Truth, not punishment

By Jalal Alamgir.

Published in the Forum on 7 June 2010.

This piece makes the case for justice, not vengeance.

I have often asked scholars from Pakistan about their perspective on 1971. Usually I hear profound apologies, personal gestures meant to compensate for the official failure of their government to come to terms with the tragedy.

Last February, when I asked that question at a conference at Tufts University, a Pakistani historian took the podium. “Let me tell you what history classes teach in Pakistan,” he said. “I went to the best university in Lahore. In my master’s course, the professor stopped the lecture around 1970 and picked up the story again from 1973.”

“They didn’t cover 1971 in a masters-level history class?” I asked, astonished.

“No. And when I pressed my professor for details, he said, you don’t need to worry about 1971; they’ll never ask questions about that in your exams.”

The room fell silent. “You see,” explained my colleague, “there is no way for a regular Pakistani to know about the genocide unless he studies it on his own.”

Although the war crimes trials will be the most significant event for us in the coming months, we must recognise, painful though it is, that much of the world has forgotten about 1971. One may understand why it does not appear in Pakistani curriculum. But the genocide, one of the worst in history, does not feature prominently even in western research. And that absence is the fault of Bangladesh’s own homegrown politics.

War crimes were ubiquitous in 1971 — that much is fact. This fact is established by mass graves discovered all over the country; Pakistani documents and the written hit lists of local collaborators; reports, photographs and video footage by journalists; and most significantly, eye-witness accounts of the survivors.

But what is remarkable is that those crimes still remain to be “proven” after forty years. The perpetrators remain to be unmasked, and the national politics of protecting them remains distressingly obscure even to us, let alone the outside world. Who did it? Who committed the specific massacres? Who protected them afterwards? Why is the story of the genocide still elusive?

* * *

At the age of eighteen, I left Bangladesh for higher study in America. At our university, all first-year students had to take a course called “The Human Condition.” We began with two books: Night, a memoir by Elie Wiesel of his time in concentration camp, and Approaches to Auschwitz, a collection of essays on understanding the Holocaust, the Nazi extermination of Jews in the 1930s and 1940s. Our study of life thus began with no rose-tinted recollection of humanity’s achievements, but with an expose of a most disturbing question: why do humans, unlike any other animal species, take to killing others of their kind en masse?

Of course, they don’t simply kill; they construct grand phobias and ideologies — nationalism, fundamentalism, racism, and the like — to justify their acts. And when those acts contradict their own moral schemes, they devise elaborate ploys to hide their role. They find collaborators at all levels, from suppliers happy to arm them, to mercenaries ready to butcher their targets, statesmen to protect them and intellectuals to validate their causes. The blood trail extends far.

In that trail, other tragedies follow when the hunted regroups and becomes the hunter. Israel, which was created after six million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis and their collaborators, later committed war crimes of its own, from the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon to the 2008-09 wanton killings in Gaza. The Bengalis, who suffered genocide under the bayonet of the Pakistani army and its allies, also slaughtered Bihari non-combatants in turn. The extent was less, but these too were war crimes.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994, which killed 800,000 in a hundred days, spawned afterwards a deadlier spiral of organised revenge, paranoia, and extremism in neighbouring Congo, in which eventually another 5 million perished. This Great War of Africa, as some call it, was expanding while the UN-sanctioned international tribunal was putting Rwandan genocidaires on trial.

Clearly, trials offer no deterrent to future atrocities, whether committed by the original perpetrators or by the victims. The basis of international trials is also questioned at times, because such trials have never been held without impunity for big powers.

In that category, the worst were the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after the Second World War. They were simply victors’ justice, for allied war crimes were ignored. Even the erstwhile chief justice of the US Supreme Court criticised the validity of the Nuremberg trials. The Tokyo trials, which sentenced Japanese ministers and generals for war crimes, were more egregious. It left out of consideration the largest instantaneous massacre of civilians in history,

which had occurred just months before the trials were set up. This, of course, was the American atomic bomb attacks that pulverised Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing 220,000 civilians directly and many more in the years to come.

All these problems are real, and must be recognised as such. But they do not mean that trials have no meaning. The standard of trials has improved substantially since Nuremberg. A near-worldwide consensus exists now that crimes against humanity must be prosecuted. But we have to be clear about our goals, especially in the context of our shamefully complex politics. Should we prioritise truth and reflection, in which the blood trail would be exposed to a world audience? Or should we prioritise quick capital punishment, and then celebrate out in the streets?

* * *

In Bangladesh, convenience and immorality combined to breed rounds of injustice out of the collective trauma of 1971. The first one was India’s repatriation of Pakistani prisoners of war. Such repatriation is customary. But what was extraordinary about 1971 is that a genocide had taken place.

As early as March 28, 1971, Archer Blood, the US diplomat, wired to Washington a missive titled “Selective Genocide,” lamenting, “Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak military.” Despite the Nixon administration’s support of Pakistan, another outraged US official described the situation to Time in August 1971 in vivid terms: “It is the most incredible, calculated thing since the days of the Nazis in Poland.”

