Is Begum Khaleda Zia Trying to Distance Herself From Jamaat-e-Islami?

Published: June 17, 2015 19:19 IST
The Jamaat-e-Islami party has called a 24-hour hartal in Bangladesh today to demand the release of Ali Ahsan Mohammed Mojaheed, sentenced to death by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for war crimes against Bangladeshis during the 1971 war.

Mojaheed, Secretary General of Jamaat, was a minister in former prime minister Begum Khaleda Zia's government, and Jamaat, an ally of Begum Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

The BNP has so far said nothing about the death sentence for Mojaheed.  

However, 10 days ago, hours after meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Begum Zia, told a group of Indian journalists, "the BNP is not pro-Jamaat-e-Islami. They are in alliance with our party. But it is a strategic alliance. We have different constitutions and ideologies."

Begum Zia's statement has come as a surprise to many because BNP had formed government in alliance with the Jamaat in 2001 and was supported by it earlier.

Is she now trying to distance herself from the Jamaat which is an Islamic party that was pro-Pakistan in 1971 and viewed as the fountainhead of fundamentalist groups operating in Bangladesh? Is the attempt to distance the BNP from Jamaat the result of clear signals by Prime Minister Modi that India would have no truck with anyone linked with terror?

PM Modi had highly praised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in his speech at Dhaka University for her fight against terror.

Immediately after meeting Mr Modi, Begum Zia said, "BNP is not anti-India. The Sheikh Hasina government has succeeded in labelling us anti-India. But why should we be anti-India?" She also explained that she had skipped meeting President Pranab Mukherjee in Dhaka in 2013 because "her life was under threat that day according her party's intelligence inputs".

Begum Zia's statements - on India and Jamaat- came in response to a direct question: Isn't BNP's image as anti-India suffering because of its pro-Jamaat position? Begum Zia not only said "BNP was not pro-Jamaat", she added that when the alliance was formed, Jamaat said it would not accept a woman leader. "I told Jamaat that I am the leader and they could either accept it or leave," Ms Zia said. "They joined the alliance on our terms," she said.

Bangladeshi journalist Sanjeev Chaudhury, at the interaction with Indian journalists at Ms Zia's office, said, "It is like the alliance between the PDP and the BJP in Jammu and Kashmir."

But what about Jamaat being viewed as the fountainhead of several terror groups? "We do not view them as fundamentalist," said Begum Zia. Mr Chaudhury added. "In Bengal, you have Marxists and Naxalites. But you cannot blame the Marxists for the killings by the Naxalites."

Several terrorism experts have claimed that the now banned Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh or JMB was founded by one Abdur Rahman once of the Jamaat. "True," said Mr Chaudhury, adding, "but it was the BNP that eradicated the JMB after it resorted to nationwide bombings in August 2005".

Begum Zia pointed out that even the Awami League had campaigned with the Jamaat against the BNP before the 1996 polls that Sheikh Hasina won. "We are a modern, democratic, nationalist party," she said. Other BNP leaders said it was the Awami League that had signed an accord with the fundamentalist Khelafat Majlis in December 2006 which had been widely condemned.

But the BNP's attempts to distance itself from the Jamaat could have a long-term impact. Clearly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit may have left an indelible impression on domestic politics in Bangladesh.

(Monideepa Banerjie is NDTV's Resident Editor based in Kolkata.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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