Ghulam Azam, an unerasable scar
by Zahur Ahmed for AlalODulal.org
Nations have always been polarised. As bad as they have been, though, those polarisations were seldom about a protagonist who tried his heart and soul to prevent the birth of a nation –– his motherland.
There have been wars and heinous war crimes, but very few war criminals have been successfully tried. Comparing the magnitude of atrocities or war criminals’ ruinous acts would be futile. As for the sufferers -– whether they are individuals, surviving family members or a nation as a whole –- to seek justice, even decades later, is not only normal but also the only way to bring closure. A way, perhaps, to get some solace when wrongdoers are punished for their crimes. A step that gives strength to survivors to move on, and reminds others that crimes do not go unpunished.
Yet, more often than not, proving war crimes (or other crimes, specially political crimes) has been difficult. Gathering evidence is difficult, as this needs leadership, intellect, expertise, resource, time, and energy, making an onerous burden for a war-torn new nation. Establishing evidence is particularly difficult if crimes are not investigated immediately, methodically and without emotion; they may then be subjected to fabrication. And, if it happens to be such a tumultuous journey as that of Bangladesh, then they also morph into ironies –– and painful taunts.
Ghulam Azam, a name that evokes hatred and loathing in many Bengalis, respect and admiration in others, has died overnight in jail aged 91. He was accused of numerous crimes against humanity for his role during the independence war in 1971. In spite of the shabbiness of the court and regardless of improper trials he was found guilty on all accounts on July 15, 2013. He was spared the death penalty, apparently due to old age, but condemned to life in prison for 90 years.
This dismayed many. The country and its politics were reeled and rocked by events involving this character. While he worked against the creation of Bangladesh, tirelessly opposing its being (he lobbied internationally against recognition for Bangladesh), he fled the country facing recrimination and was declared a non-citizen. He found a way back in 1978, and by 1994 his citizenship was restored – as Bangladeshi.
He was able to stage a true comeback for far right Islamic ideologies, but this time with much more care, preparation and orchestration, so that the party (Jamaat e Islami Bangladesh) survived the test of time. Noting oversights and mistakes before and during 1971, he developed the party with a strong student base and diehard cadres with which the party infiltrated the bureaucracy, the political class, the business and financial sector and academia. By the early 2000s his party was able to secure important ministerial cabinet positions.
He was unapologetic for his role – during or after 1971. He had no remorse for inflicting suffering on his countrymen, as his was a higher goal –– the creation of an ‘Islamic State’ with the Shariat legal system.
The charges (formally or anecdotally) brought against him were serious and grave. In fact, the present government rode home on high emotion in 2008, as they promised to bring such perpetrators to justice –– Ghulam Azam and his acolytes were to be tried.
What followed since then is typical of Bangladesh. Hurried political manoeuvring killed a nation’s desire to see proper proceedings against the war criminals –– to put all the ambiguities and arguments to rest, once and for all, was wishful thinking.
The trials were muddied by politics. At the hight of the fracas an international journal, The Economist,was supplied with a leaked skype conversation involving one of the judges, suggesting collusion and bias among prosecutors and judges. After months of deliberation, it published a damning editorial:
“…The ‘ostensible and laudable aim of these trials’ helping Bangladesh come to terms with its past has ‘been an utter failure’…‘most Bangladeshis who are cheering on the tribunal’s flawed proceedings’ with few seeming ‘to care a jot for due process’ and everybody thinking ‘that the defendants are getting their just deserts.’
The Economist had no sympathy for the views of Jamaat or its backers. But justice does not exist solely for those with a particular approved outlook…due process is essential to provide true justice for the victims of genocide. Eventually Bangladeshis will also come to recognize this and demand a proper accounting. But by then it will be too late. The war-crimes tribunal is poisoning the well from which Bangladesh will one day want to drink”.
These incomplete and inconclusive proceedings are particularly unfortunate as accounts of crimes by Ghulam Azam are well documented and widely available. After all, he openly and actively opposed the liberation movement; created forces in support of the occupying Pakistani army; supported the junta by forming and participating in war-time Peace Committees and continued after liberation to work against Bangladesh by forming the East Pakistan Restoration Committee and internally lobbying for a unified Pakistan. These charges are evidenced by file photos, media coverage and his speeches at the time.
To its credit the present government (and lest we forget the decades-long campaign initiated by Jahanara Imam and aiding intellectuals) has compelled him to face a trial, however, shoddy. In death, Ghulam Azam rests accused and convicted of war crimes. Many Bangladeshis would welcome such a closure for this horrible chapter.
But unfortunately he leaves a thriving ideology, a diabolically partisan country and a society forced to contend with his vile acts for years to come.