Sunday, July 13, 2008

Tyrannicide, or murder?

Immanuel Kant first drew the distinction between morality and law. Since then, the distinction has become commonplace, even trite: we know that what is illegal is not necessarily immoral, and what is immoral is not always illegal.

On August 15, 1975, this bifurcation of law and morality made itself apparent in our country. The question is: did what happen on that day constitute an immoral act, as well as an illegal one?

That murder is illegal in peacetime is well-known: is it also immoral? Did the assassination of Sheikh Mujib constitute justifiable tyrannicide or plain, ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill murder? Were the circumstances of the president such as to warrant a violent end to his life?

People may be forgiven for thinking that they did. After all, Sheikh Mujib had become hated by then, and with good reason. To take one instance: while a famine raged in the country, he permitted the export of food to India by domestic merchants (“Famine”, The Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition). Further, his sons and his private army, the Rakhshi Bahini, terrorized the nation. Further examples of tyranny can be adduced from history books (for instance, Albert Reynolds observes in his book “One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945” - New York: W.W.Norton and Co., 2000, p. 217 - - “He failed to disarm the guerrillas or check the rampant corruption, and the country soon degenerated into anarchy”), but the memory of those frightening days are as vivid as yesterday’s events.

Had the soldiers not acted, would they not have been even more culpable? Not to come to the aid of your nation when it is sliding into anarchy must surely be immoral, even wicked – though illegal. They made it possible to take the nation away from atheist Soviet Union and polytheist India; away from a disastrous socialism that refused to feed the people; towards what prosperity this unfortunate nation has known over the last decades.

And can it not be argued that what they have received so far is victor’s justice – but for an electoral quirk in 1996, the indemnity ordnance shielding them, and conferred on them by an approving and grateful government, the law would have remained silent on the subject. For every honour was heaped on the soldiers by successive governments: the nation rejoiced on that day as it has never done since. These are facts: they testify to the gratitude of the people, whatever the law may decide.

And in South Asia’s dynastic democracy, it is a pathetic fact that assassination needs must extend to the family: the soldiers, it can be said, are being tried, not for killing the first family, but for failing to kill the first family.

And should they be denied a presidential pardon, and walk the gallows, will it not be said that they were condemned merely by the law, and exonerated – nay, perhaps even elevated – by a higher law?

And should a verdict be reached, the Supreme Court will be accused of taking political sides; our learned judges are well aware of the schism between law and ethics. Whether they say “aye” or “nay”, the Court will make itself controversial, for one cannot legislate over men’s hearts. And the sorry tale would have an even sorrier epilogue: a compromised judiciary. And the nation itself shall feel the cleavage within, one half approving, the other half deploring the outcome of a trial – whatever the outcome. For the country is so divided along partisan lines that not even a word can be breathed without having to nominate the faction for whom, and against whom, it is intended.

Such are the perils that await the nation since passions cannot be disinflamed by the magistrate.

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