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Earlier this week, when President Pranab Mukherjee visited Bangladesh, its opposition leader Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) did not meet him, because of public strikes that her ally, Jamaat-i-Islami, has been calling to protest the verdicts of the Bangladesh International Crimes Tribunal. The BNP called another strike this week in sympathy with the Jamaat, whose leaders are, one by one, being convicted of war crimes by the Tribunal.

Khaleda’s snub to Mukherjee doesn’t matter much in the long run, but her decision to stay firmly aligned with the Jamaat looks like a strategic blunder. Not only has that cost the BNP support among voters disgusted by the Awami League’s record, it has also eroded the BNP’s assertion that it is as much a champion of Bangladesh’s independence as is the Awami League. It has also sharply laid out the political scene in Dhaka, allowing the Awami League to reap the gains of the popular upsurge against the Jamaat.

The BNP is the creation of General Ziaur Rahman, who became President after the bloody, chaotic days of coups and counter-coups that followed the assassination of Bangladesh’s founding father Mujibur Rahman in 1975. In 1978, a year after he became President, Zia created the BNP as the means through which he could broaden his political appeal. Zia was decorated as a sector commander during the liberation war. Zia’s followers point out that their leader was a battlefield warrior while Mujibur Rahman was in jail. They also insist it was Zia who declared Bangladesh’s independence, and not Mujibur Rahman.

Who actually announced that Bangladesh was free may seem like a moot question in some ways: on 7 March 1971, Mujibur Rahman had already declared that the struggle ahead was for all Bengalis, and for freedom. He had used the words “mukti" and “swadhinata", which means liberation and independence in a powerful speech. In late March, Pakistan launched Operation Searchlight and unleashed the reign of terror in which countless people died. Days before that, a clandestine radio station—Swadhin Bangla Betaar Kendra (Independent Bangla Radio Station) had been broadcasting the country’s independence from Pakistan. Zia was the first army officer and a prominent national hero to make such an announcement from the station in Kalughat in Chittagong’s outskirts. The radio station functioned for nearly a week before Pakistani forces silenced it.

As part of my research for a book on that war and its aftermath, I have visited a museum honouring Zia, where the equipment Zia used to make the announcement is show-cased. In an interview, Mustari Shafi, a freedom fighter who worked at the radio station and whose husband was taken away by Pakistani forces and who has never been seen since, named several local Awami League leaders, who too made declarations of Bangladeshi independence, some before Zia did. Zia had come at the radio station’s request, and he made the declaration in the name of Mujibur Rahman.

After the bloodletting of 1975 ended, in which Mujib’s family was murdered (except for the two daughters travelling abroad) and after four leading Awami leaders were slain in jail, other generals launched a pro-Mujib counter-coup (such as Khaled Musharraf). But they too were overthrown by soldiers, and in the confusion that followed, it was Zia who emerged the winner. Zia was himself assassinated in 1981, and in the three decades since, the country’s politics has revolved around two women who bitterly resent one another—Mujib’s daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Zia’s widow Begum Khaleda Zia.

So Manichean is their divide that if one says it is morning, the other would insist it is night. That to some extent explains Khaleda’s mystifying attachment to the Jamaat even after the verdicts. In this, Khaleda is not only acting against the mood of the thousands who have thronged Shahbag, but she risks undermining her party’s claim to represent the aspirations of Gen Zia, who fought for freedom, unlike the Jamaat who fought against freedom.

The demand in Shahbag is for justice, including the death penalty for the men accused of war crimes. The large majority of them are from the Jamaat, representing its leadership. The Jamaat did not want Bangladesh to be free; the men who were freedom fighters and who later created the BNP ostensibly did. And yet, instead of returning to its roots—Bangla nationalism—Khaleda has opted to side with those accused of attempting to sabotage that freedom. (Jamaat activists have gone on the rampage, attacking and vandalizing martyrs’ monuments in Bangladeshi towns.)

The Shahbag Movement offered Khaleda an opportunity to distance her party from the Jamaat. But she seems to be willing to sacrifice values her party claims to represent, for what she believes will be an electoral gain. But if the mood at Shahbag represents how Bangladeshis think, she is consigning her party into political irrelevance, possibly handing the next election to the Awami League.

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