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Political Implications of Ban on Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami

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Bangladesh’s High Court on 1 August, 2013 cancelled Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami’s political registration, preventing the party from taking part in the process of electioneering in the country. It simply means that BJI is ineligible to take part in forthcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2014. The current High Court ruling is an extension of International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) rulings on alleged war crimes levelled against BJI leaders during 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, where many BJI leaders have already been sentenced from death to life imprisonment.

In a controversial decision, the three Judges bench of High Court on 1 August, headed by Chief Justice, Moazzem Hossain ruled that the party’s charter, by acknowledging the absolute power of God, breached Bangladesh’s 1972 secular constitution, which upholds the sovereignty and absolute power of the people of Bangladesh.

The court ruling came after a leading Sufi group, which practises Islamic mysticism, filed a public interest litigation in January 2009, seeking to scrap BJI’s registration.

Interestingly, in the past week, the Election Commission of Bangladesh has argued, somewhat self-defeatingly, that its power to cancel political candidacies should lie instead with the judiciary.

The court ruling resulted in sudden backlash from Jamaat supporters; many were killed in brutal crackdown by security forces whose heavy-handedness has crossed all the limits when it comes to deal with the political opponents of ruling Awami League government.

Suffice it to mention here that BJI made significant reforms of its party structure under the direction of the Election Commission four years ago in order to contest the 2009 polls that swept the Awami League into power with a huge majority.

Dakha University International Relations Professor Amena Mohsin said the ruling was politically suspect given its timing. In an interview to Weekend Australia Professor Mohsin aptly elucidated, “It’s one thing to try a party for its criminal activities in 1971, but another to ban a party for a particular ideology. Article 90c of the constitution stipulates a political party cannot be registered if it discriminates on religion or gender. But we have other faith-based parties and some are aligned with the ruling party. If that’s the case then we must ban all of them.”

After the ICT rulings in 1971 war of independence case, it was widely expected in the political circles of Bangladesh that the Bangladeshi High Court may take this far-reaching decision of declaring BJI politically outlawed.

As human rights watch (HRW) reported from the ground, more than 150 people have been killed in the political violence since February 2013; the latest judgment by Bangladeshi High Court has fuelled the already tense political environment in the country.

Local media reported that BJI immediately filed a petition to the Appellate Division of High Court to reverse the verdict. BJI leaders called for nationwide protests on 3 August, and after the Islamic holy month of Ramadhan, on 12 and 13 August, to counter “conspiracies” aimed at eliminating the party. The decision threatens democracy and rule of law, the party added in a statement.

It is worth mentioning here that BJI is active in Bangladeshi politics from more than two decades and has been a partner of the coalition governments before.

Even people who do not support BJI, which they deem conservative, reckon that the court appeared to be overstepping its constitutional boundaries by banning a political party by negating the democratic right of a political party. This decision by court could strengthen BJI by making it look like the victim.

Though, in the last election, BJI could manage to win only two parliamentary seats out of 36 won by BNP-led alliance, which it was a part. Yet BJI has considerable political clout in rural Bangladesh and this time is expected to get more than 17 seats, the party won in 2001 parliamentary elections.

Since the restoration of full democracy in 1990s, Bangladesh has swapped ruling party in every general election: BNP ruled the country from 1991-1996 and 2001–2006, AL ruled from 1996-2001 and from 2008 till the next general elections scheduled in early 2014 .The conventional wisdom suggests that in coming parliamentary elections BNP-led alliance, with or without BJI, will be victorious with thumping majority.

Pushed into a corner by a series of court verdicts, first against its leaders now against the party itself, BJI may now feel it has little choice but to hit the streets for its survival.

The long-term implications of ban are not good. If authorities allow BJI to continue as a mainstream political party then it must follow certain rules and be accountable to the people.

In 1979 general elections the-then BJI leaders fought the election on the banner of Islamic Democratic League and bagged 6 seats with 4% of vote share. This time, if ban is not revoked by Appellate Division of High Court, they may fight the election on a new political platform or as independents.

Only time will tell what course BJI will adopt, apart from strikes and protests to keep the party alive in Bangladeshi polity where new permutations and combinations are taking shape before the scheduled general elections.

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