Saturday, December 22, 2007

Action against Jamat

Bangladesh's Guilty Men
Source: Kashmir Herald

While pursuing its ‘minus two’ policy that seeks to exclude the two eternally quarrelling ‘Begums’, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party, from the country’s politics, the army-propped interim government in Bangladesh has been arresting and prosecuting a large number of politicians of the two major parties and their businessmen supporters. But lately, the two leading parties are reported to have joined hands to demand some similar action against ‘war criminals’ also.

The more surprising thing, if true, is that Khaleda Zia’s party backs this demand, because the BNP is suspected to nurse sympathy for at least some of the ‘war criminals’ while it displays open antipathy towards the founder of Awami League and Bangladesh and the father of Sheikh Hasina, Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman. The ‘war criminals’ are the people who had unabashedly worked for the repressive Pakistani army during the nine-month war of independence in 1971. The demand to proceed against the ‘war criminals’ must have presented a dilemma before the ‘neutral’ government headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed.

One of the persons who, to begin with, will then face the prospect of a jail term is none other than Motiur Rahman Nizami. He happens to be the leader of the country’s third largest party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. It is a fundamentalist organisation that had gained disproportionate importance during the Khaleda Zia regime that ruled the country before the army installed the interim government.

The Jamaat traces its origin to the pre-Bangladesh (Pakistan) days when its student wing was actively involved through its militias like Al Badra, Al Shams and the Razakars in systematically abducting and killing a large number of the Bangla intelligentsia that had risen against the Punjabi-dominated Pakistan government and its army during the liberation war. The role of Nizami, then a youth leader of the fundamentalist organisation, in the atrocities committed by the Pakistani army was not hidden from anyone.

During 1971 the Jamaat had openly opposed worked against the birth of Bangladesh by feeding the Pakistani army information about the freedom fighters.

For a brief period in early 1970s the Jamaat was banned but within four years, in 1978, it had regained recognition and was active as a fundamentalist religious party in the country that had declared itself to be secular. It has been a consistent stand of the Jamaat that there are no ‘war criminals’ in Bangladesh. In fact, organisations like the Jamaat refer to events in 1971 not as freedom struggle but ‘civil war’.

The many twists and turns in Bangladesh politics since December 1971 have seen Nizami become a politician of some consequence even as many of the ‘war criminals’ in and out of the country roam freely. Arresting Nizami could create a situation that the government would like to avoid, just as it does not want to extend its ‘minus two’ philosophy into a politics of ‘minus three.’

The demand for action against the ‘war criminals’ from the principal parties is a bit mystifying for during their long rules in previous years they had done precious little about it. Some of the prominent characters who top the list of ‘war criminals’ are former army officers—mostly out of the country now. It may be that some sections in the Bangladesh army too are not very enthusiastic about initiating any move against the guilty men of 1971. At best, the army might like to see the Jamaat cut down to size, lest it create trouble for the interim government, which has apparently managed to establish peace in the country frequently ravaged by natural disaster.

But since the previous government had failed to prosecute the ‘war criminals’ it will be a surprise if the temporary government, in office till elections scheduled late next year are held, does move against the ‘war criminals.’ The present Dhaka administration is believed to favour action by private citizens. If that is the official stand it is merely seeking a way out for no private citizen can undertake an exercise as important and elaborate as proceeding against people involved in crimes against humanity a good 36 years ago.

The only reason why the question of prosecution of the ‘war criminals’ never fades away is that at popular level it is linked to the country’s identity, pride and dignity. Many in Bangladesh think that the failure to take action against the ‘war criminals’ is an unpardonable sin. They are the ones who want the guilty men of 1971 tried for genocide and crimes against humanity. They see the atrocities by the Pakistani army in 1971 as history’s biggest genocide on par with the crimes of Hitler who had ordered mass slaughter of the Jews in the name of ethnic cleansing. The Pakistani Generals, who used to call the Bangladeshis an ‘inferior race’, had repeated the same exercise in Bangladesh. One Bangladeshi commentator had wondered if there is any country in the world where those who opposed the birth of a nation and collaborated with its enemies are able to go about their business without any fear of prosecution. At one time one of the ‘war criminal’ was representing the country as ambassador in a friendly country.

But the undeserving freedom for the ‘war criminals’ has been a gift of the strange politics of Bangladesh, which is full of irreconcilable differences between the two main political figures and their mutual dislike and distrust. To the outside world it was Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman who led the war of independence in Bangladesh. But that is not how some of the politicians, including the BNP leadership, see it. The BNP downgraded his role while playing up the role of Khaleda Zia’s husband, an army General who had staged a coup to come to power.

It could well be the result of subtle efforts by Pakistan which has extensive ISI network in Bangladesh, but Bangladeshis, like Pakistanis, are prone to see an ‘Indian hand’ in just about every unpleasant development in their country. India is said to be lurking even behind the demand for prosecution of ‘war criminals.’

Considerable number of Bangladeshis believe that India wants to annexe their country and its ‘help’ in the 1971 liberation war was part of that design. The demand for action against the ‘war criminals’ may be a move to restore the national pride but many in the country oppose it simply because they perceive it as something that will help India achieve that alleged Indian aim. That should be a good enough reason not to expect any movement on the demand for action against ‘war criminals’!

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