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Burying a past of deadly violence

With the execution of the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’, Abdul Quader Mollah on Thursday, Bangladesh has attempted a closure of a difficult and brutal chapter in its 42-year-old political history. Mollah, who was accused of war crimes committed during the 1971 liberation struggle against Pakistan, was obviously a symbol of the country’s tortured past, and the longstanding proclivity of certain sections in the political spectrum towards Islamic fundamentalism. The current Awami League government, led by Sheikh Hasina (daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founding father and the first president of independent Bangladesh) always had the 1971 war crime trial as one of its top-most priorities, along with institutionalisation of a secular democratic polity. Mollah, who was a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party (the hardline religious ally of the main opposition, Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia), had been instrumental in carrying out a number of atrocities and, four decades later, the international crimes tribunal set up in 2010 to look into the human rights abuses rightly pronounced him guilty. Mollah was one of the key figures in not only in the war crimes by the pro-Pakistan hardline Islamic fringes, but also was responsible in radicalising Bangladeshi youth and sabotaging Rahman’s project of consolidating a secular sovereign country. In fact, the Shahbag Square movement led by the disgruntled youth of the country during the early months of this year was an affirmation of that dream of building a secular nation that did not discriminate on the basis of religion, class or gender. However, only the ruling Awami League has an express interest in developing the secular credentials of the country, and even though it has been facing the wrath of opposition parties such BNP, Jamaat as well as smaller parties such as Al Badar, Al Shams etc, it has resolutely tried to walk the difficult path of realising Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s cherished dream.

While the debate around capital punishment is still unsettled, the fact remains that Mollah and his fellow 1971 war criminals deserved the harshest punishment as permitted by the law of the land. For Awami League, the move to reopen old wounds and settle the ‘unfinished business of 1970-71’ was a definitive strategy to attract the young and educated people into its secular fold, the new generation of Bangladeshis who prefer harmonious and secular existence over religious fanaticism. Moreover, Rahman’s secular project, which came to a brutal halt after a military coup and his assassination on 15 August 1975, hadn’t recovered since then, even though Prime Minister Hasina and her Awami League regime had tried, from time to time, to recover the secular foundations. However, thanks to the fascist elements, who received unscrupulous patronage from countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Islamic fundamentalism had spread its ugly wings far and wide. In fact, Saudi Arabia and Turkey had opposed the opening of the war crime tribunal, as did the Bangladeshi opposition parties such as BNP, JI, among others, who saw the move as a tactic to quash the overtly non-secular parties and their nefarious activities both within and across the border. However, that the Awali League wants to start a fresh chapter and close old ones, especially the violent and disgraceful episodes of mass murders and massacres of over three million people, is a sign of its being in sync with the current times and also symptomatic of its desire to play greater role in the South Asian geopolitics. Given that the elections are around the corner, the Awami League will hope that its sealing of an old wound by executing Mollah will soothe the flared nerves of its secular and much persecuted supporters.    

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