By Farooq Sulehria
October 29, 2011
Delawar Hossain Sayedee, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh, has been indicted with 20 counts, including 3,000 killings, rape and arson, during Bangladesh’s nine-month-long war of liberation.
If proven guilty, Sayedee could face the death sentence. He has denied all charges against him. Sayedee will now be tried by the International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic tribunal with no United Nations role, which was set up last year to investigate war crimes in 1971. The trial begins on Oct 30.
While the role of the Pakistani military has drawn some media criticism, the Jamaat’s role in East Pakistan in 1971 has gone largely unnoticed.
The attitude of the Jamaat to the problems and issues raised by the East Pakistanis even prior to the military action was hostile at worst and ambiguous at best. Understandably, the Jamaat was never able to prosper in East Pakistan.
At the time of Partition, the Jamaat had only one member in East Pakistan. At the time of Bangladesh’s inception, it had 300-400 members (and roughly 2,100 in West Pakistan). However, it must be borne in mind that Jamaat’s membership was not open to everybody.
The Jamaat and the religious parties won a small percentage of the vote in West Pakistan in the December 1970 elections, in which they made an unexpectedly bad showing. In a bizarre twist of events, the Jamaat happened to come out a remote second, despite its tiny percentage, to the Awami League in East Pakistan. The League swept the elections in the province, winning all but two of the National Assembly seats there (neither of which went to the Jamaat).
Soon after the creation of Pakistan, the first expression of East Pakistan’s displeasure was the language riots. Jinnah wanted Urdu as the state language. East Pakistan wanted both Urdu and Bengali as state languages.
Since 56 percent of the population of united Pakistan spoke Bengali while 37 percent spoke Punjabi, Urdu was the language of the minority. However, Jinnah rejected East Pakistan’s plea, and from February 1948 the language issue began to dominate politics in East Pakistan.
In March 1948, there were student strikes and demonstrations throughout the province. Prime Minister Liaquat Khan reacted to the protests saying, “Pakistan is a Muslim state and it must have its lingua franca, the language of the Muslim nation...It is necessary for the nation to have one language and that language can only be Urdu, and no other language.”
The Centre finally capitulated to East Pakistan’s demand in 1952, but only after several Bengali-language activists had been killed in the movement.
The Jamaat’s reaction to the acceptance of Bengali as an official language was unwelcoming, if not outright hostile. The Jamaat’s organ Tarjuman-ul-Quran, for instance, declared that acceptance of Bengali on the same level as Urdu would discourage East Pakistanis from learning Urdu, and thus keep them ignorant of Islam since Urdu was richer in Islamic literature.
The Jamaat later on began to pay lip service to East Pakistanis’ concerns, like the language issue, or their under-representation in the military.
However, as the Jamaat saw it, the real problem was East Pakistan’s Hindus, who dominated the trade, and the communists. Maulana Maududi urged the Ulema to rid the East Pakistani masses of what he called their ignorance of Islam, because “the influence of Hindu culture over their language, dress, habits and way of thinking is so big that they have lost all sense of its being an extraneous element in their life.”
The problem, so to say, was not exploitation at the hands of West Pakistan but what the Jamaat considered East Pakistan’s lack of Islamisation.
The Jamaat contended that Bengali literature was pervaded by Hindu ideas since Tagore was the major influence on it, while the similes and proverbs of Bengali reflected Hindu thought and social way of life. Besides, Bengali literature lacked what the Jamaat called Islamic politics, economics and way of life.
When Sheikh Mujib presented his Six Points, the Jamaat strongly rejected them on the pretext that they constituted a demand for secession. When the military operation was launched in East Pakistan in March 1971, the Jamaat intensified its campaign against the Awami League. The Jamaat dismissed the League and India as tools of a “world Christian-Jewish conspiracy” to dismember Pakistan.
In hindsight, the Jamaat propaganda may sound hysterical. However, at the time it helped rationalise the excesses committed against East Pakistanis. Not content with ideological justifications, the Jamaat raised militias and actively participated, alongside the army, in liquidating radical and progressive intellectuals and activists.
In May 1971, while East Pakistan was being brutalised, Maulana Rahmat Ilahi, the Jamaat’s general secretary, declared: “Our brave army has saved Pakistan.” Maulana Maududi appealed to East Pakistan’s “genuine Muslims to help the army in rounding up Awami Leaguers.”
According to him, the movement in East Pakistan was sponsored by Hindus, communists and atheistic Bengali nationalists, all of whom were agents of India, communism and Jews.
In April 1971, the Maulana sent a memorandum to 39 Muslim heads of states and the Rabita-e-Alam-e-Islami justifying the military action in East Pakistan. In his memorandum, he claimed that the Awami League movement had been launched under the influence of Hindu professors and Hindu Bengali literature.
In July, a Jamaat delegation headed by K J Murad was dispatched to Europe and the Middle East. The delegation visited the UK, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and some other countries to counteract pro-Bangladeshi propaganda.
Meanwhile, Jamaat delegations were dispatched to East Pakistan. In May 1971 the Jamaat general secretary himself accompanied Gen Umrao Khan on a visit to the province.
In June, the Jamaat’s deputy leader Mian Tufail Mohammad himself visited East Pakistan. On his return, Mian Tufail urged the army to reconquer every inch lost to the enemy. He said there should be no delay in killing all those responsible for the armed revolt.
He blamed the elected Awami League MPs for the chaos. Saying that the by-elections in a few constituencies announced by the Yahya regime would not suffice, he demanded the dissolution of the East Pakistan assembly and fresh elections in the province to both the national and provincial levels.
However, in the farcical by-elections that followed – which the main party, the Awami League was banned from contesting – the Jamaat fielded 19 candidates and won five National Assembly seats.
To the Jamaat’s credit, in the post-liberation period it was able to find itself a niche in Bangladeshi politics despite its role in the 1971 events. This was a repeat of its performance in Pakistan after independence, despite the fact that the Jamaat had opposed the creation of Pakistan.
The pattern in both countries has been similar. In Bangladesh the Jamaat allied itself with the military junta when Gen Ziaur Rehman came to power. Gen Zia, like his Pakistani namesake and counterpart, began to revise history and textbooks. His purpose was to minimise the role played by Sheikh Mujib in the movement and project his own imagined role in it. A revision of history equally suited the Jamaat.
The Awami League and the left forces, however, kept campaigning for a trial regarding atrocities in the 1971 war. In the last general elections, such a trial became an election issue. The Jamaat stood exposed and lost the elections.
A similar process is necessary everywhere including Pakistan to correct distortions of history. A ‘Truth Commission’ investigating not just the 1971 war but all the wars including the “Afghan jihad” and the “War on Terror”, perhaps?
Farooq Sulehria is working with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen (www.internationalen.se). Before joining Internationalen, he worked for one year,2006-07 at daily The News, Rawalpindi. Also, in Pakistan, he has worked with Lahore-based dailies, The Nation, The Frontier Post and Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from Punjab University, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications in Europe and Australia.
Source: The News, Islamabad