ally Jammat-e-Islami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formally, the Northwest Frontier Province)? Or is he ill-informed by the global coverage of the trials, or simply uninformed, making a spur-of-the-moment comment that he will try to reverse later, as celebrities and politicians back-paddle from faux pas. In the media we find him claiming that, “a lawyer (Clive Stafford Smith) of the international human rights organisation Reprieve, who was defending Molla, told him that the JI leader was innocent and had nothing to do with the charges against him”.
He should not have made such a claim without knowing all the facts in his speech in the parliament. However, the full speech does state that Pakistan should learn from its mistakes – that when a nation, a region is against you and your oppression, military actions cannot be the solution.
This raises the larger issue which many of our commentators have yet failed to address – why does international media fail to deliver the whole story – the good and the bad – of these trials?
For example, in its coverage of the trials, the Economist has been toeing a line, where they criticize the trial process and highlight its weakness, which is fair. But who gathers the information for the Economist? I imagine that reputable global media outlets assign their representatives to cover various regions. Usually, these reporters have very good network and links with relevant machineries, diplomatic circuits and friends’ network as sources of their information –for example, Bangladesh issues are mostly covered by Tom Felix Joehnk. His latest is here.
Instead of getting into a debate about who is supplying misinformation to the Economist, and for what purpose, perhaps we should consider how to better deliver information, not only to the Economist but also to the world. It is not only the Economist that has raised concerns. All global media heavy weights — the Financial Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — and the United Nations or Amnesty International have raised concerns against the trials. At some point, we have to stop thinking “the world is against us” and think about what failures accrue to the government for their mishandling of the war crimes trials, such that they lost legitimacy?
Therefore, the issue for any serious commentator, and especially those with some influence, ought to be how to counter a misleading perception that the individuals who have been put on the trial are innocent victims. They may indeed be victims now as they are not getting a fair trial, but who will account for their past deeds? How can the trial process be transparent and fair so that a proper accounting of the past happens?
I am often asked by non-Bangladeshi acquaintances why are we persecuting opposition/Islamic party leaders. Bangladeshis (at least some Bangladeshis) may know that they are not simply “Islamic opposition leaders”; they also have a past in 1971 that has not been accounted for. But others do not know this, and why would they? Unless, of course, we tell them, as objectively as possible. We have scholars, novelists, and filmmakers, whose work can be put together to debunk misperceptions.
In spite of all the shabbiness of the ICT court (which has been analyzed in detail by Dhaka based David Bergman), and without going into the debate of whether death penalty is immoral, or even discussing the political motivations behind these trials, Bangladeshis should hold (in the way we used to) the moral high ground when it comes to the actual war crimes. This cannot happen without demanding a far better war crimes trial process.
Has WCT taken a blow through relentless international media coverage, which at times has not portrayed the whole story? More importantly, what unforeseen consequences do these flawed trials (as stated by the Economist), even when they are very popular, bear for the future of the nation? This is a valid reason, in fact an impetus for us to criticize the government’s failures given its performance, and to refocus our energy in explaining the case for these trials.
Some have criticized the resurgence of current acrimony as an emotional and non-essential distraction infused by opportunistic politicians and intellectuals to defuse oppositions protests for a fair election under a care-taker government. However, the current generation of the youth is rightly outraged. After all, Pakistan has not (and says it will not) issue any formal apology for its crime. This issue will reverberate with coming generations . It is in the interest of both nations to reach towards closure – for the sake of next generations.
Yet, any such effort is bound to stumble, even within Bangladesh. We – the old, the youth, the intellectuals, the government and the opposition – cannot agree on this issue even amongst ourselves, and after so many years. The BNP’s low-key statements on the Pakistan resolution is disappointing, and their refusal to give their support to WCT is a blow to their own supporters. By doing this, they render WCT as “Awami League property,” yet if BNP had stepped forward and endorsed these trials, they could have made it “shobar (everybody’s) property” and thus made it impossible for AL to use the trials for election gain. But BNP is so worried that without Jamaat they can’t win elections (there is no evidence for this, for example look at Nazim Kamran’s poll analysis two elections back) that they have backed themselves into a corner of refusing to support the trials. How did the party founded by a war veteran (Zia) lose its way like this?
The two parties are currently entangled in a deadlock over the upcoming elections. As the BNP is caught up regrouping and seeking support for their fight towards elections, they have overlooked an issue that is so close to the hearts of the people whose very sentiments they are trying to invoke.
The current efforts to seek justice for the war crimes have also been silent on the issue of Pakistani soldiers who were involved in these war crimes. When Pakistan has finally started to enter this conversation with this new resolution, the campaign in response is currently demanding the freezing of diplomatic ties, a move that will only delay a reconciliation process. It has also demanded a boycott on Pakistani goods, which is likely to have little effect on the country’s economy.
There is a need, instead, to make tangible demands from the Pakistani government that cannot be used by either the AL or the BNP for their own political gain. These demands should include an official apology from the Pakistani government and the formation of an international truth and reconciliation commission that holds the Pakistani Army accountable for their crimes. It should include the trials of the 195 Pakistani soldiers indicted on initial war crimes charges in 1972-73.
Unfortunately, just as in the beginning, at the end of year, we are left not only to confront this issue on the streets, but also the intricate politics behind this issue has got further convoluted. This is an issue where our leaders and movements – the AL, the BNP, and the movements surrounding the trials – have come short. This is where, collectively, we are failing Bangladesh.
The Mancha activists held up placards that said… ‘Pakistan must apologise for ’71 genocide’, ‘We demand apology’…
Tribunal to investigate 195 Pakistani soldiers