The execution of Abdul Quader Molla in Bangladesh and the reaction in Pakistan show how deeply rooted the tradition of defying reason is in this part of the world.
Before discussing this matter it is necessary to examine the Bangladesh government’s case. The atrocities committed against the people of Bangladesh during the 1971 conflict -- the killing of innocent men, the raping of a very large number of women, and destruction of countless homes -- constitute a highly emotive issue for them. The agony and humiliation of those days haunt them and their long memory and a tendency towards extremism in settling scores are no secret. That they too committed excesses upon their adversaries does not persuade them to let the old wounds heal.
Bringing all those responsible for 1971 crimes, especially the hatchetmen from amongst themselves, is considered necessary for the consummation of Bangla nationalism.
An over-simplified interpretation of the Bangladesh government’s policy will not help because the issue cannot be separated from the ongoing tussle for power between the main political rivals. The Awami League has reason to include in its claim to the loyalty of the people of Bangladesh the credit for leading the struggle for independence and the sacrifices borne by it. It is possible that its present sense of vulnerability obliges it to rely on its past laurels to a greater extent than it might have done in less challenging circumstances.
Further, it can be argued that once Awami League had put the matter of what it describes as war crimes on its manifesto and started implementing the promise, the process had to take its logical course.
One must also be prepared to accept the possibility that the Awami League genuinely considers the fundamentalist thrust of quasi-religious parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami, as an unacceptable threat to state’s secular foundation. It cannot possibly welcome a Taliban-like growth that could undermine not only the state’s constitutional assumptions but also its economy and the premises of its relations with the world.
Unfortunately, however, efforts to defend the secular ideal have been limited to a revision of the constitution and some judicial declarations. Due attention has not been paid to the fact that the National Party has been benefiting from pandering to the religious sentiment of the people and keeping Jamaat-e-Islami in its tow. Nor has the Awami League itself been always averse to mixing religion with politics. The fact no Bangladesh politician can ignore is that an affinity with religious causes is a part of the people’s psyche and this is the source of religio-political parties’ strength. Thus the fundamentalist threat cannot be overcome by hanging a few men like Molla.
Regardless of the legal merit in the case against Molla, the Bangladesh government should not have ignored its possible political fallout. The world is growing out of its fondness for hanging, expect perhaps for Big Powers.
In such a situation, the Bangladesh government was required to ponder the consequences of persisting in the legalistic solution of war crimes. The reservations on the fairness of Abdul Quader’s trial did not merit summary dismissal. The world opinion’s inability to endorse its hardline approach also should not have been ignored. Above all, execution of people for old crimes, instead of promoting national cohesion, might become divisive.
What Bangladesh’s friends wish to see today is its willingness to replace the politics of retribution with statesmanship rooted in reconciliation. Political models developed in any country cannot always be transplanted in another land, especially if the model is the Mandela legacy of Truth and Reconciliation, which is as difficult to replicate as it is attractive. Yet Bangladesh must realise the dangers in living in the past. By refusing to move beyond 1971 or the 1975 assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, it will be dissipating its talent and material resources on hunting down ghosts of the past while matters of governance and people’s poverty will go on throwing up ever more serious crises.
Pakistan could have helped Bangladesh people to a rational catharsis of their admittedly unbearable experience of 1971 by sincerely regretting its part in the gory affair. It could have fostered reconciliation with the Bangladesh people (and assuaged their feelings of hurt and bitterness) by repudiating the utterly indefensible military operation of 1971 and by dislodging from high pedestals all those who were guilty of planning it. This has not come to pass. On the contrary, the dominant Pakistani reaction to the Abdul Quader hanging has only confirmed our resoluteness in defying the call of reason.
It would have been fair on the part of all those who stand for abolition of death penalty to express sorrow that Dhaka had chosen to move in the other direction. Others could have regretted Bangladesh’s failure to avoid Molla’s execution. But what we find is a race to go overboard. Politicians who have spent years in justifying Bhutto’s hanging as the will of an autonomous judiciary and repelling all suggestions that it was a judicial murder have suddenly discovered that judicial murder is possible and that Abdul Quader Molla is the first victim.
Except for "outcasts" of ANP, PPP and MQM all the "right" political outfits have gone berserk. Abdul Quader Molla has been anointed as a martyr to Pakistan’s ideal. The crimes Molla was accused of did not matter; he was punished for being a friend of Pakistan. What an outrageous insinuation!
This line of thinking, promoted blindly by the media (only one newspaper editorial listed the offences Molla was charged with), means a refusal to disassociate oneself with the criminal acts of the 1971 junta and its crimes against not only the people of East Bengal but also against the people of Pakistan, and that repentance is a concept unknown to us.
The authors of this policy have caused harm to Pakistan on two counts:
First, the cleavage between Pakistan and Bangladesh will deepen. Even if Islamabad is blind to the need for friendly relations with Bangladesh, alienating it further without cause will only be described as unprofitable foolishness or pleasure-less sin (gunah-i-be-lazzat).
Secondly, anything that amounts to condoning the military operation against the East Bengal people in 1970-71 will ultimately lead to a justification of Pakistan’s status as a military-led state. It will also confirm the failure of political parties (that claim to be democratic) to avoid the booby-traps laid by pseudo-religious demagogues.