Bangladesh Identity Crisis
Bangladesh has been caught in an identity crisis since its very inception. Recent political upheavals concerning the International War Crimes Tribunal must be analyzed against this backdrop.
How will Bangladesh liberate itself from its religious conflicts?
“We have a problem in accepting that they are demanding the death penalty. But we understand that it was from nervousness among the people here that unless they are given the highest penalty in the hand, these people will come back out.”
-Sultana Khan, prominent human rights leader in Dhaka.
The above stated thoughts as reported in a news story titled, “Islamic leader sentenced to death in Bangladesh” in the 7 March issue of the International Herald Tribune reflects the level of schism and polarization which grips Bangladesh. In December last year, the International War Crimes Tribunal gave a death sentence to Jamaat-e-Islami leaders Abul Kalam Azad, Abdul Quader Mollah and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi on charges of murder, abduction, rape, torture and persecution during the 1971 military operation in East Pakistan. Since then, approximately 100 people have been killed in Bangladesh in protests against what have been termed as “unjust, unfair and biased” verdicts given by the controversial judges of the tribunal. In contrast, a sit-in in the Shahbagh square, Dhaka in December 2012, demanded exemplary punishment to the “collaborators” during the military operation in 1971.
The Jamaat’s violent reaction against the verdicts and tacit support given by the opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to protest against the Awami League is a clear indication of looming crisis, which will further deepen Bangladesh’s political predicament. As mentioned in ‘Unrest in Bangladesh, A nation divided’ published in The Economist, “it was supposed to help Bangladesh come to terms with the horrors that accompanied its birth as a nation in 1971. But the International Crimes Tribunal has provoked the worst political violence the country has endured in the 42 years since.”
In 1972, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, then Prime Minister and founder of Bangladesh, ordered the formation of special tribunals to try collaborators but in 1973 he ordered general amnesty to those collaborators against whom trials had not yet been initiated. Mujib’s assassination in August 1975 and a long military rule derailed the process of punishing collaborators. During Sheikh Hasina’s first government (1996-2001), no concrete efforts were made to launch a trial of the collaborators. It was only in 2010 when her government established the International War Crimes Tribunal, which resolved to bring to justice those who were held responsible for crimes against humanity.
However, the lack of transparency that accompanied the trials raised several questions about the fairness and manipulation of the tribunal. The tribunal became controversial since its inception because its composition reflected a domestic instead of an international character. Furthermore, as
stated by The Economist, “Mr. Sayeedi’s conviction had been expected by mid December. It was delayed when the presiding judge, Nizamul Haq, resigned as Chairman of the tribunal on December 11. Transcripts of Skype conversation published in Bangladesh showed collusion between judges, prosecutors and a Brussels based lawyer with no official standing with the court.”
The incredibility of the tribunals and the mishandling of the Jamaat’s leaders, further augmented the political crisis in Bangladesh. More than four decades have passed since the tragic events of 1971 and those who have been convicted or are under trial are in their seventies and eighties. The motives of the Awami League are unclear. While some truly believe that such an undertaking will serve the greater interests of Bangladesh, others simply see it as political consumption with general elections around the corner.
Jamaat-i-Islami not only opposed the movement for the creation of Bangladesh but also supported the Pakistan military in eliminating freedom fighters and all those involved in the nine month struggle against what was perceived as the “Pakistan occupation army.” The raising of Razakars (volunteer) under the name “AlBadr” and “Al-Shams” was meant to provide support to the Pakistan Army in enforcing the writ of the state and also dealing with the “Mukti Bahini” (liberation force of Bangladesh) with an iron hand. After the fall of Dhaka and the creation of Bangladesh in December 1971, the Awami League government banned the Jamaat but the Martial Law regime of General Zia-urRehman, later lifted the ban.
During 1980s and 1990s, the Jamaat tried to rehabilitate its position and joined Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s BNP regime in 2001. After its crushing defeat in the 2008 general elections, the Jamaat’s position was marginalized. However the political decision to ban Jamaat-e-Islami because of its involvement in war crimes during 1971 will not only deepen polarization but also put a question mark on the future of Bangladesh’s stability. The major fault lines that plague the nation, revolve around deeper concerns of nationalism, religion and secularism.
Since its inception as an independent state in 1971, Bangladesh has faced an identity crisis: should it be an Islamic state, a nationalist state or a secular one? According to the constitution of 1972, the country was declared a democratic and secular state. But the Martial Law regimes of General Zia-ur-Rehman and General Hossein Mohammad Ershad changed clauses in the country’s constitution which promoted the Islamic character of the state. Sheikh Hasina’s second regime tried to undo the marginalization of secular characteristics of Bangladesh but failed because of the fear of a strong backlash. BNP, established by General Zia-ur-Rehman, provided an alternate to the ideology of narrow Bengali nationalism and gave the slogan of Bangladeshi nationalism with a blend of Islam. The Awami League adheres to the ideology of Bengali nationalism and considers itself secular. As a result, whenever the Awami League comes to power, it relegates the value of religion and emphasizes secularism and Bengali nationalism. Whereas, when BNP comes to power it gives importance to Bangladeshi nationalism and religion.
Steps to promote secularism are termed as undermining the role and influence of Islam, which no government in Bangladesh can relegate. Therefore, the recent political upheaval in Bangladesh following the agitation by Jamaat-e-Islami against the verdict of war crimes tribunal needs to be seen in the context of identity crisis in that country.