Ghulam Azam (Bengali: গোলাম আযম; born. 7 November 1922) is a retired Bangladeshi Islamist political leader, and an alleged war criminal of the Bangladesh liberation war. He was the Ameer of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh until 2000. Azam opposed the independence of Bangladesh during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.
As a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, he was a part of the controversial Peace or Shanti Committees which were formed at the time of the Liberation War alongside other pro-Pakistan Bengali leaders. Azam is accused of forming paramilitary groups for the Pakistani Army, including Razakars, and Al-Badr. These militias opposed the Mukti Bahini revolutionaries who fought for the independence of Bangladesh, and also stand accused of war crimes. However, according to his Defence counsel, as a civilian he played no commanding role within the army and had no superior or command responsibility for any military groups. Azam’s citizenship of Bangladesh had been cancelled by the Bangladeshi Government because of his subversive role during the Bangladesh Liberation War. He lived in Bangladesh illegally without any authorized Bangladeshi visa from 1978 to 1994.
Former caretaker government adviser, human rights activist and witness for the prosecution Sultana Kamal said- “In brutality, Ghulam Azam is synonymous with German ruler Hitler who had influential role in implementation and execution of genocide and ethnic cleansing“. In response to this statement the defense cousel pointed out that the comparison was a fallacy and ‘fake with malicious intention’ as Hitler held state power, which Ghulam Azam did not and that in 1971 General Tikka Khan and Yahya Khan held state power.
On 11 January 2012, he was arrested on charges of committing war crimes during the Bangladesh Liberation War by the International Crimes Tribunal. The tribunal rejected the plea of bail after noting that there were formal charges against Azam of which it had taken cognisance.
Ghulam Azam was born in 7 November 1922 in Dhaka. His father was Golam Kabir and mother Sayeda Ashrafunnisa. He attended a Madrasa in his village of Birgaon (Comilla district) and completed his secondary school education in Dhaka. He went on to complete BA and MA degrees in Political Science at Dhaka University.
Role in Jamaat-e-Islaami
In 1954, Azam became influenced by the ideas of Syed Abul Ala Maududi. On 22 April 1954 he Joined to Jamaat-e-islami and drew end line to his involvement in Tableague-i-Jamat. He soon rose through the ranks of the party and became the General Secretary of Jamaat-i-Islaami in East Pakistan in 1957. In 1964, the Ayub Khan regime banned Jamaat-i-Islaami due to radical religious activities and Azam was arrested. He was kept in detention for eight months. In 1969, he became the Ameer (president) of the Jamaat in East Pakistan, a position he was going to keep until the 1971 Liberation war was over. He was also a participant in the formation of the Pakistan Democratic Alliance in 1967. He was the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh until 2000.
Bangladesh Liberation War
The 1970 elections
Together with leaders of a number of other parties in East Pakistan (including the Pakistan Democratic Party, National Awami Party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Pakistan National League), Ghulam Azam protested at the Awami League approach to electioneering for the 1970 general elections in Pakistan, accusing them of breaking up public meetings, physical attacks on political opponents and the looting and destruction of party offices. During 1970, while Azam was the head of Jamaat-i-Islami, a number of political rallies, including rallies of Jamaat-i-Islaami, were attacked by armed mobs alleged to be incited by the Awami League.
Activities during 1971 War
During the Bangladesh Liberation War, Ghulam Azam took a political stance in support of unified Pakistan, and repeatedly denounced Awami League and Mukti Bahini secessionists, whose declared aim after 26 March 1971 became the establishment of an independent state of Bangladesh in place of East Pakistan. Excerpts from Azam’s speeches after 25 March 1971 used to be published in the spokespaper of Jamaat named The Daily Sangram. On 20 June 1971, Azam reaffirmed his support for the Pakistani army by stating that ‘the army has eradicated nearly all criminals of East Pakistan‘.
