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Heightening conflict

Print edition : Aug 15, 2003 T+T-

As Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's alliance government goes ahead with its fundamentalist, `anti-liberation' agenda, the Opposition Awami League recovers from its electoral defeat in 2001 and is organising an anti-government movement.

in Dhaka

IN October 2003, the government of the four-party alliance in Bangladesh will complete two years in office. For Khaleda Zia, the widow of slain President General Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the second tenure as Prime Minister has been a remarkable one in a country where power politics has always worked against democratic stability.

The regime that Khaleda Zia has been running after her alliance's landslide victory in the October 2001 general elections is significantly different from the one she led during 1991-96. Winning a two-thirds majority in Parliament was in itself a major achievement. In its character and also in respect of democratic practice and tolerance, the government is a radically different one. It has busied itself in changing the nation's history. The fundamental difference, however, is that Khaleda Zia this time heads a government in which the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami is a partner. Some of the key Jamaat leaders, now senior Ministers, were "war criminals" of the country's War of Liberation - along with other fundamentalists, many of whom had opposed the country's independence from Pakistan. It comes as no surprise that the ruling alliance is determined to treat Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who led the nation to freedom, as a non-entity, and Gen. Ziaur Rahman the "liberator", for he "proclaimed" the nation's independence war when leaders of the Awami League led by the Sheikh, `fled to India'.

Unfortunately, this distortion of history has won priority over issues of governance even as the alliance stated that there should be no more "looking at the past", which is "dead and irrelevant".

In fact, in its first 21 months the government not only undertook a series of projects to distort the history of the independence war, but also tried to undermine the historic socio-political struggles that had led to the secular nationalistic spirit up to the 1971 war. The government has undertaken a `concerted plan' to break the secular, liberal democratic structure, and to hide its intention to structure the nation's politics on a pattern similar to what pre-1971 Pakistan had witnessed.

In its attempt to erase the legacy of Sheikh Mujib (popularly known as Bangabandhu), the government cancelled the National Mourning Day, which marked the day of Mujib's assassination; renamed various institutions that had been named after Mujib; withdrew currencies that bore pictures of the Sheikh; and successfully ousted `pro-liberation elements' from all sections of the administration. It did not hesitate to cancel the official celebrations marking the historic 1971 oath-taking of the provisional Mujibnagar government in exile on April 17.

There is also an allegation that the government `deliberately stalled' the progress of two nationally important judicial trials - the Mujib Murder Case and the Jail Killing Case (the latter related to the brutal murder of four heroes of the struggle for independence in the Dhaka central jail in 1975). Law Minister Moudud Ahmed, however, has denied the charge. It is evident from recent developments in the Supreme Court that the hearing in the Mujib Murder Case is unlikely to start before 2005. Strangely though, a few convicted killers of Mujib, who are already dead, were recently `reinstated' in government jobs with full financial benefits. All the charge-sheeted accused of the Jail Killing Case are out on bail.

Understandably, the constituents of the ruling alliance found reasons to make the 1971 event their prime target, for they never wanted Bangladesh to be a liberal democracy. The first 21 months of Begum Khaleda's tenure as Prime Minister have alarmed the disunited `pro-liberation' sections of Bangla society, while the period has given a fillip to those who believe that the creation of Bangladesh by dividing Pakistan was a `mistake' and that it was the outcome of a `conspiracy'.

Critics point out that Bangladesh perhaps has not witnessed a government that mismanaged the country's affairs better than the alliance. The alliance inherited, from the caretaker government of Justice Latifur Rahman, which conducted the controversial 2001 elections, the law and order situation as a shambles. The government had to call out the Army to lead a `joint anti-crime operation' in order to contain the post-poll violence and acts of political vengeance. The Prime Minister recently announced a similar `joint drive' to tackle the fresh spurt in terrorist activities, which has undermined the government's ability to ensure public safety.

The government reacted sharply in the face of international criticism about `growing fundamentalists activities'. It arrested a number of journalists and columnists, including top Opposition leaders, on charges of sedition, and kept up the campaign of accusing the main Opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina, of `anti-state activities'. The former Prime Minister was also blamed for the European Parliament's resolution that expressed concern over the repression of minority and the growth of fundamentalism under the present government.

But the alliance regime has received meaningful support from the Bush administration. U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell described Bangladesh as `a voice of moderation' and remarked, while visiting Dhaka in June, that the country has been Washington's "valued friend and a valued development partner".

In fact, the government's ability to provide good governance is being questioned. The law and order situation and the failure of the government in matters such as checking corruption dominated the discussion at the latest annual donors' meet. Transparency International has once again put Bangladesh in the list of most corrupt nations.

