Is the party about to change?
Jamaat politician and lawyer Abdur Razzaq has left the party saying it’s out of tune with times, is refusing to accept its guilt for supporting Pakistan in 1971, and it’s unable to become a party closer to the national mainstream. Another Jamaat student leader, Mojibur Rahman Manzu, has been expelled from Jamaat for anti-party activities which Manzu says was for protesting Jamaat’s inability to understand what today’s politics needs.
A political party which had opposed the birth of this very state and supported a genocidal force continues to be politically active. Almost 50 years later after 1971, it’s often the key factor in contemporary party politics as the 2019 elections showed. Part of this is caused by the problem of constructing politically influenced historical narratives, partly by the inadequate development of a political structure that can’t accommodate public participation needs sufficiently.
Jamaat’s guilt and the wrong question
Our history’s great tragedy has been the assassination of its political leaders and its historical narratives. The layers of forgetting are far greater than what we choose to remember, because history serves politics more than facts. Records from 1971 show how deeply society was divided between a tiny minority of criminals and a helpless majority. This cleavage is critical to understand how the present world was constructed in that particular year.
Pakistan’s attack on the night of March 25 unleashed the forces of hell. Many people sought personal gain even as everyone else suffered. It was not politics which dominated collaboration with the Pakistanis -- in most cases, greed, and lust did more. Only a few were loyal to the ideas of Pakistan, and Jamaat was one such force.
The Pakistan army committed genocide and also created an enabling environment for all others interested to join. Genocide was committed in the name of Allah and, hence, the Pakistan state was considered halal by them. Rape was cleansed of sin, and loot and arson sanctified by the Pakistan state and its professed faith. These were not attacks by mobs and crowds but a mass mayhem engineered by the state machinery. To Pakistan, it was state policy, to Bangladeshis, it was genocide and rape.
What the so-called dissenting Jamaat leaders say now -- Razzaq and Manzu et al -- is that the party should accept that they followed a wrong political line in 1971 but that’s not participation in, or support of, genocide. But it was known to all what Pakistan was doing in 1971. To support Pakistani policies is to support war crimes. Jamaat, by supporting a genocidal force, is complicit with that. Only a supporter can believe otherwise.
War crimes trial and innocence
Jamaatis including the two dissidents dispute the findings of the WCT (War crimes trials) and call it flawed. That could be so, but it doesn’t change the fact that Jamaat’s complicity in war crimes rises from its publicly stated political position in favour of war crimes by Pakistan, not individual guilt.
By calling its pro-war crimes position as “politics” is a strategic ploy to de-stigmatize. Anyone supporting Pakistan in 1971 was supporting war crimes. Jamaat did and therefore must bear that cross. Yet, the fact that Jamaat continues to function so robustly and for so long in a “chetona” driven world is a historical paradox. If the ruling class political structure wanted, there would be no Jamaat but it returned and has continued to function and play a critical role. 47 years after 1971, it has been part of joint movements with the AL and is a close ally of BNP.
BNP directly gained by tying up with Jamaat in the 2001 elections, but in the process picked up a burden that has benefitted AL more politically. The two parties have little difference in socio-economic policies and issues, but AL has always been able to tar BNP as an ally of a war criminal party.
Even in the last elections, little discussion took place on policy issues but was almost entirely on the AL-BNP tie up. At one point, BNP even had to defend Jamaat as “having pro-liberation” supporters within the party.
Good Jamaat, bad Jamaat?
Bangladesh’s political structure is not accountable and a winner-takes-all mentality prevails. At the village level, after 1971, those who committed war crimes were killed. They were extra-judicial killings, but that is how social justice functions in the absence of a formal legal structure. That same system continues to operate displaying that the rule of law is not there yet, whether legal or administrative. The same goes for political parties.
A section of Jamaat wanting to apologize for what they perceive is a “political error” and not siding with war crimes. If a so called “pro-liberation” Jamaat emerges, its stigma will be reduced and BNP might try to benefit but then it could even become a rival of sorts, stronger than now. But if it’s a tiny faction and BNP is tied to the mother party, no gains will be there for the faction or the BNP.
For the AL, the “good and bad” Jamaat issue may create political pressures but its arsenal is not just with the politician’s space. A new Jamaat is more a threat to BNP than AL. AL is also not bothered much by Jamaat but by BNP, which is accused of links to the killings of 1975 and 2004.
However, unless the Jamaat as a whole switches to a new space, the matter won’t have much impact. The “sorry for 1971” faction of Jamaat may survive AL’s move to cancel its right to election but the mother party won’t. But Jamaat of any kind exists because of the AL-BNP fight, not for any independent reason of its own. It’s the two-party fight that will decide what will happen to the rest, including Jamaat.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, researcher, and political commentator.