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The quandary of Jamaat-e-Islami

  • Published at 11:59 pm February 21st, 2019
What does his departure mean?
What does his departure mean? / RAJIB DHAR

Jamaat cannot tear itself away from its ideology, no matter what

The resignation of Barrister Abdur Razzaq, a prominent member of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, and the principal defense lawyer in the war crimes trial apparently has caught everyone by surprise, including the party hierarchy. What is more fascinating is that Barrister Razzaq cited the principal reason for his resignation was the party’s failure to apologize to people for its anti-liberation role. 

This is an ironic turn-around for a person who had, for over two years, defended his party stalwarts who were accused of atrocities against people during the Liberation War. None of the leaders he had defended had expressed any remorse for their conduct, let alone sought apologies from the court or from people. They denied all accusations while proudly wearing their party mantle, and the barrister advocated their innocence before the court. 

Now, some two years later, did he have some epiphany? Or is his resignation the sign of an impending implosion of the party?

Barrister Razzaq may or may not have had an epiphany to leave his party, but the question resurfaces as to whether a political entity that was an anti-thesis to the cause of our liberation can integrate with the country’s politics without giving up its ideology. Jamaat did not support our liberation struggle and breakup with Pakistan for ideological reasons. Jamaat-e-Islami is an ideological party -- ideology is its cornerstone. 

What its leaders did in 1971 was not just based on a political alliance with the Pakistan army at the time. They firmly believed in one Pakistan, and therefore, they openly collaborated with the opposition army to prevent the breakup, be it in the form of raising a civil militia like the razakars, hounding out minorities, or killing Bengali intellectuals. 

This is the major reason why the Jamaat leaders charged with war crimes did not consider their acts to be crimes. They considered these to be patriotic acts, services toward protection and sustenance of an ideology. 

Jamaat did not reappear in the Bangladeshi political scene out of nowhere. The party’s leadership took a break with the top leadership retreating to Pakistan, but its operatives in the field remained active, believing in the ideology, and recruiting workers. When the new constitution of Bangladesh banned religion-based politics, rank and file of Jamaat, who were imbued by the party’s ideology, would resurface with the passage of time. And that time was not too late. 

It began with the surreptitious return of Ghulam Azam, the fugitive Amir of Jamaat, from Pakistan in the spring of 1979 on a visitor visa. He started visiting various parts of Bangladesh and reconnecting with his sleeping co-workers. This mission of revival succeeded enormously because it had the blessing of General Ziaur Rahman. Jamaat activists anchored to the newly created Bangladesh Nationalist Party which was originally crafted with a motley collection of politicians from the extreme right to the extreme left.

This nexus was closely stitched by Shah Azizur Rahman, a former Muslim Leaguer and a Pakistan loyalist (who had led a Pakistan delegation to the UN in October 1971 to generate support for Pakistan against India). In the first parliamentary elections of 1979, Jamaat operatives, particularly the party’s student wing, Chhatra Shibir, worked for BNP since the Jamaat was still not registered as a political party. Shah Azizur Rahman once chastised the BNP student wing for feuding with Chhatra Shibir in Chittagong University, saying that Chhatra Shibir was working for BNP.  

Jamaat as a party had been rehabilitated since that time, and had never felt a need for apologies for their role in the Liberation War. The party had done well with their alliance with BNP. The turn in its fortune came after the fall of its major patron and the return of the War Crimes Trial. Barrister Razzaq’s lament that the party had not apologized for its role during liberation may be a convenient excuse for him to leave the party, but for the party mainstream it is a non-sequitur -- it does not follow from the party’s own view of itself: Jamaat does not think it did anything wrong. 

So what does the departure of a party stalwart do to a party’s future? For now, nothing. 

Jamaat-e-Islami is currently going through an existential crisis. Shorn of the patronage it had received from its alliance with BNP, the party has the immediate task of fighting for its right to be registered as a political party with the Election Commission. With the outlook appearing gloomy for the party, the other alternative is a rebirth with a new name.       

This takes us to the second point that Barrister Razzaq reportedly raised as a cause for leaving the party -- the need for reforms within the party. 

We do not know what reforms he was hinting at, but it will not affect either the people or the country at large if he is referring to structural or organizational reform within the party. What may impact the country’s politics is if it were to re-invent itself and have a rebirth under a new name. 

But what will happen to its ideology? It cannot tear itself away from an ideology that has helped it grow its appeal amongst a good segment of the population over the last seven decades. A wolf remains a wolf, even if it wears a sheep’s clothing. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.