It is no secret that what has kept Sheikh Hasina going all these years was an uncompromising desire for revenge. All members of her immediate family, except her sister, Rehana, with whom she was on a tour abroad, were killed on 15 August 1975. While her sister stayed away from politics, Sheikh Hasina returned to Bangladesh in 1980 to take over her father’s party, the Awami League. And she never gave up her mission to try the killers.
A few of them had actually confessed to the killings. Part of their bravado lay in the fact they were protected by an Indemnity Ordinance promulgated in 1975, which was later incorporated into the constitution through an amendment. It was believed a two-third majority would be required to repeal the amendment, but Awami League lawyers successfully challenged the case in the Supreme Court after the party came to power in 1996 and a simple majority proved enough to remove the constitutional security blanket against the trial.
Most of the accused had left the country almost immediately after Sheikh Hasina won the elections, but there were some who could not or did not. After two years of trial, on 8 November 1998, the District and Sessions Judge sentenced 15 army officers of various ranks to death by firing squad, and if the criminal code did not allow for that, to be hanged to death.
Sheikh Hasina had triumphed in the end. She never wavered once in her objective, proving once again that South Asian women who enter politics have more steel in them than most of their male counterparts. It was an emotional moment when, while talking to the press, she choked upon recalling the death by bullet of her youngest brother Sheikh Russell (named after the British philosopher Bertrand Russell), who would have been 32 years old now if he had survived the massacre on that fateful day in 1975.
When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed, the country was under a one-party rule. The way in which Sheikh Mujib died was dreadful, but there were many who were also glad to once again have a multi-party, multi-option society. The right to disagree without the fear of being punished has proved to be an option without which socio-political constructs can’t develop.
Having said that, we can’t forget that the situation in Bangladesh seems to defy improvement. The country is in such a bad shape that it needs foreign aid to help it learn to manage governance. When governance becomes a foreign-funded, bureaucracy-driven project monitored by a section in a ministry, one must ask if money alone can inspire politicians to learn. It also automatically means that Bangladesh didn’t know better before and that includes all previous regimes—that of Mujib, Zia and Ershad. That is a harsh statement, but nevertheless a true one in donor-driven Bangladesh. That is why lessons need to be learnt from the trial and the people’s response to it.
The fact that almost everyone in Bangladesh welcomed the verdict means people don’t want a system in which laws are flouted. It also means they want criminals, political or otherwise, to be tried. And that doesn’t only mean criminals who commit murder but those involved in corruption as well.
It took a daughter’s determination and political and legal authority to try a cluster of killers. But so far no politician has been convicted of corruption. Just as people don’t approve of killing, they don’t like corruption either. By passing judgement on a nearly quarter-century-old crime, a faint glimmer of rule of law and accountability has been established.
If former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia ever comes to power again, she may also try the killers of her husband, Gen Ziaur Rahman. And that too will be as much welcomed by the people. But the leaders will be misled if they think that the people’s interest is focussed on the victims only. The fact is they are welcoming the process of trying and punishing the guilty.
That is why Sheikh Hasian should continue with such trials. She should herself reach out and try the killers of Gen Ziaur Rahman. She should examine other cases as well, including the hanging by the Zia regime of Col Taher, the liberation war hero whose insurrection propelled Gen Zia to power. She should also initiate an investigation to find out if the police killing of Maoist leader Shiraj Shikdar in 1974 (see Himal Sep/Oct 1997) was carried out extra-judicially.
Not every killing which awaits justice can be as zealously pursued as was Sheikh Mujib’s. By trying the killers of her father, it has now become Sheikh Hasina’s sacrosanct duty to try all killers.