Saturday, February 4th, 2023 02:33:39

The Bangladesh Quagmire

Updated: June 22, 2013 4:57 pm

Hasina Wazed now stands between the devil and the deep sea. Her party, the Awami League, has secular orientation. But she knows it very well that fundamentalist Islam has struck deep roots inside Bangladesh. That is why her approach sometimes smacks of dualism


With less than a year to go before the next general election, Hasina Wazed, the Bangladesh Prime Minister, is now faced with a grave crisis which bears serious implication for India too. In order to stymie the ongoing war crimes trial and put Bangladesh back on the path of radical Islamisation, a hitherto less known organisation named Hefazat-e-Islam enjoying active support from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and the Jatiya Party of H M Ershad, held the country to ransom in the first week of May resulting in the loss of more than 40 lives and damage and destruction of innumerable properties. Developments in Bangladesh during the last one month prove that the roots of Islamic fundamentalism is too deep there and Shahbagh Square demonstrators have miles to go before they can counter balance the religious bigots.

It is really disturbing to note that a so far nondescript organisation like the Hefazat-e-Islam could inflict so much havoc in Dhaka and Narayanganj and political observers are of the opinion that it is actually the Jamaat-e-Islami which has propped up the Hefazat-e-Islam as a proxy as the former is apprehensive that it may be banned by the government in near future. However, there are indications that the Awami League-led coalition, apprehensive of defeat in the next general election, is trying to strike a balance between religious bigots and secular forces. While the war crimes trial is on, security forces dismantled the podium at Shahbagh Square taking advantage of the hullabaloo that had descended on Bangladesh in the first week of May.

At present, nine persons have been put on trial on the charge of crime against humanity during Bangladesh’s liberation war. Of them Golam Azam, Dilwar Hossain Sayeedi, Motiur Rahman Nizami, Ali Ahsan Mujahid, Mohammed Kamruzzaman and Abdur Quader Mollah were leading lights of the Jamaat-e-Islami which was a coalition partner in the BNP-led government during 2001-2006. The rest two are Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a member of the BNP Standing Committee, and Abdul Alim. Quader Chowdhury was involved in the infamous import of illegal arms meant for supplies to ULFA. Another dreaded person named Abul Kalam Azad, popularly known as Bachhu Razakar has fled to Pakistan. He has been sentenced to death in absentia. Of the eight other persons mentioned above Abdur Quader Mollah has been sentenced for life imprisonment while Dilwar Hossain Sayeedi and Mohammed Kamruzzaman have been sentenced to death.

Hasina Wazed now stands between the devil and the deep sea. Her party, the Awami League, has secular orientation. But she knows it very well that fundamentalist Islam has struck deep roots inside Bangladesh. That is why her approach sometimes smacks of dualism. Even before launching the war crimes trials, Hasina had struck at Islamic fundamentalism by hanging Farookh Rahman, leader of the dreaded Freedom Party and one of the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and Shayakh Abdur Rahman, chief of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen. At the same time there were instances when she had capitulated before the fundamentalist lobby, the latest example being her concessions to the Hefazat-e-Islam. Just before the massive Hefazat rally in Dhaka on April 6, Hasina Wazed had met some pro-Hefazat officials with a conciliatory tone and told them that her government had already met some of its demands in spite of the fact that the same Bangladesh Prime Minister had told BBC some days earlier that there was no question of acceding to unjust demands of the Hefazat. Even Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, the Home Minister of Bangladesh praised Hefazat for holding a ‘peaceful rally’ in Dhaka in the first week of May although murder, arson and wanton destruction of public property had resulted due to it.

Obviously, Awami League’s perception is that fundamentalist Islam is too powerful in Bangladesh to be ignored. There is a truth behind it and this is dangerous for India. Already several radical Islamist outfits have held a rally in Kolkata decrying the war crimes trial in Bangladesh and threatening retribution. Both Hasina Wazed and Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP are now cosying up to Ahmed Shafi, the undisputed leader of the Hefazat-e-Islam which has surfaced in Bangladesh as a challenge to the Shahbagh Square movement. Strangely Ahmed Shafi, the 90-year-old Chief of the Hefazat had studied in the Deoband School which had not toed the Jamaat line during Bangladesh’s liberation war. Even many scholars in the Deoband School of thought had supported the existence of a united India and did not take kindly to the partition of the country. So Ahmed Shafi’s closeness with the Jamaat has baffled Bangladesh observers.

But the social process represented by the Hefazat leaves no one in doubt. The cobweb of Islamic fundamentalism, having a close link with anti-liberation war sentiments among a certain section of the people, was carefully woven during the time of Khaleda Zia although seeds of it were first sown by Ziaur Rahman and then by H M Ershad, two former Presidents. The bedrock of fundamentalist Islam in Bangladesh has been the madrasas which are producing tens of thousands of rabid students to fill in the cadres’ list of the Jamaat, Hefazat and host of other organisations of the same ilk. Even in the Bangladesh army, the percentage of madrasa-trained recruits which was only 5 per cent in 2001, now accounts for a staggering 35 per cent. There is no doubt that most of these recruits had joined the army during the previous BNP regime.


With the return of the Jammat-e-Islami leaders to Bangladesh and the Army on the ascendant in ruling the country through General Zia-ur-Rehman, who later founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the rural clergy and the Jammat-e-Islami began to flex their muscles. There was a system in the rural areas of Bangladesh for the rural clergy to pass fatwas to settle domestic feuds and local disputes. On all matters concerning women or girls, the Islamic clergy was brutal and cruel in meting out punishments. The press in Bangladesh was, however, free and faithfully reported incidents of crude and horrifying punishments meted out by rural Mullahs particularly on women. The rural Mullahs also began a campaign of maligning Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), which had managed to make a dent in the rural economy of Bangladesh by their continual efforts at empowering rural women. The Islamists headed by the Jammat-e-Islami despite their best efforts could not suppress the work of the NGOs. A freedom fighters organisation had been formed headed by Jehanara Imam, the mother of a freedom fighter who had been killed by the Pakistan Army. This organisation wanted the Judiciary to control full jurisdiction in all criminal matters and did not want any powers to be vested with the rural Mullahs. The Islamist groups like the Jammat-e-Islami and Oikya Jote opposed this and wanted the rural Mullahs to be vested with judicial powers.

Meanwhile in the elections of 1991, the Jammat-e-Islami participated in the elections and won a few seats to the Parliament. After this the JEI elected Gholam Azam as the emir of the organisation. On 19 January 1992, 102 citizens and intellectuals under the leadership of Jehanara Imam, mother of a martyr who had been killed by the Razakars, Bengali Muslim volunteers like Gholam Azam who were supporting the Pakistan Army, submitted to the Government objecting to Gholam Azam getting Bangladesh citizenship.

The Freedom Fighters League organised a massive procession pleading with the government to try the persons who had collaborated with the Pakistan Army, to remove all powers with the rural Mullahs to try cases locally and to allow the NGOs to function so that rural women would have some control of their lives.

As the momentum was building up, the right in India foolishly for their political ends went and demolished the Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh after a prolonged movement by the Hindu Right parties spreading some imaginary story of the Babri Masjid having been built over a Hindu temple. When the Muslim armies first invaded India in the 8th century AD, hundreds of temples must have been demolished after the Somnath temple in Gujarat was demolished. The whole issue of the Babri Masjid being constructed over a Hindu temple was absurd.

The effect of this demolition was horrendous. The movement built up by Jehanara Imam was crushed on the day the information of the demolition of the Babri Masjid in India was received. The Muslim fundamentalist Right seized the opportunity and within hours mobs were out attacking Hindu temples and killing and raping Hindu women. The agitation of Jehanara Imam was simply blown away.

General Zia-ur-Rehman had reestablished links with the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and raised a parallel organisation called the Director General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) for Bangladesh. This organisation was to play an infamous role in assisting insurgent groups of India’s Northeastern states- Assam, Nagaland, Tripura and Manipur. He also set up a political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Incidentally though he was responsible for bringing back the Jammat-e-Islami leaders who had run away after the liberation war to Bangladesh, he also continued to head the Freedom Fighters League of Bangladesh.

Gen Zia was assassinated by a coterie of officers of the Bangladesh Army when he was on a visit to Chittagong. This appeared to have been as a result of some disagreement between a group of officers posted in the Chittagong area and Gen Zia. No involvement of any outside agency or country appeared to have been involved in this assassination plot. Gen Ershad took over as the new Army Chief and later on as the President of the country. It was only in 1991 that Ershad stepped down and elections were held and Begum Khaleda Zia the President of the Bangladesh National Party took over as the Prime Minister. The point of interest is that the BNP allied with the fundamentalist Islamic party, the Jammat-e-Islami that had collaborated with the Pakistan Army against the people of Bangladesh in the
liberation war.

After the elections of 1991, when the Bangladesh National Party led by Khaleda Zia, the widow of Gen Zia-ur-Rehman won the elections taking the Jammat-e-Islami as a partner in the government, politics became polarised with the Awami League headed by Sheikh Hasina with secular credentials, while the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was pro-Islamic, particularly as the BNP and the JEI Bangladesh fought the elections as a coalition. Regrettably, a polarisation to some extent took place in the bureaucracy. Luckily, the Bangladesh Armed Forces were not affected by this.

In her first term as Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina and the AL could not do much to clear the issue of the war criminals of 1971. When she won the elections in 2006, the developments after the BNP laid down office and the interim government that had been formed by the BNP which were to conduct the elections turned out to be quite partisan in organising the elections. It was at this time that the Army Chief General Moin stepped in and in a partial coup, removed the partisan members of the interim government and appointed new members. The election was smoothly conducted and the AL won the majority and formed the government. Immediately after the elections, there was a rebellion in the Bangladesh Rifles, with the BDR Chief and his officers and some families trapped in the BDR Headquarters. The Army stepped in and the rebel personnel were quickly killed and arrested. Some weapons were recovered from the BDR campuses which were not weapons of the BDR, confirming the suspicion of outside elements being involved in the mutiny. The Armed of Bangladesh stood solidly with the AL government.

It was only after settling down after the BDR mutiny that the AL government took up the old issue of trying the war criminals of the 1971 Liberation War. An International War Crimes Tribunal was created after framing the necessary laws and the leaders of the Jammat-e-Islami Gholam Azam, Abdul Khader Mollah and others were charged with offences of murder and collaborating with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War.

International War Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh

The issue of setting up of this tribunal to try leaders of the Jammat-e-Islami, a political party in Bangladesh which is a coalition partner of the BNP, was a bold and necessary step. To consider the issue dispassionately, the following facts should be considered.

It is a fact that the Jammat-e-Islami sided with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War and committed considerable atrocious, like raping women and girls and killing people of East Pakistan who were supporting the liberation of East Pakistan. The fact that these incidents took place cannot be disputed as the Indian Army who went into East Pakistan were direct witnesses to the brutal acts of the Pakistan Army and the JEI leaders and cadres who supported the Pakistan Army against the freedom fighters of East Pakistan. The point, however, is that it is now more than forty odd years since the Liberation War of Bangladesh in 1971. Obviously, the offences like rapes, murders, shootings and killings of innocent East Bengal civilians, both men, women, cannot be proved by medico legal evidence. The issue is of vital national importance for Bangladesh and it has to put behind the horrendous genocide that was committed on the civilians of East Pakistan. The trials, therefore, have to be carried out and the ghosts of the 1971 war exorcised if the country has to go forward with dignity.

The only trial that can be compared to this is the trial conducted in Israel by the Government of Israel against Adolf Eichmann, a German who took a leading part in exterminating the Jews in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, when Israel had not yet been created. Incidentally, Adolf Eichmann had managed to flee to Argentina and was living with a false identity. He was traced by the Israeli Intelligence- Mossad, kidnapped and brought to Israel, tried and then executed. The legal issues involved were apparently impossible to condone. Yet the crimes of genocide by Eichmann could not be denied.

The case of the Jammat leaders being prosecuted today for committing genocide of innocent people of East Pakistan who were siding with the liberation forces are much less of a legal issue than the case of Adolf Eichmann. The only relevant point is the long interval between 1971 and 2013 and the obvious absence of medico-legal evidence.

The only conclusion that we can come to is that for Bangladesh, the ghosts of 1971 have to be exorcised. And the trials have now to be concluded on the available evidence and the Judiciary of Bangladesh, represented by the International Crimes Tribunal should weigh the evidence and do justice to the innocent victims of the genocide of 1971.

The first trial to be concluded was that of Abul Kalam Azad, who was condemned to death in absentia. The accused had slipped into India and probably is in Pakistan. The second trial to be concluded was that of Abdul Khader Mollah also known as the butcher of Mirpur, one of the first to flee from East Pakistan when the tide turned against the Pakistan Army after the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Army were winning the war of liberation in 1971. He was given life imprisonment, when everyone was expecting the death penalty. It is reported that the accused made an insulting gesture when the sentence of life imprisonment was announced, meaning that he had escaped the death penalty.

Immediately, thereafter, there was a strong reaction to this verdict. On February 5, 2013, hundreds of young people both- men and women began collecting in Shabagh Square, a central intersection in Dhaka, shouting slogans-“Khader Mollah Fansi Chai!” We want the death penalty for Khader Mollah. The gathering at Shabagh Square began gaining momentum with numbers increasing daily.

The third accused to be convicted was Dilawar Hussain Saydee, Deputy Chief of the JEI, on March 25, 2013 who was given the death penalty.


The Shabagh Square gathering

The young people of Bangladesh began collecting at the Shabagh Square on February 5, 2013 after the sentence of Abdul Khader Mollah was announced by the International Crimes Tribunal giving him a life sentence. As reported, the accused is reported to have made a contemptuous and insulting gesture that he did not receive a death sentence. The next day young people began collecting at the Shabagh Square and started shouting slogans- Khader Mollah Fansi Chai! (Khader Mollah should be hanged.) Since then the groups have been collecting and shouting slogans that the government should appeal against the verdict of life sentence to Khader Mollah and give him a death sentence. The Awami League government has since moved the Parliament to amend the International Crimes Tribunal Act to allow the prosecution to file petitions to enhance the sentence awarded.

The interesting fact about the crowds gathering at the Shabagh Square is that they have not allowed politicians of the Awami League to address them. This has surprised the Jammat-e-Islami leaders. The reaction of the Jammat-e-Islami and the Islamic Chatra Shibir, its student wing was expected and groups started to organise from their bases in Chittagong and other towns. The Jammat-e-Islami and the Islamic Chatra Shibir started their agitation immediately after the International Crimes Tribunal was notified on 25 March 2010. The later development has been the creation of the Hifazate-Islam, obviously organised by the Jammat-e-Islami and probably abetted by the Bangladesh National Party, their coalition partner.

The government of Bangladesh has taken stringent action against the first marches by the Jammat-e-Islami and the Islamic Chattra Shibir and then later by the Hifazat-e-Islam. In police actions against the marching groups of the JeI and the ICS and then the Hifazat-e-Islam, there have been a number of people injured both on the side of the militant groups opposing the movement and also on the side of the police and the Rapid Action Battalion. Besides this, several Muslim young men who have protested at the Shabagh Square have also been surreptitiously attacked and killed. There have also been revenge killings of close relations of crucial witnesses who testified against the accused JEI leaders.

Bangladesh at the crossroads

The Islamic fundamentalist groups led by the Jammat-e-Islami, its student wing, the Islamic Chatra Shibir, the Hizb-ut-Tahir, Hizb-ut-Towhid, the Jagrata Muslim Bangladesh have all joined hands to fight the Awami League government. The issue is simple. Is Bangladesh going to be a democratic country where all religions can peacefully coexist? Of course fundamentalist Islam is not a religion that can co-exist with moderate religions. This is the crucial issue that will be decided soon. The Awami League government has to play its cards in a firm but balanced manner. The police and para military forces have sustained a number of casualties and the fundamentalist forces have also taken a beating and suffered casualties. The government has been firm and balanced in dealing with such large scale agitations. We can only wait and watch and hope that the forces of moderation will ultimately triumph.

 By E N Rammohan

(The author is a former DG, Border Security Force)

Apart from the Jamaat, BNP’s support to the anti-war crimes trial agitations may turn out to be crucial in the days to come. It has to be kept in mind that the Jamaat-e-Islami has a base in Bangladeshi politics and one just cannot wish it away. Even in the last parliamentary election of 2008 which was swept by the Awami League, the Jamaat-e-Islami had garnered 4.6 per cent votes although it could capture only two seats. Still its share of total votes was much above the combined votes polled by the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal and the Workers’ Party, two important secular constituents of the Awami League-led coalition.

BNP’s support to the Hefazat-e-Islam and the anti-war crimes trial demonstrations is understandable. Not only was the Jamaat-e-Islami its coalition partner but the ongoing trial of Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, one of BNP’s prominent members, establish the main opposition party’s connections with anti-national forces. Matters have not been helped by Tareq Rahman, Khaleda Zia’s elder son, accused of money laundering and collusion in the fundamentalist lobby backed army coup against the Hasina Wazed-led government in January last year. Tareq has been staying in London as a fugitive.

There is however irrefutable evidence that points out to nervousness among some bigwigs of the BNP over the progress of the trial and strangely the interest of the BNP and that of Pakistan seem to have found a meeting point. When the idea of International Crimes Tribunal was first mooted after Hasina’s landslide electoral victory in 2008, a diplomat from Islamabad had flown to Dhaka and publicly threatened the newly-installed government of serious consequences if war crimes trial was really pushed through. Similarly, the BNP has also left no stone unturned to get the process derailed. In October 2010, Khaleda Zia called it “ a conspiracy to throw the nation into chaos in the name of war crimes trial four decades after general amnesty to collaborators” and in December of the same year the BNP called upon international community to put pressure on the Hasina Wazed government for immediately stopping the proceedings of the tribunals.

Both the BNP and the Jamaat-e-Islami have support from a significant section of the Bangladeshi society behind their demands. The arrest of a leading cardio thoracic surgeon of the country in Dhaka last year on the charge of being an operative of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, another fundamentalist organization, points out to the reach of radical Islam. Bangladeshi fundamentalists are now expanding their area of operations outside their own country with India, the US and the Western Europe being their prime targets. The South Asia Intelligence Review headed by the super cop K P S Gill has done pioneering work on this aspect. In 2011, the situation became so alarming that in July the USA demanded extradition of those Bangladeshi jihadists who were trained by the Taliban. In February 2012, another Bangladeshi militant had planned to blow up a British Airways aircraft in cooperation with the US-Yemen cleric Anwar-al-Awlaki. There also exists a nexus between Indian militants and their Bangladeshi counterparts. Last year Bayezid Khan Panni, the recently deceased founder of the Hizb-ut-Towhid, had openly supported various ISI-backed militants and terrorists operating in India.

Right at this moment Hefazat-e-Islam represents the apex of the fundamentalist pyramid which comprises several rabid Islamic organizations. Significantly Ahmed Shafi is the Chairman of Bangladesh Qaumi Madrasa Education Board which runs and supervises all the private madrasas, the breeding ground of radical Islam. The headquarters of the Hefazat is in Chittagong, a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism in South Asia. Hefazat’s demands represent the same spirit. They include death penalty for blasphemy, barring women from working with men, banning all cultural activities that defame Islam, prohibiting women from mixing with men and compulsory Islamic education for everybody.

Hefazat’s massive show of strength is a negation of Prof. Amartya Sen’s recent assertion that civil society in Bangladesh is stronger than what it is in India. Since the death of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh has become a classic example of a steady slide to Islamic fundamentalism from the concept of secularism and language-based nationalism. Throughout April and May 2011, Bangladesh had witnessed waves of demonstrations by fundamentalists who protested against the introduction of National Women Development Policy which wanted to give women equal share in property and opportunity in employment and business. It was only a revival of the plan Hasina had formulated in 1999 but later on diluted by Khaleda Zia. The caretaker government, formed before the last election, wanted to follow Hasina’s draft but ultimately backtracked and formed an ‘ulema committee’ which opposed equal rights to women as, in its opinion, the idea was against the principle of Quran and Sunnah. Surprisingly the following Awami League government agreed to remove the ‘contradictions’ as demanded by the ‘ulema committee’ and at the same time declared its resolve to stand against vested interests.

By Amitava Mukherjee





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