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.

Southasia - - Contents - By Dr. Moo­nis Ah­mar Dr. Moo­nis Ah­mar is a Pro­fes­sor of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of Karachi and Di­rec­tor, Pro­gram on Peace Stud­ies and Con­flict Res­o­lu­tion.

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.

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