The Mistake Pakistan is Making
By Ashfaqur Rahman
When the interior minister of Pakistan stood up in that country’s parliament last week and condemned the hanging of Abdul Quader Mollah, a Jamaat politician of Bangladesh, for his crimes in 1971, he stepped into a political quagmire. The act has ignited deep emotions here that will take a long time to calm down.
To start with, the resolution describes Mollah as someone who worked for the integrity of a united Pakistan. But little did the minister realise that it was people like Mollah who, due to their criminal activities, brought disrepute that led to the break-up of Pakistan. He used the support of the then Pakistan government for personal gain. He was also used by the occupying Pakistan army to terrorise people into submission. So how was Mollah instrumental in safeguarding the unity of Pakistan?
The resolution was initiated in the Pakistan parliament by the Jamaat-e-Islami. The party of cricketer Imran Khan, called Tehrik-e-Insaf, supported him and so did the government party of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But the resolution was in no way bipartisan. The Pakistan People’s Party, which is a major political party, declined to support the resolution. So did the left party in the parliament. There are serious dissenting voices within the Pakistan parliament on this issue. Mollah was a Bangladeshi national. He was arrested to face charges of murder, rape, arson and looting of private property. He faced a legally constituted court and after due legal process was convicted and punished. Bangladesh has all the legal right to prosecute its own citizens and punish them. This is its sovereign right. The Pakistan Parliament, by passing a resolution condemning this legal act, has only tried to interfere in the internal affairs of Bangladesh.
The interior minister by his initiative has involved the Pakistan government and, therefore, has complicated the matter. Feelings in Bangladesh have been legitimately aroused and, therefore, we see the outburst in the form of political marches and demarches. In fact, if the Pakistan parliament had moved a resolution to formally apologise for all the deaths and destruction in Bangladesh in 1971 caused by the Pakistan army and their collaborators, it would have been appropriate and time befitting. It would not only have sown the seed of understanding between the two countries and people, but would have also started the process of closure of this horrible chapter in our history.
It is a pity that the new generation of politicians in Pakistan is not well versed about the history of the two countries. They seem to have been fed with stories that are distorted and time serving. Pakistan was clearly defeated in our War of Liberation in 1971. As long as they cling to their version of history, we may have to see more resolutions and more actions that tend to distort our bilateral relations. One of the major reasons for this state of affairs in Pakistan is that it did not stage the trial of 195 Pakistani war criminals who were let off under the Delhi Agreement. In 1974, the foreign ministers of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh met in Delhi (after the Simla Conference) and had agreed to let these Pakistan army officers and civilians who had planned and executed the genocide in Bangladesh to return to Pakistan.
It was assumed that they would be tried by the Pakistan authorities once they were there. Pakistan has not acted on this so far. A big gap exists in Pakistan’s collective memory about what these individuals did during the occupation of the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Pakistan must consider looking into this. For the present, the resolution passed in Pakistan parliament has aroused strong feelings in Bangladesh. This is natural. But we must not allow this to go out of hand. Bangladesh is known all over the world as a moderate and a thinking nation. We have shown our mettle on many occasions. We are now shown off as a model nation in South Asia. Why should we allow this good reputation to go while reacting to an unreasonable assertion made by a section of people in Pakistan with myopic sense of history? We must protest peacefully and let all know that we are likely to take up the matter at higher levels in the future. We should not resort to foolhardy tactics. Bangladesh and Pakistan have much to lose if we attempt to break off relations. In any case, we have not arrived at that point. Good counsel should prevail on both sides and we must allow quiet diplomacy to straighten out the wrinkles in our relationship. Both the countries are members of Saarc and we have strategic interests that need to be protected. As members of the OIC and the Commonwealth we have acted together in the past and we hope to do so in the future. Our trade relations are growing and we can do better.
Let us see how Pakistan can soothe our hurt feelings in the future. On that will depend how quickly normal relations are restored.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a regular commentator on current affairs. This article first appeared in The Daily Star, a leading daily of Bangladesh.
Whichever of the two you are, you can be sure of one thing that this determinism in the dominant political discourse has mauled our ability to think. It puts a premium on buying in one or the other narrative, denigrates any attempt to question, contemplate and reflect, and punishes even slight violations with fatwas and labeling. I find it lethal to progress.
The hanging of a leader of Bangladesh’s banned Jamaat-e-Islami, Abdul Qauder Mollah, by its war crimes court is the latest fault line. You can either celebrate ‘the much deserved death of a mullah’ or mourn over another vicious attack on Pakistan’s sullen pride.
Remember, if you tried to question the credibility of the court and the legal process you will be pushed to the side on which you may not be standing, notwithstanding the fact that not a single human rights organization across the globe thinks that the court met even the basic requirements for administering justice.
You shall face even sterner expulsion orders if you dared to discuss the role of Pakistan Army and its cohorts in Bangladesh in 1971, without any regard to the fact that the entire world considers it an undeniable truth that heinous acts of mass crimes were committed against Bengalis.
This dogmatic approach has driven us into suffocating narrows. How can one breathe in some freedom? I see no other option but to push the black and the white a little bit apart and fill some grey in between. Here is my attempt to give some context to the debated act.