During the war of 1971, it is alleged that Azam played a central role in the formation of Peace Committees on 11 April 1971, which declared the independence movement to be a conspiracy hatched by India. It is also alleged that Azam was one of the founding members of this organization. The Peace Committee members were drawn from Azam’s Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim League and Biharis. The Peace Committee served as a front for the army, informing on the civil administration as well as the general public. They were also in charge of confiscating and redistribution of shops and lands from Hindu and pro-independence Bengalis, mainly relatives and friends of Mukti Bahini fighters. Almost 10 million Bangladeshis fled to neighboring India as refugees. The Shanti Committee has also been alleged to have recruited Razakars. The first recruits included 96 Jamaat party members, who started training in an Ansar camp at Shahjahan Ali Road, Khulna. During Azam’s leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami, Ashraf Hossain, a leader of Jamaat’s student wing Islami Chhatra Sangha, created the Al-Badr militia in Jamalpur District on 22 April 1971. On April 12, 1971, Azam and Matiur Rahman Nizami led demonstrations denouncing the independence movement as an Indian conspiracy.
During the war Azam traveled the then West Pakistan to consult the Pakistani leaders. Azam declared that his party (Jamaat) is trying its best to curb the activities of pro-independence “Miscreants”. Azam took part in meetings with General Yahiya Khan, the military dictator of Pakistan, and other military leaders, to organize the campaign against Bangladeshi independence.
On August 12, 1971, Azam declared in a statement published in the Daily Sangram that “the supporters of the so-called Bangladesh Movement are the enemies of Islam, Pakistan, and Muslims”. He also called for an all out war against India.
Azam is also alleged to be the chief protagonist and to present the blueprint of the killing of the intellectuals in a meeting with Rao Forman Ali in Early September 1971. In accordance with this blue print, the largest number of Bengali intellectuals assassinations performed by Pakistani Army and the local collaborators, on December 14, 1971.
On June 20, 1971, Azam declared in Lahore that the Hindu minority in East Pakistan, under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, are conspiring to secede from Pakistan. On August 12, 1971, Azam declared in a statement published in the Daily Sangram that “the supporters of the so-called Bangladesh Movement are the enemies of Islam, Pakistan, and Muslims”. For his part, Azam denies all such accusation and challenges that proof be brought forward to justify them. However, he later admitted that he was on the list of collaborators of the Pakistani army, but denied he was a war criminal.
The military junta of Yahya Khan decided to call an election in an attempt to legitimise themselves. On October 12, 1971 Yahya Khan declared that an election will be held from November 25 to December 9. Ghulam Azam decided to take part in this election. On October 15, the Pakistani government suddenly declared that 15 candidates were elected without any competition. According to the declaration of November 2 as many as 53 candidates were elected without any competition. In this election Jamaat won 14 of the uncontested seats.
A human rights worker Sultana Kamal said- “In brutality, Ghulam Azam is synonymous with German ruler Hitler who had influential role in implementation and execution of genocide and ethnic cleansing”. Prosecutor of ICT Zead-Al-Malum said- “He was the one making all the decisions, why would he need to be on any committee? Being Hitler was enough for Hitler in World War II.”
However, New York Times reported in 1992 that Azam left East Pakistan in 1970 due to his opposition to the independence movement.
Anti-Bangladesh Lobbying after 1971
After the victory of the Joint forces of the Indian Army and Mukti Bahini over Pakistan on 16 December 1971 a new nation named Bangladesh was born. Azam continued his anti-Bangladesh and pro-Pakistan activities even after 1971. He tried to convince many political leaders of Middle-East and Pakistan not to support the new born nation. A complete description of these lobbies are found in the writings of Dhaka University Professor Anisuzzaman. Mr. Anisuzzaman submitted all the allegations against Golam Azam to the People’s Court in 1992. People’s Court was established as a mass movement to try war criminals and anti-independence activists by Jahanara Imam and others. Jahanara Imam held this unprecedented Peoples’ Court as a symbolic trial of Ghulam Azam where thousands of people gathered and the court gave verdict that Azam’s offences committed during the Liberation War deserve capital punishment.
According to Prothom Alo, three intellectuals submitted allegations of war crimes against Ghulam Azam. The activities regarading Bengali culture were submitted by Syed Shamsul Huq, alleged war crimes during 1971 were detailed by Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir and his pro-Pakistan lobbying after 1971 was detailed by Anisuzzaman. Notable pro-Pakistan lobbying of Ghulam Azam after 1971 are as follows:
After the liberation of Bangladesh Azam, staying in Pakistan, created an organization named Purbo Pakistan Punoruddhar Committee (East Pakistan Revival Committee) along with anti-Bangladesh activists like Mahmud Ali. Azam tried to strengthen the international movement to re-establish East Pakistan. Accordingly he kept claiming himself as the Ameer of East Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami many years after the elimination of East Pakistan.
