By Sohail Arshad
In the general elections of Bangladesh in December 2008, Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League grabbed power with a huge majority. The Awami League had, among other things, promised in its election manifesto to carry out the War Crimes Trial against those who supported and assisted the Pakistani Army in the crimes against humanity in the ’71 war of Bangladesh’s independence, after coming to power.
The issue of the war crimes in Bangladesh is as old as the history of Bangladesh. It is well known that the East Pakistan fought the war of independence on the issue of language. India supported East Pakistan (Bangladesh) on her request. As a result, the nine-month war ended in a humiliating defeat of Pakistan as its 90,000 soldiers surrendered before India. Ultimately Bangladesh came into existence. But the bloodshed, manslaughter and the worst kind of violence it witnessed during the nine month period was unparalleled in the history of mankind. The anti-partition groups and organisations of East Pakistan had supported Pakistani forces who meted out all kinds of barbarity and cruelty to the ‘freedom fighters’ and the common people favouring Bangladesh. The members and activists of anti-partition groups in collaboration with the Pakistani Army slaughtered the supporters of Bangladesh, raped women, both Hindu and Muslim and looted their houses and businesses and set them afire. According to an estimate, about 3 million Bangladeshis were killed and five hundred thousand women were raped during the mayhem. As a show of extreme cruelty, the bodies of the victims were cut into pieces, their nails were pulled out, their eyes gorged out and their hearts were pulled out after ripping their chests apart. The women were not only raped but their breasts were sliced off and their private parts were severely mutilated and a section of the people of Bangladesh itself assisted the Pakistani Army in these crimes. There were numerous villages where the villagers were collectively killed for supporting Bangladesh. The Jamat Islami has been accused of being an ally of the Pakistani Army during the bloodshed and manslaughter though the Jama’at leaders strongly repudiate the charge. It is alleged that the members of the outfits like Al Badr, Al Shams and Razakar Bahni and the so-called Peace Committees that fought shoulder to shoulder with the Pakistani Army were mostly associated with Jama’at Islami. The Jama’at leader Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujahid currently under arrest was the President of Al Badr force. During the war, a large number of intellectuals, writers and artists were killed in a planned way. In a particular incident, over 150 wrtiers and journalists including the BBC correspondent Nizamuddin Ahmad were killed allegedly by Al Badr volunteers.
Therefore, after the establishment of Bangladesh, President Mujibur Rahman got the War Crimes Tribunal Act 1973 enacted to carry out the War Crimes Trials on the demand of the intellectuals and the general people. The Collaborators Act was also passed to try the collaborators of the Pak Army during the war. 195 Pakistani soldiers and army officers were detained over allegations of war crimes. A large number of arrests were made all over the country. According to an estimate about 100,000 accused were arrested most of whom were released later on the basis of insufficient proof.
However, after Mujib’s assassination, the army generals usurped Bangladesh’s power. Forgetting the favours India had done to Bangladesh, they started coming closer to Pakistan and under the influence of Pakistan, they gradually integrated the ‘war criminals’ into the government. The ban that was imposed on Jamat Islami was also lifted within a few years and the military government took Bangladesh towards Islamisation with the help of Jama’at.
But as the dictatorship came to an end in 1992 and democracy came into force, the nationalist elements, secular intellectuals and the ‘freedom fighters’ started demanding the execution of war crime trials because people had not forgotten the atrocities and brutalities meted out to them. As Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League believes in secualar ideals, it has had the backing of the secularists and freedom fighters and their heirs. These sections formed associations and started campaigns mobilising public support in favour of War Crime Trials. In this connection, Jahan Ara, a woman whose three sons had been ‘martyred’ during the battles between Mukti Bahini and the Pak Army, formed ‘Ghaddar O Dalal Nirmool Committee’(Traitors and Collaborators Annihilation Committee). ‘Sector Commanders’, an association consisting of the soldiers and commanders of Mukti Bahini had already come into existence. There is another association called Writers’ Forum which comprises writers, intellectuals and theatre artists. All these outfits fervently pushed for the War Crimes Trial. The whole campaign is currently being led by the renowned theatre artist, Shahryar Kabir and a former Mukti Bahini soldier Dr M A Hassan whose brother was also killed fighting the Pak army. Mr Hasan is a living witness to the bloodshed and mayhem during the period and has documented it extensively.
Therefore, bowing to the pressure and demand of the intellectuals, social activists and common people, the Awami League made it an election issue and included the War Crime Trials in its election manifesto in the elections of 2008. As a result, the Awami League came to power with a huge majority. Soon afte the elections, Sheikh Hasina presented a resolution for the War Crime Trials in the Jatiya Sansad (Parliament) which was opposed by Jamat Islami, and the BNP walked out. However, the Sheikh Hasina government went ahead and formed a War Crime Tribunal in March this year. The Tribunal consists of three judges who will be assisted by a team of lawyers and investigators. Dr M A Hasan is an important member of the Fact Finding Team. He has gathered thousands of documents and evidences during the last 19 years and handed it over to the government. The team has presented a list of over 1700 ‘war criminals.’
As a pre-emptive measure, the government has restricted the accused from leaving the country. The list of the accused has been put up at all the airports, seaports and border passages. Most of the persons on the list are from the Jamat Islami. Three top leaders of Jamat Islami, Matiur Rehman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Md Mujahid and Delwar Hussain were detained last month in connection with a case. In fact, the government had the apprehension that the leaders might escape the country to avoid trials. On July 13, another two assistant secretaries of Jamat, Qamruzzaman and Abdul Qadir Mollah were also arrested in connection with war crimes.
