The violence unleashed by the Jamaat-i-Islami across Bangladesh in response to the death sentence against its leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee has shown the group up in exactly the colours it wants the nation and the world to forget. Sayedee, and before him two others from the Jamaat, were convicted for their involvement in horrific crimes aimed at sabotaging the country’s march towards liberation from Pakistan, or as acts of reprisal when independence became inevitable. The Jamaat believes that the war crimes trials are politically motivated, and that Sayedee was given the death sentence because of pressure mounted by protesters on the streets demanding that all those convicted by the tribunal be hanged. For the Awami League government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the trials are a fulfilment of a long cherished mission. Not surprisingly, there are real concerns about the political overtones the trials acquired, and if due process was followed in the rush to judgment. But nor has Bangladesh witnessed the kind of popular movement that began spontaneously since the first verdicts were announced, demanding the maximum penalty for those who participated in the systematic murder, rape, and mayhem of 1971. Since early February, the thousands of students gathering peacefully at Shahbag Square in Dhaka seem to be of the view that if anything, the government has been too cautious and too slow in its efforts to heal the still raw wounds of four decades.
Call it unfortunate, or a poor reading of the turning national mood that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by Khaleda Zia has chosen in this matter to side with the Jamaat, its old political ally. The BNP gave its support to the 48-hour hartal called and violently enforced by the Jamaat against Sayedee’s sentencing, thus firmly casting the issue of the 1971 crimes in political, rather than national terms. If the Jamaat, or the BNP have doubts about the neutrality of the verdict, there must surely be other peaceful ways to express them. Also unbecoming of a national leader was Ms Zia’s refusal to meet President Pranab Mukherjee, who is on an official visit to Bangladesh. Despite being painted as pro-Hasina, New Delhi has made efforts to reach out to the BNP, the main opposition party, and Ms Zia’s last visit to the Indian capital was a bridge-building exercise by both sides. But the former Prime Minister has evidently chosen to see President Mukherjee’s visit at this charged moment in Bangladesh’s 40-year history as a show of support for the Awami League government. It would have been so much better for Bangladesh had she seen it as a show of solidarity with the people of her country.