As parties that had ratified the Genocide Convention, India and Pakistan had responsibility to investigate war crimes properly. Optimists expected that the 195 Pakistani ringleaders that the Bangladesh government had identified as war criminals would be extradited to Bangladesh to stand trial. But India was keen to move on, and Bhutto’s bargaining chip was the stranded Bengalis in Pakistan, topped with Pakistan’s ties to China, the Arab League, and the United States — all of which Bangladesh needed to win over. New to foreign relations and reeling from mass destruction, Bangladesh did not have the diplomatic prowess to push the war crimes issue very far.

Fatefully, our local politics is murkier than our international politics. Yes, in 1982 the information ministry published an official history of the independence war. But to date, no definitive account exists on the shady post-1971 decisions that led to arresting, absolving, freeing, and worst of all, re-establishing the local war criminals to positions of power.

If the first setback was the failure to prosecute Pakistani war criminals, the second setback was the failure to hold local collaborators to account. Many who suffered in the genocide saw Bangabandhu’s abrupt award of amnesty to suspected collaborators as an unjust decision, the first among many impunities into which the country eventually sank.

General Zia then allowed alleged Jamaat war criminals to resurface politically by taking part in his staged elections. Further patronage from General Ershad allowed them to become a potent force. These two “nationalist” leaders thus integrated Islamic symbols and discourse into the official narratives of a country that had earlier rejected, at the cost of genocide, nationalism based on religion.

These events may have been understandable had the rationale been respectfully explained to the nation. But no good answers are available to the increasing spiral of questions. After collaborators were extrajudicially forgiven by one person, were the millions who lost family members supposed to simply move on? How could Zia, one of the heroes of the liberation war, cavort with those tainted by war crimes against his countrymen? How could BNP, which claims to be nationalist, award ministries to those who had rejected Bangladesh’s nationhood? How could it persecute secular progressives, who, under Jahanara Imam, had pressed for war crimes trials? And, how could even the Awami League partner with Jamaat leaders when it needed allies in the initial rounds of anti-Ershad and anti-BNP agitation?

The biggest sin in our post-1971 politics was not the dictatorial decisions made by the earlier leaders, but the choice by all major parties to politically collaborate with alleged genocide collaborators, when convenient. These partnerships, after the country had become a democracy, gave war criminals the kind of political legitimacy that no military dictator could have offered.

And the final injustice in this story is that we do not know what really happened in these shady turns in which all sides are complicit. Truth was indeed the biggest casualty in our war crimes politics. All key decisions were the preserve of the leaders and their confidants. Left out, the nation continues to base its individual reconciliations on hunches, biases, and contested tidbits. That is not enough. We need to know; I need to know.

* * *

At eighteen, Elie Wiesel’s Night left a deep mark in my conscience. During the Second World War, the marauding Nazis sent Wiesel and his Jewish family to Auschwitz, the largest German concentration camp. Almost a million Jews were killed in Auschwitz alone, gassed, tortured, experimented upon, or worked to death. Forced labour took young Elie to the point of collapse, but he managed to survive till the allied forces arrived in 1945. His family did not. Night chronicles this terrible experience.

How does one come to terms with such a crime? Wiesel took years to figure this out, and eventually resolved that the only way is to help expose the true stories of as many victims as possible; and to promote peace. Punishment, retribution, and revenge only deepen the cycle. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his “humanitarianism.”

I never read about the Holocaust in Bangladesh. My government-issued Bengali textbooks paid only passing reference to it, even though one would think that as a people who suffered genocide, we ought to learn about episodes that preceded us. But national history is often just that — blindingly national, a point to which I’ll return.

My scant knowledge of the Holocaust came from my father, who is a Second World War buff. So those first weeks in university were a remarkable eye opener. As I uncovered the depths of this crime against humanity, I also began to admire the unity and tenacity of the Jewish people to ensure that the Holocaust never recedes from the world’s collective conscience. They have meticulously collected documentary evidence, authored thousands of books and memoirs, and publicised countless articles across international media. The evidence, monumental by now, will stand the test of time.

In contrast, our post-1971 political collaborators have tried to erase memories. During the 1980s and the early 1990s, national school curricula were changed to downplay the role of war collaborators, and to avoid terms like “Pakistani” or “Razakar.” Schoolchildren learnt that freedom fighters had fought a faceless enemy called Hanadar Bahini (attacking force) without any other identity, national or religious.

Another round of revisions took place during the 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat government. Then in December 2007, the caretaker government restored the textbooks to match the official 1982 history volumes. But this history is also nationalist history: it glorifies one side and negates the other without analysing the uncomfortable shades of gray in between.

As a professor, I regularly come across students, mostly English-medium products, who have gone through school in Bangladesh without studying a single photograph of the 1971 atrocities. Some young Bangladeshis saw such photos for the first time at an exhibition we organised at Harvard University four years ago. We heard from another attendee that his prominent school in Dhaka denied permission to stage a play about independence because it used “offensive” words like Razakar. Lest you think that this is only an elite phenomenon, I would hazard a guess that he would have faced a similar problem at many of the 8,000 secondary madrassas in the country.

