Much mischief is afoot in Bangladeshs politics today. In a travesty,former prime minister Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) have launched a propaganda campaign against the ruling Awami League and the tens of thousands of youths who have,for more than a month,been demanding that the war criminals of the countrys war of liberation in 1971 be made to face full and proper justice. Most of those accused of war crimes are leading figures of the Jamaat-e-Islami and notorious for their collaboration with the Pakistan occupation army.
Forty-two years after the war,two of the collaborators have been handed down sentences of death by a war crimes tribunal set up by the government. One has been sentenced to life in prison,a judgment that has left the nation appalled in view of the enormity of the mans crimes in 1971. A few others,including former Jamaat chief Ghulam Azam,await judgment in a matter of weeks. A particular irony for Bangladesh is that all these men accused of war crimes returned to full-fledged politics after the assassination of Bangladeshs founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and senior figures of his government in 1975. Their re-entry into politics,despite their failure to acknowledge the reality of Bangladesh,was facilitated by the annulment of the Collaborators Act,1972 by the countrys first military dictator,General Ziaur Rahman,who was himself a freedom fighter. In subsequent times,two of the collaborators served as cabinet ministers in the government of his widow,Khaleda Zia.
The mischief today is not just in the fact that Khaleda Zia and her party have squarely closed ranks behind the collaborators of 1971 but also that they have in recent weeks played,in tandem with a clearly violence-driven Jamaat and a fringe of rabid Islamic organisations,the very communal card that,in pre-1971 Bangladesh,was a weapon in the hands of successive Pakistani regimes. Begum Zia and her followers,among whom are an assortment of self-styled Marxists and politicians clearly unhappy with secularism,have now raised the Islam in danger card before the country. BNP politicians have warned that assaults on Islamic sentiments will not be tolerated. The young people at Dhakas Shahbagh Square and anyone supporting their demand for a return to the original principles of the country are routinely being castigated as atheists out to undermine the prophet of Islam. More worrying,as well as bizarre,is Khaleda Zias calculated use of the term genocide to describe the killing of rioters at the hands of the police in recent weeks. She has said not a word about the collaborators,now on trial or awaiting execution,who assisted the genocide carried out by the Pakistan occupation army in 1971.
A terrible fallout of this turmoil has been the systematic attacks on Hindu homes and temples across Bangladesh by activists of the Jamaat and others who have never conceived of Bangladesh as being anything other than a state based,a la Pakistan,on Muslim communal foundations. Thousands of Hindu homes have been ransacked; Hindu families have had their valuables looted by fanatic mobs; and till last count,as many as 42 temples were vandalised or burnt down. The BNP has now embarked on a Goebbelsian mission of propagating the untruth that the Hindus have been the target of the ruling Awami League. It is unwilling to admit the provocation it provided to those (and they were elements in the Jamaat besides being bigots from other organised gangs) who have carried out the mayhem. The sense of insecurity in the Hindu community is,understandably,well pronounced. The same is true of Bangladeshs Buddhists,who saw their temples and religious scriptures put to the torch in the southeastern town of Ramu last year. There have been reports of Christians being threatened by Muslim bigots in Dhaka.
The BNP,in association with the Jamaat and other extreme rightwing organisations,has patently opted to employ any means,fair or foul,to dislodge the elected government led by PM Sheikh Hasina. That among these means is a consistent use of the communal card,that such methods are bringing opprobrium for the country abroad,have been of little concern to Khaleda Zia and her friends. As for the government,having opened up rather too many political fronts in the last four years and acting in a manner that can only be described as arbitrary,it is today unable to fashion a firm,credible response to the Islamists threat to Bangladeshs secular foundations. With elections expected early next year and with the controversy over whether or not a caretaker government will supervise the voting yet to be resolved,the government must now wage battle against organised demons from the past.
It is an unhappy Bangladesh its people inhabit today. Secular Muslims,and they are by far the majority in the country,have nevertheless been unable to put up a decisive response to the sinister doings of the bigots and their friends,such as those in the BNP.
It is once more a twilight struggle for Bangladeshs citizens,against the forces of medieval darkness,one they cannot afford to lose. A huge missing factor here is a strong leadership to confront the forces of bigotry.
The writer is executive editor,The Daily Star,Dhaka