The Bangladesh High Court’s recent decision to annul the registration of the Jamaat-e-Islami does little to enhance the country’s democratic credentials. Whatever the Jamaat’s faults — and there are many, ranging from the still unresolved question of its complicity in the massacre of civilians during the 1971 war, to present-day acts of thuggery and street violence — banning it will not rid the country of its divisive ideology. The Jamaat’s registration has been cancelled on account of its failure to acknowledge, in its charter, the supremacy of Bangladesh’s Constitution and parliament. The Election Commission and the Jamaat had been engaged in a back-and-forth since 2008, when the registration of political parties was made compulsory; while the latter had made substantial changes to its original charter, the EC felt it needed to do more to conform to the country’s statutory requirements. The HC’s drastic ruling now bars the Islamist entity from contesting the next general elections, thus depriving the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party of a crucial electoral ally. On Monday, the Supreme Court’s appellate division — consisting entirely of judges appointed by the ruling Awami League (AL) — refused to stay this verdict, indicating clearly what its fate would be in appeal.
Banning the Jamaat may find support in some sections of Bangladesh’s civil society, but the action reeks of political persecution, coming as it does on the eve of elections. If the Jamaat’s attempts at stoking communalism for electoral gain are detestable, the guardians of Bangladesh’s secular character must ask themselves why it has been successful in this pursuit. In June, the BNP-Jamaat alliance trumped the AL comprehensively in elections to four major city corporations. Thanks to its lacklustre performance in office, Sheikh Hasina’s government has grown increasingly unpopular; banning the Jamaat will not resuscitate its poll prospects. In fact, doing so will not only deepen the theological-secular divide in Bangladesh, but also ensure the scars of 1971 remain open. Repressing the Jamaat’s political aspirations may even drive it underground — as with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during President Hosni Mubarak's regime — offering it a freer hand to engage in violence. The Jamaat’s chequered history no doubt colours its political future. But Bangladesh has already set in motion an investigative process to hold those accountable for atrocities of the past. The Jamaat’s future is a political question, not a legal one. The decision to reject its communal mandate, and thereby put politics above religion, must come from the Bangladeshi people. Neither the government nor the judiciary can force its will on the electorate.