Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami is facing a tough situation after nine of its top leaders were arrested this week.
The party has reacted to the arrests by announcing a slew of street protests including a general strike today, but it faces an uncertain political future ahead of national elections due in late 2018 or early 2019.
Jamaat, a key ally of the BNP, has been somewhat inactive in mainstream politics after the High Court cancelled its registration with the Election Commission in 2013, barring it from contesting national polls.
The government in recent times has taken a hardline against the party with law enforcement agencies cracking down on its meetings and other political programmes.
A number of the Jamaat’s top leaders have been convicted of war crimes by a special tribunal, set up by the Awami League-led government in 2010. Several senior figures have been executed.
The party has accused the government of using the tribunal as a tool to oppress it -- a charge the government denies.
Police arrested nine central Jamaat leaders, including its chief and secretary general, on Monday night in Dhaka.
Sources say Jamaat leaders are observing the situation and are yet to decide on their next course of action.
Also, several thousand leaders and activists of the party are behind bars on various charges, mostly violence during political campaigns.
When contacted, several leaders of the party’s central committees claimed that around six hundred of their activists were killed during the incumbent government’s tenure.
They alleged that the government was harassing them by implicating them in false cases and shutting down all their offices across the country in the last three years.
Jamaat openly sided with Pakistan during Bangladesh’s liberation movement in 1971. Members from the party and its the then student front were part of notorious auxiliary forces formed to thwart the Bangali’s struggle for freedom
The situation represented “a serious political crisis”, they added, claiming that they were not receiving supports from their allies.
Jamaat leaders and activists told the Dhaka Tribune that they had been facing “serious identity crisis” ever since the High Court’s August 1, 2013 verdict.
Party insiders said Jamaat had been divided into two factions over cancellation of its registration and the war crimes trials. Jamaat leaders declined to comment on the record for this story.
According to electoral laws, when a party’s registration is cancelled, no-one is allowed to contest the polls using its symbol. The party members, however, can participate in elections as independent candidates but they are not allowed to join any alliance.
Jamaat’s top leaders have long been planning to reform the party. In 2010, when Jamaat senior assistant secretary general Kamaruzzaman was put in prison, he wrote a letter to party activists proposing to relaunch Jamaat with a new identity.
If needed, the party charter would be changed and activists would sacrifice their lives for the welfare of the party, the letter read.
“Rumours that Jamaat has been divided in two groups is baseless,” a party leader told the Dhaka Tribune on condition of anonymity.
“Jamaat’s politics centres around its ideology, not any leader. The Quran is the charter of the party, so there is no way to be divided,” he said. “Those, who are publicising that Jamaat is divided, are government agents.”
For the first time since the formation of the four-party alliance (now the 20-party alliance) in 1998, BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia hinted that her party might part ways with Jamaat.
In the post-election press briefing in 2014, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said she would welcome the BNP to a dialogue, provided that it stopped “violence” and abandoned “militant” Jamaat. “No constructive discussion is possible as long as the Jamaat is on its [BNP’s] shoulders,” she had said.
None from the BNP agreed to talk about Jamaat on record. A number of policymakers, who declined to be named, told the Dhaka Tribune that they were not comfortable with Jamaat in their alliance, especially after the war crimes verdicts and the party’s track record of violence.
They said the issue of severing ties Jamaat was discussed at some informal meetings, but no decision was reached.
Former Dhaka University vice-chancellor Professor Emajuddin Ahmed said the BNP could still maintain a liaison with Jamaat because it had not been banned yet.
“However, a time may come when the BNP may think that it will not need Jamaat anymore, but now is not the time to say anything about that,” he said.
“Then again, the proposal to cut ties with any party is not in good taste. Neither will it be pleasant if any party implements that proposal,” Emajuddin, who has close links with the BNP, told the Dhaka Tribune.
Jamaat, a key component of the opposition alliance, has always played an important role in intensifying street protests during the Awami League-led government’s tenure.
The party, accused of committing war crimes in 1971, has also been largely blamed for violent street protests and the loss of properties and lives in the months following the January 5 national election, which the BNP and its allies boycotted.
Although they have never said anything in public, a number of BNP leaders are against maintaining the political liaison with Jamaat.
BNP sources claim that Jamaat has taken advantage of BNP’s organisational weaknesses and taken charge of many districts such as Bogra. They have then gone on to wage often-violent political campaigns, especially after the International Crimes Tribunal started pronouncing sentences against Jamaat leaders for war crimes.
Jamaat received a conditional registration with the EC during the army-backed caretaker government after it brought massive amendments to its charter to meet some of the registration requirements.
Jamaat in Bangladeshi politics
Jamaat openly sided with Pakistan during Bangladesh’s liberation movement in 1971. Members from the party and its the then student front were part of notorious auxiliary forces formed to thwart the Bangali’s struggle for freedom.
All religion-based parties, including Jamaat, were banned by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government in 1972.
After Bangabandhu’s assassination, Jamaat re-emerged in 1976 with a new name -- Islamic Democratic League (IDL) -- and participated in the 1979 election.
Jamaat Leaders say the IDL was a political front of the party in the 1979 elections, as it was was just an Islamist organisation then.
Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (later renamed Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami) was officially founded at a convention chaired by the late Abbas Ali Khan, at Hotel Eden in Dhaka on May 25, 1979.
In 1991, after of ouster of dictator HM Ershad, Jamaat helped the BNP form the government but did not take any share in the power.
At that time, many BNP MPs demanded outlawing Jamaat following countrywide clashes between their student fronts - Chhatra Dal and Islami Chhatra Shibir. The clashes took the lives of a number of Chhatra Dal activists.
In 1994, Jamaat joined the Awami League and Ershad’s Jatiya Party to coerce the BNP to install the non-party electoral oversight system – a formula that Jamaat coined in the early 1980s when the anti-Ershad movement began.
In the late 1990s, Jamaat joined BNP’s four-party alliance, which ended up winning the 2001 elections, turning the Islamist party into an integral part of Khaleda Zia’s government and her alliance.
In 2008, Jamaat won only two seats in the 9th national elections that was won by the Awami League-led alliance.
Sheikh Hasina, the Awami League chief, had pledged to try the war criminals and formed special tribunals.
Nine senior Jamaat leaders, including its chief and secretary general, are currently either facing trial or have been convicted of war crimes.
Jamaat’s assistant secretary general Abdul Quader Molla was the first person to be executed for war crimes in December 2013.