However, Bangladesh has slightly moved up in terms of the Human Development Index (HDI) worked out by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), from 145 to 139. The country secured recently a huge loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has enhanced the foreign exchange reserve. The government got laurels from the donors for speedy privatisation, which included the shutting down of the world's biggest public sector mill, Adamjee Jute Mills. But, the popular image of the ruling alliance being poor, even the protagonists of the new political blend - a mixture of liberal democrats, disgruntled communists, religious fundamentalists and soft communalists - possibly find it difficult to overtly support the government.

IN such a disturbing political situation, the Awami League led by Sheikh Hasina Wajid has demanded `mid-term' elections. Despite, what it called, a `systematic post-poll persecution', it seems to have almost recovered from the humiliating electoral shock. Sheikh Hasina's leadership has also led the party to recover some vital ground, some observers feel. Her efforts to reorganise the half a century-old organisation from the grass root, by inducting new blood, have paid some dividends. The party, which believes it was `forced to accept defeat' in the last elections, now seems prepared to confront the government on unpopular issues.

But will the demand for `mid-term' polls remain just political rhetoric? Perhaps the government has sensed the strategy of the Opposition. To pre-empt such a move, after a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, the alliance went on the offensive. It announced a national campaign even before the Opposition campaign seeking mid-term polls got under way. The general perception is that the alliance government has `failed' to ensure public safety. Dozens of police officials have been gunned down by armed hoodlums in the last three months. On an average 12 people are murdered every day, according to data furnished by various human rights bodies. Highlighting the high crime rate, the Awami League argues that the government has `lost its legitimacy' to remain in power.

Meanwhile, media reports said that the government would soon launch a fresh `anti-terrorism drive', in the wake of `reports' that the Opposition was `conspiring' to create trouble. The Awami League, which walked out of Parliament recently, said it would not return until parliamentary debates were made `civilised', Ministers refrained from making `filthy remarks', and Opposition lawmakers were allowed to speak. It has accused the ruling alliance of making Parliament ineffective. But this may not put any effective pressure on the government because it commands a two-thirds majority in Parliament and a tough anti-defection law is in force.

The first government of Khaleda Zia could not complete its term because of the anti-government campaign led by the Awami League, which mooted the concept of elections under a neutral authority. The Jatiya Party led by former President Gen. Mohammed Ershad, the Jamaat-e-Islami and most Left parties were with the Awami League, adding weight to the movement. But the ground realities are different now. The Jamaat and other radical Islamic groups are either part of the government or its supporters, while the Left parties are not yet sure of giving the Awami League a chance to lead a fresh anti-government agitation, which could pave the way for its return to power.

Many observers, however, say that the political situation has to change. The Left parties, which are unable to offer a viable `third alternative', belong to the `pro-liberation' camp. They are increasingly becoming critical of the ruling alliance. The Left parties have denounced the `anti-liberation' stance of the alliance and have been critical of the `distortion of history', including the inclusion of ideological books of Pakistani Jamaat leader Maulana Moududi in the curricula of schools and madrassas.

The Awami League's Central Executive Committee has adopted a resolution to launch a `united movement' demanding mid-term elections in cooperation with `pro-liberation', Left-leaning parties. Party general secretary Abdul Jalil said they had decided either to go for a `united' anti-government campaign or to start such campaigns `simultaneously'.

LAWYERS have launched a national campaign over the government's `naked interference' in the judiciary. The appointments of Chief Justice K.M. Hasan and a Judge of the Appellate Division superseding many seniors Judges has caused a lot of resentment in the legal community. Barrister Amir-Ul-Islam, vice-chairman of the Bangladesh Bar Council, said that unless such `interference' was effectively countered the nation's judiciary would lose its independent image. The council has launched a programme of demonstrations and has boycotted courts over its demand for separating the judiciary from the executive.

Opposition parties are also critical of some recent Supreme Court appointments and the non-confirmation of nearly one and a half dozen additional Judges in the High Courts, who were allegedly discriminated against, because they were appointed when the Awami League was in power.

The Awami League alleged that the alliance government was engaged in a deep-rooted conspiracy to create an artificial crisis in order to cling to power and to patronise cross-border, internal and regional terrorism. Recently, one lakh bullets of Chinese-model rifles and nearly 200 kg of high explosives were recovered from northern Bogra district. The Awami League has called for an `international probe' into the mysterious ammunition haul, the biggest in the country so far.

In response, the Prime Minister has launched a scathing attack on the Opposition, linking it with the smuggled ammunition. Khaleda Zia also labelled the Awami League as `Al Qaeda, Taliban, terrorist'. The Prime Minister said: "She (Hasina) wants to create chaos and indiscipline."

Critics point out that the government spent months in making the world believe that there was `no Taliban in Bangladesh' after the Far Eastern Economic Review and Time magazine ran critical stories. "If the Awami League, which bagged nearly 41 per cent votes in the last elections, are the `Talibans', then why the Prime Minister suppressed the truth?" they ask.