Fighting Phantoms in Pakistan and Bangladesh

With its dubious war crimes tribunal, Bangladesh risks opening a Pandora’s box unleashing forces that Pakistan has been battling for the past couple of decades

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

Flag-Pins-Pakistan-BangladeshIt’s a depressing landscape from one end of the Muslim world to another. From Bangladesh and Pakistan to Afghanistan and from Syria and Iraq to Egypt, it is the same story everywhere. Extremism, intolerance and violence have emerged as an existential threat to Muslim societies.

While the rest of the world is a nervous wreck as it battles the ever deepening all-consuming economic mess, Muslim countries somehow manage to continue fighting the same old phantoms. It’s as if they exist on a different planet and in a different century forever obsessing over what the rest of the world would view as inconsequential and irrelevant.

While everyone else is anxious about the loss of hundreds of millions of jobs and livelihoods, we are busy bickering over profound issues that haven’t been settled in the past thousand years. The religion that came as a blessing and hope to the whole of mankind has been divided, compartmentalised and distorted by numerous defenders of the faith, so much that the early believers would find it hard to recognise it as their own.

Look at the mind-numbing mess in Pakistan. No day passes without spilling of innocent blood. While there’s no method in the madness that the ‘land of the pure’ has witnessed over the past couple of decades, its minorities increasingly find themselves in the line of fire. From Karachi to Quetta, the carnage continues day after day, while the clueless, callous politicians stand and stare.

President Asif Zardari pats himself on the back for his party completing its five-year term in power – a first in the country’s history. What use is such power though when the nation is bleeding itself to death? What use is such democracy when there’s no rule of law? It’s worse than the khaki tyranny. At least, under the military rule, the Pakistanis felt more secure. Zardari cannot prevent the endless bloodletting in his own city, Karachi, which saw another massacre this week claiming more than 47 lives.

You cannot help but wonder – is this why Pakistan came into existence following the sacrifice of thousands of lives? Is this the ‘Promised Land’ for which tens of millions gave up their homes and the land of their forefathers? Unless these questions are addressed by everyone who cares for Pakistan, they would soon be staring into a deep and terrifying abyss of a future.
The state of affairs in what was once Pakistan’s other half is no better. While the Islamic republic implodes thanks to years of disastrous policies and multiple crises created by its self-serving elites, Bangladesh is desperately hunting for trouble, inventing disasters where none existed. It has refused to draw any lessons from its own brief history and the violent separation with Pakistan.
The kangaroo trial of Jamaat-e-Islami’s top leaders, awarding two of them death sentence for alleged war crimes, executions and rape hasn’t just outraged Muslims around the world, it threatens to plunge Bangladesh back into the kind of chaos that haunted it in 1970s and 1980s.

What happened in 1971 was no doubt shameful. It was the hubris of men in khaki and opportunism of politicians, who refused to concede the clear electoral mandate won by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in the 1970 elections that sowed the seeds of the 1971 catastrophe. Given the physical distance and unequal, exploitative relationship between the two wings, perhaps it was a doomed marriage from the start.

It wasn’t merely a body blow to the idea of Pakistan, 1971 also marked a dark chapter in Muslim history. The tales of savagery and barbarism that the faithful and fellow countrymen inflicted on each other make you shudder even today. Thousands perished in the war that pitted the Pakistani army against the combined force of Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army.
Pakistan tends to view India as the architect of the 1971 split. A crafty Indira Gandhi, looking to fortify her position at home, certainly played a decisive role in the birth of Bangladesh. But the neighbours could have done little if the Bengali population, alienated by years of discrimination and exploitation, hadn’t sprung up in defiance.

This is brought out in detail by two riveting books I recently read – ‘Maine Dhaka Doobte Dekha’ (Witness to Surrender in English) and ‘Hama Yaran Dozakh’ by Siddique Salik who died in the 1988 plane crash with General Ziaul Haq. As the army’s spokesperson in Dhaka directly reporting to Lieutenant General AAK Niazi, the last governor and military commander of East Pakistan, Salik had a ringside view of history. And it’s a history that most Pakistanis understandably would like to forget.

Even the Bangladeshis, their sane majority, would rather forget the appalling past and look to a more forgiving future – if only their politicians would allow them to do so. For most of them, especially for those in power, the anti-Pakistan and anti-Islamist rhetoric and obsessing over the past has become an alternative for good governance and a ploy to deflect attention from their incompetence and misrule.

Opposition parties, including Khaleda Zia’s BNP, have accused the Awami League of turning Bangladesh into a fascist state by using the 1971 events for political one-upmanship and targeting its political opponents. The open war on the Jamaat-e-Islami has crossed all limits and the sham trial of its top leadership by the International Crimes Tribunal has been universally condemned by rights groups, the United Nations, the UK’s House of Lords, independent jurists and Islamic scholars across the globe.

The Jamaat has been a soft target for standing up for a united Pakistan and thus against an independent Bangladesh. But then that original sin was also committed by the Muslim League, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, the Communist Party and thousands of other individuals. Essentially a religious movement, the Jamaat insists it didn’t run death squads to aid the Pakistan Army, as charged by the tribunal. And given its long history and its approach to politics, it is believed to be stating the truth.

More important, none of the accused figured in the list of suspects who were to be tried by the first war crimes tribunal, which was constituted by Mujib but was later abandoned following an agreement between Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. The far-sighted father of Bangladesh and of Premier Shaikh Hasina chose to close the chapter by issuing a general amnesty in 1973 in the interest of peace and reconciliation. Indeed, following Pakistan’s recognition of Bangladesh and Mujib’s 1974 visit to Lahore for the second Islamic Summit, Dhaka decided not to press for the trial of 195 Pakistani officials, held in India with 93,000 other prisoners of war, on charges of war crimes.

This is why it’s important for Bangladesh to bury the past and move on, if not for the sake of justice and fair trial, then at least in the interest of national unity and reconciliation. This trial has deeply divided Bangladesh and threatens to seriously destabilise it, undoing all the good work it has done in the past couple of decades for a new beginning. Already, scores of innocent lives have been claimed by the violence and chaos following the tribunal’s summary verdicts.

As The Economist, which has extensively covered this trial and exposed its dubious nature, warns, “If the reaction thus far is any guide, something much uglier is yet to unfold.” So let the sleeping dogs lie. Else Bangladesh risks opening a Pandora’s box unleashing forces and the kind of chaos that Pakistan has been battling for the past couple of decades.

Both Bangladesh and Pakistan need to make a conscious effort to turn away from the past and look to the future. It’s time for a new beginning and it’s time to move on.

The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs.  Email:


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