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Bangladesh: A Son, a Father . . . And the Jamaat



By Syed Badrul Ahsan

27 Feb, 2013

A son of the detained Jamaat leader Ghulam Azam complains, in an article published in a London-based journal, that the people of Bangladesh have forgotten the role his father played in the language movement between 1948 and 1952. He makes it a point to remind people that Azam, who was general secretary of the Dhaka University Students Union in the late 1940s, has been airbrushed out of the history of the university and his name does not appear on any list of those noted for their contributions to causes once promoted by the university.

There can only be a simple response to the complaint. And it is that history must not be tampered with and the positive contributions made by individuals at a particular phase in time must not be overlooked because of the negative role they play or have played at a later stage in their lives. It may be that Ghulam Azam did not have a front row seat during the rising Bengali agitation in defence of Bangla, but it is true that in 1948 he was general secretary of the students union. The vice president of the union was Aurobindo Basu.

In November 1948, when Pakistan's Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan travelled down to Dhaka on a ten-day visit to a pretty restive East Bengal, the students felt that in view of the hostility of the authorities to the language question, it would be proper for a Muslim rather than a Hindu to read out a memorandum before the prime minister. And thus it was that Ghulam Azam and not Aurobindo Basu presented the memorandum listing the students' demands for Bangla to the prime minister.

It will not do to erase or look away from such realities. And if Ghulam Azam's name is not on Dhaka University's list of language activists, someone should see to it that a correction is made. Those of us who have over the decades complained of the selective history served to us by regimes which kept Bangladesh in their vice-like grip between 1975 and 1996 have a responsibility to ensure that we do not end up being accused of committing the kind of offence the Zia and Ershad outfits and their camp followers remain guilty of. Every time history is tampered with, anywhere around the world, something goes badly wrong. And it shows when people of later generations demand to know why all these gaps in the canvas of history happen to be there.

Which of course brings us to some other bits of history, or the lack of them, Ghulam Azam's son raises in his write-up. It is perfectly understandable that a child will sympathise with his father in the latter's plight. It must be equally true, however, that when the son writes in defence of the father; there should not be any reordering of the facts of history.

When you observe the history of the Jamaat-e-Islami, it is not hard to comprehend the role it has played, or misplayed, in all the decades since its creation in 1941. Sayyid Abul A'ala Maududi, the founder of the organisation, was dismissive of the idea of Pakistan because of his belief that such a state, if cobbled into being, would only leave the Muslims of the subcontinent even weaker than they would be in a united India. But Maududi and his party clearly were unable to withstand the Jinnah tidal storm. When the moment of reckoning came in 1947, the Jamaat was officially bifurcated into the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan and Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. Maududi chose to operate from Pakistan, a country he thought needed strict Islamic rule if it wished to amount to anything meaningful.

Ghulam Azam's son or anyone who sees in the Jamaat a reflection of his political beliefs ought to be paying a little attention to historical objectivity. In Pakistan, in the early 1950s, the Jamaat carefully orchestrated a campaign against the Ahmadiyya community, to a point where hundreds of Ahmadiyas were murdered by rampaging fanatics in Lahore in 1953. None of this is mentioned by Jamaat apologists, either in Pakistan or Bangladesh. The Lahore mayhem ballooned into absolute disorder, eventually compelling the army, with Lieutenant General Azam Khan in the lead, to impose martial law, place Maududi under arrest, put him on trial and have him sentenced to death. It is another matter that Maududi's death sentence was later commuted to a life sentence and even later to freedom from incarceration.

The son of Ghulam Azam informs us that his father had not been against Bangladesh's independence in 1971. He was only worried that a victory for Bangladesh would mean a change of political control from Rawalpindi to Delhi. By any stretch of the imagination, this is an absurd proposition, an attempt to paper over Azam's nefarious role in occupied Bangladesh.

There were indeed pro-Pakistan Bengali politicians in 1971 who were psychologically unable to come to terms with the break-up of the country. Include among them Nurul Amin, Mahmud Ali, Hamidul Haq Chowdhury and Yusuf Ali Chowdhury Mohon Mia. The difference between them and Ghulam Azam is that they did not raise goon squads to help the Pakistan army murder Bengalis and Azam did. He and his party associates, obviously with a nod from Maududi in distant Lahore, readily formed the al-Badr and al-Shams groups of Razakars that have become notorious in history for the systematic murder of people they indulged in. Azam's son says not a word about his father's role in the annihilation of Bengali intellectuals by the Jamaat. Such amnesia is proof again of how lies can distort the historical record.

The son of the detained Jamaat leader is quick to inform readers of his father's endeavours in soliciting the recognition of Bangladesh by the Muslim states of the Middle East. He compounds his own difficulties here. First, he deliberately conceals the fact that apart from a very few Muslim states, such as Saudi Arabia, most countries had accorded recognition to Bangladesh long before Bangabandhu's assassination.

Second, again a clever concealment of the truth is that he does not have the moral courage to tell readers that soon after Pakistan collapsed in Bangladesh in December 1971, Ghulam Azam travelled through the Middle East on behalf of the Bhutto government disseminating falsehood about conditions in the new country. And this is what he told Middle Eastern governments: mosques were being destroyed, the Quran was being burnt and Islam was under attack in Bangladesh. Unfortunately for him, not many people were taken in by his arguments.

Ghulam Azam's son has done his father and the Jamaat-e-Islami much disservice through his inability to face up to the truth and project it in objective manner. And the editorial board of the journal which allowed his article to be published has done a shoddy job of not upholding its professional integrity. Somehow you are reminded of the Muslim Council of Britain not doing enough of a background check on Chowdhury Mueenuddin, accused of having coordinated the abduction and murder of Bengali intellectuals in 1971, before letting him serve as an official in the organisation.

Postscript: In 1974, the Jamaat-e-Islami organised renewed mayhem in Pakistan, pushing hundreds of Ahmadiyas to death and compelling the government of Z.A. Bhutto into declaring the community as a religious minority. The Jamaat actively assisted General Ziaul Haq in promoting his so-called Nizam-e-Mustafa, with macabre results.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.