On the other hand the Jamat Islami has repudiated the charges against it saying no leader of the organisation has ever been involved in war crimes, nor have they ever been tried for it. He said that Jamat Islami has also prepared a list of 50 Awami League leaders who had been involved in war crimes. Khaleda Zia led BNP has termed the trials as a tool to suppress the opposition and demanded immediate release of Jamat leaders. It should be noted that Jamat Islami was an ally in the former BNP-Jamat alliance.
During the BNP-Jamat rule from 2001 to 2006 , terrorism and militant Islamism flourished in Bangladesh and took the whole country in its grip. During this rule, 40 terrorist outfits including JMB, Hizbut Tehrir, Hizbul Jihad Islami and Lashkar-e-Taiba strengthened their foothold and the notorious terrorist Bangla Bhai emerged. In 2005, he shook the whole country by conducting 500 bomb blasts in a single day in 63 out of 64 districts of the country in a brazen show of his strength. Later he was hanged on the US pressure.
Since Sheikh Hasina is an advocate of secularism and is opposed to extremism, she has always been a target of the terrorist groups. In 2004, a powerful grenade attack was made on her rally in which 24 of the leaders and activists of her party were killed. Sheikh Hasina was also injured and her hearing faculty was affected. During that period Khaleda Zia’s BNP was in power. The accused in the case are the Bangladesh commander ofLashkar-e-Taiba, Mufti Hannan, political advisor of the former Prime Minister Khalida Zia and the BNP Chairperson, Harris Choudhury, the leader of the Bangladehs Chapter of Lashkar-e-Taiyba Maulana Tajuddin and other BNP leaders. This shows that not only political opponents but terrorist organisations like HUJI and Lashkar Taiba are also her enemies and planning to turn Bangladesh into an Islamic country by removing Hasina from their path.
With the crackdown on terrorist organisations soon after coming to power, arresting the leaders and activists of JMB, HUJI and Lashkar-e-Taiba on a big scale, the Hasina government has also waged an ideological war against terrorism and radical Islamism. It has imposed a ban on the renowned Islamic scholar Syed Abul Ala Maududi’s books in Bangladesh. The government has ordered the removal of Maududi’s books from government libraries associated with 24,000 mosques in the country. The libraries are run by the Islamic Foundation, an autonomous body of the Bangla government. The Director of the Foundation, Shamim Mohammad Afzal said, “Maulana Maududi’s philosophy is in conflict with the basic teachings of Islam and is the cause of the growing extremism and terrorism in the country. So, we have decided to remove his books from all the 24,000 state libraries.”
As Maulana Maududi was the founder of Jamat Islami, the Jamat believes in his philosophy and ideology and has been working for its propagation. Jamat has termed Hasina government’s action as a part of his political agenda and has harshly condemned it. The ban has evoked a mixed reaction in the subcontinent. Some intellectuals and organisations have hailed it terming it as an effective strike at the ideological root of terrorism and extremism in the subcontinent while some other have opposed it saying that it is an attack on human and democratic rights. For instance, renowned Islamic scholar of India, Asghar Ali Engineer said that there are indeed elements in Maududi’s writings that promote extremism among the Muslims and that Maududi turned Islam into a political party. Nevertheless, he opposed the ban on his books. On the other hand, a spokesman of National Alliance of People’s Movement, Faisal Khan termed it as a right step saying that the concept of the Islamic state in Maududi’s writings proved fatal to the Muslim youth. Countless Muslim youth were sacrificed at the altar of Maududi’s imaginary Islamic state and their future was ruined. The Editor of Milli Gazette and President of All India Milli Council Dr Zafarul Islam, however, termed the ban as state terrorism saying ban on the books of a great Islamic researcher for political vendetta was condemnable.
However, it is a fact that the ban on Maulana’s books is a part of the steps of the Bangla government against Jama’at Islami which is the main accused in the War Crimes Trials. The truth is that through this ban, the government plans to arrest the growing influence and reach of the Jamat in the country because it believes that through these libraries, Jamat it trying to spread and promote the ideology of Maulana Maududi and ultimately seize political power. But in course of this, Sheikh Hasina has antagonised even the section which was on her side in the war on terror. Perhaps there would not have been such a hue and cry if the government had removed Maududi’s books from the libraries without imposing a ban as no democratic and secular government is bound to promote and propagate the ideology of a particular religious scholar, that too when it believes that the ideology promotes extremism. However, the common people should have the right to read the books of Maulana Maududi, or Ibn Taiymiyya or Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi, based on their choice.
Thanks to the initiation of the War Crime Trials, the ban on Maulana Maududi’s books and crackdown on terrorist organisations, Sheikh Hasina has created an army of her enemies and detractors. The threat to her life has grown with the establishment of War Crime Tribunal. Last April, the intelligence agencies of India had warned Hasina of possible attempt on her life. The security arrangements had been tightened in the country after this warning. Then on May 29 again, India warned Bangladesh that Indian diplomats in Bangladesh as well as officers working on various projects in Bangladesh could be targeted. Recently, the police arrested the current chief of JMB, Anwar Alam Khoka alias Bhagne Shaheed, who spilled the beans about the hit list of 12 Awami League leaders including Sheikh Hasina. He also disclosed that they had chalked out a ten year plan to execute the list. Moreover, the ISI agents which have infested the Bangladesh Army and the Directorate General of Forces Interlligence (DGFI) during the army and BNP rule could also try to harm her at an opportune moment.
On the whole, the War Crimes Trials are a big test for the Hasina government as the Islamists and extremist forces will not sit idle during it and will make all efforts to turn the table on the government. The atmosphere in the county at the moment is very volatile and unpredictable. At this critical juncture, India should play a good neighbour and extend all its support in the war Sheikh Hasina has waged against terrorism, as a terror-free Bangladesh is in the interests of India.
Sohail Arshad is a regular columnist for New AgeIslam.com.
Below: Image of Pakistan Observer news article from November 8, 1971