Is it the Beginning of the End for Jamaat?

The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) in Bangladesh, has indicted several key members of the country’s main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, on charges of committing crimes against humanity, during the 1971 Liberation War. Those accused of the charges include its president Motiur Rahman Nizami, vice-president Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid and senior leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee. The leaders face charges of murder, arson, genocide and rape. The indictments, issued in May, were the curtain raiser to the country’s war crimes trial at the ICT, which was established in March, 2009.

For the sake of history, the nine-month long fight for independence, began with Yahya Khan’s crackdown (Operation Searchlight) on unarmed civilians of the then East Pakistan on the night of 25 March, 1971. What followed in the next nine months was perhaps the bloodiest war of independence ever witnessed in the 20th century where leading Bengali intellectuals, in Dhaka and elsewhere, were systematically slaughtered. Some sources put the civilian death toll at over three million with as many as 2,00,000 women raped.

For Bangladesh, the war crimes trials have come four decades too late with most of those responsible for the killings either dead or in safe refuge in Pakistan. But the demand for the trials, which was pushed to the backbench during the decades of martial rule in the country following the assassination of Bangladesh’s founder president Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, was seething inherently. Not to mention the plum posts in the government, given to several identified war criminals, during the 1996-2001 BNP-led four-party coalition rule. As Mahbub Alam, general manager, Liberation War Museum, Dhaka, said “In this country, if you go into each and every village you will find war victims.” Alam himself had lost his father during the Liberation War.

Awami League seized the opportunity of the latent demand and converted it into an electoral promise during the 2008 general elections, which it eventually won by a landslide margin. It also found the support of minorities, especially the Hindus, who were among the worst sufferers of the West Pakistan crackdown. It lost no time in setting up the ICT to try Nizami and his likes.

As regards the trial proper, Nizami, Sayedee and Mujahid have a lot to fear. The three were instrumental in setting up and leading the Al Badr militia, the band of razakars, which committed countless acts of brutality and violence in the then West Pakistan’s campaign to smother Bengali nationalism. Investigating officers of the ICT have unearthed several killing fields and mass graves across the country and have collected exhaustive evidence to conclusively nail Jamaat.

With no fresh blood entering the ranks of the party, Jamaat is likely to face a threat for survival. This could come as a relief to the Sheikh Hasina government which desperately wants secularism as a cornerstone of the country’s amended constitution. A significant bolstering of Indo-Bangla relations could also be expected as the threats of cross-border militancy and terrorism would substantially decrease. Though it might be a tall order, it does have its fair share of expectations.

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