Ghulam Azam : Death of a War Criminal

Wily strategists meet their nemesis in unexpected ways.

Ghulam Azam, the once all powerful leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, who died recently, might have brooded over this old dictum, in his last days in detention. It was only last year that he was sentenced to 90 years of imprisonment for his crimes against humanity which he committed when people of the then East Pakistan – todays Bangladesh – had risen up against the occupation army of Pakistan in the year 1971.

It was not surprising that the funeral of this man who evoked intense hatred and loathing from a large cross-section of the population of B’desh for his role during and after the liberation of the country witnessed protest demonstrations all over the country. There were even demands that his body be sent to Pakistan for final rites and should not be buried here.

“The janaza (funeral prayer) 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 Baitul Mukarram National Mosque where Azam’s body was taken for funeral prayers. (The Telegraph, 27 th Oct 2014).

It is now part of history how as Ameer (Chief) of the then East Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami he had played a pivotal role in forming collaborator forces with the Pakistani army- namely Shanti (peace) Committee, Razakar, Al Badr, Al Shams. He was the ‘torchlight’ who guided massacres of intellectuals in Dhaka at the end of the conflict.(Dec 71). As the official charge sheet tells Al-Badr, the militia floated by Jamaat-e-Islami, was entrusted the job of exterminating Bengali intelligentsia by the Pakistani military in mid Dec 1971 – because it was believed that they were the brain behind the struggle for independence.

The facts regarding the bloody period which accompanied Bangladesh’s emergence have been recounted n number of times. It need be noted here that Bangladeshi authorities claim that as many as 3 million people were killed in this struggle, while news outlets like BBC have quoted the figures in the range of 3,00,000 to 5,00,000 for the estimated death toll as counted by independent researchers. An official Pakistan government investigation after the debacle of 1971 – under the Hamoodur Rahman Commission after ‘acknowledging its mistakes’ itself had put the figure as 26,000 civilian casualties.

Even after emergence of an independent Bangladesh after the nine-month-long Liberation War in 1971, Ghulam Azam continued in his crusade to thwart its survival, as he tried in vain to revive East Pakistan and spread propaganda against Bangladesh for several years. After the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the year 1975, he had returned to Bangladesh on August 11, 1978 on a Pakistani passport. He subsequently got back his citizenship and re-joined his position as the Ameer of the Jamaat-e-Islami.

Definitely it was no symbolic comeback. As noted by Zahur Ahmed in ‘Alalodulal’ blog (Ghulam Azam, An Unerasable Scar, 26 th Oct 2014)

He was able to stage a true comeback for far right Islamic ideologies, but this time with much more care, preparation and orchestration, so that the party (Jamaat e Islami Bangladesh) survived the test of time. Noting oversights and mistakes before and during 1971, he developed the party with a strong student base and diehard cadres with which the party infiltrated the bureaucracy, the political class, the business and financial sector and academia. By the early 2000s his party was able to secure important ministerial cabinet positions.

He was unapologetic for his role – during or after 1971. He had no remorse for inflicting suffering on his countrymen, as his was a higher goal –– the creation of an ‘Islamic State’ with the Shariat legal system.

Definitely he was not the first leader among a pack of controversial figures, who faced trials before the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) constituted by the Bangladesh government to bring to justice all those people who opposed the liberation struggle of the people and had become willing collaborators of the Pakistani Generals.

As commented by an analyst then, Ghulam Azam’s conviction was a slap in the face of all those leaders/formations who had no qualms in letting him stay in B’desh even after his visa had expired and were not at all keen to raise his dubious role in the independence struggle and had no qualms in seeking his support in holding reins of power or sharing power with the organisation he led. One still recalls how in the year 1991 the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) formed the government with support from the Jamaat .In 1998, the BNP and Jamaat formed the four-party alliance and Ghulam Azam appeared at a grand public meeting with BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia.

Perhaps that was the reason that he was confident that he won’t be touched. It was not for nothing that on December 13, 2011, just 29 days before his arrest in a war crimes case, he said:

“They (court) won’t find anything against me for which I will have to apologise to the nation.” (Return of the Shoe, The Daily Star, 27 Oct 2014)

And merely eighteen months later, he was proven guilty of committing genocide and crimes against humanity in 1971. The court said he deserved death but sentenced him to 90 years in jail considering his old age and poor health. As reported in the verdict, the International Crimes Tribunal-1 observed:

“Prof Ghulam Azam as a de facto superior acted in such a manner which tends us to hold that his prime object was to annihilate the Bangalee nation in the name of protecting Pakistan.”


