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Bigoted Jamaat in Bangladesh must feel the pain after systematic persecution of Ahmadiyya sect

A file image of clash between Dhaka police and Islamists (IANS photo)

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community came under attack last week yet once again from religious bigots in Panchagarh, a town in northern Bangladesh. As in the past, when the followers of the sect as well as other religious minorities, notably Hindus, have borne the brunt of fanatical fury by radical elements of the majority Muslim section of the country’s population, the assault in Panchagarh took place while the community was busy preparing to hold its annual conference, generally referred to as Salana Jalsa. 

In the attacks orchestrated by the bigots, two persons were left dead, the venue of the conference was destroyed, homes of the Ahmadiyya community came under vicious attack and their valuables were looted. As the violence went on, the police and other security forces proved scandalously unable to keep the fanatics at bay. Once the destruction had taken place, the police let the media know that investigations were going on to identify those behind the attacks. For his part, Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan pointed the finger of blame at the Jamaat-e-Islami and its ally, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), for spearheading the chaos.

The Jamaat-e-Islami, which has been deregistered as a political party in Bangladesh and a good number of whose leaders were tried on charges of collaboration with the Pakistan army as it went around committing genocide in Bangladesh in 1971, has clearly made a daring show of its role in the Panchagarh tragedy. It has demanded a ban on the Ahmadiyya community through asking the government to decree it as a non-Muslim sect. The Jamaat move is a plain and dangerous reminder of the repeated onslaughts it has launched against the Ahmadiyya community and Bangladesh’s secularism over the decades.

Formed in the early 1940s by Abul Aala Maududi, the Jamaat was loudly opposed to the creation of Pakistan and publicly denigrated Mohammad Ali Jinnah, revered by his followers as Quaid-e-Azam (great leader), as Kafir-e-Azam (leader of unbelievers). But once Pakistan came into being in 1947, the Jamaat opted to play an active role in the country’s politics, obviously fired by a zeal to turn Pakistan into a theocratic state.

The Jamaat demonstrated its terrible power to challenge the state when its activists went into action against the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore in 1953. It did not matter that individuals like Choudhury Zafrullah Khan, an Ahmadiyya scholar who served as Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister and would go on to be President of the UN General Assembly in the 1960s, were important players in Pakistan’s politics.

The anti-Ahmadiyya riots let loose in Lahore in 1953 led to the death of as many as 2,000 Ahmadiyyas. The Jamaat was driven by its demand that the Ahmadiyyas be declared non-Muslim. The ferocity of the Jamaat’s acts in Lahore eventually compelled the Pakistan army to step in, clamp martial law on Lahore, arrest Maududi and his violent followers and place them on trial.

Maududi was sentenced to death, but eventually earned a reprieve and was released. Following his release, Maududi went into action reorganising the Jamaat and pursuing the demand for Pakistan to be reinvented as an Islamic republic based on his own interpretation of Islam, interpretation not necessarily shared by the larger Muslim clergy.

The Jamaat, neither in Pakistan nor Bangladesh, has had a major effect at general elections. But its capacity to cause social disorder has caused much grief in both countries. In 1971, Maududi and his followers enthusiastically supported the genocide launched by the Pakistan army in occupied Bangladesh, going to the extent of forming so-called peace committees that had responsibility for hunting down Awami League supporters and members of the Hindu community.

Its East Pakistani leader Ghulam Azam maintained close contact with the military junta throughout the war. Other leaders of the party went around peddling the notion that the struggle for Bangladesh was an Indian conspiracy aided by a section of Bengali politicians. The Jamaat plastered Dhaka and other towns and cities with posters that called for the destruction of India. ‘Crush India’ was the Jamaat appeal on the posters.

The Jamaat assisted the Pakistan army in its campaign of Bengali annihilation by forming the Al-Badr and Al-Shams, goon squads which went into a persecution of Bengalis during the nine months of the War of Liberation. On the eve of the surrender of Pakistan’s armed forces in Bangladesh in December 1971, the Jamaat, with its Al-Badr gangs, picked up and murdered scores of Bengali intellectuals. The mutilated bodies of the intellectuals were discovered a couple of days after the liberation of Bangladesh.

It remains a travesty of history that the very Jamaat men assisting the Pakistan military, and other collaborators of Pakistan, were rehabilitated in Bangladesh by the military regimes of General Ziaur Rahman and General Hussein Muhammad Ershad. Two of the more notorious of Jamaat men, Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mujahid, served as ministers in Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP-led government between 2001 and 2006. With the return of the Awami League to power in January 2009, these men along with other collaborators were tried by special tribunals for their role in 1971, condemned to death and executed.

In Pakistan, the Jamaat after 1953 engaged once more in agitation against the Ahmadiyya community in 1974, forcing Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to declare the community non-Muslim. In 1977, the Jamaat took active part in the agitation against the Bhutto government and was clearly happy when General Ziaul Haq overthrew the government and subsequently presided over the execution of the ousted prime minister.

In Bangladesh today, the Jamaat remains a force capable of inflicting, along with its alliance partners, grave damage on society. The Panchagarh tragedy remains proof of the Jamaat’s capacity to upset social order through fomenting sectarian strife. It remains for Bangladesh’s government, as it prepares for general elections at the end of the year, to devise the means by which the organisation and other outfits sharing its views of politics can be curbed firmly and decisively.

Democracy and secularism in Bangladesh are under threat today. Communal forces remain busy trying to rear their heads again and push the country back to a dark age. The Jamaat-e-Islami, a risk to the ethos of Bangladesh, needs to be decisively defeated, intellectually and otherwise.

Also Read: Why it is imperative to restore secularism in Bangladesh