Jamaat-e-Islami’s hartal call has offended many, some of them are offended just because it’s Jamaat-e-Islami. This is understandable as this is the party that stood against Bangladesh at birth and played a role against its coming into being. Many now argue that it all happened a long ago and we should forget it but when a war crimes tribunal is on — no matter how it looks — the past is very much about today. The Jamaat-BNP alliance is a fact of life as well and it relates to the political life of the AL too. But these are political matters and has little to do with the angst we feel at the state of things now. If the BNP thinks that supporting Jamaat is a matter of survival and the AL thinks that this will kill Jamaat forever and hobble the BNP, we identify a major weakness of the parties which is excluding people from the political equations they form.
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It really makes little sense to condemn Jamaat-e-Islami because there is no reason for it to live amongst us. They fought against the independence of Bangladesh and stood in favour of Pakistan. This should be enough to reject them from the political scene forever. However, they are not only active but have become a contestant in the political scene. If common sense, commonly held ideas about political governance and common decency prevailed, we would not have this situation. But Jamaat-e-Islami was able to beat this rap because of our political mess. It was Zia, the military ruler, who took over after a series of coup and decided to allow Jamaat back to power. Nothing was more cynical than this decision but politics in Bangladesh has already built up a long track record of cynicism. The foundation for such a political act was the one-party rule system. It was extremely unpopular and the people who didn’t support this Jamaat-e-Islami entry move may well have thought this was the price they had to pay to get back the flawed, useless, fractured system called multi-party management but not necessarily democracy.
We deserved neither.
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But the December hartal doesn’t come in isolation and is the last incident/event in a long series of protest moves made by the Jamaat. This is of course linked to the War Crimes Tribunal that seems well set to deliver a verdict that may send several party members away in one form or the other. It will be a severe blow to the party and they are obviously reacting because it may mean depletion and destruction of their political existence but the main victim of such acts could well be the BNP, the party that originally made them legitimate in politics.
If Jamaat has been able to survive and flourish in Bangladesh, it’s because of a political feud that makes no sense to anyone. And Jamaat has taken full advantage of that.
One can’t blame Jamaat, a party of fanatics, for trying everything but it’s the decline of the political system that makes this happen. Jamaat should be blamed and accused but they are only partly to be blamed. The real blame is on the failed political system.
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The reason why Bangladesh can’t manufacture functional politics may lie in its history where people never learnt to behave as a political nation that shares common goals. Each failed phase — whether one-party rule or military autocracy or mixed menus, etc. — have simply not worked. When the three organs of the state are hobbled by lack of institutional growth, the question that begs asking is largely about the nature of the state itself.
In the last 40 years, records show that the quality of our elections is improving but the impact of the legislature is going down. In fact it’s non-existent because in the last 12 years, the two parties have rarely sat together making parliament based governance a matter of wishful thinking or a joke. Why have a parliament that does not function as a legislature?
The judiciary doesn’t enjoy much public confidence as so many reports, anecdotes and research have shown. Most people would rather not go to the courts for any matter. It is not the sterling guardian of civil rights as it was once thought of as and even if that is a public perception, it’s a perception that can’t be ignored. The physical capacity of the judiciary is also limited as it can deal with only 20% of the total cases that reach the judicial service seeking stage.
The less said about the executive the better.
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These are the official state organs but because the governmental part of the state is so weak the informal part of the same has become stronger. Ordinary people are stronger knowing that they rarely get support and services where a strange set of two state identities seem to live together under one flag. The official of course claims all the credit and by default gets all the blame, the unofficial survives by foraging and patching. But the formal state needs politics to survive which is why even when they defy all logic, we have the politics of the kind we have. It has little to do with us, the people.
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We support the ban of Jamaat-e-Islami because it has no space in our country. Since we can’t have any claim on the state, let’s look at the civil space and ask if Bangladesh and Jamaat can live together. According to us, this party can never be trusted because of what it did in 1971 so it should leave the political scene. It was banned once, why not again? Let’s ask the lawyers how it can be done and maybe they can come up with something. At least let’s try.
Many argue that this will cause Jamaat-e-Islami to go underground and commit acts of violence. Excuse me, but what have they been doing since the trials begun? We have actually cast our lot when the trial began and we may have to live with that. So let’s do it in a way that makes sense.
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In all this, the BNP actually has a chance of redeeming itself. It can distance itself from the Jamaat and almost certainly will become more popular than they think is possible. People really don’t think the BNP and the AL are any different but it’s the Jamaat-e-Islami connection that keeps the BNP at bay. If opportunistic cynicism made it support Jamaat-e-Islami at birth, the same sense of opportunism should make it junk it now.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.