On Jamaat’s changed rhetoric and related issues
Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the country’s largest Islamist party and a major factor in the country’s electoral politics, used to maintain a low-key approach about its role in 1971 when it sided with the Pakistan army and carried out war crimes. This changed last week. In this post, I analyse the reasons that may be behind Jamaat’s changed rhetoric. I also discuss how the progressive opinionmakers in Bangladesh should react to this changed rhetoric given the current political realities.
Let’s start with a bit of history for the uninitiated. In any war of national liberation or resistance against foreign occupation, there are fifth columnists who join hands with the enemy, and Bangladesh in 1971 was no exception. Some of those opposing Bangladesh’s liberation did so because of ideological reasons, others were opportunists who thought the Pakistanis would win, and yet others found themselves victim of the circumstances. Most of the collaborators were exactly that — people collaborating with the Pakistan army. There was an important exception —Jamaat-e-Islam.
Jamaat not only collaborated with the Pak army, they formed militias that fought the Mukti Bahini in the battlefield and aided the Pak army in genocide and war crimes. In December 1971, when the collapse of the Pakistani occupation was imminent, Al-Badr and Al-Shams, the Jamaati militias, murdered a number of key intellectuals in order to leave the new country bereft of thinkers. That is, there is a qualitative difference between Jamaat and others who supported Pakistan in 1971.
Its role in the war has been a major political drawback for Jamaat, and even among the post-liberation generation of Bangladeshis it has failed to increase its support. Over the past decades, Jamaat had maintained a low-key approach when it came to 1971. It wouldn’t usually get drawn into a debate over the war. When pushed, it would say that it didn’t oppose an independent Bangladesh as such, rather, it opposed the Indian involvement in the war. In the late 1990s, there were even talks of expressing ‘regrets’ for its role in 1971. In an interview in August this year, Jamaat’s current leader, and the commander of Al-Badr in 1971, said that:
…(Golam Azam, former head of Jamaat) delivered a speech at the northern gate of Baitul Mukarram mosque. In that speech he expressed regret for his role in 1971. He expressed his respect for the leaders of the independence war. He expressed his respect for the late leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, for Moulana Bhasani, for General Osmani and for Ziaur Rahman.
In the past few days, Jamaat has significantly changed its stance. It now claims that there was no opposition to the Liberation War. In fact, according to the new rhetoric, there was no Liberation War, only a civil war. And those who joined the Mukti Bahini apparently did so for the lure of pretty women, to grab property of the Hindu minority, or to undo partition.
Predictably, this has set of a furore in the print and electronic media in Bangladesh. Here is a summary of the controversy. Given the visceral reaction against the outrageous propaganda Jamaat is trying to peddle, one has to wonder why the changed rhetoric? As a fellow blogger says:
Jamaat does not act hastily, and they are not given to hyperbole like AL or BNP. Every single statement coming out of their mouths are carefully phrased. So Mujahid’s statements were not made in a vacuum; neither were Mr. Hannan’s.
So why did Jamaat change its stance?
One possibility is that it has cut a deal with the country’s current powers-that-be. The current regime, ruling under a state of emergency since a de facto coup in January, needs an exit strategy and a political successor once the elections are held in 2008. That Jamaat has some link with the regime has been suggested before, and with good reasons — here is an example.
However, Jamaat is simply not strong enough when it comes to electoral arithmetic to give the regime retroactive legitimacy. In 1996, when it last ran on its own, it won 9% of votes (in a turnout of 70%). In 1991, it won 12% of votes (turnout of about 55%). One fact often forgotten about the Jamaat-BNP alliance is that without Jamaat’s support BNP might have failed to win a 2/3rd majority in 2001, but without the BNP alliance, Jamaat probably would have failed to win a single seat. It would require election engineering of massive proportion for the regime to exit relying on Jamaat’s support. And in any case, if Jamaat could deliver, why would the regime spend so much effort to force a leadership change in BNP (here is more on that saga)?
This leads to the second explanation for Jamaat’s changed rhetoric. Perhaps Jamaat was signalled by the powers-that-be to create a diversion. When people are busy talking about Jamaat’s audacity, they’re less likely to notice other political shenanigans. And what would Jamaat’s pay off be for being the fall guy?
Jamaat does not particularly worry about the lack of electoral strength. Its strategy — as stated to its members and supporters — is to acquire a critical mass in the key sectors to carry out its ‘revolution’ (read: putsch). Jamaat may have reasoned that by playing the regime’s wingman, it will get to continue its infiltration of these key sectors.
Alternatively, it may have reasoned that with a new King’s Party replacing BNP, there will be an ideological vacuum in the right end of the political spectrum, and the changed rhetoric is the first step in its attempt to become the default party of all things anti-modern, anti-globalisation, anti-India, anti-NGO, anti-women’s empowerment etc (variations of this argument are here and here). Once it has established itself as the rightwing opposition to the regime, in some future andolon, it may even try to forge an alliance with the Awami League (assuming that there is no regime-AL deal).
As you can see, there is a number of possibilities. Which one is right only time will tell. Here and now, however, all other political parties, with the exception of pro-Khaleda faction of BNP, have condemned Jamaat and asked for banning it. While anyone professing to be liberal and/or progressive must support all efforts to try the war criminals, calls for banning Jamaat are a different matter.
Firstly, on what liberal grounds do we ask for banning a political party? Secondly, if Jamaat is banned, won’t its ideology be taken over by more dangerous fanatics? Then, suppose Jamaat is indeed banned (or some of its key leaders are jailed) by the regime. When the regime or its successors are ultimately removed, won’t Jamaat resurface legitimised as victims? Won’t they join the victory processions?
So what should the liberal or progressive bloggers do? I’d like to echo the stance taken by this blog — publicise the crimes committed by Jamaat so that tactical alliances with them in future becomes too difficult for any opportunist politician. Over the past couple of decades, all mainstream political parties made tactical alliance with Jamaat for short-term gain: in the 1980s, pro-democracy parties let Jamaat in their ranks; in the 1990s, AL gave Jamaat a seat at the table in the anti-BNP andolon, and BNP gave Golam Azam a seat at the stage in the anti-AL andolon; and of course Jamaat received two cabinet posts in the last government.
As we set the record straight, the more the people are informed about Jamaat’s war crimes, the less likely any future tactical alliance with Jamaat is. And in the meantime, if there is to be any trial of war criminals, let that be through a transparent process so that Al Badr and Al Shams commanders cannot claim to be political prisoners.