There are moments when we wonder if it was a right decision for us to let the 195 Pakistani war criminals go free in 1974. Of course, there was all that pressure on Bangabandhu and his government to free them in the interest of reconciliation. The decision to let these criminals, among whom were AAK Niazi and Rao Farman Ali, go back to Pakistan from the prisoner-of-war camps in India was one Bangabandhu was not comfortable with. He told those close to him that his biggest regret was that of all the promises he had made to his people all his life, this was the only one he was unable to keep. It made him profoundly sad.
Even so, there was some consolation in the thought that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had promised to try these 195 men in Islamabad. If they were not freed by Bangladesh, he told Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Pakistan army, despite the disgrace it was in following its defeat in Bangladesh, would again seize the state. That would mean an overthrow of the fledgling civilian government Bhutto was trying to lead in Islamabad. And thus the 195 POWs, identified by Bangladesh as war criminals, were able to go back to Pakistan. Having spent nine months killing Bengalis in Bangladesh and two and a half years as prisoners in India, they returned to their families.
These 195 men, unsurprisingly, were never tried by the Pakistan government. Everyone, and that includes Bangabandhu, knew that nothing would touch them once they were free. Besides, since the state of Pakistan itself was in denial mode about the atrocities committed by its soldiers in Bangladesh, it was pointless to think that these soldiers would be tried by their own government. All of them were cashiered from the army, but that did not mean they had suddenly lost their places in society. Many of them would subsequently find new careers for themselves, in areas like business. Some of the more notorious ones, such as Niazi, would go into politics. Imagine a defeated general suddenly becoming the leader of an Islamic party and vowing to turn his country into a democratic dispensation after it had lost half of its territory on his watch!
There was the other war criminal Rao Farman Ali, whose role in the abduction and murder of leading, well-known Bengalis, especially among the intellectual classes, has sullied his reputation. But in Pakistan, that did not matter at all. In the times following the execution of Z.A. Bhutto, Farman Ali cultivated the friendship of Pakistan's new dictator Ziaul Haq and eventually became a minister in his regime. Other war criminals, notably Tikka Khan, who had left Bangladesh in September 1971, and Khadem Hussain Raja, who after overseeing Operation Searchlight would go back to (West) Pakistan, lived on peacefully. Tikka was the more fortunate one. He took over as Pakistan army chief of staff when Bhutto dismissed General Gul Hasan. It was one more instance of historical irony when Tikka, as army chief of staff, saluted Bangabandhu when the latter arrived in Lahore for the Islamic nations' summit in February 1974.
In later years, Tikka would go on to serve as governor of Punjab under Benazir Bhutto. He would also join the Pakistan People's Party and be its secretary general. Tikka Khan, unlike some other senior officers of the Pakistan army involved in the genocide of 1971, never wrote any account of his view of the tragedy. But in 1988, he told a visiting Bangladesh journalist a brazen lie. Asked why he had his soldiers murder so many thousands of Bengalis on 25-26 March 1971, he deadpanned: the Pakistan army had killed no one. Only two passers-by had died of bullet wounds.
A good number of these war criminals of the Pakistan army are dead. Yahya Khan,Tikka, Niazi and Raja are all in their graves. Rao Farman Ali is in ripe old age. Of the 93,000 soldiers, many have died by now but the others live on. It would be interesting to know if they have suffered in their conscience over the killings and rape they so cheerfully indulged in forty four years ago. Again, there are those soldiers, young men of seventeen or eighteen at the time when they were despatched to Bangladesh to kill Hindus and Pakistan's enemies but who came back home traumatised at what their fellow soldiers had done to the Bengalis. The writer Yasmin Saikia speaks of one such young soldier. He came back from the POW camp in a state of shock, told his mother he could not speak of the unspeakable brutalities his colleagues had committed in Bangladesh and then took to prayers and silence. All these years he has been praying and asking for God's
These accounts, of Pakistan's officers loath to acknowledge their crimes, of ordinary soldiers traumatised by the realities on the ground in 1971, need to be passed on to the younger generation in Bangladesh as also Pakistan. They need to know that while the trials of the local collaborators of the Pakistan army have always been a necessity, that while the executions of these collaborators make the state of Bangladesh safer from any future assaults on it, it is important, too, to have them get acquainted with the names and crimes of all those 195 war criminals of the Pakistan army we let go in 1974.
It is now rather late in the day for Bangladesh to put the 195 Pakistani military officers on trial. Given the denial mode it has consistently been in, Pakistan will never consent to send to Bangladesh those among the 195 who have not died in these more than four decades since the defeat of their army. But for our part we can and should organise a symbolic trial of these criminals, in public, with all the evidence we have of their guilt, and let the world and our own people know of the revulsion in which we hold these war criminals in our minds, in our history.
It is not too late for such a move to be made.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor,
The Daily Observer.
Email: [email protected]