Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bangladesh – A Nation Divided? – Part 8


In recent months, hundreds have died in Bangladesh as a result of political violence. As more International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) sentences are announced, the violence is likely to continue between the security forces and angry supporters of the political parties whose members are tried and sentenced. So, why are these trials taking place now – 42 years after country’s independence? Can Bangladesh right the historical wrongs - and at what cost to its unity? How about the Bihari and Urdu-speaking victims of the liberation struggle? Will their families see justice for the violence suffered, too?

Whatever may be the wisdom and true agenda behind the highly controversial ICT, the people in Bangladesh has every right to see that the trial process is fair and unbiased so that no innocent person is punished, and that the system is neither politically motivated nor abused. Otherwise, it would not only stain the memory of all those who died in the war but would permanently divide and polarize this country into hostile camps. That is not the future for which its valiant freedom fighters fought for or the martyrs died for.

It would be irresponsible of the ruling party to ignore Bangladesh’s culture and history, which has invariably shown time and again that her people don’t like extremes – neither Talibanization nor secular fundamentalism that is devoid of God. Like most people living in South Asia, and vast majority of Americans living in the southern states of the USA, religion is important to most Bangladeshis. Their religious devotion, however, has not intoxicated them to be intolerant of others. As such, whereas religious and ethnic riots have been norms in neighboring countries of Myanmar and India, Bangladesh has been spared of such perils.

As much as the Muslim majority of undivided Bengal had opted for East Bengal when it realized that it was severely discriminated and its due rights were overlooked by the ‘Bhadro lok’ Hindu minorities in Kolkata (Calcutta), and as much as it voted overwhelmingly for Pakistan when it feared its marginalization in a hostile Hindu-majority India, it did not take too long for the same Bengali-speaking Muslim majority to demand parity and autonomy from its more powerful and, yet, minority siblings living in and ruling from the western part of Pakistan. Thus, it would be foolish to envision that the decision of all those who had opted for Pakistan was a historical mistake. And, so goes for Bangladesh.

Truly, there won’t be any Bangladesh today had it not been for the emergence of Pakistan. (Note: The people of Kashmir still have not achieved their independence.) A comparison of the status of Muslim minorities in nearby Indian states is enough to prove that the economic and social progress that the Muslim majority had made under Pakistan and Bangladesh would have been simply impossible in India.

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has been recognized as the greatest Bengali (Bangali) ever because he was able to personify that fusion of nationalism and religion better than most others and turn it into a force unifying the nation to rally behind him for its legitimate demand for regional autonomy. His nationalism did not divorce him from his religious root. By remaining firmly grounded on both he was a unifier and not a divider.

Can the same be said about others who led Bangladesh later? When vengeance was sought, Bangabandhu characteristically ‘turned the other cheek’ and forgave. With all the support he enjoyed soon after liberation, he could have afforded to behave like Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro and Josef Stalin. But he chose not to. Some political observers have argued that his clemency resulted in his own death and that he should have finished off the job around war crimes when in office. Those who came later have proven to be vindictive, perhaps trying to avoid the fate that awaited Bangabandhu. But not all have succeeded to dodge the bullet when destiny has allotted it. And none will be able to blot what has been allotted to him or her!

Sheikh Mujib is not above criticism though. In the post-liberation period, notwithstanding his BAKSAL policy, his introduction of secularism in the Constitution of Bangladesh has been a highly controversial subject. Its preamble states, “Pledging that the high ideals of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism, which inspired our heroic people to dedicate themselves to, and our brave martyrs to sacrifice their lives in, the liberation struggle, shall be the fundamental principles of the constitution.”

