Bangladesh: troubling shades of Mujib
Can a day of celebration in Bangladesh also be a portent of concern?
On 10 January that country, run by the Awami League party since 2009 by virtue of an opposition that boycotted parliamentary elections in 2014, celebrated the ‘Homecoming Day’ of one of its greatest sons, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On that day in 1972, Mujib, as he is sometimes known, returned from Pakistan after several months in jail, escaping execution to lead the newly independent country. Even independent-minded media published purple-prose government handouts about the great man and the great day.
Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the League, has been prime minister since 2009. If Mujib is widely glorified as Bongobondhu, an honorific that means Friend of Bengal (and Bengalis), I have heard her being glorified as Bongobondhukonya, the anointed daughter. And that is a mild example.
My concern is not with celebrations, but reading the tea leaves of mandated hagiography and adulation. This can unsettle the India-friendly government of Sheikh Hasina, which has for much of this millennium reduced sanctuary for all manner of anti-India rebels; and also massively boosted investment and trade relations with India. This is in contrast to the policies of her bitter rival, Khaleda Zia, the widow of Gen Ziaur Rahman, who emerged as military dictator a little after Mujib was assassinated in an army coup in 1975. The two have alternated as premier nearly without a break since the 1990s. Khaleda has never concealed the tilt toward a purist, often radical Islam of her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and has taken positions seen as being against India.
Even with all its hard-won liberal credentials and reputation of being a bulwark against Islamic radicalism, the Awami League with Sheikh Hasina at its helm is today as close to absolutist as any party in Bangladesh’s short and roiled history. The country is essentially run, following an unlovely tradition in neighbouring West Bengal, by party cadres who work as enforcers of the party’s will. I have witnessed it during several visits in the past three years, most recently in November 2017. Moreover, as in India, the leadership’s face is everywhere, associated with every policy and party meeting. Criticism of leadership is frowned upon: troublesome cases have been foisted upon independent media. Myth-making is a daily process.
It contains some disturbing kernels of Mujib’s reign.
In Bangladesh, hagiography sometimes makes it appear as if nothing of import existed before 1971, the year Bangladesh was born. The year Bongobondhu won independence from Pakistan on the back of his charisma, an unstoppable momentum of identity politics that created history over the blood sacrifice of an estimated 3 million Bangladeshis and the generous help of India. Mujib is Bangladesh’s folkloric Washington by vision and verve, Gandhi and Lincoln by assassination, and Stalin by his advocating of a one-party state. This last is among several factors that brought about his death and that of most of his immediate family—Sheikh Hasina and her sister escaped as they were overseas at the time. Several prominent League officials were killed.
As tragic as this was—is—it doesn’t mask the fact that, in a few short years, Mujib had gone in the eyes of many from demigod to seemingly delirious with power. A country ravaged by war, poverty and still-lingering effects of natural disaster of the pre-war year and its consequences, and immediately thereafter a victim of a great disorder from scarcity and black-marketeering, appeared to be ripe for order. It came in patches, subsidized by massive foreign aid and—as Mujib’s detractors had it—the overwhelming influence of India.
But order turned to control. Governance began to be built on personal whims and loyalty. ‘Nationalization’ became the buzzword. Meanwhile, Mujib commissioned what became his personal guard, owing personal loyalty to him, after the initial task of trying to bring order to social and economic chaos—the hoarding, the black marketeering—began to be addressed. The Jatiyo Rokkhi Bahini became the nation’s stormtroopers.
Then in the middle of such chaos, in 1974, arrived a famine that killed tens of thousands of citizens, driven to a corner by floods and mismanagement of economic activity supplies. Meanwhile, since 1972 a left-wing insurgency had taken root, targeting League members and the police. It added to the dislocation.
In January 1975, the government of a beleaguered Mujib amended the Constitution to grant him absolutist presidency for five years. In February, Mujib made Bangladesh a one-party state. Only the Bangladesh Krishok Shromik Awami League, a renamed Awami League to encompass farmers and workers, was permitted. BAKSAL, as it came to be called, ruled Dystopia. By August he would be assassinated in his residence in Dhanmondi, now a national shrine.
Bangladesh has measurably moved ahead since those chaotic days. Its socio-economic progress is robust, entrepreneurial and grassroots economy among the fastest growing in Asia. And Sheikh Hasina isn’t entirely her father. Not yet, anyway—and there lies the rub.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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