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The best thing about Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (BJI) is that it doesn’t kill Hindus simply because of their faith. To be honest, the Jamaat pales into insignificance before monstrous Hindutva outfits that regularly target Muslims in India. This is the plain truth about the much-maligned Islamic party next door. Of course, Indian and western media don’t allow facts to get in the way of a good story. In their coverage of the escalating unrest—the ongoing war crimes trials, the Shahbag Square protests, and the flaring up of tension after Jamaat leader Delwar Hossein Sayedee was sentenced to death over atrocities committed in 1971—the Jamaat is relentlessly demonised. The latest political turmoil has claimed 84 lives, mainly Jamaat cadres gunned down by security forces.
Outlook was on board the Boeing 747 President Pranab Mukherjee flew to Dhaka in even as Bangladesh literally burned. Indian high commission officials sweating it out on the tarmac were relieved once ‘Big Brother’ had arrived in a Jumbo Jet. “The size of the aircraft matters, yaar. It sends the right message to the host, it exudes power,” a first secretary remarked smugly. But the ground situation in the capital city was so scary that when artillery pieces boomed in a ceremonial welcome for the Indian president, some in the entourage mistook it for police firing and were visibly shaken.
Anti-Jamaat demonstrations at Dhaka’s Shahbag Square by secular-liberal forces and spiralling countrywide violence has turned the spotlight on the BJI, which went on the offensive after February 28, when Sayedee was handed the death sentence. It’s an electoral ally of former PM Begum Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), labelled anti-India, unlike Sheikh Hasina’s ruling Awami League, widely perceived as pro-India. The two parties, backed by their coalition partners, are contenders for power in elections due next year, if they can agree upon the composition of a neutral interim administration—a constitutional requirement to ensure fair elections.
Even as the Awami League government takes on the Jamaat, does it constitute a clear and present threat to India? Jamaatis are conspicuous even in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh, because they sport a beard and a skull cap. But does wearing Islam on their sleeves turn them into sworn enemies of India, or Hindus, who comprise 10 per cent of Bangladesh’s population? Is the Jamaat anti-India, or anti-Hindu, or both?
Neither Indian diplomats in Dhaka nor Hindu community leaders can recall a murder of a Hindu for purely religious reasons in years. Hindus have been killed by BNP-Jamaat followers, but were essentially victims of political vendetta. They were targeted not as Hindus, but because they were perceived as adversaries owing allegiance to the Awami League. It can be compared with political violence in West Bengal, where CPI(M)-Trinamool clashes regularly claim lives of political workers—many of them Muslims, and from either party.
Indian diplomats in Dhaka or Hindu community leaders can’t recall a Hindu being killed for religious reasons.
A spokesman for the Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (HBCUC) told Outlook that an elderly priest of a Hindu temple in Banskhali near Chittagong was beaten to death hours after Sayedee was sentenced on February 28, but Indian high commission officials insist that the death didn’t have religious overtones. Interestingly, in December 2012, a Hindu youth called Biswajit Das was killed in a union clash by members of the Awami League’s students’ wing, Chhatra League, in broad daylight. The 24-year-old victim was captured on camera screaming that he was an apolitical Hindu. Biswajit’s gruesome, cold-blooded murder has blotted the Awami League’s copybook.
Bangladeshi Hindus may not live under the shadow of the sword, but life for them is not a bed of roses either. The vicious attacks they suffer are economic in nature, but wreak havoc nonetheless. Their homes, shops and cultivable land are targeted, forcing them to migrate to India so that their properties can be appropriated. Hindu temples and women are special targets. The temples are desecrated, the women abducted and married after conversion at gunpoint. Even so, the HBCUC spokesman said that pogroms like Gujarat or Kokrajhar against the minority community are inconceivable.
The Jamaat is a key constituent of the BNP-led alliance because its support is crucial in around 80 seats of the 345-strong Bangladesh parliament. And the Jamaat, despite its fundamentalist image, is hardly averse to change. At the election commission’s prodding, it amended its charter, bidding farewell to its goal of establishing the ‘rule of Allah’. And Hindutva poster girls like Sushma Swaraj, Shaina Chudasama, Nirmala Seetharaman, Smriti Irani and Meenakshi Lekhi would be delighted to know that the Jamaat has promised to reserve 33 per cent of organisational posts for women.
In September 2011, Manmohan Singh famously said that “25 per cent of Bangladeshis swear by the Jamaat, are very anti-Indian and are in the clutches of the isi”. However, a pertinent question: what has South Block done to win them over since? New Delhi refuses to have any truck with the Jamaat, and calls it a terrorist outfit in cahoots with Pakistan, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Indian diplomats have established formal contacts with all political parties in Bangladesh except the BJI. It’s doubtful if they even speak informally. The Jamaat remains a dark mystery for India which has no idea of what’s going on inside it.
It’s high time India plays ball with the Jamaat. America’s concern for the Jamaat is pretty evident: it has even shrugged off gratuitous Indian advice to engage only with democratic and secular forces in New Delhi’s backyard. Washington has questioned irregularities in the war crimes trials and told Dhaka that human rights violations won’t be tolerated. The US obviously sees the BJI as a key player in its plans to coronate Khaleda Zia, even as India finalises its strategy to ensure another term for Sheikh Hasina.
By S.N.M. Abdi in Dhaka