Bangladesh is considering banning the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami, the party that was part of the ruling coalition headed by Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party between 2001 and 2006. Bangladesh Foreign Minister and Awami League leader Dipu Moni confirmed this during a meeting with local and Indian journalists in Dhaka this week. "The violence (orchestrated by the Jamaat) is not political, it's purely terrorism," she said.
Jamaat's latest ploy is to use women as shield when indulging in arson and violence. In addition, technology is being used to spread disinformation. Violence started last week when mosques started broadcasting over microphone that an image of war crime convict and Jamaat vice-president Delwar Hossain Sayeedi's face was seen on the moon's surface. The common refrain was that he was a representative of Allah, so the death sentence given to him on 28 February should be revoked. 10-12 people died in the ensuing riots. Meanwhile, as the Shahbag movement, which seeks the execution of all Jamaat war criminals, spreads its roots in the districts and small towns across the country, Bangladeshis say that they never thought that 1971 would have such resonance among the youth.
Jamaat members formed the Razakar paramilitary force and worked with Pakistani soldiers to indulge in genocide. Dhaka residents believe that one of the main reasons that Sheikh Hasina's Awami League came to power in the last elections was because it promised to take action against the war criminals. The Shahbag movement started when Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior Jamaat leader was given a life sentence by a Dhaka-based International Crimes Tribunal. Protests started spontaneously in the first week of February demanding death for Mollah, also known as the "Butcher of Mirpur". The youth and the urban middle class, the initial core of the Shahbag movement, suspected that the Jamaat had struck a deal with the government and were out on the streets protesting the verdict.
Jamaat’s hold does not extend to beyond 5-10% of Bangladesh’s population, which works out to around 70-80 lakh people — enough to fuel violence but not decide election results, unless in alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
As the movement gathered momentum, came the second verdict: Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was given death on 28 February for murder, rape, arson, etc. The Jamaat-sponsored violence that started with Mollah's verdict, escalated into a conflagration, especially in the poorer northern and southern districts, both Jamaat strongholds.
Poverty has a huge role to play in this, said Samar Roy, director with the Dhaka-based Media Professionals Group. The Jamaat controls the madrasas, is involved in social work, runs its own institutes and hospitals and thus caters to the disadvantaged. It is this constituency that it has been mobilising, painting everything opposed to it as anti-Islam.
"The Jamaatis take our children to the madrasas, feed them, clothe them, educate them," said the helper of the taxi driver who took this correspondent around town on 3 March, the first day of the two-day bandh called by the Jamaat. The taxi driver concurred: "Sayeedi is not a Razakar. He is a good man. Wait and see what happens to Hasina. She will not be able to return to power in the next 50 years."
Dhaka residents say that the Jamaat has complete control over the taxi drivers of the city. However, Jamaat's hold does not extend to beyond 5-10% of Bangladesh's population, which works out to around 70-80 lakh people — enough to fuel violence but not decide election results, unless in alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaleda Zia. But after its first stint in power, the Jamaat won only five seats in a 300-seat Parliament in the 2008 elections.
A trip to Shahbag Square last Monday showed that the Jamaat's hold over the Bangladeshi mind is largely tenuous, at least in Dhaka. The people who were shouting slogans there at 7 a.m. were students, small traders, hawkers, labourers — many of them belonging to economically disadvantaged groups similar to that of the taxi drivers of the previous day. One of the protesters, Aulad Hussain, said, "Eta Bangalir praner andolan (This struggle is close to the heart of every Bengali). Here everyone is present: majority, minority, tribals, workers, students. It is a non-violent, non political struggle. We are not against any party, not the BNP or the Awami League, we are against the Razakars."
A group that had gathered nearby spoke disapprovingly of the Jamaatis forcibly taking children away to madrasas, burning houses, attacking minorities.
Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government has tried to co-opt the movement by issuing statements in support of it. Before the war crimes trial started, the popularity of the government was at its nadir. The trial has helped the Awami League bounce back, with the focus shifting to the Jamaat. It's Khaleda Zia's BNP, which has been caught on the wrong foot by supporting the Jamaat and questioning the trial. It's only recently that a desperate Zia has started issuing statements regretting the attacks on the minorities and saying that her party is not against the trial, but against the way it is being conducted.
The national elections are scheduled to take place this year. But the BNP is unlikely to agree to elections under Awami League. Dhaka intellectuals have already started speaking of the "third force", the Army, propping up a caretaker government under which elections will take place.