Published : Sunday, 25 August 2013
M. Serajul Islam
The High Court has cancelled Jamaat's registration to carry out its functions as a legitimate political party and contest in the country's parliamentary elections. The Jamaat can now appeal to the Supreme Court. Until that process is completed, discussion in the matter and passing opinion on the High Court's ruling would be sub-judice. Nevertheless, in talk shows and in newspaper articles, the ruling has been discussed critically without fearing the wrath of the Court that could issue contempt of court charges against those critical of the ruling.
The fear of contempt of court apart, the ruling has introduced into the country's precarious and fragile politics a new element of uncertainty. The Jamaat happens to be a major ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and an ardent supporter of the latter's demand of the caretaker government (CTG). In fact, in trying to force the ruling Awami League to accept the CTG demand, the Jamaat has been ahead of the BNP in the streets. Then of course is the important issue of Jamaat's role in the BNP-led alliance in the event the next general elections are going to be "inclusive" with the BNP taking part.
The Election Commission (EC) has stated that it is waiting for the judgment to reach its office for necessary action. However, the feeling that the EC has given to the ruling is that Jamaat's chances of participating in the next elections either alone or in alliance with any other political party is as good as over. With the general elections hardly a few months away, the time for Jamaat to complete the due process of the law with the appeal to the Supreme Court and get a favourable judgment would hardly be there. That apart, the chances of the appeal being successful under the existing political situation are also bleak.
The BNP was slow to react to the ruling. After remaining quiet for the first couple of days, it stated that it did not support the banning of a political party. Perhaps realising that the ruling did not ban the Jamaat as a political party but only cancelled its registration, the BNP was quick to rephrase its comment. Leaders of the BNP have said thereafter that the Jamaat would continue to remain in the BNP-led 18 party alliance. Although it did not make sense that a party could remain in an electoral alliance when it has lost its registration with the EC, the BNP's latest stand made sense politically. It did not want to be seen abandoning a trusted ally who may not be there in name in the general election but whose support and votes would be critical for it if the country were to have an "inclusive" general election. The BNP also considered that in case the ruling party went ahead with party government-led elections, it would need Jamaat's support for the street movement to force the ruling party to make those elections "inclusive."
The ruling party that should have been excited about the ruling did not seem to be so excited. In fact, it appeared that the AL-led government was delivered with a problem that it would have better liked not to have been confronted with in its present predicament. As soon as the ruling was made public, the secular forces in the country, including the Shahabag Gonojagoron Moncho, were excited and immediately called for banning the Jamaat, something that the AL-led government could deliver only at its own peril. The country's economic diplomacy would face a fatal blow if Jamaat was to be banned because such an action was very likely to incur the wrath of the Middle East (ME) patrons of Bangladesh expatriate labour.
Then there was another problem that High Court ruling has caused for the AL-led government. The High Court ruled against the Jamaat because of its faith on sovereignty of Allah that it felt contradicted a fundamental foundation of the Constitution, namely the sovereignty of the people. Nevertheless, the Constitution of Bangladesh starts with "Bismillah Ar Raihman ar Rahim" or "In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful" and accepts Islam as the State religion of Bangladesh. Thus while Jamaat could be rightfully punished for contradicting the Constitution for rejecting the supremacy of the Parliament by putting its trust on Allah, Jamaat could also claim that it has been made a victim because by putting its faith on Allah, it has upheld what the Constitution has dictated by reference to "Bismillah" and by stating Islam to be the country's state religion!
The contradictions notwithstanding, the High Court's ruling in the context of the country's highly partisan politics that should have gone against the interests of the BNP now appears to be going the other way round. The ruling would bar the Jamaat from contesting in the next polls but it would not bar Jamaat supporters from voting. In fact now with the ruling, they would vote for the BNP and make every vote count because their return to politics would depend on the BNP returning to power. Further, the BNP would not now have to sit and negotiate with the Jamaat to share seats and in the event the BNP won, it would not have to give the Jamaat any post in the Cabinet. The BNP that has been criticised by many who hold liberal/secular views without supporting the AL because of its connections with the Jamaat could now be encouraged to come behind the BNP.
A strange bipartisanship has emerged from the decision on Jamaat's registration. Both the AL and the BNP have stated they opposed the banning of Jamaat as a political party as a consequence of the ruling. However, the reasons for such a rare bipartisanship are different. The BNP made a strong statement against banning of Jamaat in order to convey the feeling to the Jamaat leaders and supporters that notwithstanding the ruling, the BNP would not abandon a trusted ally and would treat it as nothing had happened. The Awami League, though under serious pressure from its secular supporters, is opposed to the demand to ban the party to keep Jamaat's sponsors in the ME, from where expatriates send billions of US$ as remittance, from getting upset.
The High Court ruling on Jamaat's registration is another instance where actions that should be going in favour of the ruling party are going against it because times and circumstances have changed. The Cancellation of Jamaat's registration would have been different if it had come when the AL had the going its way that is now not the case. The issue of the billboards that should have helped the ruling party to convince the people of its good deeds has fallen flat on its face. Likewise, the attempt of the Prime Minister's son to inject a new sense of optimism in the party has also faulted. It seems like little that the ruling party is doing that in the past would have endeared it to the voters are helping it against its growing unpopularity.
Jamaat's public standing is very poor. Many have not forgotten its 1971 role. Yet when Jamaat lost registration and the Shahabag Gonojagoron Moncho gathered at Shahabag to celebrate the High Court decision, there were not many who joined the Moncho, a stark reminder on how the massive crowds have deserted it. The lack of public enthusiasm to join the Shahabag Gonojagoron Moncho to celebrate cancellation of Jamaat's registration is certainly no indication of its gaining popularity. It nevertheless could be a hint of the fact that at the level of the ordinary folks, the handling of issues related to Islam under the present government is perhaps beginning to worry a lot of people.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador. firstname.lastname@example.org