It has been a long and agonising wait for Bangladesh. The judicial confirmation of the 1998 conviction of the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s founding father, signifies a historic turn, though one would have wished the court had stopped short of the death penalty and opted for life imprisonment. The bloodbath of August 15, 1971, when the ‘Bangabandhu’ was shot during a putsch, has haunted the country since then. It has taken no less than 25 years for the legal barriers — including the infamous Indemnity Ordinance promulgated first in 1975 — erected by successive military and civilian governments to shield the killers, to be removed. The breaking away of East Pakistan had represented a political and social revolution, and the operation sought to oppose the dominant role of the military in politics and discard the culture of communalism. The assassination was clearly a setback for the new nation. For Mujib signified the vision of a secular and progressive Bangladesh. A large section of the people considered the coup and the assassination as part of a sinister and determined plot to turn the nation away from the path of socialism, democracy, nationalism, and secularism. If Bengali nationalism was the guiding spirit of the liberation struggle, a form of Bangladeshi nationalism, with stress on religious identity, was being sought to be established. The most significant outcome of the Supreme Court’s verdict should therefore be a reaffirmation of the dream of 1971.
If Sheikh Mujib’s death ended the first spell of democracy in the fledgling nation and set the stage for a series of foiled coups, his daughter’s comeback to power in the December 2008 elections, after many a twist and turn in the nation’s fortunes, was a triumph for democracy. But many tasks remain for the current leadership. In the immediate context these are two-fold: tracking down and bringing to justice the killers who are at large — at least seven of them may still be alive — and attaining a closure of the whole sordid issue. The fabric of civil society needs to be repaired. It is time for Bangladesh to turn the tragic and traumatic page and move on. The country owes it to Mujib, who was a unifying leader. It needs the salve of reconciliation and cooperation and has to come to terms with the imperatives of development. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the latest winner of the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, needs to keep in mind the legacy she represents and take Bangladesh forward in tune with the founding spirit.