In 1972, Azam formed Purbo Pakistan Punoruddhar Committee in London and conspired with others to replace Bangladesh with East Pakistan. In 1973, he lectured against Bangladesh in the annual conference of Federation of Students’ Islamic Societies held in Manchester and conference of UK Islamic Commission held in Lester. In 1974, he arranged a meeting of Purbo Pakistan Punoruddhar Committee with Pakistanis like Mahmud Ali. As they had already failed to establish a Pakistan within Bangladesh, they decided to lead their movement towards the formation of a confederation combining Bangladesh and Pakistan. In this meeting Azam explained the necessity of working for the movement within Bangladesh though it was a bit risky then. In, 1977 in a meeting held in the Holy Trinity Church College, Azam expressed it again. He came to Bangladesh in 1978 with a Pakistani passport and Bangladeshi visa only to make his dream of Pakistan-Bangladesh confederation come true.
Ghulam Azam participated in the International Islamic Youth Conference held in Riyad in 1972 and begged the help of all Muslim countries to re-establish East Pakistan. From 1973 to 1976 he met Saudi King seven times and asked him not to acknowledge Bangladesh and never to help this country by any means. He lectured against Bangladesh again in the international conference arranged by Rabeta-e-Alam Al-Islami in Mecca in 1974 and at King Abdul Aziz University in 1977.
Azam lobbyied against the acknowledgment of new born Bangladesh in the conference of Foreign ministers of the Muslim countries held in Bengazi in 1973. In the same year he lectured in the Islamic Youth Conference held in Tripoli which was clearly against the independence and sovereignty of Bangladesh.
In 1973 Ghulam Azam urged everybody to participate in the movement of combining Bangladesh with Pakistan in the annual conference of Muslim Students’ Association of America and Canada held at Michigan State University.
Rehabilitation in independent Bangladesh
In 1978 Azam returned to Bangladesh on a temporary visa with a Pakistani passport. But he had been living in Bangladesh from 1978 to 1994 as a Pakistani national without any valid visa to stay in Bangladesh, refusing to leave a country he considered his home by birth-right.
Ghulam Azam announced his retirement from active politics in late 2000. He was succeeded by Motiur Rahman Nizami.
Arrest and incarceration
On 11 January 2012, Ghulam Azam was arrested on charges of committing crimes against humanity and peace, genocide and war crimes in 1971 by the International Crimes Tribunal. His petition for bail was rejected by the ICT, and he was sent to Dhaka Central Jail. However, after three hours he was sent to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) hospital for a medical check-up due to his old age. According to the Daily Star, Azam was allowed to remain in a hospital prison cell despite being declared fit for trial by a medical team on 15 January. The same paper later acknowledged that he had been placed there due to his “ailing condition”.
Azam’s health has deteriorated rapidly since being imprisoned. His wife, Syeda Afifa Azam was reported in several newspapers as being shocked at his treatment, stating that he has become very weak and has lost 3 kilograms in a month due to malnutrition. She described his treatment as “a gross violation of human rights” even though he was kept in a hospital prison cell.
Azam’s wife complains about him being denied proper family visits and access to books, saying that this amounted to “mental torture”. The Daily Star reported that Azam’s wife and his counsels were allowed to meet him on 18 February. On 25 February 2012, The Daily Star reported that Azam’s nephew was denied a visit at the last minute just as he was about to enter the hospital prison room. This is despite the application for the visit being initially approved.
Islamic activists from different countries expressed their concern for Mr. Azam. The International Union of Muslim Scholars, chaired by Yusuf al-Qaradawi called the arrest “disgraceful”, and called on the Bangladesh government to release him immediately, stating that “the charge of Professor Ghulam Azam and his fellow scholars and Islamic activists of committing war crimes more than forty years ago is irrational and cannot be accepted”.
The judicial process under which Azam is on trial has been criticised by international organisations such as the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. So far, the ICT has sentenced two of the accused to death and has given a life sentence to another.
The International war crimes tribunal of Bangladesh will deliver its verdict in the trial of Ghulam Azam on 15th July, 2013.