The battle over Jamaat’s future intensifies, in the streets and also the courts.
The Jamaat-e-Islami’s institutional opposition to independence always made it antithetical to the very idea of Bangladesh. No wonder then, that it was banned right at the outset by the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. As the fledgling nation coursed through a stormy post-independence period that culminated in the assassination of its founder, it eventually clawed its way back and succeeded in forging a place for itself in the country’s political ring. As the years passed, so grew Jamaat’s influence and organisational strength. With the advent of democracy, it found itself pitched in the court of the people against rivals found hopelessly wanting in terms of political vision and long-term planning, in bondage to the fortunes of their founding bloodlines.
The mediocrity of their fellow political parties helped Jamaat establish a presence incommensurate with the actual level of support they enjoy amongst the populace for the sort of sociopolitical order they’d like to see established in the country. Three decades on from unsuccessfully opposing the birth of Bangladesh, they managed to rise up from the ashes to form part of a ruling coalition in which they controlled three important ministries. What is more, they did it fair and square, on the strength of votes won in the 2001 elections. It was widely acknowledged that in an administration that gained history’s notoriety for rampant corruption, the Jamaat-controlled ministries were like oases in the desert of kleptocracy.
Today though, barely twelve years on from that zenith, the Jamaat is faced with an existential threat that might soon see them consigned to the same dustbin of history as the Nazis. As things have come to a head in Bangladesh’s belated, but necessary trial for the inhuman atrocities perpetrated during its bloody war of liberation, Jamaat’s original stance in favour of a united Pakistan has come back to haunt them. More to the point, the actions taken by its then leadership to shore up this position. Beyond the pettiness that still reigns supreme in the country’s politics, it has taken a mass uprising of the scale we continue to witness for a third straight week centred around the capital’s historic Shahbag er Mor to draw attention to the inherent contradiction in Jamaat’s continued presence at the forefront of politics in Bangladesh.
The precedent being drawn upon to make the case against Jamaat is once again the Nuremberg trials, that not only sent prominent Nazis to the gallows, but also set the stage for the National Socialist party, to which Hitler and his diabolical gang belonged, to be outlawed. Those who advocate the Jamaat ban take their cue from the ruling in the verdict against Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior Jamaat leader. This explicitly refers to the horrors perpetrated by Jamaat and its student wing, the Islami Chhatra Sangha, forerunner to the Shibir, during the Liberation War.
Even though Jamaat has recently revamped its charter to remove its aim of establishing “the rule of Allah”, secularists have jumped at the opportunity presented by the mass movement in Shahbag. Although they hardly do their liberal credentials much favour with visceral cries for death to all the war criminals to drive home their advantage in the current atmosphere. So too the move to initiate a ban on the vanguard of religion-based politics in the country. As the Shahbag protesters’ calls to amend the law governing the International Crimes Tribunal, under which the trial of the alleged war criminals is being held, reached a crescendo, it fell to an old enemy of the mullahs to lend some substance to Shahbag’s ultimate vision for Bangladesh.
In a Bangladesh of political allegiances dictated by expediency at almost every turn, Rashed Khan Menon has managed to remain conspicuous by the extent of his fidelity to the belief system spawned by Marx. He professed this faith early on in life, as a firebrand student leader from the days that built the myth of student politics in Bangladesh. As the years have rolled on, there has appeared perhaps just the hint of dilution in the passion of Menon, as the public will always call him. But who can fault him, when even his friends the Chinese have embraced the wisdom of freeing oneself from dogma?
As all the focus centred on drafting an amendment to allow the government to appeal for tougher sentences in the ICT verdicts – one that frankly discredits it – the Workers Party president spotted the more credible and meaningful amendment the Act governing the tribunal was crying out for. This was a provision to try organisations, including political parties, alongside individuals for the crimes of ’71. With a timely intervention by Menon last Sunday as parliament sat to pass amendments to the ICT Act, this was duly ensured. The endgame for Jamaat, already underway for the last several months as its top leadership was put in the dock one-by-one, looks set to take an even starker turn in the days ahead.
