Friday, January 29, 2010

Bitter legacy of Bangladeshi hero's killing

AP Photo/ Pavel Rahman: Supporters of country's independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman shout slogans as they carry a portrait of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of the independence hero, outside the Dhaka central jail in Dhaka, Bangladesh, early January 28, 2010.


IN THE end, in the dead of night, it all happened very quickly.

Five former soldiers, convicted of the killing of Bangladesh's independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were hanged just after midnight, hours after the Supreme Court had rejected their final appeal.

Their relatives were called in to Dhaka Central Jail for a last, rushed visit before the executions.

Later, they were allowed to collect the corpses and take them home in ambulances.

As the vehicles drove through the crowds, they were pelted with shoes, and some shouted that the bodies should not be buried on Bangladeshi soil.

Emotions are high. The supporters and surviving family members of the country's first prime minister, popularly known as Mujib, have had to wait a long time for this moment.

Life's mission
The coup leaders, a group of disillusioned, arrogant and ambitious junior officers, had him gunned down just before dawn on 15 August 1975.

They also killed his wife, three sons, two daughters-in-law and about 20 other relatives and supporters to prevent any of them from launching a counter-attack.

The military government they installed then gave them indemnity, some were later made diplomats, and the two ring leaders even formed their own political party and contested elections.

But Mujib's two daughters were out of the country at the time of the massacre and one of them, Sheikh Hasina, made it her life's mission to avenge the deaths.

She took on the reins of her father's Awami League party, and then became prime minister herself in 1996.

She had the killers living in Bangladesh arrested and put on trial. Six others remain in hiding abroad.

The men were found guilty of Mujib's murder, but Hasina lost the next elections.

And the next government, led by the party which had ultimately benefitted from the coup, did little to pursue the case.

The Awami League, still led by Hasina, returned to power in 2009, and kick-started the appeals process, which finally ended this week.

For many Bangladeshis, who remain loyal to the memory of the man who won the country's independence from Pakistan in 1971, the guilty verdict, and these executions, correct a massive injustice.

"I am satisfied that at the end of the day justice has been delivered," Anisul Haq, the state's main lawyer in the case told the BBC.

"This gives us the assurance that whatever be the crime, and whoever be the criminal, justice will prevail."

History rewritten
This case, however, is to do with a lot more than justice. It has also to do with how Bangladesh's history is remembered and who can claim legitimacy to govern it in the future.

While Mujib's killers walked free, his role as the independence leader was steadily downplayed, and he was almost written out of the history text books.

Bangladesh's other main party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, instead promoted its founder, Zia Rahman, as the genuine father of the nation.

He was number two in the army when Mujib was killed and later took over as dictator, before he too was assassinated.

His widow, Khaleda Zia, now leads the BNP.

As prime minister she, provocatively, would hold public celebrations for her birthday on 15 August, the day of Mujib's killing.

So, with the Awami League now back in power, the pendulum has swung and this time it is Zia's role which is under attack.

The text books have been rewritten and the Supreme Court ruled that no-one should contest that it was Mujib, rather than Zia, who declared independence.

Sections of the National Museum which dealt with Zia and the liberation war, in which he fought with distinction, were closed.

A mural of him at the main sports stadium was defaced, and the government announced plans to rename Dhaka's Zia International Airport.

Awami League supporters say that they are simply setting the record straight and that Mujib, who they call Bangabandhu - meaning friend of the Bengalis - is only now receiving the honours he deserved.

But this winner-takes-all approach means there is little room for a frank and honest debate of the past.

Divided culture
There is no mention, in public at least, of the fact that Mujib's government had become unpopular by the time of his death; accused of nepotism, corruption and tyranny.

Only those alive at the time remember those things, but most Bangladeshis were born afterwards and they get their history from whichever government is in power.

They certainly do not get it from the newspapers, which are close to the parties, and the best accounts of the periods are now out of print and only available in the second-hand book market.

Most Bangladeshis under the age of 40 are shockingly ill-informed about their country's past.

The coup plotters felt that Mujib had betrayed his people, but by killing him and his family they made things much worse.

The massacre plunged Bangladesh into a terrible cycle of coup and counter-coup which lasted for five years, and left the army in power until 1986.

It is partly thanks to them that Bangladesh has, to this day, such a poisonous and divided political culture.

So the execution of the five former officers might seem final, but the legacy of their appalling crimes remains very much alive today. #

First published in BBC NEWS online, 28 January 2010

Mark Dummet is with BBC News and based in Bangladesh capital Dhaka