Baitul Mukarram on Friday, February 22. Photo: Joyeeta Roy
The Shahbagh movement seems to have taken on the guise of an anti-Jamaat movement. This is not what it started out as.
Supporters and well-wishers of the Shahbagh movement have long been arguing that it needed to move away from its core demand of hanging the convicted war criminals and morph into a more broad-based movement with a more nuanced slate of policy positions that would help Bangladeshi politics move in a more progressive direction. Be careful what you wish for.
Now the demands have been expanded to include the trying of Jamaat as a party for the crimes of 1971 as well as the banning of the party, and some are even calling for a blanket ban on all Islamist parties.
The first thing that one notes about this expanded slate is that it still targets Jamaat and only Jamaat, and any kind of political reform that looks beyond the ills of that one party cialas does not appear to have been seriously contemplated by the movement.
There are good reasons to try Jamaat as a criminal organisation for its role in 1971. However, amending the war crimes trial law in the middle of the proceedings to allow for such prosecution may not be the best way to convince onlookers about the credibility and fairness of the trial proceedings.
Similarly, amending the law to allow the government to appeal unsatisfactory sentences may be a necessary corrective to a poorly drafted statute, but it doesn’t do much for the perceived legitimacy of the process.
The depressing thing is that the law should have allowed for the Jamaat to be prosecuted as a criminal organisation from the start. That would have made perfect sense, and it would have made prosecuting individual Jamaatis far simpler.
The issue of prosecuting Jamaat leads naturally into the related question of whether the Jamaat can be banned or not. In point of fact, there are a number of perfectly valid legal theories under which the government could contemplate a ban on Jamaat; the question is which one will they use and what impact will it have.
Afsan Chowdhury has argued persuasively that taking part in the sham elections held by the Pakistan government in 1971, categorically rejecting the premise that Bangladesh was a sovereign nation fighting a war of independence, is almost the definition of anti-state action, and that there can be no philosophical or moral qualms about banning the party on these grounds.
It remains the best argument for a ban on Jamaat, and if the Jamaat are banned pursuant to a conviction as a criminal organisation then there are few who could argue with such a ruling. If the Germans can ban the Nazi party, then we can ban the Jamaat.
More precarious is the argument put forth by the Prime Minister that the Jamaat should be banned because of its violence and contempt for democratic values. Actually, I am not unsympathetic to this point of view, and agree that the PM has a fair point. Unfortunately for her, the Jamaat is not the only political party in Bangladesh one can level this charge against, and if we start banning parties for this reason then we would be forced to ask some uncomfortable questions about the armed wings of the other political parties and the terror they routinely unleash.
The final argument is that we should move towards a blanket ban on Islamist parties, a position that would end up hurting not only the Jamaat but any number of other political parties who have committed no wrong, either in 1971 or since.
There are sound reasons for insisting on such a division between politics and religion, but I doubt that it would be a popular position among the average Bangladeshi.
It is hard to see what such a ban would even accomplish. Banned parties can simply re-form (not to say reform) under a new name and new constitution. Such a ban could drive people underground and away from the path of electoral politics.
The Shahbagh movement seems to have taken on the guise of an anti-Jamaat movement. This is not what it started out as, and not the most progressive direction the movement could have taken. On the other hand, it’s a start. What it is the start of is anyone’s guess.
Zafar Sobhan is editor of the Dhaka Tribune, a daily newspaper.