Shades of vendetta

Print edition : March 02, 2002

Bangladesh Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's current term in office is marked by episodes of indiscriminate violence against the political opposition and the country's religious minority.

AN assessment of the first four months of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led government in Dhaka would show that the current tenure of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia is significantly different from her first one during the period 1991-96. But then, unlike her first term, Khaleda Zia now leads a coalition government. It is her third stint as Prime Minister, although her second term lasted only a few weeks as she had to resign in the face of a popular agitation in March 1996 spearheaded by Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, in front of a portrait of her late husband Gen. Ziaur Rahman.-RAFIQUR RAHMAN/REUTERS

Although they are not represented in the Cabinet, the four-party alliance includes most of Bangladesh's fundamentalist religious organisations that follow the Taliban model of functioning. One of them is the Jamaat-e-Islami, which had fought hand in hand with Pakistani troops against the freedom fighters in 1971.

The coalition, which took power following its stunning victory in the October 1, 2001 election by winning a two-thirds majority in Parliament, has taken a direction that is different from that of any other past government in the country. It inherited the poor law and order situation that prevailed under the controversial 87-day tenure of a caretaker government. In the recent past, Bangladesh has witnessed widespread political persecution, torture, rape, looting and other forms of barbarity inflicted by the victorious political forces, especially after the elections. The alliance's activists were allegedly responsible for attacks on leaders and workers of the Awami League and also members of the the minority Hindu community, whom they consider their opponent's natural allies. The intimidation of and attacks against the religious minority and the destruction or desecration of its places of worship were of the largest scale since 1971, the year of independence.

The violence has cast a shadow over the country's nascent democratic culture and the people's right for franchise, for which purpose the Constitution was amended to facilitate free, fair and impartial elections under a caretaker authority. After the latest round of elections, the demand to make the nominated caretaker government accountable for its omissions and commissions has become forceful.

Except for its hostility towards the fallen autocrat of a President Lt.Gen. H.M. Ershad and his Jatiya Party, the first government of Khaleda Zia was seen as one that was generally tolerant to the Opposition. But this time it has shown considerable aggression on all fronts. The large-scale arrest of Opposition activists under Section 54 of the Criminal Procedure Code, without filing specific charges, the arrest of journalist-writer Shahriar Kabir, harsh treatment by the police of even senior Awami League leaders and former Ministers during agitations, and the unofficial ban on processions in Dhaka and elsewhere have reflected the government's position vis-a-vis the Opposition. Khaleda Zia has been harsh with Sheikh Hasina too; the former Prime Minister's special security has been withdrawn and she has been denied Ansar (para-police) protection.

The Awami League, which is yet to recover from its election defeat, has limited its protest to statements criticising the "autocratic attitude" and "indiscriminate arrests". The 11-party Left alliance also seems equally concerned about the "undemocratic behaviour" of the government but it is more interested in becoming the "third alternative force" than building a broad Opposition alliance. Gen. Ershad, who returned home on February 15 after a four-month-long self-exile abroad, seems to be toeing the government's line. The BNP-Jamaat understanding appears to be working well. In fact, the Jamaat feels that distancing itself from the BNP at this moment of global onslaught against "religious terrorism" might jeopardise its very existence.

Former Prime Minister and Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina consoling a girl belonging to the minority Hindu community during a convention on 'Crimes against Humanity' in Dhaka on February 14.-PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

SOON after the election victory, student activists owing allegiance to parties of the ruling coalition occupied the dormitories of Dhaka University after driving out student supporters of the Awami League. They also forcibly occupied trade union offices. Elected Vice-Chancellors of universities were replaced by government supporters. The removal of the elected committee of the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) earned the country on January 10 a FIFA-imposed suspension from all international games. The government had to revive the elected body, which was headed by an Opposition supporter.

In the second half of its tenure, the Awami League faced serious charges of terrorism sponsored by some of its mid-ranking leaders and their family members. Deterioration of law and order, particularly in the cities, was another major point of criticism against it. The guns of public criticism have now been directed against the new government. The collection of tolls at bazaars, bus terminals and so on allegedly by government supporters is rampant; there has been an alarming rise in major crime, including murder and kidnapping. Prices of most essential commodities including rice have risen.

