Jamaat getting crushed in the ‘Battle of Begums’

 By aligning with Sheikh Hasina, the Jamaat in Bangladesh earned the Awami League’s wrath
By aligning with Sheikh Hasina, the Jamaat in Bangladesh earned the Awami League’s wrath

The Jamaat-e-Islami, set up in undivided India in 1941 by Syed Abul A’la Maududi, one of the top Islamic thinkers of his time, got transformed into four independent entities as old India gave birth to three independent countries — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Jamaat in Jammu and Kashmir has its independent existence, having nothing to do with the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, and its prominent face is Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the hardcore Hurriyat leader.

Of all these Jamaats, the one in Bangladesh has been the most successful politically by aligning itself with one of the “Battling Begums”, Khaleda Zia, president of the second most powerful political organisation, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). But this is also a major factor why the Jamaat has been at the receiving end at the hands of the ruling Awami League. The Jamaat made some serious mistakes in the initial years of the birth of Bangladesh though this did not come in the way of its growth as the third major political force there.

The Jamaat lost one of its top leaders this month, Mir Quasem Ali, as he was hanged to death after being convicted by a controversial “war crimes” tribunal for his role during the 1971 war for freedom from Pakistan. He was the fifth Jamaat leader executed for “war crimes” in Bangladesh. The execution came after the Bangladesh Supreme Court rejected his appeal against the verdict of the tribunal. The Jamaat chief, Motiur Rahman Nizami, was hanged in May for offences related to the 1971 Bangladesh war.

Ali, a real estate and shipping tycoon, was well known for his philanthropic activities. He was one of the top Jamaat leaders who worked hard to transform the mainly religious organsation into a formidable political force in Bangladesh. Yet, contrary to expectations, there were no street demonstrations after his execution. Ali’s son was taken in preventive custody before the hanging was carried out with a view to instilling fear among the people that any kind of violence on the occasion will not be tolerated.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is doing all she can to silence her opponents, and the Jamaat, therefore, cannot escape her wrath. She is accused of using the war crimes tribunal to weaken her opponents so much so that they are unable to pose a serious challenge to the supremacy of her party, the Awami League, in a future election. She banned the Jamaat in the past but the ban was lifted when egum Khaleda Zia formed her government. The Jamaat has been banned again with little hope of the situation changing in the near future.

It all depends on the capability of Begum Khaleda to re-organise herself to take on Sheikh Hasina with full force to defeat the latter at the hustings.

However, Khaleda — widow of Gen Zia-ur-Rehman, respected for his contributions to the Bangladesh liberation war — is fighting the battle for her survival with her back to the wall. Her major ally, the Jamaat, is faced with a serious crisis, and she is distrusted by the neighbouring countries and the West because of her rightist leanings. The present military leadership in Bangladesh too has reservations about her.

To cap it all, the Sheikh Hasina government has successfully introduced a major change in the election law, eliminating the requirement of a caretaker government for holding elections. The system of having a caretaker government was introduced as rigging of elections had become a common complaint with the defeated party refusing to accept the people’s verdict because of this factor. What will be the fate of a future election without such an arrangement remains to be seen.

Begum Khaleda Zia and the Jamaat leadership are expected to demand revoking of the abolition of the caretaker government system whenever an election is held. In the meantime, they are finding it difficult to save themselves from the war crimes tribunal which may cripple them if executions continue to go on. People in Bangladesh are very sensitive about anything related to the liberation war. They hate Urdu because of the belief that the Urdu-wallahs collaborated with the then Pakistan Army to subvert the struggle for independence from Pakistan.

But how did the Jamaat take to politics in a big way when Bangladesh has a secular and democratic system of governance in which sovereignty lies with the people? Taking part in elections in the conventional form of democracy was initially not allowed to Jamaat leaders.

The founder of the Jamaat was opposed to his organisation taking part in elections mainly because of the sovereignty factor. He argued that the popular system of democracy, whether a parliamentary or presidential one, was based on the principle that people of a country are sovereign and an elected government has to function in accordance with the mandate of the people. The Jamaat’s original concept of democracy was based on the Almighty (Allah) being the sovereign force and His book, the Quran, should be the final guide for any government.

Of all the Jamaats, the one in Bangladesh became the most politically successful by aligning itself with BNP’s Khaleda Zia. But this is also a major factor why it is now at the receiving end

Interestingly, the Jamaat leaderships all over the Indian subcontinent have taken to fighting elections except for the one in India, which has set up a separate political party, the Welfare Party, for the purpose. Now the Indian Jamaat allows those associated with it to cast their vote in favour of a party of their choice, contrary to the earlier practice of these people not taking part in polls. Perhaps the change in the thinking is based on the realisation that the organisation, directly or indirectly, must have its presence in elected legislatures, where laws are made, with a view to protecting its interests. The new leadeship of the Jamaat must have realised that boycotting the existing system will not serve their purpose.

Perhaps, the idea of setting up a sister organisation to contest elections has been borrowed from the RSS. Insiders in the Jamaat argue that if the BJP as an offshoot of the RSS can grow into a powerful political force, their Welfare Party too can be a formidable political entity one day. However, the idea is like a two-edged weapon. Taking a dip in the cesspool of politics may also be the cause for its suffering as the experience in Bangladesh shows. It all depends on how tactfully the Jamaat leadership makes its moves on the chessboard.

The fact of the Jamaat in undivided India being opposed to the creation of Pakistan can help in realising its political ambitions, but it requires a focused approach and deft handling of the situation. That the Welfare Party has so far failed to make its presence felt on the Indian political landscape is proof of poor leadership that does not know how to use its plus points to translate its political dreams into reality.