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An anti-government upsurge

Print edition : Apr 09, 2004 T+T-

A deteriorating law and order situation and popular discontent facilitate the emergence of a new, Awami League-led Opposition movement against the Khaleda Zia government in Bangladesh.

in Dhaka

THE irony of Bangladesh's history is that the country, founded 32 years ago when East Pakistan broke away from Pakistan in a fiery display of opposition to military and religious autocracy, had to experience the same vices soon after Independence. It was only in 1990, after a prolonged anti-autocracy movement, that Bangladesh finally tasted democratic freedoms. However, the trials of the nation seem to be unending.

At the receiving end this time are the religious minorities, political activists, intellectuals and journalists. On the whole, the law and order situation has worsened. Khaleda Zia, the widow of former President Gen. Ziaur Rahman, came to power for the second time when her alliance, a combination of disgruntled leftists and religious extremists, defeated the secular Awami League (A.L.). But slightly more than two and a half years in office, the government is now confronting a movement spearheaded by half a dozen Opposition parties demanding its resignation and mid-term elections.

The A.L., which has only 62 seats in Parliament, formally began its "oust government campaign" on February 12 after the government refused to implement its 15-point charter of demands. The charter demanded an improvement in the law and order situation, reduction of the price of essential commodities, and an inquiry into the police atrocities on anti-government demonstrators.

The campaign began with a series of countrywide hartals. The administration took a hardline. The peaceful agitation faced police brutality; even the central office of the A.L. in Dhaka's Bangabandhu Avenue was seized by the police and kept under their control for weeks. The worst sufferers were the party's women activists, a few top leaders and students.

Things came to a head on February 27 when the poet and writer Dr. Humayun Azad was attacked by unidentified persons in Dhaka. The incident made the political climate more volatile. Azad, who had been fearlessly criticising the religious fundamentalists, ridiculed the "pro-Pakistanis" even in his latest book, Pak Sar Zamin Sad Bad (Pakistan's national anthem). The writer, a senior Dhaka University Professor, survived with grievous injuries. The incident angered common people and the secular `pro-Liberation' parties. Popular perception held "fundamentalist terrorists" of the ruling alliance responsible for the crime, though the Prime Minister pointed an accusing finger at the main Opposition party.

Also under attack were a number of intellectuals such as journalists Shahriar Kabir, Saleem Samad and Enamul Haq Chowdhury, and columnist and Professor Muntasir Mamun. Former Ministers and A.L. leaders Saber Hossain Chowdhury and Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir too were not spared. All were jailed and tortured in the post-election period and sedition charges were filed against them.

Importantly, such attacks have drawn the smaller Left parties in the Opposition closer to the A.L. These parties - especially the Communist Party of Bangladesh, the Workers Party, the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal, the Sammyabadi Dal and the Gano Azadi League - had maintained a distance from the A.L. since the last general elections. This undeclared coalition held a successful dawn-to-dusk hartal on March 6, the first time in 25 months, protesting against the attack on Azad and called for mid-term elections. Political observers see the hartal as the beginning of a united movement by the once divided "pro-Liberation forces", all of which now demand an immediate end to Bangladesh National Party (BNP) rule.

Other leading Opposition politicians of the country, including the lawyer Dr. Kamal Hossain of the Gono Forum and Dr. A.Q.M. Badrudouzza Chowdhury, former President and Foreign Minister and a co-founder of the BNP, have also intensified their campaign for a regime change. Chowdhury, who was forced to resign as President in 2002, months after being elected unopposed, has warned that Bangladesh could end up as a "failed state" if the issues of crime, corruption and poverty went unaddressed. He has floated a "third stream" in Bangladeshi politics and so far two members of Parliament have resigned from the BNP to join it. On March 11, hundreds of armed people, allegedly belonging to the BNP, and police personnel jointly foiled the first rally of Chowdhury's new political platform in Dhaka. The 72-year-old politician and his colleagues were assaulted. Although Hossain and Chowdhury have distanced themselves from the main Opposition, they share with it a common agenda and agree on the slogan of `fight against misrule'.

The Dhaka University campus is witnessing a new wave of unrest. Anti-government demonstrations by pro-Opposition student bodies have become a regular feature. The Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD), the students wing of the BNP, has also geared up to face its opponents. "We'll give a sharp, befitting reply if you continue destroying our academic life in the name of a movement," said a JCD leader, pointing a finger at members of the Dhaka University Teachers' Association (DUTA) who were on a sit-in protest against the attack on Azad.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, on the other hand, said that her government would not resign. Recently, she told a rally in Dhaka: "We will not resign and elections will be held in time - not a day ahead of time." She challenged her political opponents to bring a no-confidence motion against her government in Parliament.

SOME commentators trace the general unrest to the way in which the 2001 general elections were conducted and the terror tactics adopted by the ruling coalition as soon as it came to power. Although the BNP-led four-party alliance was in an advantageous position because of its broader coalition platform, there is a stream of public opinion that the "neutral caretaker government" (a constitutional interim administration consisting of `neutral' former bureaucrats, businessmen, educationists and professionals led by a former Chief Justice, established to ensure free and fair elections) that conducted the polls was "grossly partisan". Some observers contend, pointing out the voting pattern and the number of seats won, that it was difficult to rationalise the humiliating defeat of the A.L. (The A.L. had won 103 seats and 33 per cent of the votes polled in 1991 and 146 seats and 38 per cent in 1996. However, in 2001, although it secured 41 per cent of the votes its seats tally fell to 62.)

Moreover, the winners of the 2001 elections face the charge of having started their tenure in power with an unprecedented terror attack on the minorities, who were perceived to have voted for the A.L. and Opposition activists and independent journalists and intellectuals who criticised the regime.

While the Amnesty International, the global human rights watchdog, has been critical of such repression, the European Parliament, in an unprecedented development, passed a resolution against Bangladesh's record of human rights abuses. Reporters San Frontiers criticised the repression of journalists, and the New York-based media watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), called Bangladesh the most dangerous country in Asia for journalists.

CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper, who led a fact-finding mission recently with Abi Wright from the United States, Iqbal Athas from Sri Lanka and Andreas Harsono from Indonesia, said: "No violent country like Bangladesh exists in Asia for journalists... This is an extremely vulnerable and terrible place for journalists... It takes real courage to be a journalist in Bangladesh." She added that physical assaults and intimidation were almost commonplace, especially in rural areas where journalists are threatened, beaten severely, or even murdered. Since 1997, seven journalists have been murdered and innumerable others critically wounded in attacks by anti-social elements patronised by politicians.

In 2003 Bangladesh was named the "most corrupt country" for the third consecutive year by Transparency International's Global Corruption Report. (The 2003 index included only 133 of the more than 200 sovereign nations in the world.) The corruption in government has quadrupled, the report alleged.

THE coming months may be stormy in Bangladesh. Whatever the outcome of the anti-government agitation, Bangladesh politics will never be the same again. Coalition politics, pioneered by the BNP in the 2001 elections, has come to stay and even the A.L. has accepted its relevance. It has already indicated that its partners in the current campaign will be its partners in the next election and in future governments. Moreover, the current A.L.-led coalition of Opposition parties, if it emerges as a viable political and electoral alliance, can reinforce the significance of progressive, `pro-Liberation' politics in the country.