Its reaction to Mollahs sentencing shows Jamaat is unwilling to express contrition over its role in 1971.
In the past seven months,militant activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami have killed 12 policemen and left 109 others injured in Bangladesh. Last week,while enforcing a general strike to protest the death sentence decreed by the Supreme Court on Abdul Quader Mollah,Jamaat workers went on a spree of mayhem in Dhaka and elsewhere to demand that all their leaders detained as war criminals be freed.
The latest verdict is actually a revision of an earlier verdict on Mollah in February this year. That verdict,which sentenced Mollah to imprisonment for life in connection with crimes he committed in 1971,was immediately rejected by tens of thousands of youths. They,as well as other citizens,clearly felt that the man had been let off lightly. Out of that protest came an amendment to the law,enabling an individual or party to challenge the judgment. The government went to the SC with an appeal for Mollahs life imprisonment to be upgraded to the death sentence. Mollahs defence team sought precisely the opposite an acquittal.
The trials are testing the resolve of the Awami League-led government in bringing to a close a sordid chapter in Bangladeshs history. For years on end,the Awami League has been disseminating the message that those who assisted the Pakistan army in killing Bengalis in 1971 would pay. That process is ongoing today. A good number of Jamaat politicians,among whom is Ghulam Azam,the partys former chief,have already been sentenced to death. Judgment is also expected soon on Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury,an important figure in the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia. Chowdhury remains notorious for his role in killing Hindus and pro-liberation Bengalis in Chittagong in the course of the war.
The trials and related judgments have been coming at a time when PM Sheikh Hasina and her government happen to be battling a swathe of problems engendered by the continuous agitation of the BNP. Zia and her friends,both in her party as well as on the extreme right,have been waging war against the Awami League on two fronts. In the first place,they have been calling for the restoration of the caretaker system of government to oversee general elections. Second,the BNP and its allies have been busily engaged in disseminating the propaganda that the government,through its action against the fanatical elements of the Hefazat-e-Islam in early May this year,had left thousands of Muslims murdered. That of course did not happen,but the BNP and the political right,with a tradition of playing the Islam card,have clearly been successful in painting the ruling Awami League and the secular forces as a conglomeration of atheism. The ramifications: the Awami League has lost all the five city corporations to the BNP in recent elections.
For the Awami League,it is today a matter of clawing back to a position that will enable it to return to power in the general elections. That looks like a tough call. Corruption,as in the proposed (now apparently discarded) Padma bridge,the ruling partys running battles with Grameen Bank founder and Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus,the opposition agitation over the caretaker issue and the war crimes trials have placed the government on the backfoot. Ironically,attention has shifted away from the gross corruption the BNP indulged in during its last stint in power between 2001 and 2006. Today,Zia and her party colleagues smell blood and truly believe they are on their way back to power. That,despite the charges of corruption laid at the door of the Begums sons,neither of whom can return to the country owing to the cases filed against them. Yunus,for his part,has been sending out the dark message that those who have tried to destroy the Grameen Bank ought not to be elected. The opposition loves him,even as the ruling party berates him for his audacity. The Awami League,in what looks like desperation,has pushed the PMs son Sajeeb Wazed Joy into politics. He has been lambasting the opposition and warning citizens that the BNPs return to power will mean a journey back to the darkness of the past. It is a sentiment vast numbers of Bengalis identify with.
It is a twilight struggle the Awami League,and by extension Bengalis across the spectrum,happen to be waging against a fanatical right. In the last five years,for all the charges of corruption levelled at it,Hasinas government has made progress in such crucial areas as agriculture,education and IT. The media has operated freely since 2009,when the Awami League returned to office. Of course,action has been taken against a certain newspaper and two television channels. But that had nothing to do with media freedom; it had everything to do with the brazen attempts by that newspaper and those channels to fan religious discontent. Similarly,despite the outcry over the arrest of an official of the human rights body Odhikar,the organisation has failed to substantiate its allegation that security forces killed 61 people in the crackdown on Hefazat-e-Islam.
As the elections approach,the atmosphere promises to heat up. Both UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and US Secretary of State John Kerry have waded into the Bangladesh scene,with suggestions that the ruling and opposition parties engage in a dialogue to resolve the impasse. The suggestions are yet to be taken seriously. With political polarisation as deep and wide as at present,it is hard to see how they will come together in a resolution of the present crisis.
Meanwhile,the Jamaat carries on with its old legacy of violence and social disorder in the pursuit of its misplaced politics. In 42 years,it has never demonstrated contrition over its role in 1971. Backed by the BNP today,it clearly feels its sun will rise again,and soon.
The writer is executive editor,The Daily Star,Dhaka