Of War, Crimes and Ageing War Criminals
Syed Badrul Ahsan looks back at the distortion of politics in 1971
A few years ago, on a trip to Pakistan to attend a media conference, I sipped tea with other South Asian journalists at a roadside café in rural Punjab. The conversation was largely banter, but it was something I was not taking part in. I looked out at the expansive Punjabi countryside before me and reflected on the queer fact of it having been so intricately and murderously involved in the long-ago struggle over Bangladesh. One of my Pakistani colleagues stepped up beside me and asked me if I appreciated the countryside. I told him I did, but that was not what I was preoccupied with at that point. He looked at me, his gaze had a question written all over it. I decided to let my feelings out. You know, I told him, in villages across this beautiful landscape of the Punjab, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ageing men who killed and raped and pillaged in Bangladesh back in 1971. I wonder what their feelings must be today. Are they going through contrition? Has the fear of God at the sins they have committed ever assailed them?
My friend did not answer. He smiled weakly, for he was a Punjabi too. And, to be sure, I did not expect him to respond to my expression of sentiments. For Pakistan, 1971 has remained a blank period, a whitewashed bit of history. Its children are never told the truth about the disappearance of East Pakistan from a country its founder prised out of colonised India in 1947. And that truth, as you and I know so well, revolves around the war crimes that were committed by the Pakistan army and its Bengali quislings in Bangladesh between 25 March and 16 December 1971. Pakistan's people have never had the opportunity of coming to terms with the truth. And there's the pity. All these years after Bangladesh's triumphant struggle, you yet come across Pakistanis ready and willing to inform you that the truth had been concealed from them by the Yahya Khan military regime and its political allies in 1971. You do not have to buy that argument, especially when you recall the ubiquity of the reports of the massacres in the global print and electronic media at the time. The people of Pakistan knew what was happening in 'East Pakistan'; and I for one know that they knew. I was in West Pakistan for a good part of 1971, between March and early July. Nearly every day, army trucks bearing the corpses of soldiers killed in action against Bengali freedom fighters passed by my school. Most Pakistanis thought of the dead soldiers as martyrs done to death by the treacherous Bengalis. They had little time to understand the reality -- that their soldiers were killing a nation in what they still thought was their eastern province.
All these thoughts worked in me as I stood on that afternoon watching that stretch of Punjabi countryside. And, of course, all these years, I have often asked myself if it was a judicious act on the part of Bangabandhu's government to let the officers, 195 in all, go free even though they had been identified as war criminals whose destiny was to face justice. In those early days of freedom, it was Nuremberg that mattered. And it did because that was our point of reference as we deliberated on the trial of the Pakistani military officers who had not only presided over the commission of criminality by their men but had also participated in them in full measure. General Amir Abdullah Khan Niazi was dismissive of the reports of rape committed by his soldiers against Bengali women, suggesting that men deprived of the company of their women (and those women were all in West Pakistan) could be forgiven for indulging in some pleasure with other women. If that was the commanding officer of the Pakistanis speaking, you might as well imagine the frame of mind in men down the line.
So you sit back and think. You watch the Pakistan army battling the Taliban and al-Qaeda in its own territory and you wonder if that is not comeuppance of a sort. For the first time in the history of their country, Pakistan's soldiers are having to struggle for survival on their own turf. Where they once went after the Bangalis, it is now time for others to be going after them. If that is not poetic justice, what is? Those of you who were around in 1971, or have done some instructive reading on the history of that conflict, you might remember Roedad Khan, the bureaucrat who served Yahya Khan as secretary of the ministry of information. He ages today, reminds us (or so he thinks) of the innumerable times he warned the generals against going for a military solution to the political crisis in East Pakistan. That, ladies and gentlemen, is not the truth. You only have to leaf through Brigadier A.R. Siddiqui's notes on 1971 and be reminded of the war crimes that Roedad Khan is as guilty of as so many other Pakistanis and their Bangali collaborators in that year of darkness. Early in the morning on 26 March 1971, even as the Pakistan army went around shooting Bangalis all across Dhaka, Tikka Khan, Rao Farman Ali and all the others enjoyed a hearty breakfast in the cantonment. And then Roedad Khan walked in, beaming. Yaar, iman taaza ho gya (friend, faith has come alive!).
That was how he gloated. That was how others gloated. Maulana Mannan, Golam Azam, Nurul Amin, Matiur Rahman Nizami and a bunch of other Bangalis celebrated the death, as they saw it, of Bangali nationalism in 1971. You remember; everyone else remembers. And because you do, there is that certain stirring in the heart which tells you that what the Sector Commanders Forum has been doing about bringing all the war criminals to justice is the moral thing to do. Like so many others in this land, I have had close relatives murdered by the Pakistan army. My cousin, Colonel Ziaur Rahman, principal of Sylhet Medical College, was abducted by the soldiers in April 1971 and was never seen again. And then, paradoxically, there have been war criminals in my clan, those who cheerfully went working for the 'peace committees' the Pakistanis set up as a way of hardening their grip on Bangladesh. One of these relatives was bumped off in October 1971 by another cousin of mine, a hardened muktijoddha who has since 1971 struggled to make ends meet for his family. Another war criminal, having accompanied platoons of the Pakistan army on missions to burn the homes of Awami League followers and Hindus in Kaliganj, on the outskirts of Dhaka, was flung into prison once 16 December came to pass. By 1973 he was a free man. He died peacefully in bed.
You could go on and on about war criminals. Moulana Mannan, to our outrage and shock, was to land a job as minister for religious affairs in General Ershad's government. But there was a bigger shock as well: in that very government there was Air Vice Marshal A.K. Khondokar, one of the soldiers of freedom we can legitimately be proud of. And yet you must ask yourself, after all these years, why Khondokar needed a berth in a cabinet where an element of Moulana Mannan's kind was all over the place. You wonder about Golam Azam, about Hamidul Haq Chowdhury, about every Bengali who went around castigating our struggle for freedom and yet able, in free Bangladesh, to carve a new niche for themselves.
But that is not the legacy we would like our lives to be dogged by. This long darkness must lift, through bringing all these cold, ageing war criminals to justice. If some of them have, through the laws of mortality, passed on, let proceedings be undertaken against them posthumously.
And those 195 Pakistani officers we permitted to go back home to Pakistan? Freeing criminals does not mean you cannot go after them again. That is something to mull over. Farman Ali is alive and so is Umar. So are so many others. Must they all go to their deaths unrepentant?
Postcript: Sometime in March 1997, at a reception at London's Regent Park mosque, a beaming Bengali came toward me with an outstretched hand. He was very happy, he said, to be making my acquaintance. And then he revealed who he was, with that smile still playing on his lips. He was Chowdhury Mueenuddin. Ah, I know about you. That was what I told him. He smiled on, probably imagining it was his work with the Muslim Council of Britain I had in mind. The next moment, the smile disappeared. Because by then I had told him that I, and others like me back home, knew of his role in 1971. And then he disappeared.
Months later, I wrote to Iqbal Sacranie, who presided over the MCB, to inquire how a war criminal, which Mueenuddin was, happened to grace the organization. Sacranie took more than a month to respond -- to tell me that Mueenuddin had denied the accusation, that indeed he had sued Channel Four television over its depiction of him as a man who had collaborated in the killings of Bengali intellectuals in 1971.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star.