When Japanese Prime-Minister Shinzo Abe visited India in 2007, his itinerary included a meeting in Kolkatta with a certain Prasanta Pal. Why would a powerful PM want to meet a little known Indian? Therein lies a story.
After the World War II, the Allies created the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) to try 25 top Military and Civil leaders of Japan for Class A war crimes(*). Now Class A crimes are not atrocities committed in the field, but include the crime of conspiracy to wage aggressive war. The IMTFE had a panel of 12 judges from different countries— including an unlikely nominee from British India: Justice Radhabinod Pal, father of Prasanta Pal. It was a strange choice: Professor, Asian Nationalist and Justice of Calcutta High Court, he was a sympathizer of the nationalist Hindu Mahasabha and Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, which fought alongside the Japanese.
At the end of the trial, 11 of the 12 judges pronounced all the accused guilty; the lone dissenter was Pal. He raised some important issues. Conspiracy to wage aggressive war was not a crime under any law before or after 1937. Further, he was convinced by the defense claim that western sanctions against Japan were so humiliating and constricting that Japan had no choice but to go to war. While the Nanking Massacre and other Japanese atrocities were deplorable, there was no credible evidence that it was due to Government Policy or that the top leaders had ordered or permitted it.
Pal was critical of the trial process too. He argued that the Tribunal had no judges from the vanquished nations; and atrocities by the Allies (like the atom bomb and selective bombing of civilian targets) were not in the scope of the tribunal. All this pointed to a victor’s retaliation rather than a fair trial contributing to peace. Hence all the accused were to be acquitted.
Some historians think that Pal entered the Tribunal with a bias. Nevertheless, Pal had raised substantive questions. Indeed the Tribunal had its own controversies. For instance the Japanese Emperor and his family were excluded from the accused list (in violation of the Yamashita Standard) for the sake of political convenience. Similarly, Japanese who indulged in biological warfare were exempted in exchange for the information they shared with the US.
It was not Justice Pal’s case that atrocities did not happen or that they were justified. He felt that due legal process was not followed. Pal’s dissent had no bearing on the final outcome, but he became something of a hero in Japan. Right-wing nationalists celebrated him. Pal was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor. On his death in 1966, a special memorial was built in the Yasukuni shrine (where many Japanese war- heroes including those convicted of war crimes are buried).
What does this story have to do with Shinzo Abe? One of Pal’s admirers was Nobusuke Kishi: a suspected Class A war criminal who was not formally charged, Kishi went on to become the Japanese PM in 1957. He was none other than Shinzo Abe’s grandfather and political role model. So when Abe visited Prasanta Pal he was renewing family ties! But Abe’s visit to Prasanta as well as the Yasukuni shrine created a controversy (of rekindling Japan’s military past). Abe played them down as personal visits, but nobody was really convinced.
This is the last of my father’s 3 part series on the Japanese War Crime Trials. Hope you enjoyed them. NHK has a detailed documentary about Justice Radha Binod Pal, which you might like to see:
(*)Note:Originally 28 were accused, but 2 died during the trials and 1 went insane
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