Thousands of Opposition supporters have reportedly left their homes out of fear. The independent newspaper Daily Star reported on February 15: "A capacity crowd of the auditorium of Engineers' Institution (in Dhaka) plunged into silence as some victims of mainly post-election violence started telling their sordid tales of torture at the opening of a two-day convention on 'Crime against humanity'." The daily further said that shocked by the barbarity that thousands of people including Hindus were subjected to in post-election outbreaks of violence, many people in the audience wiped their tears. The dais resembled a hospital ward, with wounded people lying on stretchers or sitting on chairs, holding crutches. With their hands or legs broken, eyes gouged, or bearing other signs of brutality all over the body, the victims demanded justice.

"Pro-liberation" politicians and secular democrats have expressed concern at what they see as the growing "anti-liberation" attitude of the new administration. In the past four months, the government retired 61 senior civil and police officials, causing panic in the civil administration and the Police Department. Besides making hundreds of high-ranking officials Officers on Special Duty or OSDs, the government has served notice on 185 senior officers, accusing them of taking part in political activities in favour of the Awami League. A large number of government contracts have been terminated and fresh contracts granted to party workers. The government has also decided to reduce the maximum number of years of service from 25 to 20 in order to facilitate another purge in the bureaucracy.

Significantly, the officials who have been acted against were all connected with the country's Liberation War or belong to families connected with secular politics. A host of independent intellectuals and leaders of civil society believe that the secular national identity, precisely the "spirit of liberation", has become a casualty in the hands of the new government. The case relating to the assassination of the Father of the Nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, has been sent to cold storage as the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court failed to conduct the hearing in the last five months because the government did not appoint a judge. The prospects of the historic jail killing case - in which four leaders of the independence movement were killed inside the Dhaka Central Jail in 1975 - have also become clouded as most of the accused, who were charge-sheeted, secured bail recently.

The new government is also seen to be allergic to the name of Mujibur Rahman, though the slain leader's portraits still adorn government and semi-government offices. The government has decided to hang the portraits of the slain President, Gen. Ziaur Rahman, along with those of Mujib in government offices. (Gen. Ziaur Rahman was the husband of Khaleda Zia, and also her party's founder.) The holidays marking Mujib's birth and death anniversaries have been cancelled. A Bangladesh Navy frigate named after Mujib has been decommissioned in order to change its name, while the Non Aligned Movement International Conference Centre, built with Chinese assistance, was renamed because it was named after the hero of the Liberation War. Ten-taka currency notes with Mujib's portrait have been withdrawn from circulation.

The government is planning to rewrite the history of the Liberation War by portraying the Prime Minister's husband, who was an officer in the Pakistan Army in 1971, as its leader. Major Ziaur Rahman had read out the "Declaration of Independence" on behalf of Mujibur Rahman, who was then in the Pakistan Army's custody, from a radio station on March 27, 1971 (even though Bangladesh celebrates March 26 as Independence Day because the first announcement was made by senior Awami League leader Abdul Hannan from the Chittagong radio station on that day). Independent observers consider the move a wilful distortion of history and an attempt to negate the long political and cultural movements of the Bengali people against Pakistani colonial rule.

THE general elections were held against the backdrop of the September 11 terrorist attack in the United States and the "war against terrorism" in Afghanistan. The victorious combine has so far not made the U.S. unhappy. However, it is yet to be seen when the "moderates" (as Washington sees them) will turn into "fundamentalists".

In January, Khaleda Zia completed her first 100-day "action plan" in which she had declared a jehad against "terrorism and corruption". While 100 days is too short a period to assess achievements in the realm of the economy, her jehad ironically suffered a serious jolt when she had to ban the BNP's student wing, the Jatiyabadi Chhatra Dal (JCD), and arrest its president Nasiruddin Pintu, a Member of Parliament, along with several other party members on charges of terrorism and corruption.

Surprisingly, the Khaleda Zia government has so far distanced itself from its traditional anti-India rhetoric. As far as India-Bangladesh issues are concerned, New Delhi seems hopeful that it can settle most of them. An agreement on gas supply and transit is of major concern to India. Although New Delhi is yet to say state officially, the recent allegations by the Chief Ministers of West Bengal and Tripura about the presence on Bangladesh territory of agents of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan and camps of northeastern insurgents, are matters of concern to India. The February 18 Foreign Secretary-level meeting in New Delhi may indicate how things will move in future.

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