By Afsan Chowdhury
July 16, 2013
So finally Ghulam Azam got sentenced. There was never any question about his guilt. As the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami in 1971, he did his best to prevent the birth of Bangladesh. That is his crime. It is one worth hanging him but the sentence handed out to him was an accumulation of four sentences to run consecutively and none of the sentences were more than for 30 years. For the first two charges he was given 20 years, for the third and fourth 20 years each and for the fifth another 30 years. All four together makes it 90 years because they will run consecutively. Compared to the hanging and life sentences which other accused have got, it was a relatively mild verdict. And a politically useful one too.
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The War Crimes Tribunal has become much more of a revenge seeking machine than a simple trying court. It has generated more politics than ‘justice’ and in some ways that has always been the objective of the trial sponsors. However, it has also spawned issues, matters and actions that have left the government a trifle unprepared such as the Shahbagh movement. To manage this, the government had to act quickly and remain in charge of the political flow. It adjusted the trial mechanism including appeal processes to make sure it looks more alert about the trial. The ICT has had significant political impact in other areas and not all have been in favour of the AL. The rise of the Hifazat-e Islam as a contest of the Shahbagh Spring and the main centring of religious issues in national politics wouldn’t probably happen this loudly had the trial not been here.
So the political ramifications are huge. So much had been staked by the AL on this that they have pushed on with a not very efficient prosecution and a slightly unclear strategy. But the key objective appears to be political.
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Given the enormity of what Ghulam Azam did which is provide political and moral leadership against the birth of Bangladesh in ‘East Pakistan’, what could have been his fate? Many Pakistani Biharis paid a terrible price after 1971 at the hands of the Bangla partisans and the images of Kader Siddiqui bayoneting Bihari Razakars to death is known all over the world. Ghulam Azam by then had moved safely to Pakistan and after all these years is only going to spend time in jail. To many that is unfair. But it does seem the government would much prefer this verdict which is the minimum they can hand over.
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Of course, the verdict was rejected by several forces and even the immediate reaction was that of ‘rejection’. There were angry shouts outside the courthouse. The Ganojagron Mancha and the Sector Commanders Forum both have felt aggrieved at the verdict. The Shahbagh people also have taken out processions and again insisted that this is a lenient verdict citing the reference to the court of consideration for his age. A strike has been called. How far this will affect the crowd on the street is left to see but the kind of upheaval that we saw in the Quader Mollah case is probably not expected by the government.
For the moment, it would like to put its energy elsewhere. Like countering what is increasingly being called the ‘Gazipur’ phenomenon. For the moment the AL would rather worry about votes and not whether Ghulam Azam spends the rest of his days behind bars or is hanged.
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There was a touch of unease too in some social spaces about hanging a 91-year-old man. Public psychology is a complex matter and while most think he is the ultimate traitor, hanging such an old man is also not acceptable to all. That way the verdict fulfils the objective of all parties. He has been punished, his crimes have been given a legal sentence but by sparing the sight of an old man being hanged and the kind of international attention it could draw is a convenient thing to happen indeed. It is a classic ‘catching a fish without touching the water’ and it may very well work for the party in power.
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Both the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Shahbagh group will react but the influence of Shahbagh is limited and the government has enough people inside it to ensure no overdoing is done. Shahbagh not only brought the urban middle class youth together but also resulted in reaction by the impoverished and madrasa educated networks symbolised by the Hifazat which has been at the least a political embarrassment for the AL. Shahbagh has little impact outside the main metropolitan centres but the mosques and madrasas are spread all over. The AL will not forget this political equation and will work hard to contain this stream. It seems a strange contest of extremism on all sides is going on now.
The Shahbagh crowd has more or less openly rejected the Bangladeshi judicial system, no matter what the reasons, and the government has to deal with this encroachment on its judicial space. But it also has to deal with medievalism of the Hifazat variety. And the numbers of those who subscribe to it, whether from faith or politics are not few in number. The game in the end is all about politics and politics counted through the votes.
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There will be many opinions about the fairness and justice of this verdict but for the moment the context is also important. The work of the ICT has not produced any significant advantage for the party in power. The five local election losses are key indicators that the matter is political and not just justice related. It is not worthy enough hanging an alleged war criminal if an election is lost.
The AL at this point probably has a lot going on its mind and it is not about finding closure to 1971 war crimes, but winning the next elections.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.