Opinion | Bangladesh’s political turmoil and why people deserve better
With violence rampant and freedom of expression at risk, may it have at least a fair election
Only astrologers and pollsters predict election outcomes and often they get it wrong. Sitting far away from Bangladesh, it is not for me to predict the results of the vote on 30 December, but it would be surprising if the Awami League doesn’t return to power.
In the Bangladeshi fable, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s Awami League is supposed to represent the forces of light, the party of the freedom struggle, cruelly deprived of power by assassinations and rigged votes, now realizing the ideals of the nation’s founding fathers. In the same fable, its opponents are the forces of darkness.
In reality, the Awami League today barely resembles the pre-independence party and looks more like what it became by early 1975—the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League, or Baksal, creating a one-party-state that forcibly merged newspapers, banned other parties, and relied on the muscle power of unruly youth.
In the lead up to next week’s elections, attacks on opposition politicians and workers have been relentless, with obstructions placed on their ability to campaign. The election commission has not acted on complaints of voter intimidation. Bangladesh delayed giving visas to the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel), a non-partisan body that wanted to monitor the elections, and Hasina’s allegedly tech-savvy son Sajeeb Wazed falsely claimed on the internet that Anfrel’s head is a Bangladeshi opposition politician (he is a Cambodian). Last week, eight UN human rights experts expressed alarm over election-related violence.
This isn’t 1974-75, but then history doesn’t repeat itself identically. The digital security act has chilled freedom of expression and the government has largely ignored protests from editors, journalists, and rights groups. Extra-judicial executions have increased (a UN estimate says 130 people have been killed) and more than 13,000 arrested without due process. Other unlawful arrests continue—most recently of award-winning photographer, writer and human rights activist Shahidul Alam, who was incarcerated for over 100 days and released only after a comical process where one bench was “embarrassed” to handle the case, and another refused to hear it without giving any reason. Many students who had been arrested around the same time face the risk of prosecution for “spreading rumours” in connection with taking part in peaceful protests.
Great as Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was, he wasn’t the only one who secured Bangladesh’s independence. Mujib paid the ultimate price in 1975, when rogue army officers assassinated him and most of his family. That ghastly tragedy has made it difficult to assess his rule fairly: The collapse of law and order and the poor handling of mass starvation in 1974 get little attention. Besides, many fought for freedom, thousands of Mukti Bahini warriors, towering women and men (including Kazi Nazrul Islam, Tajuddin Ahmed, Qamaruzzaman and Mansur Ali, all killed in the Dhaka jail in November 1975), and others, such as Kamal Hossain.
A fine legal scholar, Hossain is active in Bangladesh politics. He was among the main drafters of the country’s constitution and wrote laws to set up a war crimes tribunal, far ahead of its time. Later he was Bangladesh’s foreign minister, as well as an exemplary rapporteur for the UN human rights system. About 10 days ago, he went to the martyrs’ memorial at Rayer Bazar to honour intellectuals killed by the defeated Pakistani army in the last days of the 1971 war. Hooligans (some allegedly connected with the ruling party) attacked his convoy, culminating in a vicious campaign targeting him to undermine and minimize his role in the freedom struggle.
Hossain is being targeted because he has concluded that after Awami League’s 10 years in power, it is time for change. He is part of a coalition, one of whose constituents is the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The BNP is profoundly problematic. It has ruled Bangladesh, but its founding leader and war hero General Ziaur Rahman’s rise to power is controversial, given that he was the last man standing after assassinations and counter-plots eliminated many freedom fighters and generals. Its current leader, Zia’s widow and former prime minister Khaleda Zia, is in jail on corruption charges, and their son is in exile in the UK, implicated in corruption cases and convicted most recently of involvement in a brutal 2004 grenade attack at an Awami League rally which killed many. BNP has in the past allied with the fundamentalist Jamaat-i-Islami party, which opposed Bangladesh’s birth and several of whose leaders have been convicted and executed in recent years for committing war crimes. (While the Awami League describes itself as secular, it has fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jamaat in 1996 and is today tied with another Islamist organization, Hefazote Islam.)
For many years, Bangladeshis have wistfully sought a “minus-two” solution to the country’s myriad political problems—a political future without the two warring families. That day may be far. Bangladeshis deserve better, but at the very least, may they have a free and fair election next week.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi
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