Last week, in a landmark judgement the Bangladesh High Court deregistered the Islamic fundamentalist party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), thereby banning it from participating in future elections. This is a further blow to the fundamentalist group, which has been on the receiving end of the war crimes tribunal. The tribunal has sentenced some of the party’s top leaders, including Abdul Quader Mollah, for crimes committed during the nation’s liberation war in 1971.
According to news reports, the court verdict came in response to a writ petition filed by a little-known religious group, the Tarikat Federation, which claimed Jamaat should be disqualified as a political party because its charter, which acknowledges the absolute power of God, violates the constitution.
In protest, Jamaat called a two-day general strike, sparking violent protests across the country.
The Wall Street Journal quoted a lawyer named Tania Amir as saying, “The Jamaat in principle does not recognize people as the source of all powers, nor does it accept the undisputed power of the people’s representatives to make laws.” Amir continued, “It is also a party that discriminates on the basis of religion and, therefore, should have its registration cancelled.”
Jamaat has always been a sore point for overwhelmingly secular Bangladesh because of its highly negative role during the nation’s liberation war and subsequent political subversion and hardline religiosity. With a small but significant support base among the rural population, the group commanded four to five percent of the vote in the 2009 elections.
This makes Jamaat an attractive partner for the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), a rightist organization which shares with Jamaat antipathy towards the ruling Awami League (AL).
The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) that is hearing the cases for war crimes committed in 1971 recently sentenced two BNP leaders and is holding six Jamaat leaders, including chief Ghulam Azam, who has been sentenced to 90 years in prison for committing crimes against humanity. The ICT called Jamaat a criminal organization for its “anti-national” activities during the liberation war.
Earlier this year, Bangladesh witnessed mass demonstrations at Shahbag Square in the capital city of Dhaka. The protesters were demanding a ban on the fundamentalist organization and the hanging of war criminals. The cry for unassailable assertion of secularism in the predominantly Muslim republic has pushed fundamentalist organizations like Jamaat into a corner.
The High Court’s verdict has come as a bolt from the blue for the Islamic group and has further polarized opinion in the country. Some in the BNP view the verdict as an attempt to subvert liberal democracy.
Senior BNP leader Ahmed Azam Khan told The Diplomat, “Bangladesh is a moderate and liberal democracy and we should be allowed to practice democracy in a liberal atmosphere. Banning an organization stifles the atmosphere and subverts the political process which is dependent on people’s will.”
However, the spokesperson of the ruling AL, Mohammad A Arafat, has justified the ban. Arafat said, “Jamaat is a rabid fundamentalist party which opposed liberation and killed its own people in opposition to freedom. This party should be banned. Their ideology and practices are anti-democratic and anti-secular.”
Taking a slightly different approach, Dr. Amena Mohsin, a senior academic and political analyst at Dhaka University, feels that the premise for banning Jamaat is wrong. Speaking with The Diplomat, she said she is not sure whether “the charter of Jamaat is ground enough to ban the party.” She continued, “If the court had banned Jamaat for its criminal activities in 1971, it would have been a justifiable move. But the ground (being used now to ban) the organization – I find them contradictory.”
She added that “secular democracy accommodates all kinds of ideological parties. This kind of system gives you space. It is up to the people to accept a party or not.”
The Telegraph of Calcutta published an editorial that raises the same question. It says: “Which other party gains from the court’s ban on the Jamaat participating in the elections is thus only a minor issue. The more important question is whether the legal move helps save democracy in Bangladesh.”
But exiled Bangladeshi writer, Taslima Nasreen, who has been at the receiving end of the fundamentalist groups’ ire for raising the issue of minority safety in her novels, feels that the ban on the organization is “great news”.
In an interview with the news magazine Tehelka, Nasreen said, “It is indeed great news for all secularists that a religious organization that doubled up as a political party, has been finally banned from fighting elections.”
She further added that “the religious fundamentalists have left the Bangladesh society bleeding. Allowing them to engage in political activism is thus an insult to the principles on which Bangladesh was founded.”
There is also another side to this issue. With general elections in Bangladesh expected in the next six months, the ban on Jamaat’s participation in the electoral process has supercharged the atmosphere in the country.
The BNP, an alliance partner of the fundamentalist group, views the court’s decision as an attempt to help the ruling party and rig the elections by banning political organizations.
“The government is behaving like a hardliner towards religious parties,” said Azam Khan, political advisor to BNP chief Khaleda Zia. “It is not sure about coming to power. It is very unpopular. The Awami League knows that it will fail in elections. That’s why they are banning the political opposition.”
Khan continued, “This is the people’s republic. Let the people decide who they want to vote for in the elections. Why ban the party?”
Some political analysts feel that the ban on Jamaat will consolidate the hardliners’ vote behind the BNP, thereby helping the Opposition grab power in Dhaka.
But the point is not who stands to gain in the poll. The larger issue is Bangladesh’s continuous battle to preserve its democratic and secular spirit, the founding principle upon which the country broke away from Pakistan in 1971. Through its political practices Jamaat has tried to radicalize a largely secular country with moral and material help from patrons in Pakistan and other Islamic countries. The party is at odds with the country’s history.
Still, the question remains: Can a democracy stamp out an ideology by banning it, rather than engaging it politically and testing its strength in the electoral arena?