As noted by T. N. Madan and many other sociologists the western concept of secularism does not find its recognition in culture and morality in entire South Asia – including in Gandhi, Azad and Nehru’s India. It is impossible as a credo of life because the great majority of people of South Asia are in their own eyes active adherents of some religious tradition. Professor Madan noted in his speech in Boston in 1987 that secularism has failed as a widely shared worldview in India [T.N. Madan, Secularism in its place, JSTOR: The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1987)]. To Gandhi, religion and politics are inseparable; without the former the latter would become debased. He famously said, “For me, every, the tiniest, activity is governed by what I consider to be my religion,” and “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

So what could have justified the inclusion of secularism in the Constitution of Bangladesh? A closer look at the Article 12 of the Constitution makes it clear that the writers and signatories of the constitution were greatly influenced by their bitter experience in Pakistan where they witnessed firsthand how religion was exploited to deny the rights of the people of East Pakistan. Realizing that public may misinterpret the loaded term, borrowed from European experience, Sheikh Mujib was always quick to point out that Bangladeshi secularism had little in common with western concept of secularism where God is divorced from public life. To him, secularism was a policy of religious neutrality on the part of the state. No rule was, thus, enacted during the Mujib-era which was emphatically anti-Islamic. [True though that Jama’at and all pro-Islamic parties were banned. But this exclusion had everything to do with the politics of the liberation struggle when these parties and their student wings were on the wrong side of history – being Pakistani patriots they opposed dismemberment of the country and resisted the popular independent struggle.] There was no government sponsored programs or events in Bangladesh, unlike some so-called Islamic countries, where gambling was promoted. It can be argued that in spite of all the hypes around it, secularism in Bangladesh did not conflict with the notion of “full faith and trust in God (Allah).”

The scheming and unscrupulous politicians – religious and secular alike - have always exploited religion to win votes not just in more conservative South Asia but also in more secular Europe and the Americas. With the changing political development in Bangladesh, the new leaders – never mind that they were perhaps less religiously observant than their predecessors -- did not waste any time to rephrase the constitution to impress the majority. Bismillah was introduced. They also revived previously banned political organizations and formed alliances with those ‘defeated’ forces. ‘Islam’ as the ‘state religion’ was inserted in 1989 by the 10th Amendment. The constitutional experts are divided on such amendments. They question: since 90% of the population of Bangladesh professes Islam and the Constitution itself upholds that no law would be passed that opposes Islam, was such an amendment necessary?

The ruling alliance is now revising the amended constitution of the Bangladesh, trying to put the state back to 1973 before the BAKSAL days.

With the all-too-expected verdicts against some of the leaders and members of the Jama’at-e-Islami (JI), some secular fundamentalists and anti-Muslim bigots within Bangladesh are raucous with their demand to ban the JI. It would be, however, ill-advised of the government to pass laws that would ban the JI - the largest and most organized political movement inspired by Islam. History has repeatedly shown that when dissenting voices are forcibly silenced they trigger underground militancy. Such actions can also be interpreted as fascistic and utterly hostile to Islam. Already government’s heavy handed policies and actions have alienated many conservative Muslims. They perceive the government of being soft on blasphemers and hostile to Muslims, and hypocritical about Muslim interest. And perception is often the reality! Unless such negative perceptions are removed, the government will lose much public support. If the past elections are any barometer to judge how people vote, the current government should know that voters have punished the incumbents more for their failings than rewarded them for their accomplishments.

In the long run, it is thus better to see a ‘mildly Islam-centric’ party like the JI engaged in parliamentary politics than forced into becoming a clandestine militant group that is at war with the state.

Regardless of whether the Jama’at is formally banned, it has experienced severe restrictions on its ability to function as a political party under the current government. Such draconian measures have radicalized its student wing, and ignited passion amongst many apolitical, conservative Muslims against the government, although they may not agree with JI’s version of political Islam. The huge rallies recently hosted by the Hefazat-e-Islam are a sufficient testament to that development.

As I have pointed out before, many see the war crimes trial process unfair and a grave miscarriage of justice. Speaking to the Arab News, Toby M. Cadman, a legal expert on war crimes tribunals, said, “The present law in Bangladesh is outdated; there are no clear definitions for war crimes; prosecution had called only a small number of witnesses and few of whom are able to provide any direct evidence; the judicial procedures lack transparency in many respects; we cannot challenge the jurisdiction of tribunal, the legislation, the appointment of judges and the tribunal’s decisions; the same judges are conducting investigation, issuing decisions and reviewing their own decisions; and there is a very limited time for the defense to prepare.”

