“Barring people’s sincere, spontaneous participation –their right to which is unquestionable – the overblown Janaza event serves no real purpose other than being a spectacle. It serves itself. It does not reflect upon the Dead’s soul or their lives – but upon a desperate clutch at straws by an organized political force that is drowning; it sheds light upon a scheming, listless, heartless, mindless rush to maximize – even during mourning periods and at the cost of anyone around – brand equity and relevance in National Politics.”
Nothing’s Sacred Anymore – Ghulam Azam’s Funeral
By Adnan R Amin for Alal0dulal.org
At the height of WWII, Adolf Hitler directed German occupation forces to slaughter 10 Italians for every German killed. This unleashed a blood-curdling chapter of mindless, relentless violence. During this period, Erich Priebke – who was in charge of SS troops in 1944 – rounded up and executed at least 335 civilians in the Ardeatine Caves, just outside Rome, in retaliation for the killings of 33 German soldiers.
For the next 50 years, Priebke managed to escape the Nuremberg Trials and elude hounding Israeli secret services – till he was tracked down by a journalist in 1994. A year later, he was hauled back to Italy and convicted of mass murder. But last year, when Priebke died at age 100, debate ensued over what to do with his remains and how. Papal authorities refused him a funeral in a Catholic church. Residents of the tiny town came out in droves to protest. Priebke’s family – quite sensibly – tried to organize a closed, private funeral. But even that was disrupted when protesters and right wingers clashed. As the coffin arrived, the crowd jeered and thumped on the hearse. At one point, the family reported that they couldn’t find the casket. It had disappeared (it had been allegedly removed to a nearby airport for security reasons).
War-criminals purport to operate under the blanket protection of Banality of Evil (i.e. we were just following legitimate orders) but transgress all boundaries of civility and humanity. Unlike common criminals, they cannot be made to pay for their sins – simply because, one lifetime isn’t enough to do so. The angry protests at Priebke’s funeral are manifestations of the deep sense of personal injury and loss – that could hardly be assuaged by incarceration of the perpetrator. It was fuelled by an intense residual hatred that trumped decent people’s decency and civility.
It’s interesting to contrast this with the treatment of a convicted war criminal in Bangladesh, namely Ghulam Azam. Like Priebke, Azam had eluded the judicial system for decades before he was handed his punishment: incarceration instead of death, due to old age. Ghulam Azam, found guilty of all five categories of crime — conspiracy, planning, incitement, complicity and murder, left deep emotional scars on the national psyche. Many quarters opined that death wouldn’t be punishment enough for his crimes.
It was therefore an anticlimax when Azam quietly suffered a heart attack and passed away recently. The trial will now be declared defunct. A momentum has been lost. Campaigners, who had earlier demanded Azam’s body be sent to Pakistan, have been caught unaware. Soon after, Sajeeb Wazed Joy commented, “It was more than he deserved, but justice has been served. He did not die a free man […]”. Taken at face value, the remark could be taken to indicate a kind of resignation – even relief – on the Awami League’s part. As if, they were finally free from the secret burden of captors & punishers.
Azam’s anticipated death was always going to be of more political, than judicial, significance. This was compounded by the fact that he allegedly expressed the wish that his funeral prayers be led by (Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and war crime convicts) Delwar Hossain Sayedee or Matiur Rahman Nizami [Nizami has been sentenced to death at the time of publication of this piece: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29813571 ]. The venue was to be the national mosque. Azam’s elder son (former army brigadier, sacked following an alleged failed coup) Abdullah Hil Aman Azmi also endorsed the comment.
“The janaza of a war criminal can never be held at the national mosque,” Ziaul Hasan, chairman of Bangladesh Sommilito Islami Jote, an alliance of progressive Islamic parties, said at a human chain near the mosque. Other activists also expressed their contempt at the proposition.
But the Awami League Government appeared to be quite reasonable in responding to the request for holding the funeral in Baitul Mokarram. One is tempted to contrast this with the uproar that resulted when it was proposed that the body of a certain deceased professor be taken to the Shaheed Minar. And so it came to pass: a respected teacher’s body wasn’t allowed at a national shrine, but a war-criminal’s funeral was staged with pomp at a national house of worship. Asked if there was any possibility to release two war criminals to conduct Ghulam Azam’s janaza, State Minister for Home Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said: “A convicted criminal can be released on parole if his nearest relative dies. They are not his relatives.”
Hundreds of thousands of people thronged Ghulam Azam’s funeral; the crowd overflowed into surrounding roads and sidewalks. Television screens and newspaper front-pages were full of images from the mammoth gathering. Blogs and media reported having seen Islami Chhatra Shibir activists, with their military like precision and discipline, taking up strategic positions.
It appears that JEI planners – taking advantage of a foretold death (Ghulam Azam had been critically ill for some time) – wasted no time in putting into action a political chess move. Arrangements were made quietly, so that when the time came, thwarting protesters and crowd control was deftly managed. Apart from one or two incidents born of extreme, personal grief – the janaza and burial were smooth. The casual observer is likely to wonder how exactly JEI pulled off this massive event. Why did so many thousands attend the funeral of a convicted war-criminal? There were a number of reasons why the funeral had to be made into a spectacle. JEI’s stunt was helped along by socio-political factors. Some of these factors are explored below.
Need for a Showdown
Popularized in the 90s, a ‘showdown’ often denotes a public show of might, typically on the streets. JEI has not had the chance to showcase their vast network and disciplined party-men in a long while. And without a showdown, it is difficult to win the crowd. There was, then, always a need to stage a comeback. A return from political oblivion and irrelevance. And mourning the spiritual leader en masse was a great opportunity.
