DHAKA, Bangladesh – The fight for the future of Bangladesh is playing out in the streets of this troubled south Asian nation.
For a month, masses of moderate activists have camped at a Dhaka intersection demanding harsh punishment for those accused of crimes during the 1971 independence war from Pakistan, a stance that dovetails with the prime minister's position.
Meanwhile, their bitter enemies in a hardline Islamic opposition party that wants to install Shariah law have been attacking government buildings and setting fire to trains in a rampage that — along with a crackdown by security forces — has killed more than 60 people. The party, Jamaat-e-islami, says the government is using a war crimes tribunal to decimate the party leadership, and claims it is in a fight for its very existence.
"Our backs have been pushed to the wall. If we can't stop the fascist government from holding the trials, all our main leaders will be hanged," said Rafiqul Haq, a Jamaat leader based in Dhaka's Uttara district. "We will die rather than let the government kill our leaders."
The latest round of violence — sparked by the tribunal sentencing a party leader to death — has prompted calls for Jamaat to be branded a terrorist organization, and Law Minister Shafiq Ahmed told Parliament this week that the government was looking into ways to ban the party.
Looming over the protests and violence are general elections expected within the next year, and fears that in this fledgling democracy with a history of coups, the military might take over if the situation in the streets gets too far out of hand.
"The people are deeply worried about what is going on," said Hassan Shahriar, a political analyst. "If the violence continues, the government may hit back with harsh measures like a state of emergency." Military intervention is possible as well, he said.
Much of the chaos centers on the fate of Jamaat, the country's largest Islamic party. Its leaders are facing charges they helped Pakistani forces in the fighting four decades ago, which Bangladesh says left 3 million people dead and 200,000 women raped.
Jamaat had opposed breaking away from Pakistan, arguing that staying as one strong Muslim-majority nation would be better for Islam. Citizen brigades formed by Jamaat helped Pakistani forces, unfamiliar with Bangladesh, identify independence activists. Jamaat leaders deny any link to war crimes.
After independence, founding President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, banned the party and stripped many of its leaders of citizenship. But he was slain in 1975 and military ruler Ziaur Rahman, husband of current opposition leader Khaleda Zia, lifted the ban and wooed Jamaat as an ally for his Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Though Jamaat has never won big at the ballot box, routinely garnering around 4 percent, it has been an important coalition ally for Zia, and even received Cabinet posts when she won elections in 2001
Despite its violent history, Jamaat developed a loyal cadre by devoting attention to the poor. It runs a bevy of charities, hospitals and hundreds of Islamic schools. It has gained the loyalty of poor students through its scholarships and earned a reputation, even among opponents, for honest behavior amid the usual government corruption.
"The activists are highly dedicated and Jamaat also has lots of money to maintain a huge army of trained cadres," Shahriar said. He noted that its loyalists are trained almost like guerrilla fighters.
At the same time, its ideology has failed to make much headway in the country, where many look down on it as a local version of Pakistan's Taliban. And many remain angry that the party never apologized for its role in the war.
When the war crimes tribunals inaugurated by Hasina began handing down decisions earlier this year, lines were drawn. Many cheered that the country was finally dealing with its past. Others lashed them as a plot to destroy the opposition, since 11 of the 12 defendants are politicians from Jamaat and Zia's opposition party.
"The trials are nothing but a ploy to hide the failures of the government," Zia said last week.
When Abdul Quader Mollah appeared smiling last month after being given a life sentence, people poured into the streets, demanding his execution. Many here believe that if Zia wins the upcoming election, she will grant clemency to those convicted, leaving a swift execution as the only way of ensuring justice is delivered.
"I'm not bothered about politics," said Nazrul Islam, a Dhaka University student who was among the protesters. "What I want is that those who killed our people, raped our women must be punished."
When Delwar Hossain Sayedee, a top Jamaat leader, was then given a death sentence last week, Jamaat struck back with violent attacks.
In northern Bogra district, Jamaat activists used loudspeakers to urge supporters to pour into the streets and then led them to attack police stations, dragging four policemen from the outposts and beating them to death, police and private TV stations reported. In eastern Noakhali and Comilla districts, Jamaat activists attacked about a dozen temples and dozens of Hindu homes, police said. Hindus are seen as supporters of Hasina's ruling party.
Images of bloodied and bullet-ridden bodies heaped on ashes of burned homes were shown on television.
With most of Jamaat's top leaders in jail, including its president, Matiur Rahman Nizami, the party is being run by mid-level leaders, most of them in hiding.
"It's a do or die situation for Jamaat," said political analyst Mofizur Rahman, with Dhaka University. "The entire leadership of Jamaat is facing elimination."
Many people left homeless after their houses were torched were confused and devastated that they were dragged into this national crisis.
"Have we committed any crime?" asked Pushpa Das, a 45-year-old woman as she sat on the wreckage of her tin-roof house, destroyed by attackers in Chittagong district, southeast of Dhaka. "Why have they attacked us?"