What India can learn from Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami ban

 What India can learn from Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami banIn 1939, a Hyderabad-born cleric wrote the essay that laid out the foundational credo of the Islamist movement in South Asia. Islam, Abul Ala Maududi wrote in Jihad in the Way of Allah, wasn’t a “hotchpotch of beliefs, prayers and rituals”.  Instead, it was “a revolutionary ideology which seeks to alter the social order of the entire world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets”.

He concluded “if the Muslim Party commands enough resources, it will eliminate un-lslamic governments and establish the power of Islamic government in their place.”

Earlier this week, Bangladesh’s High Court laid the foundations for a frontal confrontation with those ideas. In a landmark order, it has prohibited the Jama’at-e-Islami party founded by Maududi from contesting elections, saying its constitution is illegal.  The decision will have fateful consequences for Bangladesh. It also holds out a lesson in courage to rulers across the region, though, who have often proved only too willing to appease religious fundamentalism.

The genesis of the high court order lies in laws passed in 2008, when Bangladesh’s former military-backed government set out new criteria for all registered political parties. The Jama’at held back on amending key portions of its constitution--notably one that proclaimed sovereignty lay with Allah, rather than the people, through Parliament. It also failed to remove discriminatory mandates on gender and religion from its party constitution.

Bangladesh’s High Court has upheld an important principle: that democracies can’t cede space to forces committed to destroying it. It’s a lesson that nations across our region need to learn.

Founded at Dhaka’s Eden Hotel in May, 1979, the grim history of the Bangladesh Jama’at shows why that separation is important.  In 1953, Maududi’s Jama’at sought to win legitimacy in undivided Pakistan by stoking anti-Ahmadi violence.  He earned a death sentence, but eventually secured his release from prison to abjure revolutionary politics.  The party revived itself in East Pakistan, by stoking anti-Hindu sentiments to combat nascent nationalism.

In 1970—when Pakistan’s first elections were held, sparking off a crisis that would end in the creation of Bangladesh—the Jama’at won some 6% of the vote, and one seat in the 300-member provincial assembly.

During Bangladesh’s war of independence, the Jama’at-e-Islami leadership sided with Pakistan, setting up a death-squad which killed thousands.  In a recent judgment sentencing a Jama’at leader to 90 years in prison, Bangladesh’s war crimes tribunal said the Jama’at “intentionally functioned as a criminal organisation” during the war.

The Jama’at was annihilated, along with Pakistan, in 1971—but the wheel soon spun in its favour. Major-General Zia-ur-Rahman, who emerged as Bangaldesh’s ruler after the 1975 coup, allowed the Jama’at-e-Islami to re-enter civic life, first through a front-organisation and then as a functional political party. His successor, General HM Ershad, even appointed two 1971 war criminals, Abdul Mannan and Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, to cabinet positions.

From 2001-2006, it used its alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to take control of the social welfare ministry, dominating Bangladesh’s well-funded NGO sector. It controlled the Islami Bank, Bangladesh’s third-largest.

In a thoughtful analysis, Jyoti Rahman has noted the Jama’at never enjoyed a mass constituency: at its peak, in 1991, it won 12 percent of the popular vote and 18 of 300 seats in parliament, falling in 2008 to 4 percent of the vote and just eight seats.

Yet, in a competitive political landscape, this constituency mattered—just as fundamentalists of all hues matter to establishmentarian political parties in India today.

Bangladesh’s citizens eventually forced the change.  In the 2008 elections, the 1971 war crimes re-emerged as a key issue for large numbers of young Bangladeshis—in part spurred on by a surge of literature and activism around the crimes of that time.  The youth movement eventually exploded into what Bangladeshis now call the Shahbag Awakening—a massive assertion of secular power.

Islamists in Bangladesh are now fighting back on the streets, with ever-growing violence.  There are also worries the denial of political space to the Jama’at might push its cadre into terrorist groups.  For example, the Jama’at Mujahideen Bangladesh, formed in 1998 with support from the Lashkar-e-Taiba, was led by former Jama’at leader Abdul Rehman.  He successfully recruited radicalised cadre from the ranks of the Islami Chhatra Shibir, until he was eventually executed in 2007.

Bangladesh will likely face a long political struggle—but, more likely than not, the price is worth paying to secure secular, constitutional polity.

In 1994, India’s Supreme Court mandated secularism as a norm in national life—but governments and parties have appeased religious groups with impunity.

The Indian wing of the Jama’at-e-Islami asserts, in its constitution, that all men should “should refuse to acknowledge as valid all those allegiances which are not subservient to the allegiance of the One Allah and His Law”—presumably including the Indian state republic.  That hasn’t stopped leaders like Human Resources Minister Shashi Tharoor from meeting its leadership.

Hindu nationalist political leaders, for their part, have courted organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, despite their expressly exclusionary religious agenda.

Fascinatingly, leaders of both the Jamaat and VHP condemned the Rajasthan government earlier this year, when it said it would no longer give cash awards to sportspersons linked to religious-chauvinist groups.

In South Asia today, there are two models of the future.  There’s Pakistan, where leaders dragged God out on to the streets—with catastrophic consequences. Then, there’s Bangladesh, which is showing that it’s possible to step away from the abyss.  For modern national states to function, Bangladesh understand, polities must be founded on law-based citizenship, not ties of religion or ethnicity.

India faces this choice, too.  It doesn't take a lot to figure out what the smart one is.

Updated Date: Aug 03, 2013 10:09:31 IST