Justice delayed is justice denied. This recurring truth can be traced throughout history, irrespective of place or case, irrespective of scale and magnitude. This truth is ever-present in the ongoing protests, growing senseless violence and public outrage that have consumed Bangladesh as the country, an aspiring democracy, comes to terms with its bloody past and broken present.
But, if we step back for a moment from the question of justice delivered versus justice denied, might we begin with a more basic question to which there is no simple answer: what is justice?
Is it simply the punishment of perpetrators who have committed heinous human rights violations? One would assume so based on most of the headlines strewn across national and international news outlets. Or, is justice about not only a country’s past but also a country’s future? Is justice, in fact, about both punishing wrongdoers diligently for their crimes and also creating a society in which citizens reconcile their grievances with one another and the state, and where the state and citizens unite in a commitment to create a just society for the most powerful and the most vulnerable? Is partial justice any justice at all?
I, like millions, have been closely following the public uprisings, overcome with feelings of fear, hope, anguish and doubt about the tumult that has swept like an overflowing bay in our beloved Bengal. Unlike many of my fellow citizens marching in the streets, standing against inclement weather and chanting slogans for justice and democracy, I happen to be far removed from the chaos. Although I personally vacillate between feelings of guilt and nostalgia for leaving my homeland, I also hold a dual perspective of someone from the outside looking in and also someone from inside looking out.
Bangladesh’s transitional justice experiment, albeit forty years after the fact, represents a clash of ideas, a clash of facts and a clash of personalities. It also represents an unprecedented opportunity for citizens to seize back the country, to fight the semi-autocratic machine and cut ties with holds of power who claim to be as opposite as night and day but, in reality, are all-too-familiar bedfellows.
What is happening today in Shahbagh and beyond is not a clear battle of good versus evil; the battle is far more nuanced and farm more complex. The fight deserves a proportionally nuanced and honest conversation amongst citizens about whether sentencing one man to death, or one hundred at that, will adequately address the wrongs of the past and the wrongs of the present.
Citizens are fed up with a series of kleptocratic governments that have failed to rein-in organised crime, ensure protection of minorities, prevent sky-rocketing food and fuel prices, improve labour conditions, invest in grossly inadequate power supplies and a myriad of other social, economic and political ills. Citizens are also tired of politically motivated killings, such as those of journalists, and embarrassing theatrics against individuals, such as Dr. Muhammad Yunus, whose work benefits the nation but fails to impress a narcissistic government.
Citizens are exasperated by going to the polls in elections where the choices are between “bad and worse” and where our rights, our democratic founding principles and our freedoms are up for sale to the highest bidder comprised by a group of religious zealots who would eradicate the secular values that drove our independence and reduce women to little more than burqa-clad wives and daughters whose rightful place is within the confines of the home.
In this moment of Bangladesh’s history, as the country looks back and seeks justice for war criminals, the people must also look forward and demand a holistic justice that cannot be delivered by any single court or judge nor by an amendment in the Constitution or some reactive executive order. Why? Because so much more is at stake than a debate over life imprisonment versus death at the gallows.
Indeed, the grievances of citizens are personal and political and they stem from harms that span the continuum of the individual to the collective. But as we air out our grievances, as we unburden our heavy hearts and as we lift the lid on the frustrations that we have held onto for generations, let us not forget to be civil and to remain nonviolent. Let those who fight for justice behave justly, let those who fight for peace behave peacefully, let those who yearn for calm remain calm even in the face of injustice, violence and insecurity.
The fabric of our democracy is fragile and it is flawed but let us come together during these dark days of uncertainty to reaffirm our commitment to our founding principles of freedom and secularism. Let us reject a hijacking of this movement for democracy by an Islamist agenda that identifies all those with it as pious warriors of God versus all those against it as heretics and heathens. Let these days of darkness lead to our beloved Bangladesh’s new dawn. Our nation is ours to nurture, ours to mend, ours to build and ours to protect from the usual corrupt suspects motivated by material greed or a blind faith in organised religion that would, ultimately, dismantle the people’s democracy.
The writer is an international conflict resolution professional specialising in issues of women, peace and security at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.