Bangladesh is gripped by an unusually intense bout of violence after the hanging of its first convicted war criminal, Abdul Quader Mollah. A last-ditch attempt by his battery of defense lawyers failed to save the Jamaat-e-Islami leader, popularly known as the “Butcher of Mirpur”, for the massacres he perpetrated during the 1971 War of Liberation. The Jamaat violence seems well-planned and orchestrated, somewhat like the massacres in 1971, especially in targeting the secular Bengali intelligentsia to create a void in the newborn nation and punish the thought-leaders of the secular nationalist movement against Pakistan. Its current spate of murderous attacks on the Awami League leaders and activists are designed to provoke a retaliation that will push the country to the brink of a civil war. Attacking the minorities as a soft target is aimed at raising India’s hackles. The police are the most important of the Jamaat’s targets, because demoralizing them would weaken the government’s resolve to go ahead with the war-crime trials and the execution of those convicted.
The Jamaat’s offensive against the transport sector is designed to paralyse the government in the country and disrupt trade and commerce, especially crippling the booming export sector. The railways, which have never been affected in previous agitations in Bangladesh, have been systematically targeted by the Jamaat since early this year. Tracks have been uprooted, fish-plates removed and fires started on the tracks. Some trains have gone off the rails causing huge disruptions and panic among passengers. Bangladesh is trying to modernize its railway system to facilitate cheap public transport with an Indian line of credit. So, one may wonder whether that could explain the Jamaat specially picking on the railways.
But the violence did not start with Mollah’s hanging. The random attacks using petrol bombs, in which scores die or are maimed with severe burns, are intended to create panic. Attacking buses and trucks or sabotaging trains on the tracks in the current phase of violence started with the BNP-led Opposition blockades demanding a restoration of the caretaker to hold polls. That was aimed at making a success of the strikes and build pressure on the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, to step down. The attack on the Awami League and the minorities was aimed at demoralizing the ruling party and one of its core sources of support. The BNP leader, Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, told the BBC in a recent interview that the current agitation is “like a war”. And he argued that collateral damage is inevitable in a war, comparing the present casualties in the Opposition agitation to the deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan caused by American drones.
So, there is a clear Opposition strategy. The BNP will organize the agitation on the issue of democracy to block the ‘one-sided elections’ now underway, while the Jamaat, which has been de-registered and cannot contest the January 5 Parliament polls anyway, hits the streets in protest against the war-crime trials to pressurize the government to back off. The two allies would coordinate the ‘fight for democracy’ and the campaign to stop the war-crime trials. With the Western media railing against the war-crime trials as flawed and the United States of America and the United Nations calling for stopping them — both because they have doubts about the way the trials are conducted and also because they feel it will aggravate the violence in Bangladesh — the Jamaat has reasons to feel that mobilizing more violence to terrorize the country into submission is its only real political option for survival.
After the UN mediator, Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, pushed both the Awami League and the BNP to start negotiations, the field has been left to the Jamaat to orchestrate a more intense phase of violence following the hanging of Quader Mollah. The hanging was celebrated with thousands on the streets bursting crackers, and the families of those who suffered at the hands of the Jamaat in 1971 went on record to emphasize that Mollah’s hanging should not be the last. They insist that all others convicted of similar crimes against humanity should be sent to their deaths. Despite Western governments and human-rights organizations finding fault with the war-crime trials, the issue on which most Bangladeshis are united is that the killers and collaborators of 1971, the men who killed their own people for a united Pakistan, should not go unpunished. Even those who have much to complain about the Awami League’s track record in government are united on this.
This became clear when the Jamaat failed to get any mass movement started to oppose the war-crime trials and had to remain content with organizing hit-and-run raids with its small but fanatical armed cadre. For a party that opposed Bangladesh’s independence, systematic terror and an alliance with the BNP remain its only hope to retain political influence. When the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami came out in Mollah’s support, saying he was hanged for his loyalty to Pakistan, Bangladeshis reacted furiously. This story, titled “All for a Comrade”, was the most read item on the country’s leading website, provoking furious reactions. One reader suggested Pakistan should take away all the Jamaat people and leave Bangladesh in peace. Another suggested a month’s mourning in Pakistan after its interior minister said he was ‘sad’ at Mollah’s hanging. Even Imran Khan has come in for some furious criticism after he said on Radio Pakistan that he has been told Mollah was hanged without a proper trial. Mollah’s lawyers have always argued that he was not the “Kosai Quader” or “Butcher Quader” who perpetrated the massacres at Keraniganj and other adjoining areas around 1971.
A similar defence has been put up for another Jamaat leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee — he is not the “Deilla Razakar” who was behind the massacres in Pirojpur in 1971. For the four decades that Jamaat leaders like Quader Mollah or Delwar Hossain Sayedee have been part of the politics of independent Bangladesh, there was no attempt by them or their party to deny that they were the same set of leaders who fought and killed for an united Pakistan in 1971. The resolution in the Pakistan National Assembly, mourning Mollah’s hanging and expressing concern over it, has exposed the Jamaat. This does not help their cause at all in Bangladesh, where both the young and the old are fiercely proud of their hard-won independence. The war-crime trials have resurrected the history of the country’s birth and driven home to the younger generation that political Islam and secular Bengali nationalism, on which the nation was created over an “ocean of blood”, are incompatible. The Shahbagh protests have shown on which side young Bangladesh, specially the women, will be in its struggle for identity, which Lawrence Lifschultz has called the “unfinished revolution”.
But the Jamaat-e-Islami — which has been de-registered in Bangladesh during the current Wajed regime because its party Constitution is incompatible with the spirit of the country’s polity — cannot be written off. It is a force-multiplier for the anti-Awami League Opposition, the only party capable of causing terror on the streets. The BNP needs it to add muscle to its street power and minuscule vote-bank, turning the tide against the Awami League.
The Jamaat violence, however, may provide Bangladesh a way out of the inferno. The country is headed for a farcical election in which 151 seats in a house of 300 have returned winners uncontested. Khaleda Zia says that the BNP will not contest if Wajed remains at the helm, and Wajed refuses to step down, offering the BNP all it wants in her ‘all-party government’. Now the Jamaat violence gives the government a chance to opt for a state of Emergency, deploy the army to control the worsening law and order, stop the farcical election process, and allow enough time for the negotiations between the Awami League and the BNP to lead to an acceptable solution, with or without UN mediation. A long Emergency may raise fears about democracy, but a short spell of a few months may give Bangladesh the breather it needs, while allowing the war-crime trials to continue.
But it seems that Wajed is determined to push ahead with the January 5 polls. Two senior leaders of her party have indicated that they will continue negotiations with the BNP, started by Fernandez-Taranco, but a possible consensus that may emerge will be valid for the next elections, not the present one. Returning to power through a sham of an election will leave the Awami League with the challenge to confront the stink of ‘murdering democracy’, unless another election is held fairly soon. If the Opposition agitation becomes more violent and the worsening law and order cannot be controlled, Bangladesh may soon brace for an extra-constitutional intervention from within or without — with active encouragement from the West, specially from the US.