By Bhaskar Roy
In the last three months Bangladesh has plunged into a strife ridden situation where politics is being pushed by extreme religious ideas. Some foreign forces seem to relish in further provoking a situation which goes against the current global trend to eradicate fundamentalist forces and terrorism.
The reason? The ruling Awami League government decided to establish two International War Crimes Tribunals (ICT) to try the 1971 liberation war criminals who had opted to actively oppose independence from Pakistan. If these people had opposed only politically, that would have been another case. But they went much further and committed inhuman crimes against the people that defy description. They slaughtered more than three million nationalists, raped more than 200 thousand women. Not even the old, the infirm and children were spared. These people, who now identify themselves as Bangladeshis or Bengalis, were far more vicious and rapacious than their mentors, the Pakistani occupying army. These criminals should have been tried soon after liberation in 1971, but events that followed were such that the trials could not be held till now. The first ICT was, however, established in 1973 and initial trials held.
Sk. Hasina’s 2008 poll pledge had two significant promises. One was eradication of terrorism, and the other was trials of the war criminals. The two issues are intrinsically linked. That the Awami League won the elections with an unprecedented majority is testimony to the fact that a large majority in the country were behind her.
What is pertinent here is that a substantial number of voters during the last elections were first time voters, and born well after 1971. Same is the case with the current Shahbagh protestors.
Bangladesh suffers from a very special dichotomy. How is it that those people, those political parties, who opposed independence, killed and raped, remain free to even become ministers while quietly carrying out their old nefarious agenda?
The youth of Bangladesh, both men and women, demand a closure to 1971 so a stable country could evolve and could concentrate on development and progress in a democratic and secular country. Sk. Hasina and her coalition government are determined to deliver on these demands.
Among those under trial/convicted with the death sentence are nine leaders from a single party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI). They include Ghulam Azam, the old Amir of JEI, Motiur Rehman Nizami, the current Amir, Nayeb-e-Amir, Dilwar Hossain Saidee and other top leaders. There is no dearth of evidence against them – living eye witnesses, records left by the Pakistani military government, at least two books by young Pakistani military officers who have written their personal accounts, with photographs and mentioning mass graves.
There have been sharp criticism of the reliability of the ICT from within and outside Bangladesh. Within Bangladesh the obvious interested parties include the JEI and their partner, the BNP and their allies. Organizations like the Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are the usual suspects who have their own peculiar agenda mostly on behalf of their fund masters. But the position taken by the British Weekly, The Economist, is most surprising. For the last two years it has carried articles attacking India on Bangladesh politics, chastised the Awami League and stood steadfast with the JEI and BNP. This weekly has lost all credibility of honest, upright reporting and analysis.
There is a three point opposition coalition attack on the government. One is on the abolition of the “caretaker government” system to conduct general election by the Awami League led government through a constitutional amendment. The other is the JEI’s and its students front Islami Chatra Shibir’s (ICS) public violent movement to save their leaders from the war crimes trial. The third which has recently started is the Hifazat-e-Islam Bangladesh (HIB), which presented the government with a 13-point demand at a Dhaka rally on April 06. The government has up to May 05 to meet the demands, most of which are religiously retrogressive. All three are mutually supportive.
The entry of the HIB into the fray may be more dangerous than the BNP agitation. It draws its strength from the Quami Madrassas, or those Madrassas which do not receive support from the government and hence are not under government supervision. The students are from low income to poor families and are imparted religious education. Students who pass out from those Madrassas are not equipped for economic activities but only religious teaching or serving in Mosques.
There is a need to compare the mushrooming of private Madrassas in Pakistan which produced hundreds and thousands of jehadis including suicide bombers. The Pakistani Madrassas, promoted by the military, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the government are beginning to turn against the country and its development.
The Pakistan experience is very important in the context of Bangladesh. Holding a hundred thousand men protest in the capital Dhaka does not come free. Money is coming from somewhere, and so is organization.
