By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
Bangladesh has the unique distinction of being the only nation in the world born on the basis of language. It was a completely new phenomenon and the Bengali nation’s emergence in 1971 was hailed across the globe. But it is also true that several ultra-conservative political leaders and their over zealous followers from among the Bengalis vehemently opposed the creation of history and indulged in the worst atrocities against their own people.
Most of the anti-liberation political personalities did not express any remorse for their despicable role in 1971 persisting with the religious dogmas even after independence and continued to argue that secular nationalism had never been in the DNA of the Bangladeshis. Well-known Razakar Salauddin Quader Choudhury is one such vocal critic of the Liberation War and secular politics in Bangladesh. Many in the country believe that he is “one of Pakistan’s biggest assets” in independent Bangladesh.
In an epoch-making judgment on July 29, 2015, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of Choudhury, a top Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader and an aide to former premier Khaleda Zia, for committing heinous crimes during the country’s war of independence against Pakistan. A four-member panel of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha delivered the final verdict dismissing former minister and six-time MP Choudhury’s appeal against the capital punishment awarded by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT)-1 on October 1, 2013.
The Supreme Court ruling assumes significance in Bangladesh’s politics as Choudhury, 66, is the first sitting MP to be convicted for wartime atrocities. It also generated huge public interest in the country. Many people expected the highest court to sustain the original tribunal judgment. The former freedom fighters, scores of pro-liberation organisations and civil society leaders lauded the verdict. The Ganojagoran Mancha described him as the “most atrocious and cruel” among the war crimes convicts.
Choudhury rejected all the charges prosecution brought against him saying he was out of the country in 1971. He reportedly interrupted the trial proceedings on many occasions and exhibited arrogant behaviour before the judges. He questioned the authority of the tribunal and once even ridiculed the court comparing it with a circus. Choudhury sharply reacted when the verdict was announced and dubbed it as a “pre- determined judgment”. The ICT-1 verdict observed that despite being a lawmaker, Choudhury’s attitude towards the judiciary was “disparaging”.
The prosecutors called him a ruthless killer who had unleashed a reign of terror in Chittagong during the war period. In most cases, he guided the Pakistan Army to carry out the attacks. He also turned his parental residence in Chittagong into a torture cell.
Another disturbing feature of Choudhury’s case was his family’s dubious role in the 1971 war. His father Fazlul Quader Choudhury, who firmly resisted the creation of Bangladesh, was an influential leader of Pakistan’s Convention Muslim League (CML) and ex-speaker of National Assembly. He was arrested soon after independence under the Collaborators Order, 1972 but died in jail while facing trial.
Choudhury’s family is mired in controversy once again. The family members have been accused of trying to malign the war crimes trial. Currently, his wife and son are among seven facing the charge of leaking the ICT verdict before it was officially delivered.
Choudhury, better known as “Razakar Saqua”, was a leading youth activist of CML in 1971. As most of the collaborators did immediately after independence, Choudhury preferred to lie low. But he restarted his political activities when Ziaur Rahman was at the helm of affairs. Choudhury was one of the beneficiaries of the violent political changeover of August 1975. By promulgating the Political Parties Regulation of 1976, the Zia regime allowed as many as 22 anti-liberation political parties, including Choudhury’s Muslim League to resume their activities.
Choudhury utilised most of the opportunities offered by the successive military regimes to rehabilitate the forces which had opposed Bangladesh’s emergence as a Bengali nation and never accepted the ideals of the glorious Liberation War in the post-independence period. The elite background of his family also facilitated Choudhury’s emergence as a leading figure of the post-1975 polity.
Choudhury is one of the few Bangladeshi politicians who has never lost any parliamentary election. He won the state-managed 1979 polls as a Muslim League candidate. He represented different constituencies of Chittagong in the parliament six times consecutively from 1979 to 2008. Choudhury’s anti-people role in 1971 has not impeded his political career. It seems he still enjoys considerable support in Chittagong region.
In his bid to make forays into mainstream politics, Choudhury joined the pro-government Jatiya Party in the 1980s and was elected MP from his native Raozan constituency in 1986. Former military ruler H.M. Ershad first made Choudhury a minister but the party expelled him later on. The expulsion could not dampen his spirit and he floated his own National Democratic Party and won the Raozan seat again.
Being an opportunist, Choudhury has always tried to align with the ruling political formation. It was no wonder that he merged his party with the BNP in 1996 and soon became one of its high profile leaders. He was made adviser of parliamentary affairs to Prime Minister Khaleda Zia during 2001-06 with the status of a minister. He also served as a member of BNP’s highest policy making body Standing Committee till his arrest.
Like numerous Razakar-turned politicians, Choudhury has been successful in his endeavours to establish himself in the post-1975 polity. However, a political leader having such enviable electoral record has surprisingly failed to maintain a respectable image in the country due to his penchant for making unpalatable statements. He seldom demonstrated the requisite qualities of a people’s leader. Choudhury often hogged the media limelight for displaying arrogance publicly and using unparliamentary language. He had reportedly been reprimanded several times for making derogatory statements about leading political figures, including Khaleda and Sheikh Hasina.
Now the time has arrived for him to introspect and confront the ground reality. The Supreme Court verdict has thoroughly unmasked his treacherous past. But it appears that he is still in defiant mood. Choudhury reportedly told the jailor that he is not a pushover after the announcement of the verdict.
The government could implement the judgment within months unless his case is reviewed by the same court or he is granted clemency by the president. It is worth mentioning that all earlier efforts to review war crimes cases to obtain presidential pardon had failed. Recent reports say Choudhury’s legal counsels will seek a review of the Supreme Court verdict. But as clearly pointed out by Bangladesh’s law minister, the apex court hardly overturns a sentence in review petition except where there are anomalies in the procedure. And Choudhury’s case does not seem to fit into that category.
Any major protest against the verdict is also unlikely as the major opposition BNP did not announce agitation plan while reacting to the judgment. Besides, the party has been weakened to an extent after the law enforcement agencies’ relentless crackdown on senior leaders and activists and filing of criminal cases against them in the recent period.
The Supreme Court delivered the verdict at a time when the ideological schism between the secular-nationalists and orthodox religious forces has heightened. Four young bloggers were hacked to death this year by suspected religious extremists for propagating secular and rationalist ideas. It can not be denied that the war crimes trials have sharply polarised the polity.
*Dr. Rupak Bhattacharjee is an independent political analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]