By Bhaskar Roy
On August 01, the Bangladesh High Court finally delivered a judgement warning those bent on reversing the spirit of liberation that the nation will not give up on its principles.
The court declared that the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) Bangladesh’s registration with the Election Commission (EC) stood null and void. This will debar the party from contesting the next elections. The JEI is, however, free to appeal to the Supreme Court or change its constitution in line with the Constitution of the country and the Representation of Peoples Order (RPO).
The High Court verdict come on a public interest litigation filed by the secretary general of the Bangladesh Tarikat Federation’s (BTF) Rezaqul Haque Choudhary and 24 others in January 2009, challenging the legality of the JEI registration as a political party. The matter could come up because the Supreme Court barred the use of religion in politics, restoring the 1972 Constitution based on secularism.
Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971 based on a vision. While language and culture were prime issues, democracy, secularism and equal rights for all religions were no less. It was a bloody war of liberation in which three million Bengalees of East Pakistan were massacred and around two hundred thousand women raped.
The critical point which still disturbs this country even after 43 years is that a section of Bengalees who were against the partition of Pakistan fought on behalf of the occupying Pakistani army. This was the Jamaat-e-Islami and its students’ wing then known as the Islami Chaatra Sangha. These were the main collaborators who formed organized bands called the Razakars, Al Bader and Al Shams.
Witnesses and documentary evidence including books by two young Pakistani army officers who served in East Pakistan at that time conclusively prove that the Jamaatis were in the forefront in killings, rape and torture. The Jamaatis espoused a extreme form of Islam expounded by the Pakistani founder of JEI, Alam Al Moududi in 1941.
The extreme Islam propounded by the Jamaatis gradually metamorphosed into the demon of extremism and terrorism which is threatening to swallow Pakistan today. Similarly, the JEI Bangladesh has not moved an inch from its original ideology and agenda. In fact, they have grown stronger in street power thanks to the opportunist politics of the BNP comprising robbers, barons and the stray.
After liberation in 1971, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government banned the JEI. The JEI Ameer, Gholam Azam, who remained in Pakistan, because Islamabad’s emissary to the Muslim country of the Middle East, spread the lie that Hindus in Bangladesh were killing Muslims.
After Sk Mujbur Rahman’s assassination on August 15, 1975 in a major conspiracy, the Pakistani Trojan Horses began to emerge. The biggest and most destructive of them was the much decorated “freedom fighter” Maj Ziaur Rehman. Zia, who was by omission involved in Sk Mujib’s assassination, moved quickly to eliminate any challenge and consolidated his power to become the army Chief and President of Bangladesh. He was killed in a coup attempt by a nationalist army officer Maj. Gen. MA Manzoor. Manzoor was betrayed by another colleague, Gen. H. M. Ershad who again went to become the army chief and president of the country.
As President, Zia politically rehabilitated the JEI in 1977-78; allowed Gholan Azam to return to Bangladesh and regain his citizenship. Zia also formed his own political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition which is headed by his widow Begum Khaleda Zia.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the BNP and the JEI formed a strong alliance and ruled Bangladesh from 2001 to 2006. Bangladeshis, especially the post 1971 generation and the youth would do well to remember that this was the worst period for the country where rise of terrorism and corruption is concerned.
Bangladesh under BNP-JEI government with Khaleda Zia as Prime Minister came close to be declared as a state sponsor of terrorism. It was only after a strong warning issued by US President George W. Bush that leaders of the terrorist group Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and the subsequent caretaker government executed six of the top JMB leaders.
It is also during the BNP-JEI government that two JEI leaders served as ministers in the government, though the party never explicitly accepted the constitution and independence.
The High Court decision to ban the JEI from contesting elections must be seen through the history of the party from 1970 till date. The EC is giving them another opportunity to bring the JEI manifesto in line with the constitution and the RPO. This will be the fifth opportunity given. But the JEI has consistently tried to circumvent the EC’s directions.
In its latest charter the JEI holds the position of “establishing a society based on justice and equality through democratic process in Bangladesh and to get the contentment of Allah, the Benevolent”.
