The debate on banning Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh has become talk of the town.
Lately, it has gathered more steam after a string of incidents of violence and vandalism tied to the party, in connection with the International Crimes Tribunal’s (ICT) verdict on Jamaat leader Abdul Quader Mollah. According to the ICT, Mollah is guilty of crimes against humanity, committed during the tumultuous days leading up to Fall of Dacca in 1971.
The Ministry of Law plans to appeal the ICT verdict as it considers the life-sentence given to Quader Mollah is a punishment too lenient for the war criminal. Legally powered by the amendment to the International Crimes Tribunal Act 1973 in parliament last week, the state will now back capital punishment.
Presently, many have reached the conclusion that banning Jamaat is the sole purpose of the amendment and of the demonstrations that have been raging in the capital’s Shahbagh for three weeks now. And yet, the Shahbagh protesters deny any ties to the government.
People have been gathering at Shahbagh since February 5, initially to demand death penalty for Mollah. Fuelled by the overwhelming support of the masses - especially the youth - demonstrators are now also demanding a ban on Jamaat.
It seems that it is this very persistence, that of the thousands that gather together, that has given the ruling Awami League the courage to initiate the idea of trying Jamaat, the country’s largest Islamic party, in the first place.
“We now want death penalty for all war criminals. We want a ban on the politics of religious fundamentalists. We want a ban on Jamaat,” says Imran H Sarker, the main organiser of the Bloggers and Online Activists Network, the group that initiated the Shahbagh protest.
Bangabir Kader Siddiqui, veteran freedom fighter says that if Jamaat wants to do politics in the country, it has to take the decision right now - does it want the Razakars (collaborators of Pakistani forces during 1971 war) to be tried or not?
“They have no right to live and do politics in a country of whose liberation they fought against,” he says.
Earlier, the ICT awarded death penalty to Abul Kalam Azad, a former member of Jamaat and war criminal. Eight top leaders of the party are under trial at the purpose-built tribunal.
Views from the top
In response to the uprisings, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has said Jamaat has no right to do politics in Bangladesh. In a recent programme, she stated that Jamaat will be banned because it believes in terrorism and militancy, not because it is religiously inclined.
Law Minister Shafique Ahmed has also confirmed that the government is considering banning Jamaat. According to the election commissioner, Jamaat’s registration as a political party can be cancelled easily, once the court approves the ban.
Not surprisingly, Jamaat leaders have strongly condemned the allegations against them. They have termed the attempts at banning “irresponsible, unfair, unmerited and unconstitutional.”
Moulana Rafiqul Islam Khan, the general secretary of Jamaat, says the protests are part of a plot to create anarchy and force the tribunals to give subjective verdicts.
“We want to state clearly that the people of the country won’t let the government implement its chalked-out plot of political revenge,” he says.
The party originated from the Jamaat-e-Islami wing in the then East-Pakistan. It opposed the division of Pakistan and the independence of Bangladesh in 1971. Its activists, in large numbers, allegedly joined irregular military units and fought alongside the Pakistani army. Consequently, its members are believed to be responsible for some of the most horrendous atrocities committed during the nine-month war which killed 3 million people.
After the 1971 war, the first government enacted the International Crimes Tribunals Act in 1973, to try those responsible for the crimes against humanity. Jamaat was banned from politics and most of its leaders fled abroad to escape trial. However, the assassination of the ‘Father of the Nation’, the country’s first president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975, shelved the trial of those accused and allowed many of them to return home to a normal life.
Furthermore, Jamaat was even allowed to register as a political party in 1978. The party secured 10 parliamentary seats in 1986 national polls and continued to secure seats in the next three elections as well.
Coming to power in December 2008, Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina, as per her election pledge, constituted two war crimes tribunals under the 1973 act - one began operating in 2010 and the other two years later.
“At last, the nation feels some justice is being done. Nobody here wants these war criminals to get away easily,” says Shahriar Kabir, whose organisation, Committee for the Elimination of the Killers and Collaborators of 1971, has pushed for the war crimes trial since the mid-90s.
An amendment to the 1973 ICT Act was recently passed in Parliament, where the ruling Awami League-led coalition enjoys a huge majority. “The government will make a decision on banning the politics of Jamaat-e-Islami after the High Court delivers the verdict on a writ petition,” Law Minister Ahmed says.
The petition has sought a rule to cancel the registration of Jamaat. Ahmed feels that a party which resorts to violence has no right to do politics in the country. “We are scrutinizing the legal grounds to ban Jamaat politics,” he adds.
Ruling party leaders, like Suranjit Sengupta, a member of the Awami League Advisory Council, are too impatient for the court to decide over the matter. “It’s not the court that will determine whether the war criminals have any rights to do politics. They are indeed the political leaders who have to make the decision,” Suranjit tells The Express Tribune.
Instead of depending on the court, a decision has to be made politically to ban Jamaat, he insists.
Moreover, the opposition has denounced the parliamentary amendment of the ICT act, describing it as politically motivated.
Jamaat leader Islam Khan says the government is clearly out to destroy his party. The party has accused Awami League of backing the Shahbagh protests for possible electoral gains. Whipping up nationalistic sentiments and banning Jamaat - an important ally of the main opposition BNP - would seriously dent the opposition rank and hand Awami League the advantage to win the next year’s general election, the Jamaat leader claims.
By and large, analysts believe that the decision to ban Jamaat is simply a matter of time now. And yet, no one is quite sure about the implications of banning a party that had secured its presence in the Parliament for four consecutive times, with the third highest number of votes in bank.
What will happen has yet to be seen. The saga, one that could define Bangladesh’s history, unfolds before our eyes.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 28th, 2013.
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