There can be no doubt about the fact that the Jamaat was hand in glove with the army in its bloody campaign in 1971. Jamaat, in fact, was its sole important ally in that country; it was its ears and eyes. But one can also not deny that all the Jamaat members in Bangladesh had not migrated from Pakistan. They were a ‘local’ political force.
In the general elections of 1970, the Awami League had won 160 of the total 162 seats of East Pakistan. This emphatic popular verdict had served as the main legitimizer for the party. The Jamaat won no seats, not even a single one. But before writing off the Jamaat as a nobody in Bangladesh’s politics, consider one more fact.
In the same elections, the Jamaat had polled a little over one million votes in the then East Pakistan and that was more than what it had got in all four provinces of West Pakistan put together. The Jamaat polled a third of these in its second biggest bastion of power, urban Sindh. There was one Jamaat voter for every 13 Awami League voters in the Bangladesh-to-be.
In the last general elections held in 2008, Jamaat-i-Islami Bangladesh had the electoral support of 3.2 million voters compared with 33.9 million of Awami League. This implies that the Jamaat has survived as a political force in that country.
But perhaps, more important than the Jamaat’s electoral size is that its ideology found new takers in Bangladesh’s politics. General Ziaur Rahman who ruled Bangladesh after the assassination of its founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975, reinstated Islam in politics. He recognized it as an important constituent of the identity of the people of that country.
General Ziaur Rahman cannot be doubted as a reactionary counter-revolutionary as he was in the vanguard of the 1971. In fact, he is credited with making the first declaration of independence that was broadcast from a captured radio station in April 1970.
General Ziaur Rahman did not rule by decree alone. He was a popular leader. His party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, has won more elections than the Awami League and formed the government three times.
BNP allies with the Jamaat and the allegiance is not merely ‘spiritual’ as the two have contested elections and formed governments together. The BNP’s electoral successes and its ideological and electoral alliance with the Jamaat imply that the notion of Islamic identity is not a minority view in that country.
The electorate in Bangladesh is split in the middle. They either support the Islam-leaning BNP or the secular-nationalist Awami League. The difference between the votes of the two parties is usually wafer-thin. Barring the elections of 2008, it has in fact been negligible, and the party demonstrating a better ability to translate the same votes into more seats has been forming the government.
Bangladesh’s present parliament will complete its term on January 24 and according to the constitution amended by the Awami League elections must be held within 90 days before its expiry. The elections are to be held on January 5 and all opposition parties have announced to boycott these. They don’t want the elections to be held under the Awami League government but the AL has undone the constitutional clauses providing for a setting-up of a non-partisan caretaker government.
The transition from one elected government to the next has been a bone of contention in the Bangladeshi political system since long. In 1996, the elections held on February 15 were boycotted by the Awami League and all others on the same grounds and had to be held again on June 12 after the BNP government agreed to amend the constitution to provide for a caretaker government.
The caretaker government in 2006 extended its tenure and mandate through a court ruling and ostensibly tried to work on a minus-two (Hasina and Khaleda) formula on the behest of the country’s military. (General Musharraf was able to experiment a similar thing in 2002 in Pakistan. Conversely, the extended government of non-partisan technocrats sanctioned by the highest court is known as the ‘Bangladesh model’ in Pakistan.) The intervention barely survived two years and elections were held on December 29 in 2008, resulting in a landslide victory for the Awami League.
The party got all it could ever wish for. It was as powerful as was Bangabhandu (Sheikh Mujib) in the years after the country’s independence. It enjoyed more than a two-third majority in the Parliament and an unhindered full term to deliver on its promises. And what did it deliver? Barely a thing and I am afraid a dead Mullah cannot compensate for all that it did not accomplish.
There is nothing that suggests that the Awami League can expect a great performance at the coming polls. The indications are that an opposite is more likely. Relinquishing power is hard and whipping a dead horse is an old strategy of those who don’t have the courage and the acumen to face the realities of the day. But if they really believe that it will finally rise and take them past the great electoral hurdle, they are only deceiving themselves.
In my humble opinion, the hanging of Abdul Qader Mullah is more likely to fillip the cause of the Jamaat, and within the Islamic political band the more extremist and violent ones will now find greater acceptance among their supporters.
The Awami League has supposedly gifted its supporters with a cause célèbre without realizing that it can simultaneously serve as a greater rallying point for its opponents, besides that it can radicalize the discourse and deepen the divide.
The entire saga is in fact more likely to hit back at the League itself. The Jamaat is banned. Its members cannot contest elections but they cannot be barred from casting their votes. Who will they vote for? The BNP will definitely be the main beneficiary of ‘the League’s largesse’.
The Awami League suffers from the negative effect of incumbency and its stubbornness on the issue of the caretaker government has denuded it of many supporters. All this is likely to lead to a triumphant return to power of the League’s opponents. It does not take much to foresee how they will react in the divisive environs that the League will leave behind as a legacy.
The ghost of Abdul Qader Mullah will return. We have yet to see whether he was more vicious alive or dead.
This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest daily.