Monsoons, Mangoes and Mullahs

By Ghazala Akbar


Monsoon rains, mangoes and angry Mullahs — a visitor to Bangladesh in July / August, finds all three in profusion.  The first two are seasonal. Mullahs of the political kind are perennials. Currently those belonging to the Jamaat-e-Islami are under an ever darkening monsoon cloud, their future role and involvement in Bangladesh politics hanging by a thread. This should be of considerable interest to Pakistan. Yet it barely causes a ripple or comment. The reason is obvious. The trial and tribulations of the party are linked to the events of 1971, a year that Pakistan would dearly like to forget.

Bangladesh has neither forgot or forgiven yet. After forty-two years it is engaged in seeking belated justice, bringing to book those it considers ‘local collaborators’ many of whom, allegedly, committed treason by supporting the actions of the Pakistan Army in 1971. Activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami through the Peace Committees, and groups like the al Badar and al Shams are also accused of perpetrating ‘crimes against humanity.’ Three ailing and ageing senior Jamaat leaders including its Amir, Professor Ghulam Azam have been tried and convicted. Others are on the run having been sentenced in absentia. All deny any wrong-doing.

If that weren’t enough to enough to cripple the party, on August 1 came the double whammy. A Bangladesh High Court upheld a petition challenging the registration of the Jamaat as a political party. Its Charter they said violates the country’s secular Constitution. The sticking point?   The ownership of Sovereignty. The Jamaat, in its charter maintains, sovereignty belongs to Almighty God. In the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh it is reposed in the People. Checkmate.

Arguably discussions on abstract notions of Sovereignty, divine or earthly, seem quaintly irrelevant in the daily struggles of disempowered masses. Being ‘sovereign’ will not protect people from heavy monsoon downpours or makes mangoes ripen faster. It does not guarantee people jobs or make their workplaces safer.  However, what the court ruling does ensure is that the Jamaat-e-Islami as a political entity is temporary disabled. It cannot throw its hat in the electoral ring; it cannot campaign for votes or field candidates. It cannot print election manifestoes promising to enforce the Shariah. It has been delivered a serious technical knockout.

This is not the end by all means. The Jamaat-e-Islami can appeal and is seeking legal redress by appealing to the Bangladesh Supreme Court. It can amend its Charter and apply for re-registration. It can, and is advised to distance itself from disgraced leaders, apologise for past misdemeanours and open a new chapter. Or it can simply give politics a miss altogether, focusing solely on  spreading the light of spiritual knowledge, and fulfilling its  original and well-respected public-service role as a religious, charitable and welfare organization.

Will the party take this course? It is easier perhaps for an Ethiopian to change his skin, the tiger his stripes, or the leopard his spots. If the initial knee-jerk reaction of the party is any indication, it is an ominous pointer to its future plan of action. It has responded, in the time-honoured tradition of sub- continental politics, the good old-fashioned, all-encompassing 48 hour Hartal (Shutter down Strike). More are planned for the future including a non-cooperation movement. With all the attendant miseries and disruptions to economic life they cause, these street agitations are something the country can ill-afford.

These are hard times for a party that has been on the political spectrum in the South-Asian sub-continent since 1941. Yet it is not the first time it has courted controversy or been on the receiving end. The Party had initially opposed the creation of Pakistan arguing that a Muslim majority state did not necessarily mean an Islamic State. Thereafter, it set about trying to put the country on a path of pristine purity, putting the ‘Pak’ back into Pakistan. Its leader, Maulana Abul A’La Maududi received long periods of incarceration for his efforts, but his legacy is all too visible in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan today.

In 1953 the Jamaat was banned and Maududi, sentenced to death by a military tribunal for his role in the anti-Qadiani riots in the Punjab. The sentence was later commuted and Maududi released. The party was banned too in Bangladesh from 1972 to 1975 for opposing the creation of Bangladesh and its negative role in their War of Liberation. In both instances it was able to have restrictions lifted and make a comeback.

Internationally, the Jamaat-e-Islami has powerful allies in the pan-Islamic movement and considerable financial clout. Through its youth wings it has street power and muscle.  In April this year, a relatively unknown group called the Hefazat-e-Islam (Custodians of Islam) went on a long march through the streets of Dhaka in impressively large numbers. Most of the marchers were Madrassah students. Some supporters also set up a rival camp in Motijheel to counter the ‘sit-in’ of youth in the Shahbagh area.

Professedly apolitical, the Hifazat-e-Islam submitted a long list of demands that makes the Jamaat-e-Islami seem relatively moderate in comparison. These included mandatory Islamic education from primary to higher secondary levels, an end to the infiltration of alien culture, a curb on the free mixing of males and females, a new blasphemy law with punishment of death for ‘atheist bloggers’ and a change in the nomenclature of Qadianis as non-Muslims.

Historically though, both in Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Jamaat-e-Islami has never been able to translate its street power into electoral success. In the current Bangladesh parliament of 300, it has a negligible two seats. In two previous elections it fared slightly better providing coalition support to the then ruling party, the BNP who rewarded the Jamaat with a few ministerial posts. In 1996 it even supported the Awami League’s bid for power.

Why then is the present AL government so keen to oust it from the political equation before the next General Election due to be held early next year. Partly perhaps as punishment to the Jamaat for its opposition to Bangladesh’s independence; and partly because it is determined to reclaim the secular foundations of the country and prevent fundamentalism from taking root in the country.

In the coming months it will be very interesting to see how  just how far Bangladesh succeeds in its quest to separate mosque and state and isolate electoral politics from  religious encroachment  “We do not want to become like Pakistan” is a common refrain heard in Bangladesh. Sadly, the religion-riddled politics of Pakistan and its bloody sectarian conflicts, its misogynistic laws, growing intolerance and persecution of minorities is rightly regarded as a yardstick for measuring political emasculation and failure.

Given the recent experience and example of ‘religiosity’ in Pakistani politics, is it any wonder why Bangladesh is eager to limit the role of the religious right in the business of the state: Only last month constitutional provisions regarding the date of the Presidential elections were hastily set aside and the election brought forward in order that legislators of the various Assemblies could fulfill their religious obligations in the last ten days of the holy month of Ramadan!  Clearly the Pakistani pitfall is one that Bangladesh does not want to fall into!

It must be recognized however that there are inherent dangers in the disqualification of a political party with an organized and motivated cadre   as the Jamaat-e-Islami.  Banished from the mainstream it may have no   recourse for political expression except agitation and violent street protest. Not unlike its ideological partner in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (which was once banned by Gemal Abdul Nasser and is danger of being banned again) it may be compelled to go underground only to resurface again, stronger and even more strident.

Bangladesh will have to tread very carefully on the tightrope, keeping a fine balance. In trying to avoid being Pakistan, it must also avoid becoming another Egypt. Ironically, Egypt’s military rulers could also take lessons from Pakistan’s bitter experience in the erstwhile East Pakistan. In 1971election results were set aside, a mandate ignored, a political party banned and a people’s movement suppressed through brute force.  Those measures did not work. Political problems require political solutions. There is, as we know to our cost, no substitute for democracy, pluralism, political compromise, moderation and religious tolerance.

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