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Saving Bangladesh

The unprecedented violent electoral politics witnessed in Bangladesh over the last six weeks has raised concerns in the neighbourhood and among the international community. Violent politics is no stranger to the highly emotional people of Bangladesh. But the magnitude of it this time threatens the very roots of stability and development. Over this period more than fifty people lost their lives and thousands were injured.

Those who suffered were hardly political activists. Most were ordinary people out to earn their bread, and even children as young as four and five years old lost their lives. The opposition political cadres and their supporters have shown scant respect for life, let alone property. Throwing fire-bombs into ordinary public buses exhibited a worrisome cruelty.

In a democracy, right of protest is guaranteed. The ruling government of the day is bound to allow peaceful demonstrations and hartals. But both emotions, and mischievous machinations by political leaders take over.

BNP chairperson and the main opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia maintains that her party and their alliance are innocent, and the violence and arson is being committed by the cadre and supporters of the ruling Awami League and its alliance. This is despite photographic and video evidence of the opposition protestors committing these acts.

Business leaders have recently met Prime Minister Sk. Hasina and other political leaders to come to a dialogue and stop dislocation of commercial activities. Unfortunately, Begum Khaleda Zia avoided meeting them. She felt that meeting business leaders and listening to their pleas may make her morally obligated to at least temper the street violence and thus weaken the momentum led by her to force Sk. Hasina to step down from prime ministership, reinstitute the caretaker government (CG) system to set a level playing field for the general elections.

It seems of little consequence to the opposition leaders that the economic turn around that had become evident may slip back to a near “basket case” as US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has once infamously propounded. In fact, a comparison of economic and social indicators between the BNP-JEI rule of 2001-2006 and the Awami League led current government will show a contrast in favour of the current dispensation.

Bangladesh’s garment industry is the mainstay of the nation’s foreign exchange earner. It is the largest employer of the country’s work force. It is also an industry which employs the largest number of women workers and empowers them. This industry faced a setback earlier this year to a major disaster through ill maintenance of factory buildings leading to huge number of deaths, especially of women, and attracted international strictures. The strikes have now disturbed schedules of product deliveries to foreign customers threatening orders to be cancelled. Similar is the case with the jute industry, another major employer. This industry has almost come to a stand still.

The roots of the problem goes back to 1971 and subsequent developments in an independent Bangladesh. In more senses than one the political upheaval appears to be a renewal of the struggle between the pro-independence Bengalees represented by secular, democratic and inclusive aspirations, and the pro-Pakistan, anti-independence, pro-shariat and exclusive proponents who want to overturn the verdict of the 1971 war of liberation.

The anti- liberation and Wahabi religious forces grew from the August- 15, 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation and his own and extended family who were in this country at that time. Pro-liberation leaders and progressive intellectuals were assassinated in November that year to ensure a scorched earth policy eliminating such leadership. The anti-liberation forces returned to rule over those who brought libration to the nation. This irony haunts the nation even today.

The fight today is between the flag bearers of these two forces. Khaleda Zia and Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) represent the anti-liberation forces. Sk. Hasina along with the small progressive parties espouse the cause and ideals of liberation.

The issue on the surface is the constitutional amendment by the ruling government negating the caretaker government, and total opposition to it by the opposition led by Khaleda Zia. Both have arguments on their sides. For Begum Zia, a caretaker government will be a neutral government to conduct elections free and fair. For Sk. Hasina, the caretaker government in 2006 could not deliver, it was first influenced by the BNP and the JEI, then there was a military backed caretaker government, and later a conspiracy funneled by external forces to permanently disable these ladies politically, the infamous “minus two” formula.

It is very difficult to say if the “minus two” formula has been discarded. At least, Sk. Hasina does not appear to believe in it, and she may not be wrong. A restructured formula of “minus one” followed by “minus one” may also be in the reckoning. Sk. Haisina may be the first “minus one”.

