By Atul Cowshish
The execution of five men (of the total of 12 accused) assassins of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, widely regarded as the liberator of Bangladesh from the clutches of Pakistan in 1971, was the culmination of a very long and patient efforts to bring to justice those who had committed one of the most gruesome political murders in the subcontinent. They had gunned down the ‘Bangabandhu’, as Mujib was known, and most of his family members, including a 10-year-old son, Russell, on August 15, 1975. Only two of his daughters, one of them the present Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, had escaped the massacre because both of them were abroad at the time.
Reports from Dhaka said that a sizeable crowd had gathered outside the jail where the five former army officers were hanged. The crowd had raised slogans hailing the Bangabandhu and reportedly pelted stones at the vans carrying the bodies of the executed men, all former army officers. Officials of the ruling Awami League were quick to declare that they welcomed the death sentence given to the five men only because it was the culmination of their efforts to bring to justice the people who had shamed the new nation by assassinating the first president of the country.
The sense of fulfilment of a promise given by the Awami League before the elections that brought the party back to power would, however, not be complete till the six other men accused of the same crime are also brought to justice. These men are living abroad. They, like the other plotters of Mujib killing, were able to not only leave the country but also lead a good life as the regime that took over after the assassination of Mujib had given them immunity from arrest and then offered them diplomatic assignments. One of the countries where these fugitives from law sought refuge is Pakistan. Canada is another country that allowed the alleged assassins to stay on.
The Bangladesh government says that it is satisfied with the ‘cooperation’ extended by Canadian authorities who are ready to extradite the assassins to Bangladesh. Only some legal formalities have to be completed before Ottawa hands over the Bangabandhu’s assassin/assassins over to Dhaka. Hopefully, other countries where the fugitives have sought protection will also send them back to Bangladesh. But Pakistan can well drag its feet.
Pakistan has always been cultivating elements in Bangladesh who are anti-Awami League, a party seen as soft towards India, if not seen as outright pro-Indian. There are two ways in which Pakistan will, however, extricate itself from any controversy about extraditing the fugitives to Bangladesh.
One, Pakistan can replicate the methods it has employed to frustrate India’s bid to get back Don Dawood Ibrahim from his Karachi hideout by pretending to be ignorant about his whereabouts. It will deny that any of the Bangladeshi fugitives lives in any Pakistani city. Or, it will ‘transfer’ the fugitive/ fugitives to another ‘friendly’ country in the region, maybe by issuing him/them fake Pakistani passport to obliterate any traces of stay in that country. When Pakistan found that it could no longer plausibly deny that Dawood Ibrahim lived in the country he was just shunted off to the Gulf on (yet another) fake passport.
There was no known reaction from Pakistan on the execution of the five former army men in Bangladesh. But it must have caused some discomfort to Islamabad to find that on the whole the people of Bangladesh had accepted the executions without protest. The main opposition party in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, an out and out pro-Pakistan outfit headed by Begum Zia, did not denounce the execution with street demonstrations, as Pakistan would have liked.
It is the BNP which had done its best to save the lives of the assassins of Mujib when it allowed their trials to drag on for years. The death sentence came after 13 years of court trials, most of that period coinciding with the rule of BNP.
Under the BNP rule, Bangladesh had almost renounced its secularism, the path it had chosen at the time of independence from Pakistan. It was also the time when Bangladesh had allowed the roots of terrorism to grow deep with the help of Pakistan’s ISI. The idea behind that move was to harm India.
To their discomfiture, BNP rulers received a big jolt when they discovered that the terrorists also intended to harm Bangladesh, as was evident after a series of bomb blasts across the country a few years ago. These terrorists’ attacks were also symptomatic of the violence and chaos that had crept into the fabric of Bangladesh. The country suffered a great deal because of the war between the two ladies who headed the two principal parties in the country. Strikes became endemic. Law and order had virtually broken down. The country’s parliament barely functioned.
It cannot be forgotten that the foundation of democracy had actually begun to look shaky even during the brief rule of Mujib. It has been said that by the time he came to be assassinated he had lost a lot of goodwill among his people because he was taking the country towards a one-party rule and had failed to run a clean and efficient administration. But that ‘crime’ appears lesser in degree compared to what followed him.
The frequency of military dictatorship in the country was not very different from Pakistan. The ‘civilian’ rule was often propped up by the military. All manner of people, including businessmen, bureaucrats and military men, who had scant regard for dissent or good governance, joined politics.
Hopefully, things have started to improve in Bangladesh. From India’s point of view, Dhaka has shown a welcome change by rejecting India-bashing as a corner stone of its official policy. The Bangabandhu is held in as much esteem in India as in his country. India has been an anxious witness to efforts in Bangladesh to bring to justice the killers of Bangabandhu.