Witness to the massacres, our previous generation takes for granted that “the truth” about war crimes and criminals is self-evident. It is not. One on hand, official nationalist-Islamist revisions removed the identity of war criminals. On the other, many progressives, betrayed by state leaders, hardened their stance and insisted that only their version is legitimate. At a recent academic conference, I took issue with a Bangladeshi scholar who complained that Pakistanis still view the liberation war as a civil war. “Well, it was a civil war,” I said. “It was also a war of secession, an anti-colonial war, a guerilla war, and a war of independence.” All these labels are simultaneously valid; establishing one as the only acceptable definition limits our understanding of what had transpired. He was dismayed that a Bangladeshi could say such a thing.

That, precisely, is the danger: Since independence, we have had politicised histories imposed on us, forcing us to adopt only one lens or the other. We are not free to question, and the full stories of 1971 elude us. We become fanatics, either by promotion or denial.

This happened to the Holocaust narratives too. Under a relentless drive by American Jewish leaders, Hollywood produced so many profitable movies about the tragedy that Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish political scientist, began to vilify the consumerist “Holocaust Industry.”

Elie Wiesel himself got caught up in pushing the cause: his ardent support for Israel left little room in his humanitarianism for considering the oppression of the Palestinians. And on the other side, we find ludicrous attempts by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad to sponsor Holocaust-denial conferences.

We need to get past fanaticism and finally begin a reflective search for truth. The trials at hand must set this as the goal. In the process, if counter-narratives come out, they should be given equal hearing and publicity. There are “dark sides” to 1971 that are due for open discussion, including war crimes against Biharis. And we may also find that some atrocities had less to do with liberation and more to do with settling family feuds.

As the trail of blood is traced, questions about our murky post-1971 history will come to the fore. The government must not suppress these questions, even though they will unsettle childhood friendships, or sully business reputations, or rattle political marriages.

After forty years, intimate ties between those labeled as “collaborators” and those on the side of “freedom fighters” have flourished up the rungs of leadership. We know accusations will swirl around many, but only a handful will be punished formally.

The Pakistani ringleaders are safe by treaty. Their American supporters, like Henry Kissinger, are safe by sanctuary. Just a few local collaborators will be tried. The only way to consider such partial justice morally legitimate is by adopting a principled commitment to allow the truth be told, untainted, uncensored.

* * *

In this essay, I am making the following case:
We should recognise honestly that after decades of complexities, secret deals, and depraved politics, justice, though necessary and urgent, will be limited.

Such limited justice can be morally justified only by a long-term commitment to truth.

To prioritise truth, we must de-prioritise capital punishment. In 1941, years before the Nuremberg trials, Winston Churchill planned summary executions for fifty top Nazis at war’s end. He considered this punishment a political decision, not a legal matter. But Harry Truman, the American president, wanted a tribunal. Josef Stalin cast the deciding vote. As the human rights scholar Geoffrey Robertson explained, Stalin “loved show trials as long as everyone was shot in the end.”

And so a severely flawed tribunal was held at Nuremberg. It punished crimes against humanity by using inhuman standards: twelve Nazis were hanged first and then burnt in the ovens of Dachau, one of the German concentration camps.

Nuremberg’s moment of success was not in the verdict but in the courtroom, when the Nazis were shown reels of the horrors that they had created. Some of them wept and sat stunned, as they came to grips with the truth. The punishment from exposing openly and publicly what they had done to humanity was far more compelling than what Churchill’s planned executions might have produced. It is from this public record that the world’s aversion to genocide began and Nazism, as an ideology, received its death penalty. South African apartheid also received its capital punishment through the Truth Commissions pioneered by Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Our war crimes trials should draw from these illustrations. For the first time ever, we will have an officially mandated forum to hear eyewitness accounts about 1971without fear of retribution and in the watch of globalised media. The government must strive for worldwide publicity for the hearings.

Although local collaborators will take the stand, our real goal should be to let the world know, through an open and fair process, who was responsible for the genocide, even though they may be outside our legal jurisdiction. A new generation of Pakistanis may then hear about a version different from what they have been told. Americans may learn about the dishonorable role of their erstwhile leaders. Even Bangladeshi schools may begin to discuss 1971 in open terms.

That is why the trials, however limited, must proceed. Capital punishment, while entertaining some trigger-happy activists, will only derail us by refocusing attention on the verdict rather than the proceedings. It will invite controversy; it will alienate madrassas, a crucial audience; and it will greatly reduce the international acceptance of the trials.

We must not spoil this momentous opportunity. If the trials are able to expose the perpetrators and collaborators of genocide, and in the process shame them permanently in the face of truth, they will achieve far more success than what is offered by summary punishment. They may even help us escape the cycle of convenient partnerships and celebratory vengeance that marks our political culture.

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