Reviving ghosts, parties demand ban on 'war criminals' from polls
News Analysis By Mahendra Ved
New Delhi, Sep 21 (IANS) The debate over "anti-liberation forces and war criminals" being allowed to contest elections is intensifying in Bangladesh but with no resolution in sight.
Reviving a ghost from the recent past, many political parties are asking the Election Commission (EC) to disqualify "war criminals" from the election process. The chief target is the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which has not reacted so far.
The move has gathered momentum despite the EC delivering a strong snub to political parties and successive governments since independence in 1971 for legitimising and cohabiting with these very forces.
Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) A.T.M. Huda said last Sunday: "It was you (politicians) who made anti-liberation leader Shah Azizur Rahman (who belonged to the banned Pakistan Muslim League) the prime minister after 1975. Anti-liberation people were made ministers of the immediate past government. Now how are we to go ahead disqualifying them from contesting in the polls?"
Tracing the immediate aftermath of independence, Huda said Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had granted amnesty to war criminals but also clarified that those with specific charges against them like rape or murder would not get the benefit.
Responding to the demand made by Qader Siddiqui, a veteran of the 1971 liberation war who heads the Krishak Sramik Janata League (KSJL), the CEC said: "Give us a mechanism, give us a proposal for approaching the matter."
Having held a mirror to politicians, the EC is however unlikely to act against parties like the Jamaat, considering the wide and deep spread of conservative Islamists and clergy in most political parties, not to speak of society as such.
This is despite Bangladeshis' fight for their language and a cultural identity that led to their separation from Pakistan.
Media reports indicate that the EC, which commenced a dialogue on electoral reforms with select political parties on Sep 12, may entertain the demand if it comes from many parties.
But this may well be to keep the debate on and ensure cooperation of the political parties.
The issue could even divide the political spectrum and divert it from the general clamour for relaxation of curbs put on their activities under a national emergency in force. This would suit the government.
A formal ban may require legislation. It is doubtful whether the current government, a 'caretaker' as defined under the constitution, would want to introduce a measure in the absence of an elected parliament. It has been averse to taking decisions of a long-term nature for this reason.
A ban on any political group is bound to disturb the proverbial hornet's nest, adding to the troubles of Chief Advisor Fakhruddin Ahmed's government.
Such action is bound to upset the Saudi Arabian royalty that is also the custodian of Islam's holy shrines, with which JI leaders are known to enjoy close relations.
Not surprisingly, despite Huda not rejecting KSJL's denouncement of the "war criminals" outright, the EC is scheduled to meet a JI team on Oct 25.
The Jamaat, which has been a parliamentary party since 1986, polled three percent of the popular vote in the 2001 elections, winning 17 seats, and had three ministers in the Khaleda Zia government.
A formal ban may not hurt JI, reportedly a fund-rich party receiving funds from Islamic countries and having investments in hospitals, banking and IT industries.
JI collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the liberation war and was constitutionally banned until 1976. Ironically, Ziaur Rahman, a freedom fighter and the military ruler of the time, later to become the president, reinstated it.
Now, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that he founded and his widow, Khaleda Zia, has been leading has joined the bandwagon for JI's disqualification.
Said Zia's adviser Brig Gen (retd) A.S.M. Hannan Shah said: "War criminals, found guilty by courts, should not be allowed to contest in polls. They should also be barred from engaging in politics in Bangladesh."
Besides the BNP's tentative agreement, the proposal's movers, mostly smaller centrist and left parties, are hopeful as the Awami League (AL) and a Jatiya Party faction are also supporting them.
The issue is being discussed within the armed forces as well. On March 27, when some freedom fighters at a tea party demanded that war criminals be prosecuted, Chief of the Army Gen Moeen U Ahmed said he would raise the issue in government circles.
However, an end to the debate on this thorny issue is not likely - it may never come about.