Ever since 2009, the secular Awami League government in Bangladesh has been moving the country’s law enforcing institutions and courts against various members of the Bangladeshi Jamat-i-Islami and other (mostly Deobandi and Salafi) rightist groups. The League accuses their members of taking part in the genocide that took place against Bengali nationalists in 1971.
Thousands of men, women and children were said to have been slaughtered and disgraced in what was then East Pakistan. Pakistanis have mostly kept quiet about its army’s violent role in what the world at large proclaimed was a systematic genocide by West Pakistani military against the Bengali-speaking majority in the former East Pakistan. Pakistan’s textbooks too are silent about the bloody episode that eventually heralded the full impact of the Bangladeshi liberation war, ripping away East Pakistan from the western wing.
Even though, over the years some Pakistani intellectuals and historians have begun to sincerely investigate the army’s role in the bloodshed, there’s another aspect of this unfortunate chunk of hidden history that is still to be pulled out and debated. This chunk has to do with certain groups of civilians who were part of the violence. This was also perhaps the first case in which the military establishment had used religion to explain away something that was overwhelmingly an atrocity committed against an oppressed people. Uniformed men who went about bludgeoning so-called Bengali ‘traitors’ (including women and children) claimed they were doing so to defend Islam and Pakistan.
The military was not alone. It also had active civilian backers. First in line in this respect was the Jamat-i-Islami (JI). Though the JI was kept at bay by the secular Ayub Khan dictatorship throughout the 1960s in West Pakistan, it suddenly gained rapid favour from the short-lived regime of General Yahya Khan. He began proceedings by patronising the Jamat (and a few pro-establishment parties) to help him neutralise the momentous rise of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the secular nationalist groups in East Pakistan, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In spite of the backing the JI and some other right-wing parties received from the Yahya dictatorship, they were routed by progressive and secular parties in both East and West Pakistan during the 1970 general election. Unwilling to hand over power to the majority party (the Bengali-dominated Awami League), Yahya’s army went to war with not only the incensed Bengali nationalists (backed by India), but also against innocent and unarmed Bengali civilians.
This action also generated the first ever case of a Pakistani state institution molding an Islamist civilian militant unit, something that would become (albeit clandestine) policy of certain intelligence agencies in Pakistan during and after the Afghan civil war in the 1980s, with the backing of the CIA. Before all the vicious sectarian and Islamist groups that began cropping up during the Ziaul Haq dictatorship in the 1980s, there were Al-Badar and Al-Shams.
Author Tarek Fatah in his explosive book, Chasing a Mirage, Hussain Haqqani in Between Mosque & Military and Jahangir Satti in The Ruling Enemy, all discuss in some detail these groups that were said to have been formed by the military intelligence to help the Yahya dictatorship tackle Bengali nationalists. Fatah and Satti maintain that both Al-Badar and Al-Shams were formed by General Rao Farman Ali – whom Satti describes as a ‘fanatic who was good at exploiting religious sentiments.’
The two groups were made up of militants from the Jamat-i-Islami and its student-wing, the IJT. Rao also recruited some youth who were sympathetic to the pro-establishment, Pakistan Muslim League. According to Haqqani, after a list was drawn containing a number of left-wing Bengali intellectuals, journalists, student leaders and politicians who were to be eliminated, Al-Badar and Shams went to work in March, 1971.
History outside of Pakistani textbooks accuses these groups of working like death squads — killing, looting and disgracing Bengalis whom they accused of being ‘anti-Islam’. Al-Badar was made up of educated JI and IJT recruits, while Shams was sewed together by using non-Bengali madressa students, Muslim League sympathisers and members of the Nizam-i-Islam party.
Many of those who took part in the atrocities managed to escape justice because they slipped out of East Pakistan after the military suffered defeat at the hands of Bengali nationalists and the Indian army. However, a number of former Badar and Shams members who stayed behind lost their lives in revenge killings by Bengali radicals.
Many Shams and Badar members who escaped quit their respective political parties and decided to lead low-profile lives, while others continued being part of the Jamat. However, in 2009, the Bangladesh government reopened cases of treason and genocide against the Bangladeshi amir of the Jamat-i-Islami, Maulana Motiur Rahman Nizami, who is alleged to have led Al-Badar’s notorious campaign against Bengali intellectuals, politicians and civilians in 1971.
Interestingly the Jamat-i-Islami in Pakistan, many of whose members and youth played a leading role in Badar and Shams activities, has avoided any talk of this aspect of its past. But whenever some Jamat members have decided to tackle this question, they say the party only ‘played a role in trying to save Pakistan and its Islamic character’ because — according to the Jamat — ‘Bengalis were being manipulated by Hindus (India),’ as opposed to being blatantly oppressed and discriminated against by their former West Pakistani compatriots.
And so convenience hides all that is ungainly in the past.