The streets of Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) have been witnessing ruthless torture by the police and other agencies on their own countrymen. Those tortured have been protesting against death sentences and other capital punishments being awarded to aged Islamist leaders by a special war crimes tribunal, on charges of opposing the movement for the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and supporting Pakistan army in curbing what was then called mutiny.
Strikes and protests have been witnessed for the past several months across Bangladesh as the special tribunal of war crimes set up by the Awami League government, led by Sheikh Hasina Wajid, began the trial of elderly leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, the then Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan, whose majority is made up of members over 80 years old now. The eldest among them is the 91-year-old ailing, crippled former chief of JI BD, Prof. Ghulam Azam, who is unable to walk due to paralysis. He had been detained following the framing of charges against him and had been attending court proceedings on a wheelchair with medical support.
No mercy for the old and sick
For the past few weeks, the protests escalated after one of the former JI chiefs, Dilawar Hussain Sayeedi, was sentenced to death by the special tribunal. Around 80 people have died and hundreds wounded as police opened fire at demonstrators including women and children, and also used heavy batons, even on women.
The Jamaat-e-Islami [JI] is an Islamic reformist movement began in Indian Sub-continent in 1940, and was one of the forces that organized and encouraged Muslims to struggle for their political rights as a religious minority in the Hindu majority India, which ultimately led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947. The party is considered ideologically allied with Ikhwanul Muslimin [Muslim Brotherhood (MB)] in Egypt and other parts of Middle East. Coincidentally, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is facing tough time at the hands of nationalist parties, while its ideological ally in Bangladesh is being victimized by a different set of nationalists. The only difference is that MB is the ruling party in Egypt but JI is in the opposition in Bangladesh.
When Indian orchestrated separatist movement gained momentum in former East Pakistan in late 60’s and early 70’s, Jamaat-e-Islami and its affiliated students and youth organizations were at the forefront to counter the political influence of pro-India Bangla nationalists led by Awami League headed by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, father of sitting premier Hasina Wajed. The struggle between Delhi-backed nationalists demanding separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan, and pro-Islam forces defending integrity of Pakistan as an ideological Muslim state, assumed bloody shape in 1970 when India provided arms, money and guerrilla training to Bengali nationalists led by a militant group Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) fighting against Pakistan army.
Crossing of Int'l border by India
Bangladesh came into being in 1971 after the Indian army crossed international borders into Bangladesh to help Mukti Bahini’s liberation war against the Pakistan army. Millions of people were killed in the preceding militancy between pro-Pakistan Islamists and pro-liberation nationalist who also included a sizeable number of Hindus. Official reports, which are still unconfirmed by authentic sources, suggest nearly three-million people were killed during the liberation war, also called civil war. Some moderate estimates put the death toll around one million.
42 years after its creation, Bangladesh is reliving its bloody past, revisiting similar bloody clashes between Bangla nationalists and Islamists, but with the difference that Islamists no more defend Pakistan now since they had merged into mainstream Bangla nationhood soon after it became an independent state.
When Hasina Wajid assumed power for the second time in 2008, media reports warned she planned to speed up secularization of the society and victimization of those Islamists who opposed his father’s Awami League in 1970 elections, and the ensuing liberation war. It is worth mentioning that Awami League won two-third seats in East Pakistan as the Islamist parties won only one third seats.
She was accused of corruption during her rule in 90’s and also served jail terms for that. As expected, she made parliament setup a controversial war crimes tribunal for reopening 42 years old cases against JI and other Islamist leaders. Interestingly, the same JI leaders were exonerated of war crimes charges by the government of her father Sheikh Mujib in early 70’s for want of substantial evidence
The war crimes tribunal had been under harsh criticism from Human Rights groups, opposition parties and legal experts who called it ‘mere tool of victimization’ which is in violation of the constitution and international laws and legal standards. They argue as to how those patriotic people defending the territorial integrity of their homeland are accused of mutiny or sedition.
OIC role in Bangladesh recognition
Pakistan was also dragged into the tribunal proceedings as all the Islamists are accused of still being pro-Pakistan and thus enemies of the state.
Besides creating the tribunal, Hasina government had also demanded Pakistan to tender apology for war crimes against Bangali nationalists and freedom fighters. Islamabad rejected the demand at the diplomatic level but many intellectuals and social leaders have expressed sorrow over those tragic incidents that preceded the creation of Bangladesh. Islamabad recognized Bangladesh as brother Muslim country in 1974 on the spur of OIC.
However, despite separating from Pakistan, the spirit of Islam remained alive and kicking among Bangali populace, which also manifested in shape of their love towards Pakistan on several occasions like backing Pakistan in sports contests against India, and Bangali intellectuals floating occasional suggestions of confederation with Pakistan.
Hasina Wajid and other Bangali nationalists, ostensibly, hate to see the spirit of Islam and the consequent love for Pakistan among her countrymen still countering the sentiments of Bangali nationalism. It explains for her taking a constitutional course for banning Muslim groups in the country through the controversial tribunal.
Apart from sentiments of Bangali nationalism and Islam, secular intellectuals in Bangladesh have to prove they won independence on their own and not by riding Indian tanks. Do they have the courage to set a tribunal for war crimes of Mukti Bahini and those it committed against humanity? Have they got the guts to sift through the history to distinguish truth from lies? Have they got the guts to explain why those defending their country against internal and external enemies were adjudged as traitors, only because they lost against the enemies? But those conspiring and helping enemies were adjudged as heroes, because they won?
Perhaps, nobody could answer this. Or perhaps, only time will tell. But Hasina Wajid must keep her hatred under limits. She must remember the history and the fate of those like her father, Indira Gandhi and others who made the mistake of going too far against their own people.
Mansoor Jafar is the founding Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached through Twitter: @mansoorjafar.