Pakistan did right by Bangladesh many years ago by recognizing it, by inviting its leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to Pakistan in 1974, and by finally making public the Hamood-ur-Rehman Commission Report, which documented Pakistan’s blunders in 1971. So then what was Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan’s interior minister, doing by nearly condemning Abdul Quader Molla’s execution?
Based on what we know about the war-crimes tribunal in Dhaka that convicted Jamaat-e-Islami leader Molla for crimes he allegedly committed during the 1971 civil war that saw East Pakistan become Bangladesh, several questions come to mind. Was the tribunal up to international standards and expectations of justice? Was hanging Molla the best way to heal wounds in a divided and bitterly polarized Bangladesh? Was due process sacrificed at the altar of Bangladeshi politics? These are valid questions that require honest answers. But such answers should come from Bangladesh itself—not from outsiders, least of all from Pakistanis.
Coming to terms with ugly historical events is never easy. Nations linger over these matters for years. There are two ways of dealing with such issues: through reconciliation or through retribution. Equally, where outside powers were involved—as in the case of the 1937 Nanking massacre of Chinese civilians by invading Japanese forces or the excesses of Japanese colonization against the Koreans—the process of reconciliation can take decades. These matters are often never settled with finality, and begin to fade away. However, politics has a way of resurrecting long-buried issues.
We should not expect something different between Pakistan and Bangladesh. Even though the Pakistani state and its society have, at various levels, accepted the injustices inflicted on the people of East Pakistan through united Pakistan’s brief history, questions about 1971 keep cropping up. War crimes were committed by all sides, including the Pakistan Army. This is not in dispute; what is at issue is the magnitude of the atrocities. In Dead Reckoning, Sarmila Bose debunks some myths about Pakistani atrocities and includes crimes perpetrated by Bengali freedom fighters and the Indian Army. In Surrender at Dacca, former Indian general J. F. R. Jacob also documents the wrongs done by his country in 1971.
The findings and accounts of historian Bose and eyewitness Jacob are one thing, the Bangladesh shaming by Pakistani politician Khan quite another. “It was the demand of international relations, for solidarity of the Islamic Ummah, and of wisdom that events of the past [are] put behind, and a new era should be started,” lectured the interior minister in the National Assembly recently, according to state-run wire service Associated Press of Pakistan. Molla, said Khan, was punished for being loyal to Pakistan. That was precisely the problem, Dhaka can easily argue. Khan also made two other incredible statements. One: that every Pakistani was sad over Molla’s hanging; and two: that many people are calling his a “judicial murder.”
Khan should have left criticism of the war-crimes tribunal to the professionals. Human-rights groups around the world have questioned the trials. His first plea—that Bangladesh must forget the past of 1971, not seek vengeance, and simply move on—is astonishing for its lack of self-awareness. After all, it is Khan who is leading the treason charge against Pakistan’s former strongman, Pervez Musharraf, for imposing a short-lived state of emergency on Nov. 3, 2007. Musharraf, of course, stands accused of far less than Molla. Lest we forget, it was Musharraf who, as president in 2002, apologized to Bangladesh and left a handwritten note at the Savar war memorial: “Your brothers and sisters in Pakistan share the pain of the events in 1971 … The excesses committed during the unfortunate period are regretted. Let us bury the past in the spirit of magnanimity. Let not the light of the future be dimmed.”
Khan is the last person who should be tutoring others in forgiveness. What Mandela-like actions has Khan himself taken to presume to instruct Dhaka about the virtues of national reconciliation? How nations treat those they identify as criminals is their own internal matter, and Pakistan is the last country Bangladesh wants unsolicited advice from. How could Khan be so tactless? Did he say what he did because it would resonate with the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan and in Bangladesh? Is this what he thought voters wanted to hear? When he said the Molla hanging was an “effort” to “revive old wounds of the past,” whose wounds was he referring to?
There is no place in the business of state for one’s apparently personal sadness over Molla’s hanging or the stormy rhetoric of political rallies. The complex business of state requires discipline, competence, and sobriety. People like Khan are influential because of the office they occupy. Their words and deeds affect millions—in Pakistan, and beyond. We look to these elected representatives to give coherence to the mess that surrounds us. Unfortunately, Khan proves that from whom better sense is expected, the biggest disappointments flow.