Late last week, the Bangladeshi government imposed a ban on social media networks and electronic chat sites, a sure indicator that the government was expecting trouble.

The Supreme Court had upheld the death sentences given to opposition politicians Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party, and over the weekend, both men were executed. The clampdown on communications was to prevent public disorder.

Bangladesh's government sees these executions as the culmination of a long quest for justice. Its opponents see them as a manifestation of revenge. Human rights experts have expressed deep concerns over the way the trials have been conducted and appealed to stay the executions, but their appeals have been disregarded.

The sordid drama combines three intertwined narratives of conflict. The first is over Bangladesh's identity: Is it a Bengali nation or a Muslim one? Second is the zero-sum rivalry between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed of the Awami League and her rival, Khaleda Zia of the BNP and its ally, the Jamaat. And third: Does a society reach closure through punishment or reconciliation?

Inside Story: Bangladesh executions - justice or political rivalry?

India-Pakistan war

Bangladeshis from all sides of the political spectrum would like to reach closure over the divisive war of 1971, when the country gained independence from Pakistan.

The war crimes tribunals are meant to end the culture of impunity. But the executions, and the way the tribunals have functioned, have reawakened old animosities and stirred old wounds.

When it gained independence from the British in 1947, Bangladesh was the eastern wing of Pakistan. It had a Muslim majority, where most people spoke Bengali. But Pakistan decided to make Urdu the national language.

Politicians and economists in the former East Pakistan protested against West Pakistani intolerance of Bengali cultural aspirations and complained that the west was treating the east as a colony.

In the 1970 elections, the Awami League won so many seats in the east that, by right, its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman should have been invited to form the government for the whole of Pakistan.

Instead, General Yahya Khan stalled the democratic process and declared martial law in March 1971, arresting Awami leaders, and the army unleashed a reign of terror.

In the nine-month conflict that followed, Bangladeshis say some three million civilians died. Other estimates suggest lower figures, but even the lowest estimates suggest hundreds of thousands of deaths, making the war one of the bloodiest of the 20th century.

The demand for justice is real, and it is combined with passionate support for the death penalty. The tribunals now have their own momentum, and it is unlikely that other defendants will be shown leniency. That is partly because of the Manichaean nature of Bangladeshi politics.

 

Ten million refugees fled to India, which aided a guerrilla force known as Mukti Bahini. When Pakistan attacked India in December 1971, India formally joined the war, and after two weeks, Pakistan surrendered. India took more than 90,000 prisoners of war.

Bangladesh was determined to try Pakistani officers and men, along with Bangladeshi collaborators, for war crimes. After India had released Pakistani POWs, Bangladesh sought assurances from Pakistan that its government would prosecute those accused of war crimes.

Wounds festered

At home, it decided to charge the Bangladeshi collaborators. But Mujibur Rahman was assassinated in 1975, and the governments that followed in Bangladesh granted immunity to his assassins and allowed those accused of war crimes in 1971 to become part of the country's political establishment.

Some of them became ministers in subsequent governments. In 1992, a few concerned citizens set up a people's tribunal, but the BNP government cracked down on them. Time passed; wounds festered.

In 2008, Mujibur Rahman's daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, made an election promise: If elected, she would establish tribunals to try the accused. She was swept to victory, and she made good on her promise.

The two tribunals indicted more than a dozen men, almost all of them from the Jamaat-e-Islami party. Opposition parties initially thought the trials were a form of political theatre. But now, four men have been executed, one has died while his conviction was under appeal, and one has been given a long prison term.

The demand for justice is real, and it is combined with passionate support for the death penalty. The tribunals now have their own momentum, and it is unlikely that other defendants will be shown leniency. That is partly because of the Manichaean nature of Bangladeshi politics.

The Awami League hopes to draw on the spirit of 1971 - of a secular democracy. The majority of Bangladeshis are Muslim, and from 1975 to 2008 - except for five years when the Awami League was in power - successive governments have attempted to make Bangladesh a more religious country.


Also read: The hit list: Endangered bloggers of Bangladesh


Many Bangladeshis have become more devout. The society is in flux, and such turbulence can only accentuate the political divide.

Religious extremism is on the rise - this year alone, four writers and a publisher have been murdered in separate incidents; their assailants have not yet been found.

While the Jamaat's electoral strength is relatively insignificant - it has rarely polled more than six percent of the popular vote, and in a house of 300, it has not won more than 18 seats at any time - as an ally of the BNP, its leaders have been part of BNP-led governments.

A recent constitutional amendment has led to the Jamaat's deregistration. That has only made some of its supporters more desperate. Besides, the BNP boycotted the 2014 elections, which meant the Awami League's large majority rests on the fact that more than half of the parliamentary seats were uncontested.

The BNP and the Jamaat have often brought the country to a standstill by calling strikes, which sometimes turn violent. Returning the favour, the Awami League did the same when it was in opposition. The BNP's silence over Chowdhury's execution is curious and may indicate a strategic shift in its politics.

Bangladeshi politics are at a crossroads. With the opposition in disarray and the ruling party's legitimacy being questioned, which way will its politics turn?

The BNP appears to be keen to remind voters that it can be a responsible party. The Awami League needs to recognise the consequences of attempting to annihilate the opposition: What might emerge from that vacuum could undermine democracy.

Bangladesh's long-suffering people deserve better.

Salil Tripathi is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy. He lives in London.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera