Sunday, December 2, 2012


Need for political wisdom and pragmatism
Weekly Holiday, November 30, 2012

M. Serajul Islam

The recent acts of violence by Jamat have created a great deal of apprehension in the public mind. These acts hint at very dangerous consequences for the already conflict-ridden politics of the country unless dealt with determination and resolved satisfactorily. The BNP has expressed the view that these violent acts of Jamat do not have the party’s support.

We are encouraged by the firm resolve shown by the Home Minister that the government will deal with such violent acts in the manner it deserves; put it down with the legal powers in its hands. Nevertheless, his dismissal of the Government’s intention to sit with Jamat to find a way out through discussions does not augur well. His call to Chhatra League to deal with Jamat activists in the streets have added to more public apprehension and fear. The Home Minister will need to make every effort to resolve the Jamat issue politically and democratically for reasons discussed in this piece. There is a national consensus against Jamat’s recent acts of violence that is a positive sign. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on how to deal with the problem. The Home Minister’s resolve to deal with a Jamat ready to go berserk by force alone will not resolve the dangers that Jamaat threatens. Nowhere has force alone resolved such a danger; in fact force has only added fuel to the fire. There is a civil society group that is trying to create pressure on the government with its own strategy. This group, allied to the ruling party, has been active in the country’s politics since the new Government was formed in January, 2009. They came to the political platform with specific demands. First, they wanted secularism to be restored in the Constitution and all the Islamic provisions inserted after the August 15, 1975 changeover to be deleted. Second, they also wanted a ban on the use of religion by any party in the country’s politics. Three, they wanted the Bangladeshi collaborators of the 1971 war crimes to be tried and punished. Finally, they wanted Jamaat to be banned for crimes against humanity in 1971; its use of religion in politics.

In fact, this group never left anyone in doubt that it is Jamaat they were after. They were infuriated by the fact that Jamaat did not only not pay for its alleged crimes; that it did not express allegiance to Bangladesh and still continued to be in politics of the country. Their efforts were successful but only to the extent that through the annulment of the 5th amendment and adoption of the 15th amendment, secularism was restored in the Constitution. However, none of their demands have yet been fulfilled. As a consequence, this group has even expressed its dissatisfaction with the government. This group is now using the latest acts of violence by the Jamaat to re-enforce their other unfulfilled demands reiterating once again forcefully that Jamaat must be banned. They are again demanding the deleting of the Islamic provisions in the Constitution to restore secularism as a state principle in its proper spirit. They feel that secularism and the Islamic provisions cannot remain in the Constitution together.

The country has enough political problems with the unresolved one between the ruling party and the BNP over how to conduct the next elections, a very threatening one for the country. The situation now developing over Jamaat, if not resolved satisfactorily and politically, could push Bangladesh towards consequences too nightmarish even to contemplate. 


The Home Minister who had given hope of dealing with the problem forcefully has also given us cause of apprehension when he called upon the student cadre of the ruling party to resist Jamaat in the streets, a call that brought him censure from his own party men. In fact, if the government gets embroiled in a direct confrontation with the Jamaat, all else, meaning the country’s politics and economics would have to take back stage. It should be remembered that Jamaat has never been a political force in the country’s politics. It has always used the assistance of the dominant political force in the country to rise above the insignificant position where the people of the country have kept them. In all free and fair elections, the Jamaat has never been a force of any reckoning. 


Jamaat’s crimes against humanity

Jamaat came to prominence for the first time in 1971 when the Pakistan military gave it the first taste of political power by making it a collaborator to its acts against humanity. The first AL Government that could have settled the Jamaat issue in its first term because it stayed in power for nearly four years and had unchallenged power when those from Jamaat who had actively taken part in crimes against humanity were still in the country and memories of the people against them still fresh. The Government adopted the Bangladesh Collaborator (Special Tribunals) Order in 1972 and amended the Constitution in 1973 for the trial of members “of any armed or defence or auxiliary forces” for genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.” Unfortunately, the trials were bogged down in the country’s legal system and only 752 were tried and convicted. Many in power took advantage of the order to settle old scores leading the government to declare General Amnesty. 


193 Pakistani war criminals

The Amnesty, together with the Shimla Agreement signed between India and Pakistan in 1973 to which Bangladesh was a signatory, allowed the 193 Pakistani armed forces officers that Bangladesh wanted to try as war criminals to be repatriated to Pakistan. This helped Jamaat off the hook where the revolutionary spirit of time should have been generated to settle the crimes against humanity committed by Jamaat activists in 1971. The government of President Ziaur Rahman, through the 5th amendment --- that returned to the country the multi-party democracy that was banned by the 4th or BKSAL amendment --- also allowed Jamaat legitimacy by legitimizing religion-based parties in the country. 


