Syed Badrul Ahsan
Ghulam Azam has died unrepentant over his political role in Bangladesh in 1971. And yet, for all his later doggedness in asserting that he and his party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, were only trying to prevent Indian domination of the territory they once defended as East Pakistan, the people of Bangladesh can take proper pride in themselves. The pride comes in the happy realization that Azam died a condemned man, convicted of the crimes against humanity he committed in the nine months of the genocide perpetrated by the Pakistan occupation army. Old age prevented a walk to the gallows for him. But those ninety years he was sentenced to in prison were good enough to have him locked in officially recorded infamy for all time. The verdict of the highest court sentencing him for his crimes against humanity proved that he was a man to be condemned by this nation as long as Bangladesh remains a sovereign country.
The life of the one-time Jamaat Ameer was a series of bad political turns, a process which flowered in the late 1960s and 1970s when, in tandem with his mentor Sayed Abul A'ala Maududi, Ghulam Azam positioned himself squarely against the aspirations of the Bengali nation. It was an attitude which gained in substance within days of the launch of 'Operation Searchlight', the euphemistically misleading term the Pakistan military regime covered its crimes against the people of the then East Pakistan in 1971. Along with a few other rightist politicians in the country, Azam lost little time in offering his support and services to General Tikka Khan, once the butcher of Baluchistan and by 25 March 1971 taking upon himself the role of butcher of Bengal. That grainy image of Ghulam Azam, in the company of other Bengali collaborationists, in happy conversation with Tikka Khan and Rao Farman Ali, condemned him to disrepute in the early months of the Bengali war for freedom.
None of that, of course, bothered Azam. The enthusiasm with which he cooperated with the Pakistan occupation army in creating Peace Committees, a properly misleading term for groups of individuals ready and willing to support the army in its blood-curdling acts, remains a reality in Bangladesh's history. And that was not all, for Azam went ahead with proffering full and unconditional backing to the army in the setting up of such murder squads as the al-Shams and al-Badr, organisations of collaborationist Bengali young men whose job was to pick out and pick off patriotic Bengalis seeking free nationhood for themselves. The cold-blooded, calculated murder of Bengali intellectuals on the eve of Liberation War was the climax in Ghulam Azam's cooperation with the Pakistan army.
The record of the nine months leading to the emergence of Bangladesh speaks for itself. Ghulam Azam crisscrossed the occupied country decrying the War of Liberation, terming it a conspiracy by Hindus and their 'agents' to destroy Pakistan. Not for a moment did he express any reservations about the cruelty the army was perpetrating on a daily basis throughout the land they occupied. Activists of the Jamaat had a free rein reporting patriotic Bengalis to the army or driving them out of hearth and home. As the war drew to a close, Ghulam Azam travelled to what was yet officially known as West Pakistan for consultations with Pakistan's military ruler General Yahya Khan. He then remained stranded there, as within weeks of his departure from Dhaka, Pakistan crumbled and the People's Republic of Bangladesh emerged from its ashes in East Pakistan.
The new realities did not dampen Ghulam Azam's Pakistani spirit. Between 1972 and early 1974, he toured the Middle East on instructions from Pakistan's new leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto --- to argue the case of Pakistan's having fallen prey to conspiracy. The message Azam conveyed to the leadership in such countries as Saudi Arabia and Libya was unashamedly misleading: Bangladesh had been the product of Indian maneouvering, the country had fallen under Hindu domination and its Muslims were being eliminated. Predictably, he refrained from pointing to the horrors of kidnap, murder and rape the Pakistan army had committed and which he and his fanatical party had consistently collaborated and supported in 1971.
The irony for Bangladesh's people is that Azam arrived in independent Bangladesh on a Pakistani passport, stamped with a Bangladesh visa, in the late 1970s and never went back. The military regime of General Ziaur Rahman, subsequently instrumental in rehabilitating a large number of the collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army, maintained a studied silence despite the expiry of Azam's visa. The record, again, speaks of the intense passions Azam aroused among Bengalis, whose disapproval of the man was nowhere made more manifest than in his symbolic trial by a people's court under the leadership of Jahanara Imam, the iconic mother of a martyr to the cause of freedom. Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina and the pro-liberation forces extended all out support to the People's Court trying Gulam Azam and other collaboraters who opposed the 1971 War of Liberation and committed crimes against humanity during that war. Azam was eventually given his citizenship of Bangladesh by the military rulers. He was never to express contrition, though, for his acts as a Pakistani.
Ghulam Azam's comeuppance, morally and legally, was again a matter of irony. The Awami League whose politics he so violently resisted in 1971 would come back, under the leadership of the daughter of Bangladesh's founding father, to place him on trial for his sins. His death, the nation can today reassure itself, was more than the end of a man who refused to acknowledge guilt. It was, more appropriately, the passing of an individual who, through his trial for war crimes, goes into the history books convicted of the most sordid crime a man can commit --- that of helping alien forces murder his own people and rape his own sisters and daughters.