Civil society's role in war crimes trials
It is not everyday that a phenomenon like "Muktijuddho" happens in a nation's lifetime. Forty years ago, the sons and daughters of potters, boatmen and agriculture workers, who Rabindranath had called "jonmo-lokkhi-charar dol" (the forever irreverent and irrational lot who Lakshmi had forsaken) took that imprudent step of walking through nine months of blood and fire and carved out a nation for themselves.
Forty years later, they are poised to create history of a very different kind in how they propose to pull themselves out of the shackles of poverty. We do not realise it but this sense of wanting to achieve the impossible is the intangible gift that the Muktijuddho has given to this nation although it extracted a price of 3 million lives in return. The youth of the country have unequivocally given the message that they hold the Muktijuddho dear to their hearts by giving a landslide verdict in the last elections in favour of bringing the perpetrators of the genocide to a fair trial.
To the western eye the seemingly intolerable propensity of the Bengalis to protest against...well, everything under the sun... baffles them. But this state of pandemonium also has also infused in them the strength to emerge out of the many paradoxes that this society has to co-exist with, a bit flurried and confused perhaps, but victorious. Neither India nor Pakistan has this strength. Therefore, instead of castigating ourselves as to how we have failed our people in everything we have done, how uncouth and unsophisticated we are, how perpetually mired we are in corruption and disarray, let us congratulate ourselves for the power and dynamism that the society is able to churn out at times of need.
The International War Crimes Tribunal of 1973 is one such example. It is in itself revolutionary because it has included rape as a war crime (since then followed by other trials like Cambodia, former Yugoslavia and Rwanda). The completion of the trial will boost Bangladesh's standing in the legal world. It will also reinforce in the sub-continent the codes of conduct which civilised societies are expected to follow in desperate times such as war or social upheavals.
The formulation of the Tribunal has made it clear that the trials are not aimed at extracting revenge but at establishing justice and giving the victims' families a sense of closure. It is the support of the civil society which can bring the trials to a successful conclusion. It must be understood that in all the trials held since the Tokyo trials, the civil society has played a role, and that Bangladesh must be no exception. The ways in which civil society can help are outlined below:
Recognition of genocide: Sadly, because of the geo-political situation of 1971, the Bangladesh genocide does not feature in the genocide listings anywhere, though even small massacres in Sierra Leone and Haiti are featured. Much of the western world ended up taking an ambivalent view of what was going on in Bangladesh. The trial may become the civil society's vehicle to reveal this truth to the world.
Acknowledgement: The entire nation must acknowledge the fact that grievous wrong was done to a section of the people, particularly the Hindu community and Awami League (AL) supporters. The time has come to demonstrate that as a nation we have matured enough be able to tell those who were wronged how we, as their neighbours, abetted in those crimes by not lifting a finger when their daughters were raped or their homes looted. The 93,000 Pakistanis could not have taken all the loot back with them. Let us gather the courage to look in our own homes, there must be some loot there too. Let this trial set in motion the realisation that there is a need for truth, reconciliation and compassion.
Searching for the genesis: The tragedy of 1971 happened because the Pakistani elite did not think that the denial of basic human rights was wrong. Their minds were, and remain, clouded by obscurantist ideas of religious superiority and purity. The trials provide an opportunity to the civil society to take steps so that religious exclusivity and extremism do not take roots in Bangladesh. Dissemination of information: The civil society together with the media should establish a code of conduct which it will follow in the way information about the trials is disseminated. As has happened in the other trials, a civil society cell should be created for making sure this is done properly.
Witness protection: Aside from the police protection that witnesses are going to get, civil society's role is more important, and they should make sure that witnesses are not harassed or threatened in any way. This is important in our country where justice is denied every day, especially for gender-related crimes, and few convictions have been possible because victims have been pressurised not to give depositions.
Victim/witness burn-out: It has been observed in other trials that too much exposure by media tends to confuse and frustrate the victims, and therefore, could erode the quality of their depositions. The civil society can play a role in ensuring that witnesses/victims are protected from reliving again and again the trauma that they had once suffered and also that witnesses are not harassed and confused by defence lawyers.
Collective memory: Bangladesh culture is largely built on oral traditions and written documents are, in our society, uncommon. The civil society should build public awareness about this trait so that neither the prosecution nor the defence lawyers can take unfair advantage of this aspect.
Mass killing sites: Although the Liberation War Museum has collected information in varying details about 700 mass grave sites, there are many more. Youth groups that want to be associated with the War Crimes Trials could make efforts to collect and update this information and also record names of the victims at these sites. One mass grave site in Nandigram in Lakshmipur district was virtually obliterated as the local bazaar had encroached on it. The local youth there built up enough public opinion to be able to recover the encroached site, install a memorial plaque and stage an annual memorial event there. Another interesting offshoot of this effort would be to do a satellite mapping of all the mass grave sites in the country and post it in the search engines. Similar mapping of the killing sites in Dhaka city should be done so that tour group visits to these sites may be organised.
Carrying out orders: One of the weak spots of the trial may turn out to be the controversy over the razakars who, it will be argued, only carried out orders. It must be borne in mind that in none of the previous war crimes trials were the accused exonerated because they carried out orders. The civil society can help by creating a data base of both Bangladeshi and international experts in this field and have them ready to advise the Tribunal if needed.
Information bank: Only a handful of people are being tried. The civil society should note that the information bank -- of both victims and perpetrators -- is depleting fast and not much time is left. Now that the Tribunal has finished its job of collecting materials for prosecution of the people on the dock, the civil society should start its own job of collecting more information and create data banks for easy reference. A record written on the basis of authentic interviews is an invaluable document. In the past few years, the Bazlur Rahman Award for the best media reporting on our War has created excellent reports. Let this continue to be a repository of authentic information on the War.
The trials should also be the vehicle for young student groups to organise themselves into volunteer groups and go out to the distant villages, perhaps for two weeks, and educate school children (a) about 1971, (b) the need for tolerance in the society, and (c) the globalised village that their generation will be living in.
After the first few trials are completed, youth groups could also start a campaign for truth and reconciliation in the society -- not to seek revenge but to create a tolerant society, because as Bangladesh becomes more economically stable, the society is bound to encounter and live with more diversity like the US society.