Experts point out that several clauses of the Jamaat’s charter that call for establishing the rule of Islam contradicts the Constitution and surreptitiously seeks to sabotage it. The Jamaat also makes Allah supreme in making laws, negating the power of parliament.
It is quite transparent that the JEI is seeking ways to push its charter through the EC to pave the way for Sharia law in Bangladesh. This is on the ideological front. On the political and diplomatic fronts it is steadfast on a future federal relationship with Pakistan, but a Pakistan that is Sharia guided.
The advent of Hifazat-e-Islam Bangladesh is significant in the context. This organisation came out suddenly in the midst of the JEI demonstrations to stop the 1971 war Crimes Tribunal trials. The two Tribunals have sentenced several JEI top leaders to death, and one to life imprisonment (because of his old age). Judgements on several others are awaited. But they have been given a recourse to appeal.
The Hifazat, which held a major demonstration in Dhaka on May 05 with a 13 point demand on lines of Sharia law and segregation and cloistering of women had JEI and BNP backing. The Hifazat leader’s derogatory comments on women goes against the sensibility of normal Bangladeshi Muslim families. Which Bangladeshi man can tolerate his mother, sister or daughter being described a objects of lust? None, but a handful for Bangladeshis, their culture hold “mother” and “sister” as sacrosanct. Such public pronouncements from religious leaders echo the Jamaat atrocities against women in 1971.
The Hifazat, a conglomeration of private Madrassas and their uninitiated students do not have any strength of their own. They are funded and indoctrinated by the BNP and JEI.
The current government may have many faults. There were weaknesses in certain areas, but the best of the governments in the world is not free from criticism. There is nothing called ideal, as people are not ideal. Yet, the government has to pull up its socks and address obvious shortcomings.
Official statistics show that the present government has done far better according to social and economic indicators. It has earned international praise and status including in the fight against terrorism. It is now stepping into major development cooperation with neighbours both bilaterally and multilaterally. Stability, good governance and economic policies, and curb on terrorism have been the main drivers.
The manner in which the JEI is moving and the BNP openly declaring its support to the JEI, does not bode well for the country. Elections are just a few months away. Eviction of the present government using religious right and the shadow of Sharia law will undo everything achieved. Pakistan is now trying to get out of this very cage into which the JEI and BNP are pushing Bangladesh into. Ironically, Pakistan continues to receive huge US and other western aid including military because of its special position. Bangladesh does not enjoy the advantage.
According to younger BNP cadres, the old beaten political path is becoming self-defeating. These are post liberation women and men who most probably would have joined the way of liberation if they were around. They clearly sense the folly of supporting the JEI, but are restrained by their old leaders who think about themselves and not the nation. If explained by the society, and not political parties, these young people can bring a change.
Almost similar is the case of JEI and its student wing, the Islamic Chaatra Shibir. They are not only post 1971 generation but also children of a globalised world. Most of them are well educated, but are kept blinkered by the party hierarchy, being a disciplined cadre based party. Somehow, their minds must be opened to the fact that 1971 was a different era and as inheritors of the Razakars, they have everything to lose. They have to ask themselves if they are Bengalees and citizens of a free and independent country, or would they prefer to bury themselves in the quicksand of obscurantism.
Having said this, the coming months are going to be difficult. It will take much more time for young people in the BNP and the JEI to make a transition, if at all. The BNP has no ideology. Its political goal is to oust the Awami League, which is understandable. But supping with the devil will draw it into a deeper vortex.
It is now the responsibility of the international community, especially the US, the UK and the European Union not to use Bangladesh as a pawn in their diplomacy with other Islamic countries. Positioning the JEI as a moderate, democratic Islamic Party is going to backfire. The JEI is neither moderate, nor democratic nor secular. What they can do is persuade the old JEI to go into retirement and encourage a new, globally educated, JEI to see religion as universal and tolerant.
Bangladesh is walking on a knife’s edge. It needs support and sustenance to emerge further as a country that contributes to its own well being. As a participant regional development it is already making a contribution. Religious dominance and anointing the grave wrongs of history will destroy everything. The people of Bangladesh have to choose.
(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)