Unlike that of Priebke, Azam’s death followed quickly after his trial and sentencing. He did not fade into oblivion, but was kept alive by the Media and commentators – as the very face of crimes by war-time collaborators. To a supporter or sympathizer, it can even seem like a death resulting from a sentence of supremely-finality. A public mourning of Azam would help to assuage, in the mind of the public, the terrible guilt of the war-criminal. People would heave a sigh of relief and conclude that, finally, justice had been served.
Ghulam Azam’s fourth son Abdullahil Amaan Azmi – before leading the prayers – briefly addressed the gathering. “Ghulam Azam will be properly evaluated if Islam turns victorious in this country,” he said. It’s worth noting that not the imam, but Azmi was the choice to lead the janaza. It can be seen as a quiet nod to the successor, a passing of the baton. Watching Ghulam Azam’s son leading such a big congregation of believers and supporters beats all posturing and promotion.
To mourn its leader while showcasing its organizational might, JEI benefited from a number of factors. These factors contributed to the ballooning crowds at the funeral – numbers that clearly surpassed that of JEI activists.
Brand Value of Azam
Ghulam Azam had never really disappeared from the Bangladeshi political scene. As the Nayeb-E-Ameer of the Jamaat E Islami, Bangladesh (JEI) – he has long been seen as the political and spiritual leader of JEI. Think back: when the major political parties were accused of having gotten into bed with JEI, the image that it conjures is one of Ghulam Azam and/or his deputies photographed with leaders from Awami League or BNP. While an association with Ghulam Azam may be seen as a negative property, it seems that planners behind the curtains were not aware of the old adage, ‘any publicity is good publicity’. This is evident in the fact that, as a political entity, JEI has never really attempted to distance itself from Azam or his war-crimes. It seems there was a fear that a strategic distancing would result in rendering JEI even more bland, even less news-worthy.
Doubt About Conviction
Many agree that the performance of current and previous governments have not been exactly stellar when it comes to trial of war-criminals in Bangladesh. Rumors of misidentification, judicial partisanship, inept prosecution proceedings gained some degree of traction through the hard work of a dedicated band of JEI-allied activists. It stands to reason that despite all the evidence and the rulings, there were segments that weren’t completely convinced of due process and integrity. Many chalked it down to party-rivalry.
Fear of God
Bangladesh is a country of simple, god-fearing people. If not threatened or cornered, they won’t act in a way that may displease the Almighty. Attending a janaza is seen as a religious rite and as such, not to be avoided. It is a sort of ‘just in case’ reaction by timid, god-fearing and risk-averse people.
Pull of the Spectacle
Lastly, and most importantly, residents of Dhaka had no doubt that Azam’s funeral was going to be quite the spectacle. In a city where the changing of car-tires draws a small crowd, a small, private funeral for a political leader and the face of war-crimes would be too much to expect.
There can be no doubt that JEI is powerful, disciplined organization with strong grassroots connections. It is perfectly capable of staging showdowns, evoking fear and creating chaos – all in order to score political points. Even Pakistani supporters of religious party Jamaat-e-Islami offered funeral prayers.
Recall Erich Priebke’s violence-marred funeral. Towards the end of it, several dozen skinheads and right-wing extremists dressed in camouflage clothes and combat boots came to pay their respects to Priebke – a man who had become a far-right icon. Several gave fascist salutes – prompting the crowd to burst into chants of ‘Executioner’ and ‘Murderer!’ A row raged on for days over the officer’s last burial place after because authorities fear the grave could become a site of pilgrimage for his neo-Nazi followers.
Compared to that, both the public and government of Bangladesh have been much more lenient to Ghulam Azam, though his crimes were no less heinous. Collectively, we have shown respect due to the Dead. We have allowed a massive last rite – a most undeserved sending-off for a man who had well outlived the brightest of his victims. We have allowed and witnessed a supposed show of strength by JEI.
Though warranting passing examination and analysis – war-criminal Ghulam Azam’s Janaza is not important in the scheme of things. In a country of 160 million people, a show of bodies isn’t the most effective statement to make (violence, death and vandalism, however, are). It reeks of desperation. It appears to betray a slight gloom and doom mindset in the planning rooms. It hints at an urgent search for options and, hopefully, exit strategies.
Barring people’s sincere, spontaneous participation –their right to which is unquestionable – the overblown Janaza event serves no real purpose other than being a spectacle. It serves itself. It does not reflect upon the Dead’s soul or their lives – but upon a desperate clutch at straws by an organized political force that is drowning; it sheds light upon a scheming, listless, heartless, mindless rush to maximize – even during mourning periods and at the cost of anyone around – brand equity and relevance in National Politics.
Nothing’s sacred anymore.
A sensationalized, essentialized, overblown man and a great man are not the same things. Media and publicity buzz around a person, in themselves, hold no clues to the inner worth and practical contribution of the celebrity. Baal Thackeray’s funeral was attended by a million people. What does that mean? All that viral buzz is merely a reflection of where the whimsical citizenry’s fancy lies. These events, they’re staged because they entertain the middle-class (and frighten the poor). It’s our version of the Gladiator Games of Ancient Rome. Our game of dog-eat-dog. At the risk of getting philosophical on you, dear reader, if the spectacular Janaza is truly where our fancy lies – it must also be a mirrored image of the nation.
Adnan R. Amin is a strategic communications consultant, and a member of the Alal O Dulal Editorial Collective.