By Syed Badrul Ahsan
November 4, 2014
The Jamaat-e-Islami has been in the news for the last couple of weeks in Bangladesh. Ghulam Azam, earlier convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) on charges of war crimes committed during Bangladesh’s war of liberation in 1971 and sentenced to 90 years in jail, has died. The feeling that old pains were finally being dealt with was nowhere more visible than in the media and at social gatherings. There are reasons to believe that his age — he was 92 when he died — was a factor in the 90-year sentence pronounced on him.
Within days of Azam’s death came the ICT’s verdict on another senior Jamaat leader, Motiur Rahman Nizami. A leading organiser of al-Badr, the squad responsible for the abduction and murder of Bengalis in 1971 at the behest of the Pakistan army, and ironically a minister in the last government led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) chairperson Khaleda Zia, Nizami was sentenced to death for his criminal acts in 1971. The verdict predictably caused a reaction in the Jamaat. It called a hartal for three days. But public disillusionment with hartals now being what it is, the call did not have much of an impact. Life was pretty normal, with only educational institutions remaining closed as a matter of precaution.
On Sunday, the Jamaat received a fresh new blow when another leading figure in the party, Mir Quasem Ali, was awarded the death sentence for commission of crimes similar to those for which Ghulam Azam and Nizami were convicted. Mir Quasem Ali has, like his party colleagues, stealthily but surely rehabilitated himself since 1971, to a point where in the period of the BNP-Jamaat coalition government of 2001-06, he was able to establish an Islamic television channel that was looked upon as a mouthpiece of the Jamaat.
How do the death of Ghulam Azam and the death penalties for Nizami and Quasem Ali affect the Jamaat? A simple answer is — hugely.
The Jamaat, like so many other Islamist organisations in Bangladesh, has been under a great deal of pressure from the Awami League (AL)-led government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, to a point where it is unable today to emerge in the open. The Jamaat is unable to organise public rallies or marches for two fundamental reasons. First, its reputation — for all the disciplined nature of its organisation — has, since 1971, been under a cloud because of its unabashed backing of the Pakistani military action in Bangladesh. Second, the mayhem that the Jamaat resorted to last year, in tandem with the obscurantist Hefazat-e-Islam and with the BNP’s support, dragged its already bad reputation further down.
The judgments delivered on the war criminals, especially since the AL entered upon a fresh term in office in January this year, have received wide public support and have reinforced the conviction that Hasina is determined to take the trials of all war criminals now in prison to a definitive conclusion. She patently has public support on the issue, a factor that has kept the Jamaat’s old ally, the BNP, from voicing a public declaration of support or sympathy for the party over its recent misfortunes. Indeed, the BNP stayed away from expressing condolences on the death of Ghulam Azam and has kept its silence on the verdicts in relation to Nizami and Quasem Ali.
The strategy has not been lost on political quarters across the country. It is a stance that led a son of Ghulam Azam into venting his anger at the BNP, which he accused of letting down the Jamaat.
While the pace of the war crimes trials has certainly picked up and drawn public support, there are obvious signs of the government becoming self-confident about its actions. It remains dismissive of the BNP’s repeated calls for a dialogue on what Zia sees as a new election under a caretaker administration. The government remains unmoved and insists that it will go the full five years of its current term in office. Under the provisions of the constitution, the next election will be held in 2019. The BNP has, in these past few months, been threatening a mass movement to force the government to concede new elections. But with almost all its senior leaders, including Zia, being enmeshed in legal problems and the party itself in disarray, its immediate future does not look good.
The war crimes trials and the predicament of the political opposition apart, there is genuine concern in Bangladesh today about reports of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) fugitives finding shelter in the Indian state of West Bengal and allegedly planning terror operations, including assassinations of Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in Dhaka. These reports have rattled Dhaka to the extent that Bangladesh’s prime minister has made it clear that while her government has put an end to activities on Bangladesh soil by Indian separatists, it is now for the Indian authorities to take action against Bangladeshi criminals holed up in India. A particular point is not missed in Dhaka — that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, by ignoring these fugitive Islamists in her narrow electoral interest of reaching out to the Muslim community, has helped create a new crisis in the region. The Trinamool Congress government goes on losing friends in Bangladesh. The process began when Banerjee put up roadblocks to a deal former Indian PM Manmohan Singh was expected to reach with Hasina a few years ago.
Syed Badrul Ahasan is associate editor, ‘The Daily Observer’, Dhaka