Take from the altar of the ancients, not the ashes, but the fire. – Gustav Mahler

The verdict of the Appellate Division regarding the murder of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and members of his family is an important milestone in our political and judicial history. The men accused of the murder went through our entire judicial system, from the District Court to the Appellate Division. Some of the individuals initially accused were acquitted. Those who were convicted had the chance to present all suitable defences, and were accorded all the rights which our state gives defendants in criminal prosecutions.

For all those individuals who were affected by the gruesome murders, one hopes that this comes as some salve to the personal wound that will undoubtedly haunt them the rest of their lives. The psychological trauma that comes from the assassination of loved ones, and the dislocation that comes from seeing our elders and guardians lying bloodied and lifeless, is unparalleled. We hope the pain that they carry around every day is a little lighter today.

As a result of the verdict today, at least five individuals will soon die. I hope their families will make peace with that, and be able to continue with normal and productive lives.

However, where justice ends, reflection begins.

Let’s think of sets, and Venn diagrams.

Think about the set of people who had responsibility for the 15th August massacre. Narrow that set to all individuals alive today. Are there only twelve people in that set?

Let’s narrow it still further. Let’s think about all the people against whom there exists tangible evidence regarding dereliction of duty or involvement in conspiracy. Are there only twelve people in that set?

Let’s narrow the set still further. Only include the people who were at Dhanmondi Road 32 that fateful night and morning, with weapons in their hand and murder in their heart. Have we gotten all of them?

Here’s the funny thing, just as there were people there that night and early morning who were not supposed to be there, there are a lot of people that morning who should have been there, but were not.

One think about police guards and the army units guarding the President. But where was the Rakkhi Bahini, the President’s hand-created paramilitary unit? Where were the leaders of Awami League? At least some of them had fought in the war four years past, they could have potentially held off the attackers until help arrived.

“Shafiullah, your units are attacking me.”

“Sir, I am seeing what to do. Can you leave your residence?”

A response worthy of all the commanders of the Army of Bengal who stood idle at Plassey.

“Tofael, send the Rakkhi Bahini.”

“We are under attack by Army tanks, sir.”

Only, it later turned out, the tank was disarmed, it did not have any shells in it.

In a sense, it is of lesser importance to pinpoint those who pumped all those bullets in Sheilh Mujib, Begum Mujib, and their family members. Army units started surrounding their home and taking positions to shell Dhanmondi from the evening of 14th August, at least twelve hours before the massacre. How could the entire machinery of the state remain inert for twelve hours? Consultation and conspiracy regarding this started at least months ago. Apparently Indian intelligence warned Sheikh Mujib of the attack. So did at least one civilian intelligence agency. Then Deputy Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman visited the President and warned him regarding grumblings of unrest in the Army.

Who then, were the individuals who negated all these warnings? The individuals who said, “Mujib Bhai, nothing will happen?” 

Of course, whom would President Sheikh Mujib trust, a superseded officer such as Ziaur Rahman, who was never a part of the AL inner circle? Or Khandkar Mushtaque Ahmed, the “Ukil baba” in the marriages of both Sheikh Jamal and Sheikh Kamal?

Zia? Or Dalim, a close personal friend of the Sheikh family who could take personal grievances directly to the President?  

Bangladesh started rejecting the perpetrators of the massacre soon after, as evidenced by the flight of the guilty to various countries within two months of the massacre. Make no mistake about it, history would have been different today if they had all stayed in Bangladesh. It is no accident that the most prominent of those convicted to death is Lt. Col. Syed Faruq Rehman, a former Presidential candidate in 1988 and former chief of Freedom Party. It is not a coincidence that he never fled Bangladesh, but instead chose to stay and attempt to shape Bangladesh’s political climate in his favor.

Part of the reason Sheikh Shaheb never paid heed to any warnings about uprising because he blinded himself to the most egregious fault in our collective nature. We love to over-exult when the times are good. However, when the chips are down, and it is time for action: we are hesitant, doubtful, and faltering. Today, Dhaka is full of people claiming that they have borne a burden in their heart for 34 years. In addition to being a grievous insult to those who have actually borne a burden for 34 years, it is also a lie. It is easy for people to stand in Bangladesh in 2009, with a ten-month AL government with a nine-tenth majority in the Parliament and Sheikh Mujib’s daughter as Prime Minister and his close associate as President, and claim that this is the single greatest moment in their lives. It was, likewise, extremely easy to tell the President of Bangladesh, and the dictator of our state (not in the sense we understand it, but in the actual sense of the word), that there was no way that a couple of army punks would dare to against Sheikh Mujib. And boy, if they did, they would soon see “koto dhane koto chaal.”

Except, when it really matters, action trumps words. And there was only one side in 15th August 1975 that took action. Something our current Prime Minister, and all future prime ministers, would do well to remember and internalize.

It is our nation’s sincerest hope that such a circumstance as 15th August 1975 never occurs again. That force never substitutes political discourse again. Let us go forward to better times.