Editorial, NewAge, October 29, 2007. Dhaka, Bangladesh
The claim made on Thursday by Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, that a tripartite agreement of 1972 that identified 195 Pakistanis as war criminals means that there were/are no other war criminals in Bangladesh is a point that can be made only in technicality. In fact, the Simla Agreement between the then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi and her Pakistani counterpart Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and endorsed by the then Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was a diplomatic necessity (for all three parties) that dealt with what was to happen to Pakistani prisoners of war and not their Bangladeshi collaborators.
The collaborators to the genocide committed by the Pakistan army in 1971, of course, were offered a general amnesty by Mujib. But that amnesty came alongside a collaborator law that set up 75 tribunals across the country that would try the more serious crimes – murder, rape, arson – that were committed by non-army personnel during the war, making the amnesty a qualified one. These tribunals saw some 36,000 cases lodged, and investigations were ongoing when, in an unfortunate and ultimately telling turn of events, the post-Mujib regimes of Khandakar Moshtaque and Ziaur Rahman abolished those tribunals in the name of ‘national unity,’ effectively making the amnesty unconditional. Those actions, however, cannot and does not wipe out from the nation’s history or conscience certain undeniable truths – that there was a War of Independence, that war crimes took victims by the millions, and that whether in committing these crimes themselves or in actively abetting the Pakistan army, there were collaborators to the genocide who have ultimately gone unpunished, some of them even unrepentantly so.
There can also be no debate or doubt about the active collaborator role Jamaat played during the war, both as a political unit and many of its members individually. No amount of amnesty or statement of denial can wipe away either the documentary evidences or the oral history borne of lived experience of Jamaat’s part in the genocide.
Despite that, however, today Jamaat finds itself not only socially rehabilitated but also a major player in the political mainstream. The twin factors responsible for that are (a) the gradual Islamisation of politics and the state since almost the inception of the once-secular state of Bangladesh, and (b) the political opportunism of the ruling class, including those who have presided over every regime since independence. The process began with Mujib’s general amnesty, followed by Moshtaque and Zia’s abolition of the collaborator tribunals, Zia’s introduction of ‘bismillah’ to the constitution, and Ershad’s adoption, by way of the eighth amendment to the constitution, of Islam as the state religion.
Then the latter-day leaders of Bangladeshi mainstream politics took on the baton of providing Islam in general and Jamaat in particular with ‘democratic’ credentials. When the eighth amendment was challenged in the courts by pro-Awami League lawyers, it was challenged partially, with the adoption of a state religion, and by extension the legitimacy of Islamist parties, remaining unquestioned. This was followed by both the Awami League and the BNP accepting Jamaat as an ally in the anti-Ershad movement, the BNP taking support from Jamaat to ensure majority in the fifth parliament, the Awami League joining forces with Jamaat in opposing and ultimately ousting the sixth parliament, the Awami League inducting at least one identified war collaborator in its cabinet in the seventh parliament, and the BNP doing the ultimate honours of forming government with Jamaat in the eighth parliament.
Today, with the elections to the ninth parliament uncertain and a perceived political vacuum hovering over the nation, all those responsible for Jamaat’s rehabilitation – especially the beleaguered Awami League and BNP – should own up to the part they played in allowing Jamaat to come to the fore. And instead of stopping merely at rhetoric, they should propose and deliver on constructive, rigorous actions – politically, socially and culturally – to take up the fight to secularise the state.
As for Jamaat, setting up a commission to revisit and reopen the war crimes and collaborator files would be a welcome step towards breaking its growing hegemony. Because that hegemony is not only one of obscurantist, Islamist politics, but also a legacy of a collaborator past.