Among other things, the Shahbagh movement demands a ban on Jamaat and religious politics.
Earlier this month, one of the accused collaborators in 1971, Abdul Quader Mollah, also known as the “Butcher of Mirpur,” was convicted of atrocities. Surprising most observers, however, Mollah escaped the death penalty. This set off the Shahbagh movement — the largest of its kind seen in Bangladesh since 1990. The movement’s demand to ban Jamaat and religious politics in Bangladesh is a response to a long history of complicity between such politics and anti-state actions. The Jamaat, founded by Maulana Abul Ala Maududi in pre-partition India, has historically played a leading role in these politics.
Jamaat in Bangladesh
Wali Nasr’s Vanguards of the Islamic Revolution is perhaps the best known book on the party available in English. That book, as well as Jamaat’s own literature—in both Bangladesh and Pakistan—makes it clear that it does not believe in western-style electoral, representative democracy. Nor can it be characterized as a mass political party. At the risk of oversimplification, Jamaat’s internal organization may be described as following some form of “democratic centralism”: the top leadership collectively takes a decision, and through a hierarchy and network of members, cadres, or activists, the party’s decision is carried out. The top leadership is, in turn, chosen from the rank and file through elections and other representative mechanisms.
As in Pakistan, the party’s aim in Bangladesh is to create an Islamic state, where the party is the sole arbiter of what counts as Islamic. The essential question for the party leadership is how it will achieve power.
After the Pakistan Army launched its murderous crackdown in East Pakistan on 25 March 1971, Jamaat threw in its lot behind the generals. Whereas a number of Islam-pasand politicians—including many from various factions of the Muslim League—supported the junta’s quest to maintain a united Pakistan, Jamaat went a step further.
Activists of its student wing, Islami Jamiat-e-Talaba (IJT) / Islami Chhatra Sangha (ICS), volunteered for the pro-Pakistan militias set up by the army. Matiur Rahman Nizami, head of the East Pakistan IJT/ICS, led a particularly fierce group called theAl Badr whose death squads are alleged to have killed several prominent progressive intellectuals and activists during the war. A reading of contemporary newspapers suggests that Jamaat expected that the army would militarily defeat the Mukti Bahini resistance, but would find it hard to fill the political vacuum created by the elimination of the Awami League. Jamaat aspired to fill that vacuum.
Much like the Pakistani generals, Jamaat leaders blame the Indians for the defeat of 1971. They believe that the main reason behind India’s intervention was a fear of a Jamaat-dominated East Pakistan. The lesson they took away from 1971 is that for Jamaat to achieve power in Bangladesh, it must contend with India.
The immediate post-war years were a difficult for Jamaat. Even before Dhaka was liberated on December 16th, the provisional government of Bangladesh banned Jamaat. Some of its leaders, including the provincial chief Ghulam Azam, escaped to Pakistan, the Gulf and the United Kingdom. Others went into hiding. Azam tried to lead a movement to “recover East Pakistan,” which fizzled when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto received Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Lahore for the 1974 Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) summit. At the local level, party members abstained from direct political activities, concentrating on social work instead.
Bangladesh politics took several dramatic and tragic turns in 1975. The country’s first leader, Sheikh Mujib, responded to instability by imposing a draconian one-party state, and then was killed by a military coup. Countercoups followed, descending into a larger armed mutiny. By the end of the year, many of the people who politically or militarily led the country’s freedom struggle in 1971 were dead or marginalized, with the exception of Major General Ziaur Rahman, who emerged as the country’s de facto ruler.
Zia gradually reintroduced electoral politics, and a parliament was elected in 1979. The ban on Jamaat, which had begun in 1971, was not, however, formally lifted because the Election Commission was not convinced of the party’s commitment to Bangladesh’s sovereignty. Nonetheless, six of its members were elected to the 300-member assembly under the banner of the Islamic Democratic League. Azam returned to Bangladesh on a Pakistan passport around this time. (His citizenship was revoked by the Bangladesh government in 1972.) The IJT/ICS was also re-launched under the name of Islami Chhatra Shibir. Zia was assassinated in 1981, and Lt. Gen. H.M. Ershad assumed power in 1982. As Ershad moved to legitimize his rule through elections, the ban on the Jamaat was lifted.
From here on, Jamaat’s aim was to achieve political legitimacy first, and capture state power ultimately.
How to do it?
Azam devised a multi-pronged strategy.
First, Jamaat was to become a parliamentary party and contest elections, under its own name if possible, but under other names if needed. But, they would not contest across the country. Rather, they targeted 50 seats bordering India. The idea was to turn these seats into strong Jamaat bastions that could become centers of resistance if India were to “invade again.”
Of course, 50 seats are far short of a majority in a 300-seat parliament. This is where the second strategy comes in. Jamaat would seek alliance and coalition with anyone and everyone depending on the specific circumstance. So, for example, Jamaat and the Awami League (AL) participated in the parliamentary election in 1986, breaking a promise to boycott it because it was held under martial law. The election helped give constitutional cover to the Ershad’s military regime. But in 1990, Jamaat again joined the AL along with its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and the leftists in an urban uprising that toppled the Ershad government. In 1991, the BNP formed a government with Jamaat’s support. By the mid-1990s, Jamaat had once again allied with the AL in a series of street protests against the BNP government.
