Politics of animosity

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

The August 21 attempt on Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina's life at a rally in Dhaka points to the kind of vindictive politics that Bangladesh's political parties practise.

in Dhaka

POLITICS in Bangladesh took yet another unseemly turn when the Leader of the Opposition and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina narrowly escaped an attempt on her life on August 21 while she was addressing a rally organised by her party, the Awami League, in Dhaka. The grenade attack, however, claimed the lives of more than 19 and injured more than a hundred of her supporters. Among those killed was Ivy Rahman, the Awami League's women's affairs secretary.

The Awami League has blamed the government for the attack. There was a two-day "bandh" in Dhaka following the assassination attempt. Incidents of violence were reported from many parts of the country, including the port city of Chittagong.

The month of August has particular significance in the volatile politics of the country. Sheikh Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of Bangladesh, was killed on August 15, 1975.

Sheikh Hasina, talking to Frontline on the day after the incident, said that she was the target of the attack and held Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia directly responsible for it. That there is no love lost between the two pre-eminent politicians of the country is no secret, but their relationship is bound to sink to even more abysmal depths after the latest incident. Looking shaken, she accused Khaleda Zia's government of trying to eliminate her physically ever since it assumed office three years ago. The former Prime Minister pointed out that the government had refused to provide her with the additional security she had repeatedly demanded.

She said the attacks on the Awami League cadre had started soon after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came to power. They started with attacks on grassroots-level functionaries. From last year, senior party functionaries, including sitting Members of Parliament, became targets, and many of them lost their lives in the process, she explained. She said that there had been "specific" threats against her two months earlier. According to Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister scoffed at her fears.

Sheikh Hasina said that the government had not been able to arrest any of the culprits involved in the attack. She said that eight to 12 hand grenades were hurled at the truck from which she was addressing the meeting outside the Awami League headquarters. It was the presence of mind of her colleagues, who formed a human shield around her, that saved her, she said. Sheikh Hasina observed that the police force was inadequate and ineffectual. Ironically, the meeting was held to focus national attention on the growth of terrorism and militant fundamentalism in the country.

It was after a long time that the top leadership of the Awami League, which is the main Opposition party, had assembled in a show of solidarity. Sheikh Hasina emphasised that with the attempt to eliminate her and the rest of the leadership of her party, the fight between the secular and non-secular forces in the country was now out in the open. She said: "They think that by eliminating me they can eliminate secularism." She recounted that there had been two serious attempts on her life earlier.

The attack may also accelerate the process of Opposition unity. Centrist and leftist parties have signalled their willingness to join a coalition led by the Awami League in the coming elections. Sheikh Hasina still seems reluctant to invite the Communist parties and the Jatiya Party, led by former President Hussein Muhammad Ershad, to join the Awami League-led coalition. She would prefer the initiative to come from their side. Electoral arithmetic dictates that only a broad alliance can defeat the ruling coalition.

Sheikh Hasina said that the unmarked grenades hurled at her were of the kind used by the military and not commonly available. Last year there was a massive arms haul at Chittagong. Bangladeshi politicians and diplomats based in Dhaka seem to be convinced that arms smuggling is rampant along the 360-km-long Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime border, which is mostly unguarded. The breeding ground for militants is the "Rohinga" refugee camps along the country's border with Myanmar. Rohingas, an Islamic minority in Myanmar, have been fighting the government in Yangon for decades. According to reports appearing in the Bangladeshi media, most of the arms consignments emanate from arms dealers in Thailand. Several local arms-smuggling syndicates have struck root in Chittagong and the Cox's Bazaar area.

Pratom Alo, one of the largest circulated newspapers in the country, published a series of investigative articles on the alarming rise of militant activity in the country. The paper reported that "jehadi training" is being imparted to young Bangladeshi recruits in the foothills along the Cox's Bazaar area and in the thick jungles along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.

"Madrassas" have mushroomed in the Cox's Bazaar area. The Opposition blames the baleful influence of the Jamat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote, the two coalition allies of the BNP, for the dramatic spurt in fundamentalism and violence in the last couple of years. They also claim that the area is a transit point for arms smuggling into India. The government in Dhaka refuses to acknowledge the presence of Indian rebel groups on Bangladesh territory but it is an open secret that guerillas belonging to the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), the All Tiger Tripura Force and other rebel groups find sanctuary in the border areas adjoining India, especially in Sylhet, where they seem to have blended with the local populace.

The Indian Home Secretary, Dhirendra Singh, has said that there are more than 200 camps for insurgents from the northeastern States on Bangladesh territory. India has been voicing its concern to Dhaka for a long time. The issue cropped up when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the Bangladesh Prime Minister in Bangkok recently. Home Minister Shivraj Patil had also issued a warning to Dhaka to desist from extending support to the rebel groups. A joint working group meeting is scheduled to be held in Dhaka in the middle of September. The Indian team for the talks will be headed by the Home Secretary. Talks between the two sides have been stalemated for the last 18 months. According to diplomatic sources, the Bangladesh side wants to focus on the emotive water issue while the Indian side wants to give greater priority to the "security problem".

Observers of Bangladesh politics point out that when the Awami League was in power with the support of the Jamaat, it had turned a blind eye to the activities of the highly motivated cadre of the Islamic party. From 1991 to 1996, the two parties had cooperated openly.

There is also a feeling that Sheikh Hasina is unnecessarily giving a "personal" twist to the attempt on her life by laying the blame squarely on Begum Zia. There were violent incidents aimed at the Opposition during the tenure of the Awami League government too. Many Bangladeshis are of the view that the Awami League and the BNP are "two sides of the same coin" as the two parties have very few differences on political or economic issues.

All the same, there has been a qualitative change in the politics of the country. The Jamaat is now officially part of the government, holding the prized portfolios of Social Welfare and Industry. The alliance is crucial for the electoral prospects of the BNP. Critics of the government say that the Jamaat is using its official position to subvert the system and spread anarchy and violence.

The BNP government is continuing to drag its feet over the issue of separating the judiciary from the executive. The Opposition has charged the government with stacking the higher echelons of the judiciary with its handpicked nominees so as to influence the outcome of the next elections.

Sheikh Hasina said that the Prime Minister had admitted in Parliament that more than 10,000 people had been killed in the last two and a half years and that her government's efforts at curbing crime had been inadequate. Awami League leaders allege that there is a nexus between criminal elements and politicians. "Around 300,000 criminals are roaming free," said a senior Awami League politician. Witnesses to political killings have been targeted selectively. Many of those involved in the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman have still not been brought to justice. In fact, the Freedom Party, floated by the coup leaders of 1975, is allowed to function freely.

Sheikh Hasina said that corruption had never been so rampant in the country as it was today. Transparency International, an international non-governmental organisation devoted to combating corruption, has listed Bangladesh as the most corrupt country in the world for three years in a row now. Sheikh Hasina is also of the view that the Prime Minister is preparing the ground for dynastic succession and that there already exists a parallel centre of power headed by Begum Zia's son Tareq Zia.

In the last couple of years, Bangladesh politics has become further polarised. Every section of the polity, including the media, seems to be affected. It is obvious that the greatest threat to democracy in the country is the lack of consensus among the major parties on how to conduct electoral politics.

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