In these morally uncertain times, we talk a lot of the shades of gray that exist between the blacks and the whites. We teach ourselves not to think in terms of absolutes; try to see things from the other person’s point of view. All of this is very commendable. None of it changes the fact that there is evil and there is good in this world, however, and that sometimes there simply is no ambiguity in the choices we have to make. And none of it changes the fact that Ghulam Azam was evil incarnate.

Tanvir Haider Chaudhury

[Tanvir Haider Chaudhury is the son of Mufazzal Haider Chaudhury, a prominent Bengali academic who was killed in the war of 1971. ]

For Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and its fraternal organisations in the subcontinent Ghulam Azam was not a ‘war criminal’ rather a source of inspiration and a subject of admiration. And they mourned his death by organising funeral prayers in different parts of the country. Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan did not lag behind in mourning him.

It is widely known how the Bangladesh Jamaat e Islami, has consistently refused to own responsibility for its opposition to the liberation war and its criminal role in thwarting the struggle. It had also not taken kindly to the ongoing trials. Despite the documentary and other evidence available about their heinous role, it has always claimed war crimes charges had been levelled against its leaders as an act of “political vengeance” and alleged the tribunal judges had ‘failed’ to maintain clarity and neutrality and demanded that the verdicts against its leaders be repealed. To show its opposition, it has engaged in indiscriminate violence, burning cars, beating opponents, hacking to death activists who support these trials, hurling bombs at crowd of bystanders or destroying public property and demonstrate its brute power.

In his column in ‘The Daily Star’ Syed Badrul Ahsan, a leading journalist and executive editor of the paper had commented on Ghulam’s conviction last year (Wednesday, July 17, 2013, Ground Realities) :

The wheels of justice do not always turn. But when they turn, they do so with the clear message that the perpetrators of ancient crimes always get their comeuppance at a point in historical time. The judgment delivered in the matter of the crimes committed by Ghulam Azam during Bangladesh’s War of Liberation reinforces the old argument that sooner or later those who commit misdeeds must pay for their acts. Now a frail ninety-one year-old man, Azam is proof that criminality is never forgotten, some sins are never expiated. He joins the ranks of men who have killed or helped to kill and were therefore condemned by law and censured by history.

Close on the heels of these judgments had come another judgment by the Bangladesh high courts which had barred Jamaat from contesting polls in future. Although it had not declared it illegal, but had said that since it does not seem to believe in Bangladesh’s constitution, they were taking this step. A formal investigation into Jamaat-e-Islami’s alleged role in war crimes had also started.

Thus one can see that it had taken more than fourty years to not only convict the real perpetrators of mass crimes but also look into their parent organisations role in it. The delay was understandable.

It is worth emphasising that soon after its liberation the process of punishing the war criminals had begun and attempts were made to set up a war crimes tribunal. The then government led by Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman promulgated the Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunals) ordinance in 1972 and the local collaborators of the Pakistani Army were being tried for specific crimes against humanity. It was July 1973 when the newly independent country’s Parliament also passed the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act, so that individuals could be prosecuted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s assassination (15 th August 1975) by disgruntled military officers and the subsequent change in government had a very negative impact on the trials of the war criminals. All such convicts and the prisoners who were still facing trials were released from detention and the issue of trials of war criminals became almost dormant. Undoubtedly people’s eagerness, persistence and enthusiasm that ‘war criminals’ should not be allowed to go scot free continued to simmer. Their efforts appear more impressive once we know that despite the fact that major political parties had either aligned themselves with the same forces or were not keen to follow it up, that they did not lose heart and continued in their efforts.

Of course, time and again there were attempts at the non-official level to underline and emphasise this unfinished task.  History of Bangladesh is witness to the efforts put in by the legendary Jahanara Imam (who was later declared Shahid Janani( Mother of Martyrs) after her death) and her group to restart the ‘war crimes trials’. Way back in 1992, an organisation led by her called ‘ Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee’ (“National Coordinating Committee for Realisation of Bangladesh Liberation War Ideals and Trial of Bangladesh War Criminals of 1971”) had held mock public trial of people accused of war crimes in a People’s Court. Thousands of people had participated in those ‘trials’ where many of the leading war criminals who were presented before the ICT were ‘given exemplary punishment’. The immediate context of having this mock trial was that Ghulam Azam, whose citizenship was revoked by Sheikh Mujib, was elected as the Amir of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The High Court, however, in 1993 restored his citizenship which was later upheld by the Bangladesh Supreme Court in 1994.  Jahanara Imam, as many people know, was a leading figure of the liberation struggle and her husband and son were killed by a squad of Al Badr. And for mobilising people on the question of war trials, the then BNP ruled government had filed charges against her for ‘sedition’.

