By Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi
Professor Ghulam Azam, former leader of Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami party, died last Thursday at the age of 91. His death came while he was in prison having been convicted of charges of war crimes which were leveled against him unjustly by the incumbent government in Bangladesh. Azam, an honest man, spent more than two years in jail after charges of war crimes were framed against him.
Last year, the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal sentenced him to 90 years in prison on numerous charges of war crimes that he allegedly committed during the civil war of 1971 that ended with the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of the independent nation of Bangladesh. This was following by the intervention of India, which transformed the civil war into a war between India and the Awami League militia of East Pakistan on one side and the Pakistan Army on the other side.
Prof. Azam stood for the unity of Pakistan and was openly against secession. He demanded the introduction of political and constitutional reforms to serve the interests of the people of East Pakistan who made up 56 percent of the total population of United Pakistan. Being a staunch advocate of the Bengali language and supporter of Bengali nationalism, Azam was in the forefront of the Bengali Language Movement launched in 1952 when Pakistanis in the western part of the country wanted to declare Urdu as the sole national language of United Pakistan. This sparked extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Pakistan. Students took to the streets demanding that Bengali be declared the official language of East Pakistan. The movement reached its climax when police used force to disperse student protesters which resulted in the death of some protesters and the injury of others. Police detained a number of leading protesters and Ghulam Azam was among them.
Azam joined the Jamaat-e-Islami party, founded by Maulana Abul Ala Maududi. When Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan banned the party, he put its leaders, including Azam, behind bars without any trial. Azam was released after spending several months in jail. Together with several other prominent political figures, Azam established the Pakistan Democratic Movement and the Democratic Action Committee to transform the anti-Ayub Khan movement into a popular uprising. Subsequently, Azam and other opposition leaders, including Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, were invited to the Round Table Conference, convened by Khan in Rawalpindi in his bid to solve the prevailing political impasse in Pakistan. Ayub Khan announced his acceptance of the Opposition’s two fundamental demands of parliamentary government and direct elections. However, later he transferred power to General Yahya Khan who held the country’s first nationwide elections in 1970 in which the Awami League led by Mujibur Rahman gained the majority of seats. When Yahya Khan delayed handing over power to the Awami League apparently because of the pressure from Pakistan People’s Party leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who threatened to boycott the parliament sessions, Mujibur Rahman announced civil disobedience and consequently civil unrest erupted all over East Pakistan. This led to the civil war that ended with a war between India and Pakistan and the foundation of Bangladesh following the defeat of the Pakistan Army.
In view of the position taken by Azam to stand by United Pakistan during the civil war, his nationality was taken away from him by the Bangladesh government. Moreover, the Bangladesh Supreme Court sentenced him to 18 months in prison for his alleged connivance with the Pakistan Army. He lived in Bangladesh illegally without any authorized Bangladeshi visa from 1978 to 1994, until the Supreme Court reinstated his citizenship.
I met Azam for the first time in Dhaka in January, 1969 while I was working with the Saudi consulate in Karachi. I had been deputed to Dhaka in order to facilitate the issuance of visas for Haj pilgrims who traveled by ship from the port of Chittagong. I found Azam to be a pious Muslim, an honest individual, an experienced politician and a free thinker. I had heard of him earlier but got to know him when I met him at the Saudi embassy in Dhaka. I listened to him attentively when he spoke about the political situation in Bangladesh and other South Asian nations. I still recall the words of a prominent Arab ambassador. When he spoke about politics and politicians, the ambassador mentioned Ghulam Azam, saying: “Azam was the most honest person that I ever met in Bangladesh. I had disagreements with him in certain matters but I respected him because he respected himself as well as those who were listening to him.”
Ten years ago, Prof. Azam retired from politics and devoted himself to writing books and carrying out research studies. He authored several books and booklets on a variety of topics, including religion, politics and history. It was he who mooted the idea of a caretaker government when the differences between the major parties of the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, led by two rival women, were intensified.
The restoration of the so-called International War Crimes Tribunal by the incumbent government and the detention of Azam and other political leaders after framing charges of war crimes against them have been sharply criticized by international human rights organizations and activists who have emphasized that these trials were politically motivated. We can only pray for Ghulam Azam. May Allah forgive him and accommodate him in His Paradise, and bestow patience to his bereaved family members.
Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org