Playing ball with the Jamaat

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The Jamaat’s worldview is antithetical to the kind of nation Bangladeshis have repeatedly wanted to build

By Salil Tripathi First Published in Live Mint: Wed, Mar 13 2013

Bangladeshi police detain a supporter of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party during a protest in Dhaka. Photo: AFP

Bangladeshi police detain a supporter of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party during a protest in Dhaka. Photo: AFP

I write this column with some regret. As a college student, among the bylines I grew up admiring was that of S.N.M. Abdi, who was a young reporter in the late 1970s, and exposed one of the most horrendous examples of police brutality in post-independence India—the blinding of undertrial prisoners in Bhagalpur in Bihar. Some politicians defended that barbarism, saying the practice had “social sanction”. But Abdi rightly focused on the atrocity, stirring the nation’s conscience, which was at that time still reeling from the effects of the emergency.

Writing last week in the Outlook magazine, Abdi made some bizarre assertions about Jamaat-e-Islami, the political party at the centre of the storm raging in Bangladesh. The assertions were bizarre because it is difficult to think that the man outraged by the Bhagalpur blindings would suggest that India should engage the political party which has used violence to advance its aims, which include a narrow interpretation of what it means being a Muslim in Bangladesh—an interpretation that has little room for Sufis, Ahmadis, and even less for Hindus. That vision clashes with the founding dream of Bangladesh—which was to be a secular nation that was at ease with its multiple identities, where being Muslim was as much cultural as spiritual (as against religious), coexisting with the Bengali identity.

Indeed, many members of the Jamaat opposed the creation of Bangladesh, and for some time, the party was banned in that country. At the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal, set up to try those accused of crimes committed during the nation’s liberation war in 1971, nine of the 12 men accused of crimes against humanity and genocide, belong to the Jamaat. Some have held ministerial appointments as alliance partners in the previous government of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Begum Khaleda Zia.

Protesting the verdicts (two of the accused have been given the death penalty, one life imprisonment so far), Jamaat supporters have turned violent, attacking minorities and damaging martyrs’ monuments in Bangladeshi cities. Abdi claims that the Jamaat uses its violence for political, and not religious purposes, as if that makes it acceptable. “The best thing about the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami,” he writes, “is that it doesn’t kill Hindus simply because of their faith… Hindus have been killed by BNP-Jamaat followers, but were essentially victims of political vendetta. They were targeted not as Hindus, but because they were perceived as adversaries owing allegiance to the Awami League.” And that’s supposed to make the families of the victims feel comforted, that while they might have been blown up, it wasn’t because of their faith, but because of their political beliefs? To be sure, the Awami League’s Chhatra League, or students’ wing, has also been violent, and in a recent incident, its activists killed a young man who happened to be Hindu. But the Awami League doesn’t have a religious agenda; the Jamaat does.

Abdi cites Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as saying: “Twenty-five per cent of Bangladeshis swear by the Jamaat, are very anti-Indian and are in the clutches of ISI.” That went down badly in Dhaka not because the Dhaka elite, well-disposed towards India, felt offended, but because it was palpably wrong. “Who is informing the Prime Minister?” a leading Dhaka-based journalist asked me at that time, and he is right to wonder.

Look at the numbers: the Jamaat has never won more than 18 seats in a parliament of 300 members. In the current parliament, its strength is two seats, both in the Chittagong division. Nationally it won less than 5% of the popular vote. That makes it the equivalent of a communal regional party—in proportionate terms weaker than the Shiv Sena in India. The decisive issue on which Bangladeshis voted in the last elections was accountability over war crimes—the Awami League promised a tribunal, and the party secured a 9% swing in its favour, getting two-thirds majority in parliament, winning 49% of the popular vote.

Indeed the Jamaat can bring its supporters to the streets and shut down cities. When it calls for hortal, or strike, people often obey—but not because they support the Jamaat’s ideology, but because of those supporters’ ability to destroy the shop that stays open or the car that defies the strike, much like what other thuggish outfits do in the subcontinent.

Successive elections have shown that even if one were generous, a small minority—fewer than one in 10—shares the Jamaat’s view of nationalism and identity, because its worldview is antithetical to the kind of nation Bangladeshis have repeatedly wanted to build. Neither Bangladesh, nor India as its friend, should underestimate the Jamaat’s potential to disrupt that dream. But always note what the Jamaat represents, challenge it, confront it. Playing ball with the Jamaat, as Abdi recommends, is not an option. Doing it would disrespect the sacrifices of the many who died for Bangladesh’s freedom.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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This entry was posted in 1971, Bangladesh, Genocide, Human rights, India, Islam, Killings, Law, Major Features on Bangladesh, Pakistan, politics, Religion, Resistance, South Asia, War and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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