The tribunals which were set up in the year 2010 were in accordance with the 1973 law only when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was in power. Close watchers of the B’desh situation can vouch that the call for the trial of the ‘war criminals’ played a key role in the last general election held in December 2008 which helped Awami League win the elections with a thumping majority. The youth of Bangladesh expressed its unequivocal support to the demand which eventually became one of the central agendas of the alliance led by Awami League.


The conviction of the likes of Ghulam Azam and his colleagues and especially the significance of the War Crimes Trials be better understood if we are able to situate the 1971 genocide in the later day conflicts in different parts of the world. As noted by Gita Sehgal in one of her write-ups Bangladesh of 1971 has sort of become the template for many of the conflicts which define the late 20 th century. A closer look at the genocidal conflicts in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia in 90 s or for that matter in Gujarat in 2002, could said to have already occurred in Bangladesh. One has been witness to widespread and systematic gang rapes, targeted killings of men and boys and the role of militias, composed of religious fundamentalists, in all these regions and the havoc they played with lives of innocents.

Any discussion about the war crimes trials would remain incomplete without proper acknowledgement of the historic role played by what is popularly known as Shahbagh movement. A movement initiated by young bloggers of Bangladesh, which witnessed participation of hundreds of thousands of people for days together on the streets of Dhaka and other parts of B’desh, demanding strict punitive action against war criminals and their organisations, namely Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. This massive initiative did not let any dilly dallying on part of the powers that be, did not allow any wavering on their part and forced their hand so that organisation(s) responsible for these crimes are duly prosecuted.

The manner in which Shahbagh movement raised the debate to a new level and raised the question of separation of religion and politics has been unprecedented. It is true that by taking lead in this historic movement and persisting against heavy odds, the youth of Bangladesh attempted in their own way to carry forward the forgotten legacy of all those unnamed martyrs who sacrificed their present for a better future for the people of the country – a future free of religious extremism, a future guaranteeing a life of dignity to everyone. Shahbagh demonstrated that ordinary people very well understand the great hiatus between words and deeds of the fundoos (fundamentalists)  and they want people to be punished for crimes, however, long it might take. The ‘success’ of the Shahbagh protesters could be better measured if we are able to have a look at rest of South Asia which is witnessing rise of communal mobilisation of various shades.


There are quite a few important features of these trials and the mass upsurge which followed it to give exemplary punishment to the guilty and the organisations they hailed from which need to be taken note of :

– It is after a long time that mass crimes are being punished and perpetrators of indiscriminate violence against ordinary people are being brought to book. These trials have broken the ‘unwritten convention’ much vogue in this part of South Asia that genocides or similar crimes against humanity are normally ‘invisibilised’ or best covered up and the cause of rendering justice to aggrieved individuals, communities or formations is always pushed under the carpet. The net result is that there is no closure. For individuals, people, communities who had faced brunt under specific circumstances with the powers that be either in connivance with the perpetrators or deciding to remain neutral, the festering wounds/ the tragic experiences that  get reduced to private grief best shared with near and dear ones.

May it be the case of partition riots or the killings of innocents which happened on a mass scale with political forces leading the carnage, or the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka which happened few years back or the Nelli carnage which witnessed more than two thousand killings of Muslims in few hours (1983), or the carnage which followed after assassination of Ms Indira Gandhi – which saw deaths of thousands of innocents , or the riots accompanying and preceding demolition of Babri Mosque (1992) or killings of innocents in the year 2002 in Gujarat ; we know very well that final word has not yet been said in any of these cases.

– Usual reasons offered for not taking up such cases – like lapse of time, issues like ‘why unnecessarily open old wounds’- a trade-off between peace and justice- have not deterred the powers that be from taking up the issue of trials of ‘war criminals’. And the key factor behind this is the people’s quest for justice itself.

The trials to prosecute ‘war crimes and crimes against humanity’ demonstrated one important thing that if people are willing then invisibilising of mass crimes is impossible. This part of South Asia has been notorious for innumerable similar crimes against people committed by the state or the non-state actors which have gone unpunished. Every peace and justice loving person from rest of the world would agree that people of Bangladesh and the formations which led them, deserve a roaring revolutionary salute for breaking this cycle of impunity.

Ghulam Azam, the war criminal is dead.

Many Bangladeshis have welcomed such a closure for this horrible chapter.

But we can notice that it also opens before them new series of challenges. As Zahur Ahmed has mentioned he leaves ‘[a] thriving ideology, a diabolically partisan country and a society forced to contend with his vile acts for years to come.’

And for the rest of us a bigger challenge.

How are we going to ensure :

No More Invisibilising of Mass Crimes.

No More Glorification of Perpetrators of Crimes against Humanity.

No More Sanitising ‘Nero’ as Our New Generation ‘Hero’.

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