The JEI has substantial resources earned from their economic activities and illegal funding from Saudi, Kuwaiti and other NGOs. When the BNP-JEI alliance was in power from 2001-2006, such money was given to the ICS, and terrorist organization like the Jamatul Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB), its affiliate the JMJB, and other such organizations.
Then Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia was fully aware of what was happening and the role that her elder son Tareq Rehman and BNP minister like Luftazzaman Babar along with JEI ministers and leaders played in promoting terrorism, is now well known and documented in court records and media. Khaleda is on record to assert that JMB and their leaders like Sheikh Abdur Reheman and Bangla Bhai were a creation of the media. Her lie was eventually exposed.
Right wing extremist terrorism has been hammered down by the government during the last three years. But they have not been rooted out. They have gone underground, and it is not unlikely that the basic structure and network extends to the ISI of Pakistan. It is astonishing that Tareq Rehman’s connection not only extended to the ISI, but also to Dawood Ibrahim, the world’s most wanted criminal, living in Clifton, the posh area of Karachi under ISI protection. Tareq and his close friend Giasuddin Manan are known to have met Dawood at a hotel in Dubai in 2004. Dawood also visited Dhaka after that to prepare an operation as part of the BNP-JEI government, and the ISI to illegally import ten truck loads of arms for the ULFA insurgents in Assam.
It may also be mentioned that the JMB had set up a small establishment in Murshidabad, West Bengal in 2004. They had to retreat due to pressure from India and the US. Recent developments in Kolkata, West Bengal with a particular minority group openly supporting the JEI and the war criminals should not be ignored. Assam is also vulnerable.
Around 2004/05, the JEI was quite confident of forming the government without outside support by 2013. The JEI had become the tail that wagged the BNP dog. That situation entails even today.
The HIB’s 13-point programme demands greater change in the constitution for rule by Sharia, further eroding the secular and democratic principles. In veiled words segregation of women is also another demand. Death sentence has also been demanded for those who insult Islam and the Prophet (PBUH). It is easy to apply the blasphemy law as seen in Pakistan and some other countries. Four bloggers of the Shahbag movement have been arrested by the government for alleged insult to Islam. This is a very dangerous step and can turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of the government. If a small crack is allowed, it will become not only a gaping hole but wash away the wall. It will not be easy.
The JEI is now threatened with a huge challenge. So is the BNP. It is not only the war crimes, but also crimes committed during the BNP-JEI rule from 2001 to 2006. Charges range from loot of the nation to political assassinations including attempts to assassinate Sk. Hasina.
The BNP is not an ideological party like the JEI. It is an assorted group where most do not subscribe to JEI ideology. The women leaders and cadres including in their youth wing , the Jubo League will have to think about their own future. So will the young men in the party be forced to consider their future.
The choice between a secure future and going back to the dark ages is in front of them. There is the option for closure of 1971 which cannot be achieved without hard decisions. Women hold up half the sky in Bangladesh and make a significant contribution to the economy which is growing at over 6 per cent. Will they succumb to the HIB demands? Unlikely. And they need encouragement from their families, NGOs and the government.
Returning to the central point, the old Pakistani moulded matrix is still alive. Some leading Pakistani media houses do no approve this path for Bangladesh. It is time India took cognizance of the developments as they can directly impact India’s stability and security.
Progressive Bangladesh must squarely deal with two developments. One is Begum Khaleda Zia’s call on the army not to remain silent in the face of the government’s misdeeds, that is, calling on the armed forces to revolt and stage a coup. Thankfully, the three service Chiefs decided to take an oath in parliament recently not to act unconstitutionally. Even then, the situation ahead is unpredictable given the influence of the BNP and JEI in the armed forces.
Next, with the protests against the WCT trials not gaining non-partisan public support, the opposition have moved to create the HIB movement to inject religious sentiments against the pro-liberation and progressive population. The BNP must remember that it is rearing a monster which will consume the party and the nation.
(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org)