South Asia

Jamaat-e-Islami’s Role in Bangladesh Elections and What It Means for India

For India, Jamaat is a red flag. So, for the world’s largest democracy, any electoral change in Bangladesh that might topple the Awami League from power can be considered a cause of worry.

On August 14 this year, Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, Jamaat-e-Islami’s most popular leader, passed away while serving a life sentence for genocide, killing and rape during Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971.

The country’s local International Crimes Tribunal had awarded him a death penalty a decade ago. The verdict was followed by violent protests across the country that left over a hundred dead. According to BBC, the security forces struggled to bring the situation under control. They couldn’t predict in which districts the violence would spread to.

A year later, Bangladesh’s Supreme Court commuted his death penalty to life imprisonment.

While Jamaat-e-Islami showed strength when Sayeedi was alive, his death last month was a muted affair.

The government allegedly did not allow his funeral prayers to take place in Dhaka, and the Jamaat leadership obliged, a decision that angered those who had gathered at the hospital where the 83-year-old breathed his last.

In protest, they punctured a tyre of the vehicle that was carrying the deceased leader’s mortal remains to his village. The issue was, however, fixed quickly. It was evident that the Jamaat leadership didn’t want to challenge the government by holding his funeral prayers in the capital.

This mellowed response to the leader’s death has invited criticism from its supporters at the grassroots level, more so because Sayeedi was the most illustrious leader in the organisation.

Furthermore, the party is known for its regimented nature. And Jamaat, though an Islamist party, is structured around the Leninist principle of democratic centralism. It has a three-tier membership process, and until now, dissent used to be voiced only in party forums.

However, the muted response is surprising, because Sayeedi, an Islamic evangelist-turned-politician, garnered some degree of admiration across the country, despite a prolonged public disagreement over his role in 1971.

Bangladesh Chhatra League, the student wing of the ruling Awami League, which initiated Sayeedi’s trial, suspended some of its leaders and activists for mourning Sayeedi’s death.

This stands in stark contrast to the idea that Jamaat is a force to be reckoned with in Bangladesh and is getting stronger by the day.

It is true that the party, as a political force, is not finished yet, but with over 23,000 of its activists facing cases and 90,000 people, including the party’s current top leaders, in prison, Jamaat is in disarray and in no position to put up a strong resistance in the streets.

Only in June this year, the party was allowed to hold a public meeting in Dhaka, the first of its kind in over a decade, a rare generosity the government hasn’t repeated. Two days later, a local newspaper reported, quoting an anonymous intelligence source as saying, that Jamaat now has around 23 million active members in the country.

The number appears to be highly exaggerated, as the party, of late, has not been allowed to carry out any outdoor political activity. Bangladesh’s high court declared Jamaat, a political party, illegal, saying it conflicted with the country’s secular constitution.

Also read: Why Bangladesh’s Democracy Is on Life Support

The impact on the electoral process

Jamaat is effectively barred from participating in any electoral process in Bangladesh. Almost all of its major leaders were either hanged for collaborating with the Pakistan Army during Bangladesh’s independence war or died in prison, serving sentences.

Thrown underground, Jamaat’s programmes are not covered in national newspapers. Its finances are in tatters. The party now is a skeleton of its previous self.

Bangladesh has over 119 million voters, and the numbers do not look good for the party, if it goes to the polls without forming an electoral alliance.

Jamaat used to be in a political and electoral alliance with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is effectively led by Tarique Rahman, the party chairperson Khaleda Zia’s first son.

Founded by military dictator General Ziaur Rahman, the BNP initially followed a centrist agenda, welcoming both members of the dying Muslim league and the Red Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani’s leftist National Awami Party. However, this balancing act proved to be tricky, and eventually, the party inclined towards right-wing politics in 2001, when it gave two ministries to Jamaat, which won 4.28% votes.

