The former leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh Ghulam Azam has been indicted by a special court — International War Crimes Tribunal — set up by the Awami League government in Bangladesh for the crimes committed during the war in then-East Pakistan in 1971. He has been charged with complicity in the “killing of three million citizens”. Mr Azam is the head of the party that adhered to its loyalty to Pakistan and allegedly took part in what is often called ‘genocide’. More precisely, his party is accused of “creating and leading militias that carried out many killings and rapes during the nine-month war”. He is the third accused put through the tribunal since 2010 after the Supreme Court of Bangladesh reverted the Constitution of Bangladesh to its original secular character. Both the Jamaat-e-Islami and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have dismissed the court as a “show trial”, while Human Rights Watch has said procedures used by the tribunal “fall short of international standards”. The 2010 verdict by the ‘activist’ Supreme Court of Bangladesh has become politicised because the BNP refused to accept it, somewhat similar to what the PPP has done in the contempt court verdict by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
In 2010, the Court in Dhaka revived the constitution of 38 years ago, getting rid of the bulk of the document’s Fifth Constitutional Amendment, 1979, which had included provisions that were seen by the Court, and by others in Bangladesh as facilitating the rise and spread of religious political parties and legitimising military dictatorship. This was followed by a ban on political parties that propagated Islamic ideology. It called these parties “extra-constitutional adventurers” and suggested “suitable punishment” for them. Few will doubt that if this train of thought is followed, then the BNP too, will have to be indicted as it supports the religious parties and leans on the country’s right-wing religious vote. However, a major blow has been delivered to those religious outfits which advocate imposition of Sharia and scare the non-Muslims (a tenth of the population) of Bangladesh with discriminatory laws. Nearly 11 Islamic parties are likely to fall under the axe of the independent Bangladesh election commission which will decide who participates in the next election. Bangladesh is divided down the middle over what kind of state it wants to be. One half is reacting against the way the army took over after assassinating the founder of the state, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975, and inserted verses from the Holy Quran into the Constitution’s guiding principle, in 1979. This step legalised the religious parties under the Fifth Amendment. Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s right-wing elements became involved in the Afghan war that brought the Taliban into power. Linkages in Pakistan facilitated the training of many more in the madrassahs of Karachi.
The Awami League came back to power in 2008 — the same year the PPP won in Pakistan. It has survived a coup within the Bangladesh Army, which kind of mirrors the fact that army officers alleged to be linked to the Hizbut Tahrir are on trial in Pakistan. The Awami League government has moved to normalise its relationship with India just like the PPP, expecting nine billion dollars in direct investments from New Delhi. But another parallel with Pakistan may not be very positive: the activism of the Bangladesh Supreme Court. There is nothing wrong, per se, in the courts being ‘activist in nature’; it is only after the polity politicises their verdicts that justice becomes impossible to enforce. Already, the BNP has prepared its agitational agenda for the next election.
It is remarkable how Pakistan and Bangladesh have trodden the same kind of path. Pakistan was taken over by its army after its establishment; so was Bangladesh. The military in Pakistan changed the constitution to legitimise itself through Islam; so did the army in Bangladesh. And after 2008, both armies have no stomach to interrupt civilian rule and impose their own junta.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 15th, 2012.