By Anshuman Behera, Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management
The acting Secretary General of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), A.T.M. Azharul Islam, on October 18, 2010, admitted that it was a crime to give immunity to those who had killed three million people during the Liberation War in 1971. He noted, "Crimes were committed during the Liberation war in 1971 and crimes are obvious if a war takes place… why should there be a question of admitting or rejecting it." The statement was in stark contrast to the JeI’s earlier stance. On October 25, 2007, for instance, the JeI Secretary General, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid, had declared that there were no War Criminals (WC) in the country and no anti-liberation forces had ever existed in Bangladesh.
Crucially, the JeI is now trying to position itself as a responsible mainstream opposition party. Azharul Islam, in his statement on October 18, also announced a 13-day protest programme on various issues, including the hike in prices of essential commodities, deterioration of law and order, the gas water and electricity crisis, and ‘anti-state’ deals with India. Such protest plans are themselves not new. The JeI has been planning protests and general strikes ever since the Sheikh Hasina Government initiated measures against Islamic extremist and militant organizations and, more significantly, after the arrest of JeI cadres and three top leaders – Ameer (chief) Motiur Rahman Nizami, Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid and Nayeb-e-Ameer (Deputy Chief) Delwar Hossain Sayedee – on June 29, 2010, and the formation of the WC Tribunal on March 25, 2010. In the past, however, the protests have focused principally on bringing pressure on the Government to stall or reverse action against the JeI under the WC Tribunal. The major protests planned by the JeI in 2010 include:
July 11: The acting Secretary General of the JeI announced a series of general strikes across the country, demanding the release of its arrested leaders.
July 3: The JeI announced a five-day programme, including a general strike across the country, from July 4, demanding the release of its arrested leaders.
July 2: The Dhaka Unit of the JeI warned of a ‘tough movement’ to oust the Government if the arrested leaders, especially the top three mentioned earlier not released.
The exposure of JeI links with terrorist activities across the country is now worrying the organisation’s leadership, as it helps the Government in pursuing its agenda against JeI without provoking any resentment or reaction among people at large, both within and outside the country. Crucially, JeI links with the Rajshahi University (RU) murder case in February 9, 2010, in which a Bangladesh Chhatra League activist Faruk Hossain was killed by Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS) cadres, and with militant Islamist groups have substantially been established. One of the leaders of the banned ICS, the student and militant wing of the JeI, in RU, Ekram Hossain, convicted in the February 9 murder case, admitted that the top leadership of the JeI was also involved in the incident. Similarly, Rajshahi JeI leader Gias Uddin, in his confessional note before the Rajshahi Court, stated, on March 14, 2010, that all tiers of the JeI helped ICS in the February 9 violence at RU, following an organizational decision. In another confession, the chief of the Jama'atul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) Saidur Rahman, on July 13, 2010, exposed the links between JeI and JMB. Similarly, the arrested leader of the Huzib-ut-Tahirr, Syed Golam Maola, on July 12, 2010, confessed to links between JeI and JMB. According to an October 6 report, moreover, the arrested Ameer of JeI, Motiur Rahman Nizami, was charged in an Arms haul case, in which 10 trucks of arms and ammunitions were seized on April 2, 2004. He has also been charged with sedition along with the two other top leaders mentioned.
The JeI’s most urgent concern also relates to the mounting evidence against its cadres and leaders involvement in the war crimes of 1971. On March 19, 2010, the Law Minister Rezaul Karim Hira stated in Parliament that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-JeI Government issued 66,000 fake certificates as Freedom Fighters to people who engaged in WCs, in order to help them avoid WC trials. He also warned true Freedom Fighters to remain alert against the JeI conspiracy in support of anti-Liberation War forces. Significantly, the arrested JeI leaders admitted that they had fomented a three-month long campaign across the country to block moves to try the war criminals of 1971.
On May 1, 2010, the Election Commissioner of Bangladesh, had sent a letter to the JeI, asking the party to change some provisions in its charter which were not in conformity with the country’s Constitution, and to submit the corrected charter by May 31, 2010. In this regard, the Assistant Secretary General of the JeI Muhammad Kamaruzzamn in a May 2 interview to Daily Star, stated that the JeI would talk to the EC and reply to the letter later. There has, however, been no further report on compliance or further action by the Election Commission (EC). According to the EC, JeI’s call for establishing Islamic rule in the country through organized efforts is in conflict with the basic structure of the country’s Constitution, and JeI needs to amend its aim and objectives, as well as some other provisions in its charter, in order to retain the party’s registration with the EC.
Earlier, on March 28, 2010, JeI Secretary General Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid had warned the Government of an ‘explosive situation’ if party leaders and the workers were roped in on ‘imaginary charges’. This came immediately after the formation of the WC Tribunals on March 25, 2010. On, February 23, 2010, JeI Ameer (Chief) Matiur Rahman Nizami had also warned the Government of dire consequences if it initiated any move to ban religion-based parties from the country’s democratic politics. "With a bit of a warning I want to say that undemocratic doors will be open if the lawful and democratic doors are closed, and that will not be good for anyone", Nizami declared.
Meanwhile, the Sheikh Hasina Government seems committed to punish the WCs, in which the JeI played a major role, violently opposing the bifurcation Pakistan to create Bangladesh. Dhaka is also looking for a blanket ban on Islamist religious parties in the country. These moves, if and when they crystallize, certainly endanger the existence of JeI, and would require basic transformations within the organization, if it is to survive. As a part of a strategy of response, the JeI has, consequently, being pursuing a dual tactics, constantly threatening the Government, on the one hand, and taking a step back from its more radical positions, in order to push for political consolidation.
Despite all this, however, the JeI is currently under siege. The Daily Star, on March 25, 2010, quoted a senior JeI leader, who requested anonymity, as saying that the Government’s move to try top JeI leaders with alleged links to the WCs had forced them to desperately search for ways to evade prosecution and protect their political future. Further, JeI high-ups have agreed to replace top-ranking leaders after the arrests in connection with alleged involvement with WCs. With the likes of Motiur Rahman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid and Delwar Hossain Sayedee behind bars, the leadership vacuum in the party has become acute. The JeI’s final gamble remains its hope for a more sympathetic dispensation under the main opposition party, the Begum Khaleda Zia led Bangladesh National Party, which had earlier helped cover up the JeI role in the WCs, as well as given its alliance partner a prominent role in the country’s politics and administration. Such a dispensation, however, remains unlikely in the foreseeable future and, if the WC trials proceed at a reasonable pace, may well come far too late to save the JeI leaders from a long-deserved fate.