Whither Bangladesh

Whither Bangladesh

At the end of the post-poll cooling-off period, the Awami League set in motion the business of governance in Bangladesh. The decimation of the entire opposition in the elections gives the impression that the opposition is virtually non-existent in Bangladesh, but this is not actually true.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the Awami League gave little leeway to the opposition by systematically undermining its opponents, taking advantage of its control over the government. During her first term as the Prime Minister (1996-2001), Sheikh Hasina brought the assassins  of  her father Sk Mujibur Rahman and his family members present at Dhaka  on 15 August 1975 to trial. Only a few could flee abroad. Some of the accused were acquitted, while five of the accused were sentenced to death and executed on 28 January 2010. After winning elections and becoming Prime Minister again in 2008, Sheikh Hasina set up an International Crimes Tribunal, a domestic war crimes tribunal, in 2009 to investigate and prosecute suspects for the genocide committed in 1971 by the Pakistan Army and their local collaborators, Razakars, Al-Badr and Al-Shams during the Bangladesh Liberation War. Consequent to  the trials, some of the accused were executed and some others  given life terms. Among those indicted were two leaders of the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) and nine leaders of the Islamist fundamentalist party Jamaat-e-Islami, which had opposed independence in 1971.

The Awami League again won the Bangladesh elections held on 30 December 2018. After taking oath of office as Prime Minister for the fourth time on 7 January this year, Sheikh Hasina has expressed her desire to set up a special commission to identify and punish those who were behind the killings of four national leaders closely associated with Mujibur Rahman. These four, Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmad, M Mansur Ali and AHM Quamruzzaman, were all founding leaders of the Awami League and had been arrested and murdered in jail on November 3, 1975, three months after Sheikh Mujibur’s assassination.

The divide between Sheikh Mujib’s followers and other heroes of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle took some strange twists and turns in course of time. In the elections held in 2018, the BNP—which was founded by Ziaur Rahman, an army general turned politician who was one of the leaders of Bangladesh’s freedom struggle—formed the Jatiya Oikya Front (National United Front or NUF), comprising primarily of four parties, to challenge Hasina’ s bid for power for the third time in succession. Despite the Jamaat having opposed the freedom struggle, the NUF allowed Jamaat-e-Islami candidates to stand for elections on the NUF symbol (in 2013 the Jamaat-e-Islami was banned from registering and therefore contesting in elections by the High Court, on the ground that its charter was in violation of the constitution).

Despite the alliance with the fundamentalist Jamaat, hope for a truly secular and democratic alternative emerging in Bangladesh had been generated when Dr Kamal Hossain, with his impeccable records of political and judicial achievements, agreed to become the convener of NUF. This octogenarian leader had left the Awami League in 1992 after differences developed between him and Sheikh Hasina to set up a small political party, Gano Forum, along with some star figures in the Bangla liberation movement. He is widely regarded as an icon of secular democracy in South Asia. Dr Hossain was close to Sheikh Mujib, had defended him in the Agartala Conspiracy Case in 1960s, was imprisoned along with Sheikh Mujib in West Pakistan during the war of independence, and became Foreign Minister after Bangladesh was born. However, during the 2018 elections, despite his popularity and secular and democratic image, the NUF campaign never really took off. The Gano Forum did not have many foot soldiers. Prime Minister Begun Khaleda Begum’s BNP is the most important constituent of NUF, but due to her imprisonment on graft charges and with her son and acting  BNP chairman Tarique Rahman living in exile in London for many years, the BNP was virtually a non-starter in the election battle. Moreover, the BNP rank and file became confused with the leadership’s  ambivalence about fighting the election or boycotting it (Tarique Rahman wanted to boycott). And so, the Awami League, buoyed with its government power, muscle strength and army loyalists, easily trounced the opposition. It swept the elections, winning 288 out of 300 parliamentary seats.

The hope that truly democratic and secular forces would emerge to end the duel between the two family-led forces of Hasina-headed Awami league and Khaleda-headed BNP has thus been dashed. Kamal Hossain was the key figure who could have brought about that change. His BNP and Jamaat connection failed him, and the Awami League has stormed to power even stronger than before.

Question remains, whither Bangladesh? In a recent interview, Bangladesh’s  former Chief Justice Surendra Kumar Sinha, a Hindu who now resides in the US, says that Sheikh Hasina used the judiciary  to settle scores with Khaleda Zia. Sinha alleges that Hasina used military  intelligence  to harass him, finally forcing him to leave the country. He accuses Hasina of transforming Bangladesh into another Pakistan, saying that she is stifling free speech, giving unnecessary powers  to the army and making it a police State.

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