Battle for Bangladesh

Through a majority verdict on August 1, a three-judge bench of the Dhaka high court cancelled the registration of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh. This means that while Jamaat can continue to remain politically active it cannot contest elections. On August 5, a chamber judge of the country’s Supreme Court rejected the Jamaat’s plea for a stay on the high court’s verdict, observing that the party was free to file a review petition. With general elections due in the next six months, that’s not good news for the party in grief.
“Bangladesh on the boil again” may well have been the news headlines emanating from our eastern neighbour in the last few days. The respite, however, appears temporary. Because of Ramzan, the Jamaat has chosen to call for a two-day countrywide hartal on August 12 and 13 to protest the verdict. If the past is anything to go by, expect to hear the “Islam in danger” war cry, be prepared for fireworks immediately after Id festivities from Jamaat cadres and its belligerent youth-wing, the Islamic Chattra Shibir (ICS). Especially so since what is at stake is not only the future of the Jamaat as a political party, but also the Islamist ideology of the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami in undivided India, Maulana Abul Ala Maududi.
The predicament of the Jamaat can be traced back to 2008 when Bangladesh’s Election Commission amended the Representation of People’s Order (RPO), making registration with the EC a prerequisite for any party to contest elections. Political parties were provisionally registered but obliged to amend their respective constitutions/charters to conform to certain conditions of the RPO by January 24, 2012. The conditions included acceptance of secularism (as enshrined in the country’s Constitution), acceptance of the right of Parliament to frame laws, non-discrimination between citizens on grounds of religion or gender.
The Jamaat had managed provisional registration in 2008 through some surface cosmetics. But how can it change its basic charter without abandoning “Maududian” ideology and, thereby, its moral right to call itself the Jamaat-e-Islami. How do you reject an ideology yet call yourself a party based on the same ideology? In the Maududian worldview, Islam is not simply a religion but a “revolutionary ideology”, and it is the bounden duty of Muslims (“revolutionaries”) and its “vanguard” (Jamaat-e-Islami) to use all possible means to reject all man-made ideologies (democracy included), dislodge all man-made institutions (such as Parliament) and replace man-made laws with an Islamic state run in accordance with Sharia laws.
The Jamaat, like its counterparts in Pakistan, India and in Jammu and Kashmir, still remains committed to “Maududism”. Therein lies the bind for the Jamaat. That is why the Jamaat charter is at odds with the Constitution of Bangladesh and the RPO, hence its de-registration. The high court verdict leaves a stark option before the Jamaat: amend your charter or stay out of the electoral arena. For the Jamaat this amounts to a Hobson’s choice: imagine the Sangh Parivar abandoning Hindutva and the “Hindu Rashtra” ideal.
By the time its appeal is admitted, heard and ruled upon by the Supreme Court, the upcoming elections will be long over. In any case, the Jamaat can’t have much hope from the highest court in the land for, in July 2010, the Supreme Court delivered a 184-page judgment annulling the constitutional Fifth Amendment of 1979, which, among other things, legitimised religious parties and martial law in Bangladesh.
After splitting from Pakistan in 1971, secularism was made a key pillar of the new country’s first Constitution. But following a 1975 coup, the Army-led government amended the Constitution’s guiding principle to “faith in Allah” in 1979, opening the doors to religion-based politics. The apex court’s 2002 verdict outlawed it once again even though the Eighth Amendment declaring “Islam as the state religion” — inserted by the second martial regime in 1988 — remains unchallenged so far.
Stuck between the 2010 ruling of the Supreme Court and the week-old verdict of the Dhaka high court, the Jamaat also has to contend with the ongoing International Crimes Tribunal set up in 2009 to try the perpetrators of “crimes against humanity” during Bangladesh’s struggle for independence. Already six top Jamaat leaders have been pronounced guilty and awarded punishment ranging from death sentence to life behind bars.
Compounding the travails of the Jamaat further was the “Shahbag movement” which brought millions of Bangladeshis out on the streets earlier this year, demanding death sentence for all those convicted by the tribunal and a ban on the Jamaat.
Islamists of different hues in and outside Bangladesh are claiming that secularism equals atheism and the “hounding” of the Jamaat is nothing but an attempt to wipe out Islam from the country. But in March this year, an entire galaxy of maulanas affiliated to the Imam Ulema Somonnoy Oikyo Parishad, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (Bangladesh) and other religious bodies publicly accused the Jamaat-Shibir of having links with terrorist Islamist organisations and demanded punitive action. “People who believe in Wahabism (Saudi state ideology) and Maududism are enemies of Islam as they misinterpret Quran and Sunnah”, thundered the Ahle Sunnat (Bangladesh) secretary general, Syed Muhammad Masiuddoula, at a Sunni Ulema-Mashayekh Conference on March 17.
In the raging battle for hearts and minds in Bangladesh, on one side is the Jamaat (it has never polled more than four per cent of the total votes in any election) and some extremist Islamist outfits together fantasising about an Islamic state and Sharia law, and on the other are a large majority of Bangladeshi Muslims who love “their Islam” but want religion to stay far away from politics. What does the future hold? Is there no real choice left before the Jamaat? Perhaps it can take a leaf, as the Jamaat-e-Islami India has already done, from the wily Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Pursue politics with full vigour through an electoral proxy — the Bharatiya Janata Party, earlier named Jan Sangh — while pretending to be a “cultural organisation”. In the Jamaat’s case, it would be a “religious organisation”.
Alternatively, the Jamaat might back its political ally, the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, to the hilt in the coming polls on the promise of yet another constitutional surgery when voted back to power. The ruling Awami League is facing anti-incumbency heat, but its loss at the polls could be trumpeted as a “victory of Islam” over secularism. But that would only postpone the recurring battle between two diametrically opposed worldviews in Bangladesh ever since its birth.

The writer is co-editor, Communalism Combat, and general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy

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