Awami League and Jamaat

In 1991-96, the Awami League gave Jamaat further legitimacy as a political force by allying with it to force the BNP Government to accept the Caretaker Government. The BNP built upon what the AL did and gave the Jamaat a taste of political power in its second term of 2001-2006.

Thus all past governments till the present one had left it to the people to deal with Jamaat while they themselves played politics with it. The voters did not make the mistake the governments made. They did not allow Jamaat’s share of seats in the Parliament to even reach double digit except in 2001 elections when its alliance with the BNP gave it 14 seats. They were able to deal with Jamaat where governments failed because of the social safety net against those who use religion in politics that is seldom spoken or written when analysts speak and write about the political reality in Bangladesh; that despite the huge Muslim population that is deeply religious, the people of Bangladesh have always been lukewarm to religion being used in politics. Hence when people have the need of a man of religion for any religious activity, they show respect for the Mullahs and the Maulanas and go to them or call them home with great respect. However when such religious people have asked for their votes, the people have never obliged them, not with disrespect but politely.


Sufis and secularism in Bangladesh 

Thus, secularism that is the need to separate religion and politics in public life is very deeply etched in the consciousness of the people of Bangladesh notwithstanding, what is or is not in the constitution. A lot of this instinctive ability to keep religion and politics apart in their public life comes from the influence of Sufis who played a major role in the spread of Islam in Bangladesh. 

The Sufis left their indelible impression in the minds of the people that have only been strengthened over the centuries. Thus in the British period and afterwards, where the rest of South Asia has suffered from communal commotion s, Bangladesh has largely been spared of such disturbances. In the period after our independence, the young generation has gone into Islam in a big way. Fortunately, they too have not been influenced by the type of fundamentalist Islam that Jamaat preaches. They too have no problem being good Muslims but have also not forgotten the teachings of the Sufis that have influenced their fathers and forefathers. The young generation has gone to Islam but not to Jamaat. These are aspects that the Government and society must consider seriously and think twice before dealing with Jamaat by force or listening to the civil society’s agenda against Jamaat. Although Jamaat is a minor force in Bangladesh and will never come anywhere near political power, not in a thousand years, it has ability to create disturbances that could imperil the future of the country. 


Possible consequence of banning

Take for instance the possible consequence of banning the Jamaat. Will Jamaat accept the Government decision obediently and meekly go home, and then peace and tranquility will prevail? Not a chance. The most likely consequence of banning the Jamaat can be that the party may go underground. Once they do that, it is apprehended that they may change their strategy and start acts of terror instead of civil disturbances they are indulging with at the moment. What distinguishes the Jamaat activists from the rest of us is the beard they have on their faces. What if they choose to shave their beard and in small groups in jeans and T shirts start committing acts of terror in shopping centers and public places?  The Jamaat, pushed against the walls and fighting for its survival, could be transformed into a terrorist organization. Thanks to democracy still working in the country, it has not. It is imperative that the Government should not spare any effort to ensure that Jamaat is not pushed to make such a choice.


Political and democratic way

Fortunately, the way to deal with Jamaat has been shown by senior leaders of the AL. While criticizing the statement of Home Minister M K Alamgir, senior Awami League leader and former general secretary of the party Abdul Jalil has called for a political and democratic way to deal with Jamaat. This is a pragmatic and realistic proposition. In opting for such a course that would be the only reasonable way out, the government should not lose patience and look at the problem realistically. Top Jamaat leaders are in jail on charges of war crimes. If they are proven guilty, they will face capital punishment. Already in the air, the news making rounds is that such judgment against them is in the offing. In fact, this is one of the reasons behind the recent upsurge of violence by the activists of Jamaat. The strategy should be a firm one where the parameters should be set to deal with it not by force alone but through legal means as well, guided by political and democratic considerations. This is where the Government will need to show political wisdom.


The Government would do itself and the country a great service if it would consider the reasons behind the demand by the civil society urging it to ban Jamaat and ban use of religion in politics; such a demand would be tantamount to imposition of a minority view over the majority. Accepting the views of this group to deal with Jamaat will therefore not be democratic either.

