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Can Bangladesh Complete the Revolution?

Elections for the 10th Jatiyo Sanshad (Parliament) is to be held any time between October 24 and January 24 next year. The Awami League led grand alliance is set to complete its five years term. The BNP led 18th party alliance is firm till now that it will boycott the elections unless a caretaker form of neutral government is reestablished to conduct the elections. Following the experience of the last caretaker government which was not neutral to start with and almost led to the return of military rule, the Awami League amended the constitution to remove the caretaker provision. The opposition says the Awami League (AL) chief will allow the government to manipulate the election results in their favour. To confuse the scenario further, BNP’s major ally the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) stands ineligible to contest the elections since they refuse to amend their Party constitution to comply with the national constitution and representation of people’s act.

There is hardly any time left to call an emergency session of the Parliament to bring about some amendments of the constitution in a compromise between the two major political alliances. It is unfortunate not only for Bangladesh but also for South Asia that the country is being pushed to the brink. Dhaka has emerged as a responsible player not only in the immediate region of South Asia but an expanded Asian circuit.

When Sk. Hasina came to power in January 2009, there were a few promises made by her which stood out of the ordinary. One was eradication of terrorism from Bangladesh. (Between 2001 and 2006, Bangladesh was close to being internationally designated as a terrorist nation). The other assurance was to the people of Bangladesh that “war criminals” of the 1971 war of liberation would be tried and punished as per law. The third non-political but equally important agenda was economic development. The following comparison between 2006 (BNP/JEI) government and 2013 (AL government) reveals the following: __________________________2006______________________2013_____ GDP growth 5.7% 6.7% Per Capita income US $ 427 US $ 914 Literacy 51.9% 65.04% Foreign remittance US $ 13 billion $ 48 billion Poverty rate 41.51% 29.03% Food grain reserve 3 million tonnes (deficit) 2-3 million tonnes (surplus) Power generation 3100 MW 8525 MW Minimum ind. Wage Tk. 1662 pm Tk. 3000 pm Export US$ 10.03 billion US $ 24.03 billion Forex reserve US $ 3.88 billion US $ 13.01 billion Maritime land dispute Not raised Gained 111,631 Sq Km _____________________________________________________________ The citizens of Bangladesh need to study this tabulation to understand the contrast in the performance of the two governments. Dhaka pursued an independent foreign policy and has won appreciation for its developmental activities across the world. A perennial problem and a crippling challenge to the country has been a shortage of power, hampering industrial production and other areas of development. Prime Minister Sk. Hasina is moving on a two track strategy to mitigate the power shortage problem as far as possible. From a long term perspective, Bangladesh has contracted a Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) with Russia at Rupoor. For more immediate augmentation of electricity, transfer of 500 MW of power from India to Bangladesh commenced through Behrampur –Bheramara recently. The capacity of this grid can eventually be upgraded to 1000 MW.

A landmark contribution by the AL government is the emphasis on secularism. The constitution was amended as far as possible to uphold this universal value. Another major achievement was women’s empowerment. Universal rights of education and employment to women were extended to this half of humanity in spite of strong opposition from the JEI and other radical political parties and groups. The women of Bangladesh cannot be disenfranchised. They are the main force driving the garment industry in the country, the main foreign exchange earner. Women are found in every walk of life- from shop floors to diplomatic service. In Bangladesh, women truly hold up half the sky, and lead the nation.

At the same time apart from its successes the AL led government must face some mistakes it has made. There have been some major cases of corruption like the stock market scandal and the Padma Bridge case among others. The Padma Bridge scandal was particularly damaging as it involved an international financial institution which had to pull up the government. Maintenance of law and order has become better in the last one year, but initially agencies like the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) had become a power unto themselves.

There is corruption in almost every country, more so in developing countries. China, India and Pakistan in the immediate region of Bangladesh are examples. But corruption has to be addressed, as is seen in China and India recently. However compared to the corruption during the last BNP-JEI government in Bangladesh, corruption under the AL led government has been a walk in the park. Leaving the foregoing aside for the moment, it is time to boldly assess the existential challenge to Bangladesh. Political, social and religious contradictions have come to the fore which challenge the very ideology and consciousness behind the creation of Bangladesh at such high human cost.

During the liberation war in 1971 the Pakistani army and their Bangladeshi collaborators killed and raped nationalists on the same scale as Adolf Hitler’s Nazis exterminated Jews during world war-II. The only difference was that the Nazis used gas chambers, while the collaborators and the Pakistani army massacred in a conventional way. The target of the Nazi regime was the Jews. The Bangladeshi collaborators and the Pakistani army had dual targets-freedom fighters and Hindus. The mission of the Pakistani army was to eliminate the leaders of the revolution, who were mainly Muslim and the freedom fighters or Mukti Bahini. The collaborators used the opportunity to lead Pakistani soldiers to eliminate Hindus. As the deposition of witnesses in the ongoing war crime trials reveal there was inhuman depravity among the collaborators when eliminating Hindus. One of the collaborators who has been sentenced to death by the international war crimes Tribunal (ICT), Abdul Halim, specifically targeted the Hindus. For example, he had a 90 year old man’s throat slit, and a young Hindu buried alive. Apart from that, he exhorted his followers to kill, loot and rape Hindus, confiscate their property and valuables, and directed the Pakistani soldiers to Hindu villages. Some young Pakistani officers, who witnessed this carnage, resigned their commission. One of them, Major Sadiq Salik, wrote the book “Witness to Surrender”. This book should be presented as evidence in the War crimes trial.

