07 May 2001

Interview with Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami chief Motiur Rahman Nizami

7 May 2001
The Times of India

Bangladeshi Jamaat
Interview with Maulana Motiur Rahman Nizami

DHAKA: The Jamaat-e-Islami is a small but influential force in Bangladesh and is part of the four-party opposition alliance ranged against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government. Its ameer, Maulana Motiur Rahman Nizami, spoke to Siddharth Varadarajan about the recent Indo-Bangladesh tension, the role of Islamist parties in the country and how they reconcile their present position with the fact that they opposed the 1971 liberation war:

What is your opinion on the recent border clash with India?

Border clashes occur every month, In fact, during the five years of the Awami League government, there have been 300 incidents of BSF violence in which 400 Bangladeshis have been killed, including several from the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). In terms of the recent incidents, as far as I know, the BDR did not engage in any offensive action.

The basic problem is that the 1974 Indira-Mujib accord has never been implemented. We ratified it almost immediately but not the Indian Lok Sabha. If one goes back even further, the 1947 partition was done in such a way that there many complex problems of border demarcation. The boundaries were not drawn with intelligence. Maybe those who drew up the lines didn't want the people of this region to live in peace, they wanted the conflict to remain. In any case, the 1974 accord provided the basis for settling these problems but this was never done.

The only thing the BDR did was to seize - without a fight - a freedom fighters' camp at Padua which had been taken over by the BSF in 1971. India should have solved the matter through negotiation. Instead, it attacked the BDR at Boraibari. What happened of course - the loss of lives - was unfortunate.

How do you think the Hasina government has handled the crisis?

After Padua, the Awami League government should have been alert. Even now, they are not protesting the illegal BSF intrusion at Boraibari. The Vajpayee government has protested so loudly about everything; yet, she has been quite silent.

People in India were shocked by the way in which the dead bodies of the Indian soldiers were carried, tied to bamboo poles. And then there are allegations of torture, custodial killings...

It was the public which carried the bodies that way, not the BDR. As for the question of torture, the post-mortem report of our doctors does not tally with the BSF's allegations.

What will the Jamaat do in the coming elections? Are you apprehensive that the four-party alliance against the Awami League seems to be splitting?

Opposition parties always form alliances against the ruling party. Let's see who remains and who stays. But then this alliance against the Awami League is the need of the times.

The government has blamed `Islamic fundamentalists' and `anti-Liberation forces' for the deadly bomb attack during the Bengali New Year celebrations of Poila Boisakh in Dhaka last month in which 10 people died. What is your reaction?

The government has a responsibility neutrally to investigate who was behind the criminal attack and tell the nation. Without any investigation, the government should not attempt to pass judgment. Sheikh Hasina immediately blamed the communalists and fundamentalists. May be this was a way of covering up for the real culprits. Earlier too, in the Jessore bombing of 1999, our student wing was accused and many were arrested but then released because there was no evidence. The investigation report for that has still not been published. I think these things are being orchestrated by the government to discredit its opponents - to blame the Islamic opposition and even the BNP.

But doesn't the Jamaat as a group oppose secular cultural events like the Poila Boisakh celebrations?

We always declare what we believe, but we don't believe in imposing anything though force. This goes against the philosophy of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Terrorist activities in Bangladesh have their origin in the leftist groups. It is they who believe political power flows from the barrel of the gun. This is not a belief of the Islamic groups. The genesis of terrorism in the present context is also tied to the fascist activities of the ruling Awami League. To get the blessings of the US, the AL government has started talking of Osama bin Laden, of a new group called the Harkatul Jihad, but we don't even know who these people are and whether they even exist or not.

But what is your attitude towards Polia Boisakh?

We have a stand on cultural matters that what goes against the teachings of Islam should not be indulged in. But there is nothing wrong in people organising festivities for the new year. We are not opposed to this.

The Jamaat and other Islamist trends opposed the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. What is your view towards Pakistan today? Do you think reunification might be possible?

It is absurd and improbable to talk about Bangladesh and Pakistan being one country again. After December 16, 1971, no Islamic group in Bangladesh has ever called for reunification. As long as Pakistan was one country, we were loyal to it. Now that Bangladesh is an independent country, we are committed to it.

How do you react when you are labelled as anti-liberation forces?

This is sheer propaganda by our enemies. It shows the extent of their political bankruptcy. There is still a Muslim League in India and the Congress continued to exist in Pakistan until it merged with the Awami League. If someone was involved in crimes in 1971, it is one thing. But if someone held different views in 1971 and you take them to task for this for the rest of their lives, this is not fair.

It is said by some that the Jamaat is trying to make inroads in the Bangladeshi army.

Such propaganda is aimed at making the politics of a democracy unhealthy. The Jamaat opposed Ayub Khan's martial law. During Ershad's martial law, the Jamaat joined the Awami League and Khaleda Zia in opposing him. We do not believe in achieving anything through armed means. Only through the political support of the people. So we are not interested in cultivating any specific professional group. The army is part of the people. It should be above politics, a symbol of unity. This is our political doctrine.

Given that Bangladesh is an `Islamic' country, why does the Jamaat do so badly in elections?

For an ideological party, the present political system does not favour it. The same is true for the Communist Party. But we are not in a hurry. We are going to the people, educating them slowly. If we were just a normal party playing power politics, we would get more seats. But we don't use black money, terrorism, no false promises.

What kind of relations do you advocate with India?

We want friendly relations with India but not those based on domination and expansionism.

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