The BNP’s alliance with Jamaat was strong for some time. But of late, it appears to have witnessed its natural death. The BNP is trying hard to reinvent itself by creating an umbrella alliance that will include the country’s centrist and leftist forces, and here, Jamaat is not welcome.

The BNP and its new friends are not convinced with Jamaat for its role during Bangladesh’s independence war. They see it as a partner that comes with a lot of baggage. It will not be unnatural if some BNP leaders now want to earn a political dividend from the vacuum created by the Awami League by over-killing Jamaat.

And the BNP may try to woo the 5% voters of Jamaat. These are rightist-Islamist votes that will never be cast for the Centre-left Awami League, and the BNP, which was Jamaat’s long-term partner once, cannot be blamed for feeling lucky.

Foreign relations

The BNP also wants to distance itself from Jamaat to allay India’s concerns regarding Bangladesh’s largest Islamist party. For Bangladesh’s bigger neighbour, Jamaat is a red flag.

India’s seven northeastern states are at the heart of the matter. They are virtually landlocked by Bangladesh and Myanmar and are connected to the rest of the country only through the 10-12-mile-long tiny Siliguri Corridor, the Chicken’s Neck. The Awami League has extradited to India the leaders of all the major anti-Indian insurgent groups of these once insurgency-prone states.

So, for the world’s largest democracy, any electoral change in Bangladesh that might topple the Awami League from power can be considered a cause of worry. With Bangladesh, India shares the world’s fifth longest land border.

Also read: An Unholy Omen Is Looming Over Bangladesh

The BNP has distanced itself from Jamaat to ensure its former partner’s presence in any alliance doesn’t provide the Awami League with a pretext to hold an election similar to that of 2014, in which 153 contestants were elected unopposed. Bangladesh’s parliament constitutes 300 members.

Hounded by the Awami League government and left in the lurch by its long-time ally, Jamaat is in the soup.

It can make a backroom deal with the Awami League, so that its leaders can participate in the next election as independent candidates. But given their recent history, it will be difficult – if not impossible – for Jamaat to trust the ruling party. It can participate in the election under the banner of the Bangladesh Development Party, a new political outfit which many believe is Jamaat in disguise.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh Prime Minister and leader of the Awami League. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

But participating in any kind of polls that are not inclusive or boycotted by most of the major political parties can even lead to the split of Jamaat.

To make matters worse, Jamaat has become a relic of the Cold War. The party, a group similar to Muslim brotherhood, has been crucial for the US in the early and late 1970s as its role was pivotal in fighting the Left in the Muslim majority Bangladesh and Pakistan. During the so-called ‘war on terror’, Jamaat kept a centrist position.

Now that the US’s interest is more centred around containing China in the Indo-Pacific region, the party will find it difficult to make itself look useful. Also troubling for Jamaat is its leadership’s apparent inability to find its role in this changed world.

Problematic, too, is its Leninist party structure, which is good for a revolutionary party. But Jamaat doesn’t have any big mass organisation from which it can draw new members. This lack of inclusiveness has made the party appear to look like a self-limiting, annoying condition that neither goes away nor puts its bearer in harm’s way.

Jamaat in Bangladesh’s politics is increasingly becoming irrelevant. A deal brokered by India, which will oversee Jamaat leaders’ participation in the election under the Awami League can give the regime in Dhaka some breathing space. It will also give Jamaat a straw to clutch at.

Having said that, India should keep in mind that a just, free and democratic Bangladesh is important for the stability of the region. India needs to sit with all major political actors in Bangladesh, including the US, in order to make sure that India’s security concerns are respected by the party that will come to power through a free and fair election this January.

India and Bangladesh’s future is historically and geographically entwined, and it should be a democratic one.

Ahmede Hussain is a Bangladeshi writer and journalist. He’s the editor of the anthology The New Anthem: the Subcontinent in its own Words (Tranquebar; Delhi). He has just finished writing his first novel. His X handle is @ahmedehussain