However, if politics was an intellectual exercise only, then perhaps this group would be right. Unfortunately for them, politics is more about people and their beliefs and perceptions. In demanding the banning of use of religion in politics, the group has given the clear impression, maybe unwittingly, that they are demanding the ban of Islam in the country’s politics because the other religions in Bangladesh, namely Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, are no factors in this context. So such singling out Islam in a country where the people are overwhelmingly Muslim and deeply religious may not find favour for simple reason of logic and common sense. 


Keeping religion and politics apart

More so, because the people here may not see the need of such a ban because even without it, they have succeeded over many decades---under the British, the Pakistanis and now Bangladesh---in proving that the masses are quite capable of keeping religion and politics apart, comfortably. In 1971 Jamaat used Islam for repugnant motives, and miserably failed. 

Most importantly, the majority people of Bangladesh do not believe that Jamaat is custodian of Islam in Bangladesh.


The over-emphasis of the group on secularism is also an issue that needs careful consideration before going overboard with it. Again, the same logic would apply in considering secularism. In a predominantly Muslim country where people are deeply religious, where illiteracy is still very high, the intellectual mind required to appreciate secularism is absent in overwhelming majority of the people. 

As those who use religion for political gains have no place in their hearts and minds, the people are not concerned what is in the constitution or not; in fact they are blissfully ignorant about it. Unfortunately for the secularists, their demand for removal of the Islamic provisions from the Constitution and the ban on use of religion in the name of secularism are now non-starters because the public would see in these demands a bias against Islam. 


The issue is when at the level of the people, both secularism and Islam can peacefully coexist, why is this group insisting on these demands when such demands, if accepted, could give an incentive to the very Islamist forces they would like to suppress? The 15th amendment has made their demands irrelevant. It is time for the government to make its position clear because the civil group making the demands is allied to the ruling party and the government’s silence is a cause of concern of the people who want the Jamaat issue to be resolved politically.

There is another major aspect that the government would need to consider in dealing with Jamaat; namely the international connotation. As a sovereign country it is the right of Bangladesh to ban Jamaat or take any other action against it as a domestic issue. However if Jamaat is banned because it propagates Islam in politics, then the issue no longer remains domestic.


Remittance is vital for economy

Islam is a religion that is very dear to a large number of countries, and some of those countries are specially important for Bangladesh for economic reasons with 5 million of our expatriates in the region who send billions of US dollars as remittance that is critical to the economy. Therefore, on the issue of banning Jamaat, the Government that has already opted in favour of allowing religion-based political parties to be in politics by the 15th amendment should put an end to the demand by the secularists that is giving out dangerous signals to the Muslim world. 


The call for banning any party is also not a democratic call. In a democratic system, the government cannot ban a political party just because there is such a demand from a section of the population. As long as Jamaat does not resort to acts of terrorism and accepts the right of the people to accept or reject it in elections, the Government cannot ban it and expect Islamic countries to appreciate the decision.


There is however a legal issue with Jamaat that rests with the Election Commission (EC) that must be resolved before allowing Jamaat the right of a legitimate political party. Jamaat’s constitution is in contradiction with the requirements of the EC. The party’s constitution puts allegiance to Allah but not to Bangladesh. This is a sensitive subject and the EC will need all its competence to deal with an extremely sensitive issue. The EC cannot of course demand Jamaat to drop faith in Allah from its constitution more so now after the 15th amendment. It should and must nevertheless demand Jamaat to show allegiance to the country because the people of Bangladesh are united on this demand given the fact that Jamaat had opposed the Bangladesh liberation war and had openly collaborated with the Pakistani military and so far has shown no remorse for it. This is where the Home Minister would need to consider his stance. The Government should put its weight behind the EC and convince the Jamaat that it is in the interest of the party to resolve the issue in a satisfactory manner by means of negotiations and not by force that will benefit Jamaat.  

A lot of what happens with Jamaat over the next few weeks or months will of course depend on what course the war crime trials take. The Government should be prepared for any eventuality both at home and abroad. It does not appear that the case of the war crimes trial has been explained satisfactorily abroad, particularly in the Middle East. It is time that the Government should activate all its diplomatic channels so that Bangladesh’s friends and well wishers are with it on the war trials and understands and appreciates that the trials are being held in a transparent manner where those accused are being given the right of defense. Whatever the Government does, it should be extremely cautious not to force Jamaat to forgo constitutional politics. 


The writer is a retired career diplomat and a regular columnist on foreign affairs and politics.

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