What deserves some attention though, before any such move to eradicate Jamaat gets off the ground, is a clearer assessment of its reach within the populace. Outlawing a party whose organisational strength and capability forms the bulwark of one of the two dominant political factions in the country will have serious consequences. Will it radicalise a movement that, for all its incongruity within the cultural setting of Bangladesh, has been an exemplary partner of democracy in Bangladesh? But now that the law is there, not trying Jamaat as an institutional force behind the atrocities of ’71 will further discredit the quest for justice, and hence Bangladeshis’ coming to terms with a war whose tales of ragged glory served to paper over painful realities.
As a result of all this, the role of Islam in Bangladeshi society needs also to be addressed. Any ban on Jamaat will inevitably come to be painted as a rejection of Islam, and with so many Bangladeshis drawing strength from their faith, will always be a sensitive issue. At the very least, some of the more fantastical calls being bandied about under the secularist banner (to shun Islam-based financial institutions, medical services, media) in Shahbag should be firmly shelved. And it must be made clear to all, that any charges pressed against Jamaat will derive from its deeds during the Liberation War.
Tide is turning
Eminent political scientist Dr Harun-ur-Rashid points out it is not mandatory to ban a political party but it becomes our duty to ban a political party if any allegation of the nature made against Jamaat is proved.
“They supported Pakistan in 1971. This is already proved. So when any allegation gets proved against the political party that party is seen to be banned,” he added.
Prominent social scientist Prof Dr Anupam Sen also wants to see a ban on Jamaat politics for “at least three to four years.”
“There’s no problem in having religion-based political parties. But if the party turns into a militant organisation and carries out destructive politics, in that case it should be banned,” Dr Sen said, referring to the increasingly militant tactics employed by Jamaat activists as the tide has turned against them.
Dr Rashid too, said there can be existence of religion-based political parties as the Constitution in its current incarnation permits so, but since Jamaat had committed war crimes under this name it does not have the ethical and legal right to do politics in the country. “It’s an established truth that they committed crimes.”
This truth has been taken to be “established” by the two verdicts handed out so far by the ICT. In the first verdict, against Jamaat leader Abul Kalam Azad, the tribunal observed that the Jamaat-e-Islam helped Pakistan military in the war against unarmed Bengalis by establishing ‘armed forces’ in the name of ‘saving Pakistan.’
The second verdict of the tribunal, given against Abdul Quader Molla, provided more a more detailed description of the role played by Jamaat in organising auxiliary forces in support of Pakistan.
Regarding Jamaat and Islami Chhatra Shangha, currently known as Islami Chhatra Shibir, the verdict observed that a very few Bengali, Biharis, other pro-Pakistani organisations and religion-based political parties, especially Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Islami Chhatra Shangha, Muslim League, Pakistan Democratic Party, Council Muslim League, Nezam-e-Islami had joined the occupying Pakistani force or barbarically assisted to resist the idea of an independent Bangladesh.
They had committed themselves to barbaric activities in violation of traditional international laws for assisting the Pakistani occupation force, observed the verdict. These allegations may have to be “proved” all over in any outright move initiated against Jamaat, but in the current context, the government has succeeded in whipping up the necessary level of public outrage to make such an outcome all-too-possible, even probable.
Responding to a question, Dr Sen said there is nothing to gain or lose for any major political party from banning Jamaat. “Neither BNP nor Awami League will gain politically. But if Jamaat is banned, ultimately BNP might get the Jamaat votes but that won’t make any significant difference.”
Dr Rashid said the ban on Jamaat is now the demand of 16 crore people, so political considerations like the BNP benefitting from disenfranchised Jamaat voters in elections should be secondary. But in true fashion, lawmakers passed the amended act without specifying what action should be taken against any organisation found guilty of the crimes referred to. Be prepared for further amendments in the months ahead. They are unlikely to be quiet.