Barrister Cadman said that the Tribunal had arrested those leaders who might have opposed independence. “Opposing independence is not a crime,” he pointed out. In the newly independent Pakistan and India, both Jinnah and Nehru had called upon their fellow countrymen to bury their old hatred (“hatchet”) and become effective citizens. Similarly, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib said that Bangladeshis were a forgiving nation and that Bangladesh should look to the future not the past in the interest of peace and reconciliation. According to Cadman, this was principally the reason for the trials being abandoned in 1973 and resulted in a tripartite agreement between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He said that the Hasina government was showing its political vendetta by arresting the leading members of Jama’at and BNP: “It is actually punishing the Jama’at for siding with the last BNP government. If the government wants to end the culture of impunity, it should depoliticize the judicial process and appoint international judges and prosecutors, and there should be a foreign council for the defense and government members should stop making comments in breach of the presumption of innocence.”

Even if the tribunal process is corrected of its ‘defects,’ what about the other war criminals? After all, the main perpetrators are not in the dock, since they are either dead or living in Pakistan. What about the tribal followers of (late) Raja Tridiv Roy who killed many Bengalis and Freedom Fighters in 1971? How about the Bengali-speaking killers that killed innocent Biharis and Urdu-speaking citizens of Pakistan? How about those who killed surrendering Pakistani forces violating the Geneva Convention? Will the Hasina government have the same zeal to go after these latter categories of war criminals?

Life is sacred in Islam and cannot be taken unless there is absolute proof justifying it. Has the ICT proven its cases beyond any doubt against each of those ‘perpetrators’ of war crimes? Will justice be served by hanging some 80 or 90 year old ‘patriot’ Pakistani who had opposed the emergence of Bangladesh, and yet did not kill or molest anyone personally? History has repeatedly shown that blood sheds more blood, especially when there is the strong perception that it was shed wrongfully. So where and when will this blood-letting end? How about forgiveness and compassion shown, esp. to those sentenced to death by sparing their lives? Are not there enough examples in history of former tormentors transforming into saints later? What would Christianity be without Paul, or Islam without Umar, and so on and so forth?

Could Bangladesh instead opt for a Truth and Reconciliation dialogue, much in common with how South Africa has dealt with its own bloody past?

These are some serious questions that Bangladeshi intellectuals need to discuss openly and objectively, and ultimately mend their fences. They must also avoid any exaggeration about the casualty figures of the war of liberation. Those exaggerated figures do no good but only simmer hatred in a world that requires facts and not myths towards bridging the gaps and moving forward for mutual benefits of all.

It is high time to let sanity rule. Already hundreds have died in the ensuing violence since February, and probably more will die in the coming days when more verdicts are read that are considered unfair or unjust. The economic losses are estimated at billions of dollars. No one is winning in this divided house. The loss in trade and commerce in Bangladesh is resulting in gains for her equally impoverished neighbors. Is that development desirable for millions of highly skilled labors in Bangladesh whose life depends on seeing their factories remain open for business? Surely not!

Finally, in a globalized, well-connected world that we live in today, politics is increasingly becoming global. The post-9/11 Global War on Terror has come to be seen in the Muslim world, and for good reasons, as non-Muslims’ crusade against the community of Muslims. Naturally, some Muslims are fuming and getting radicalized. The Government of Bangladesh cannot afford to be oblivious of such outside pulls which are rewriting the internal politics. To succeed, it must learn to respect people’s emotional attachment to their faiths, and the changing environment that they live in. Putting the clock back to 1972 or 1975 may not be the right formula in 2013 or beyond. As such, it may not be a bad idea to leave sensitive issues like Bismillah and ‘trust in God’ intact in the amended Constitution. There are surely more important issues for the government to tackle than get involved in issues which only divide the nation.

---=--- Concluded.

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