The conspiracy of silence
A freedom fighter went to court to bring sedition charges against three men. His lawyer prepared the brief and the judge accepted the case. Then the law minister threw a cold blanket on the entire thing. He rightly pointed out that all along it was flawed by a procedural mistake. Sedition by definition is resistance to the legal authority to disturb the peace or disrupt the government. So, the government alone has the locus standi to incriminate its rebellious citizens. Once again, we have let our conviction for the trial of the war criminals of 1971 slide into confusion.
But a citizen can always ask the government to bring sedition charges against another citizen or a group of them. In April, 2006 the Christian Action Network had sent a legal letter to the US Justice Department demanding Al Gore be investigated for sedition charges against the United States. The former US vice-president had delivered a speech in Saudi Arabia accusing the United States and President George Bush of committing "terrible abuses" against Arabs in America.
The million dollar question is why our governments haven't done anything to try the killers and collaborators of 1971? Even when the "pro-liberation" party, as Awami League has always claimed itself, ruled the country for five years, it didn't lift a finger to touch any of them. Moral authority works like a license. It expires on the date one doesn't practice what one preaches.
The crux of the problem is what can the citizens do if the government is impervious to their sentiments? In democracy, they can wait until the election to replace it with another government. What happens if government after government does nothing about it? Then it's time to take a hint. May be what the citizens would like the government to do is veiled under a conspiracy of silence.
History is not exactly rife with such hints, but the example of France comes to mind. The trial of the Vichy traitors, the Frenchmen who had collaborated with the Germans after the occupation of France, still pricks many French minds. Some of those men were brought to trial, but only those who were caught early paid the price. All over the country, women had their heads shaved in shame because of their horizontal collaboration.
One thing never happened. There was not a fundamental indictment of the Vichy regime. Nobody questioned why key institutions had served the Nazi occupiers. Soon the judges and jailers, police and upper classes from the old regime were restored. Some of it was political calculations by the Gaullists to swell their ranks joined by the followers of Marshal Pétain. It was decided to be discreet about the wartime history. The schoolbooks taught more about the Battle of Britain or Pearl Harbor than about Pétain, Vichy, and collaboration.
The conspiracy of this silence was countenanced by governments of all political complexions. It went so far that François Mitterrand, who was a member of the Resistance, laid wreath on Pétain's tomb year after year to celebrate the anniversary of Verdun. It was as if a freedom fighter elected president of Bangladesh were to take flowers to the grave of Golam Azam after his death.
What has happened in our case is an obvious obfuscation. Whether it is political exigency or influence of powers that may be, the trial of the war criminals has been always pushed back. If the war criminals are crawling out of their hideouts after all these years to scorn the Liberation War, it's because they have been nourished in the dark and damp corners of our conscience where the martyrs' blood has been categorically usurped by narrow interests.
That usurpation has taken many forms. The war criminals have been restored to power through political alliance. And we have also deviated from the ideals of freedom. Just think about the audacity of a government minister who named the "Liberation Square" in his constituency after his late father, who was also a minister once. Who proposed it? Who opposed it? The answers are blowing in the wind, the wind that sways the sign of that name, which is still hanging in its place.
That explains why those three men tried to expound new hypotheses about our freedom fighters and the Liberation War. That also explains why, thirty-six years later, we make procedural mistakes when going after the war criminals. If one of those three men was arguing that what had happened in 1971 were a freedom struggle and a civil war at the same time, it's because he was mixed up in his mind. But that doesn't spare the rest of us. It's the same sandstorm that blinds them which is also blinding us.
How? If they don't recognise the Liberation War, we don't recognise the civil war. That puts us in the same blind spot where we are still fighting each other. It's amazing to watch how the line between these two kinds of wars has been blurring over the years. The line almost disappeared last October when battles were pitched on the street, when one side was shouting instructions to attack and the other side was ruthlessly beating a man to his death as if they killed a deadly viper.
There is, however, one difference between France and us. Even though a certain segment of the French society isn't happy about it, everyone tries to put it behind them. They have learned to respect the silence, remembering to forget and forgetting to remember.
In our case, the alleged war criminals aren't respecting the silence. They appear on television to quip about how many people were killed or raped in 1971 and to undermine the sacrifice of our freedom fighters. They still refuse to confess that they were wrong in 1971.
That is the irony of it. We are a proud nation which is bringing back the remains of our martyrs. We are also a clumsy nation which can't get rid of the emains of its traitors.
Mohammad Badrul Ahsan is a banker.