The scars of 21 August 2004

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There is a national sense of tragedy that has come to be associated with August in Bangladesh. There is the lingering, painful memory of the assassinations of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family on 15 August 1975. There is, too, the remembrance of 17 August 2005 when Islamist militants created terror all across the land through setting off explosions in 63 of the 64 districts of the country.

That brings us to the matter of what has happened, or not happened, around the macabre incidents of 21 August 2004 at the rally of the Awami League. With the law being in a state of the comatose, with political authority swiftly dwindling into arrogance of power, it was not wise to expect that justice would be done every time a crime is committed anywhere in the land. And yet the conventions of civilised behaviour suggest that societies that ensure a smooth, uninterrupted working of the law are in the end themselves guarantees of security for those who constitute them. Now, where 21 August is the issue, these are the facts. Twenty two men and women were killed through the explosions that rocked the Awami League, more than two hundred were wounded and all of them have been carrying the marks of their injuries with little to suggest that they will ever get back to normal living. Among those killed were the senior Awami League leader Ivy Rahman. Party chief and then former prime minister Sheikh Hasina escaped death narrowly (the bombs were set off as she addressed the crowd before her) but subsequently was observed to suffer from hearing problems.

These are the bare facts. But there are other, more embarrassing ones that called into question the very institutions of the state responsible for a provision of security to citizens. Take, as an instance, the absolute indifference of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government to the tragedy. It simply sat on the realities, basically speaking. The sort of resolve that should have come into an investigation of the tragedy, of the planning behind it, was not there. To be sure, it asked agencies such as Scotland Yard to come in with help. But that was not followed up by any concrete measures to convince the country that it meant business. Teams from Scotland Yard and the FBI came in for a while, sifted through whatever remained of the evidence on the stretch of road before the Awami League office and then went away. The palpable lack of cooperation from the government served as a disincentive to any further inquiry into the tragedy. Indeed, the truth that there was never going to be any serious approach to a resolution of the issue first came alive when all evidence and all clues to the conspiracy behind the explosions were systematically done away with. The spot where the explosions occurred were wiped clean, no image or other proof remained of the bombs or their shells at the scene of the crime.

And there was more, to lend credence to the belief that there was to be no purposeful inquiry into the killings of 21 August. The police, as usual, proved singularly unable to provide any lead to the commission of the crime. By the time the Khaleda Zia government eventually constituted a one-man inquiry commission to look into the tragedy, it was too late to have anything done. The judge, in other words the commission, went around speaking to some victims of the explosions. For their part, the Awami League leadership saw in the constitution of the inquiry commission a move that was at best half-hearted and at worst grudging from the government. There was good logic in the position the party adopted. The reason, one that the country shared, was that such a commission, because of the severe limitations in terms of manpower and overall terms of reference it suffered from, was not equipped to handle the job. But the judge did work, despite the straitjacket he found himself in, and did indeed end up producing a report on his findings. And then, predictably and in line with bad tradition, the report went into cold storage, per courtesy of the powers that were.

The elements and organisation or organisations behind the deadly blasts needed to be identified and hauled before the law. With so many people dead and scores upon scores wounded, it was hard to believe that the wheels of justice did not work at the time. The attacks, we will not fail to note, were well organized and extremely detailed, all of which point to the thought that a rather broad association of individuals and organisations was involved in the planning and execution of the crime. The failure of the government then in office to bring the criminals to trial suggested that impunity had a way of pushing our notions of justice and the law aside. Holes were drilledin the fundamental structure of civilised order.

  • Issue 6 - 7
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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