Till now, a compromise between the two leaders seems to be caught in total distrust. In hour long telephones conversations with Khaleda Zia in November Sk. Hasina, while inviting her to a dialogue, had reminded Ms. Zia discreetly about the “minus two” formula. But Begum Zia side stepped it.

Begum Zia’s adamant stand not to sit in dialogue with Sk. Hasina, or a dialogue tween the representatives of the two leaders, is unfortunate for the nation. Is she apprehensive that her emissaries will see some acceptable points to withdraw their agitations and come to a settlement for a free and fair election with international observers including from the United Nations?

Somewhat uncomfortably, Begum Zia has two demands. It is not only the return of the caretaker government but the stepping down of Sk. Haina from the post of prime minister. Although a caretaker government will exclude Sk. Hasina, will Begum Khaleda compromise and drop the caretaker government demand if Sk. Hasina steps down? There are indications that the conflict is not only political or ideological. Personal animosity overrides them, bitterly.

Former military dictator and president, now heading his personally created Jatiyo Party H.M. Ershad, continues to play maverick, playing game between the two major parties. He has no political or ideological convictions. Earlier he asked Begum Zia to participate in the elections, and recently he opted out of the elections. What does he really want? He is a saleable property. Does he want 70 seats for his party to contest? Or, does he want huge financial inducement mainly for himself and the rest to be distributed. With such stress the Jatiyo Party may split for a second time. But he is a factor who cannot be totally ignored, and his next position is not known. From a serious but yet subdued angle, the international community is exercised with the situation in the country. Diplomats of the US, the European Union, China and Japan have been closely engaging Bangladesh’s political spectrum to get the warring factions together to conduct a free and fair, all participating election.

The United Nations has dispatched special envoy Oscar Fernandez Taranco to bring the two warring groups to sense that what they are doing is going to neither help them nor help their people. The UN representatives presence on the soil of Bangladesh underscores the importance that the large international community reposes in the country. The people of Bangladesh have huge potential especially when entire Asia is getting even more closely connected economically and politically. Forces of democracy, secularism and vigil against religions intolerance and terrorism are rising.

Bangladesh adopted on priority the stated policy of eradication of terrorism and refuge and support to insurgents and separatists of neighbouring India. This was announced and achieved by the Awami League government. Will the international community and the United Nations ensure that this situation is not reversed with a change of government?

No one can deny that under the BNP-JEI plus four party alliance government between 2001 and 2006 the country witnessed a sharp rise in terrorism with around 120 groups interlinked in some way or the other functioning. There was country wide bombing in 2005 by the Jamaat-ul-Mujahidin Bangladesh (JMB) and political assassinations. One would hope these are things of the past and lessons have been learnt by the concerned.

UN special envoy Taranco’s efforts, shuttling between the two main political leaders and political parties including the JEI, have finally met with some preliminary success. The Awami League and BNP leaders briefly sat down together on December 11 for the first time, and promised to meet again.

But the date for polls remain fixed for January 05 and half the political parties are not participating. This will not be an acceptable situation for a democracy. It is the obligations of all political leaders to play responsible politics for the nation and not to cling to personal animosities and one upmanship. If need be the poll date can be shifted, perhaps even beyond January 24, the three-months deadline after dissolution of parliament for holding elections.

To this writer it appears both sides need a face saving exit. The UN may be able to work out such a solution. In that case, however, neither side can hope to come out victorious. It will have to be an honorable draw, and let this fight be decided at the hustings.

Bangladesh is at a take-off point. It has suffered some setbacks which are being addressed. The youth entering the voting age and the work force are looking forward to an atmosphere of stability to assist development. It is the responsibility of political leaders irrespective of their ideological difference to provide the people of the country the atmosphere and avenues to progress. At the same time the government also owes the nation to correct wrongs of the past through transparent legal process to bring to a closure the old wounds and bury the ghosts of the past.

Without that the nation can never rest in peace.

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

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