By 2001 however, Jamaat had entered into an electoral alliance with the BNP for the upcoming election. This alliance seems to have held through electoral triumphs (2001, when BNP won 197 and Jamaat 17 seats) and disasters (2008, BNP 32, Jamaat 2). During the quasi-military “caretaker government” rule of 2007-2008, there were strong rumors of a Jamaat-army tacit understanding: while both AL and BNP leaders were jailed, Jamaat was practically untouched.
These alliances conferred one major benefit. Jamaat regained, at least partially, the legitimacy it lost by violently opposing the country’s birth.
In conjunction with these tactical alliances, Azam had a third prong. Drawing on various revolutionary movements across the world, Jamaat has pursued infiltration—putting ideologically committed men and women in key sectors of state, society and the economy, so that, if and when the time comes, a coordinated putsch could catapult it to power. This was pursued most vigorously between 2001 and 2006. When the BNP led alliance (of which Jamaat was a key partner) won the 2001 election, Jamaat demanded two things. First, they wanted a suitable official post for Matiur Rahman Nizami. The former Al Badr leader had been the party’s parliamentary head in the early 1990s, and had replaced Azam as the party chief by the end of the decade. Second, the party’s number two, Ali Ahsan Mujahid (who was not an MP), had to be made the minister of social welfare.
The social welfare ministroy was chosen because this ministry regulated the country’s massive NGO sector and was supposed to look after sociocultural organizations throughout the country. In 1971, Jamaat targeted progressive voices violently. During the 2001-2006 period, it made things difficult for progressive activities, while generously supporting Islamic institutions that adhered to its interpretation.
And finally, there is the fourth prong. IJT lost control of the campuses in the 1960s, first to the leftists, then to the nationalists led by the AL. They wanted to rectify it in the 1980s. They focused on the universities of Rajshahi and Chittagong for their proximity to the border — consistent with their electoral strategy.
Have these strategies worked?
Up to 2007, many observers would have answered in the affirmative. While its larger ally, BNP, was hobbled by corruption scandal, Jamaat was seen as relatively clean — consistent with its mantra: Allah’s law, and honest men’s rule. After the quasi-coup of January 2007, BNP seemed to be in disarray, and many expected Jamaat to emerge as the main alternative to the AL. In the post-9/11 world, Jamaat offered a so-called moderate Islamism to the west.
But, its role in 1971 continued to shackle the party. While Azam played down 1971—evading answers or shifting the discussion whenever the war and the party’s role in it was raised—the newer leaders made a series of confrontational statements that tried to rewrite the history of 1971, erasing any allegation of war crimes. This provoked a backlash, and the demand for trials of its leaders (and a few individuals in other parties) on charges of war crimes gathered momentum.
The Shahbagh Movement
Trying the killers and collaborators of 1971 was a key electoral promise made by the AL in the 2008 elections, which it won in a landslide (232 out of 300 seats). Most of the top leadership of Jamaat was arrested in 2010, when the war crimes trial process started. When Abdul Quader Mollah, also known as the “Butcher of Mirpur,” escaped the death penalty after being convicted of atrocities in 1971, protestors came out to the streets in droves. The Shahbagh movement is the largest movement since the 1990 toppling of the Ershad government. Among other things, the movement demands banning of Jamaat and of religious politics.
It is too early to tell how the movement will play out. Perhaps Jamaat will be banned. Perhaps, not. However, the party has found the past few years quite difficult. With its top tier in jail for alleged war crimes, and the second tier in jail for opposing the war crimes trial process, the party is essentially being run by its 3rd or 4th tier leaders. While they formally adhere to the strategy devised by Azam, in practice, the limitations of that strategy in the current circumstances have resulted in significant internal debate.
One faction, led by what is understood as the business wing of the party (with significant financial connections in the Gulf), want to reboot the party along the lines of the Turkish AKP. Mir Quasim Ali, a business tycoon, and Barrister Abdur Razzaq are often touted as potential leaders of such a revamped party. Some speculate that the ruling AL condone, if not bless, such a scenario. A revamped JI would draw votes away from the BNP and benefit AL.
But another faction, led by former Chhatra Shibir men who saw the triumph of violence in Chittagong and Rajshahi, want to take direct action. They are also inspired by various Arab uprisings, and dream of emulating them in Bangladesh. Since November, they have taken to coordinated violence across Dhaka and other cities.
Finally, there are former Jamaat members who found the party too moderate when it was in government in the 2000s and too pusillanimous in opposition since. Some of them joined violent jihad under the banner of organizations like Harkatul Jihad orJagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh—both effectively suppressed in 2006-2007. If Jamaat is banned, some of its more radical elements may well return to the ways of the bomb.
The people who led the party in 1971, and committed horrific crimes while collaborating with the murderous Pakistan army, will soon be gone. If not in the gallows, these old men will die soon in their beds. What their younger followers choose remains to be seen. And the choice will have significant ramifications for Bangladesh.