The post-liberation history like the assassination of Bangabandhu Sk. Mujibur Rahman in August 1975, the presence of Pakistani moles in the AL like Khondakar Mustaque and Taheruddin Thakur are well known. The rise of Maj. Zia-ur- Rehman, who rose to execute many to become the army chief and President is also generally known. Although he acted as a freedom fighter, it is he who as president, rehabilitated the JEI as a political party and claimed that he, not Sk. Mujibur Rahman was the one who declared Bangladesh’s independence. The JEI was the umbrella organization of the collaborators and banned by the Sk. Mujib led AL government. Its Amir, Golam Azam, was made persona non grata in Bangladesh. It was Zia who brought him back to the country. This is a huge contradiction that Bangladeshi citizens need to debate. If Zia-ur-Rehman was a freedom fighter, how could he have fully rehabilitated the Pakistani collaborators? The independent editor of Gonojagoron Mancho, Sayed Borhan Kabir, recently published a letter dated May 29, 1971, from Pakistani Colonel Baig to Maj. Zia which said the following: “We are all happy with your job. We must say good job! You will get a new job soon. Don’t worry about your family. Your wife and kids are fine. We have to be more careful about Maj. Jalil.” While this writer cannot authenticate this letter, Maj-Zia-ur Rehman was a sector commander of the Mukti Bahini at that time, and Col. Baig was in Bangladesh. Zia’s wife, Begum Khaleda Zia and her children were in the Pakistani Military cantonment in Dhaka She is now the Chairperson of the BNP, set up by Zia in 1977-78. Maj. Jalil was a freedom fighter ousted by Zia. Bangladesh, (East Pakistan), was a part of Bengal before the partition of India in 1947. There was amity between the majority Muslims and the minority Hindus. The Intention of the collaborators was to destroy that. And they did so after President Zia brought them back to legitimacy.

On the positive side, secularism is still very much alive in Bangladesh and so is Muslim-Hindu amity. An outstanding example is the Dhakeshswari temple in Dhaka. This 800 year temple gives the name to the capital city. From 1947 the idol of godess Durga was destroyed three times, the last being in 1990. Each time the idol was rebuilt with as much help from Muslims. The temple committee has Muslim members on its panel. Top politicians from the AL, BNP and other political parties visit the temple during Durga Puja. Dhakeshswari temple suggests secularism and inclusiveness will eventually triumph. The challenges, however, are mounting. Opinion polls suggest that the BNP’s popularity is rising while that of AL is either static or falling. Incumbency is one of the factors. Next, public memory is short. The conduct of the BNP-JEI government appears to have a misty past. The present dictates the voters. Yet, the gap between BNP / JEI and the AL and its allies was vast during the last elections. Another 15 per cent new voters will be joining the fray.

Unfortunately, many observers of Bangladesh’s politics are highly concerned about the future. The birth of Hifazat-e-Islam Bangladesh (HIB) is no accident. It is a product of Quami (privately funded) madrassas which are funded by radical Islamist groups especially the likes of JEI. The May 5 demonstrations of the HIB was funded by the BNP as per the admission of some of its arrested members. It was choreographed for television cameras to falsely portray that hundreds if not thousands of HIB members were killed by the police. Fortunately, the people and the international community saw through this ploy.

The 13-point demand made by the HIB is astonishing. It is as if lifted from the pages of the Taliban. Women and the minorities have no rights. Bangladeshi men would also have to abide by the Talibanistic code. HIB Amir Shah Ahmed Shafi made highly derogatory comments on women which led to a furore. Some BNP leaders on condition of anonymity told the media that the party backed the HIB because of political support. The HIB does not have any agenda for education and development. Will the BNP-JEI alliance include the HIB’s demands if they win the coming elections? It they do so what will they do with their Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia? Because, the ideological platform of the JEI is not very different from that of the HIB. Sk. Hasina tried to root out terrorism and support to foreign terrorists and separatists from the country. But they had taken deep roots. By around 2006, there were around 120 terrorist organizations in the country receiving funds from abroad. Although they were crushed, they are beginning to raise their heads again. Sk. Hasina claimed recently that 40 terrorist organizations had launched country-wide terrorism during the BNP – JEI regime. At the same time, the students’ wing of the JEI, Islamic Chatra Shibir (ICS), has resorted to militancy, attacking the police among others. BNP minister, like Lutfozzaman Babar are still in jail because of their involvement with terrorists. Begum Zia’s older son Tareque Rehman was equally involved with them and the ISI. Several AL leaders including finance minister SMAS Kibria, Ahsanullah Master, MP, Ivy Rehman, member of AL presidium were assassinated. Sk. Hasina escaped by a whisker. Harkat-ul-Jihad al Islami (HUJI) commander Mufti Hannan who is in custody confessed his role in the August 21, 2004 grenade attack on Sk. Hasina. Hannan revealed during interrogation that minister Babar was the mastermind of this operation. These are only a few examples.

The choice is clearly in front of the people of Bangladesh. Do they want to go back to 2001-2006, or continue with the process of peace, social stability and development the country has embarked on and complete the revolution started in 1971? Foreign powers and donors involved in Bangladesh may like to open their old notebooks once again.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail

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