Battle of the heirs

Print edition : April 13, 2002

The Khaleda Zia government and the Awami League-led Opposition in Bangladesh lock horns over the former's attempt to efface the role of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the Father of the Nation.

NEARLY 27 years after his assassination, the name of the Father of the Nation of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, is yet again in the thick of a political battle, this time over the removal of his portraits from government offices by the recently installed government of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. There is simmering unrest in a country which has seen successive military takeovers and pseudo-democratic regimes.

Awami League leader and former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at an Independence Day rally in Dhaka on March 30. The Opposition has taken to the streets to protest against government high-handedness.-PAVEL RAHMAN/AP

The Khaleda Zia government's allergy to portraits of Mujibur Rahman, popularly known as "Bangabandhu" (the friend of Bengal), became obvious soon after the electoral victory of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led four-party alliance. The portraits, which were displayed in the offices of all government departments and semi-government and autonomous organisations under a decree passed by the previous Sheikh Hasina government, were removed or damaged by activists of the BNP and its ally, the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami.

Portraits of the "Bangabandhu" were a common sight in the towns and villages of Bangladesh in the period that followed independence. The sentiments that lay behind that had much to do with Mujib's role as the "liberator" of Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. The portraits were first removed from government offices after his assassination in 1975; they reappeared when the Awami League government led by his eldest daughter Sheikh Hasina came to power after some two decades. The Hasina government, which was in power from 1996 to 2001, enacted a law making it mandatory to display portraits of Mujib in government and quasi-government offices and declaring the day of his killing as "National Mourning Day". It also decided not to display the picture of the elected Prime Minister along with that of the Father of the Nation. Also, a 500-taka note that had Mujib's picture on it returned to circulation.

The Hasina government ensured that the assassins of Mujib were tried in a normal court of law. The High Court upheld the verdict of the trial court, which awarded death sentences to 12 ex-Army officers, most of them now fugitives. The sentences are yet to be executed owing to a long-pending appeal in the Supreme Court. The fate of the historic assassination case now seems uncertain as the two judges of the Appellate Division, recently appointed by the present government, stayed off the hearing. Unless more judges are appointed, the case will remain in limbo.

THE political philosophy of the new rulers in Dhaka is quite the opposite of what Mujibur Rahman preached - that of secular democracy. Mujib, the main source of inspiration for the Awami League, the largest single party in Parliament in terms of popular vote, has become an outcast in official Bangladesh under Khaleda Zia. Apart from repealing the decree on his portraits, it has cancelled the public holidays on his birthday and death anniversary. The Preservation and Display of Portrait of the Father of the Nation (Repeal) Bill, 2002, was hurriedly passed by Parliament on March 21.

The Awami League has been boycotting Parliament since its reconstitution late last year, but its members of Parliament held demonstrations in the corridors of and outside Parliament building on the day the Bill was passed. Independent newspapers and observers saw the scrapping of the law as a questionable move. A number of smaller parties belonging to the Opposition and also independent members opposed the legislation and expressed the fear that the hasty passage of the Bill might "push the nation to a dangerous confrontation''. Several members staged a walk-out.

Independent MP Delwar Hossain said: "It is as clear as daylight that 'Bangabandhu' is the architect of independent Bangladesh... The people of the country had accepted him as such." G.M. Qader of Gen. H.M. Ershad's Jatiya Party (J.P.) said: "Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib was recognised by the 4th Amendment to the Constitution as the Father of the Nation. As the Bill is passed, the country is inevitably heading for confrontation, thereby jeopardising democracy." Even staunch critics of the Awami League have opposed the scrapping of the law. Political analysts feel that the six-month-old government, which already has a poor record on the law and order front and faces serious allegations of denial of constitutional rights, especially in the matter of holding protests, is likely to face strong resistance from the Opposition in the coming months.

For the BNP, which was the beneficiary of the 1975 bloodshed, the portrait of Mujib is nothing more than a photograph. For its ally, the Jamaat, it is the picture of an "enemy" who was instrumental in the disintegration of "Islamic Pakistan" for which they took up arms against the freedom fighters in the 1971 liberation war. Therefore the removal of the portrait was considered their combined responsibility, particularly when the portrait served as a constant reminder of the enemy's strength. But, for the Awami League and its allies from the pro-liberation camp, who still nourish the spirit of non-communal nationhood, the portrait of Mujibur Rahman not only symbolises the nation's independence from Pakistan but is also a source of strength to fight communalists, fundamentalists and undemocratic elements. The crisis over the portrait is therefore a complex one. It effectively means that those who were happy to see Mujib removed from the scene in 1975 became happy once again in seeing his portrait removed.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Political persecution and anarchy, it has been alleged, are the hallmarks of her latest stint at the helm.-AFP

When the government placed in Parliament the Bill relating to the portrait a few weeks ago, the Awami League threatened that its members would resign en masse from the House. However this did not prevent the BNP from getting the Bill passed. The Cabinet also took a prompt decision to display Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's portrait in government offices.

A move is reported to be on to have portraits of the late President Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the BNP, also displayed in government offices. Ziaur Rahman, whose widow is the present Prime Minister, was one of the 11 Sector Commanders of the country's liberation army of the provisional government headed by Mujibur Rahman. Zia, then a Major in the Army, was one of the two persons (the other was Abdul Hannan, a senior Awami League leader) who pronounced the declaration of independence on behalf of Mujib (since Mujib had been arrested by the Pakistan Army) from two radio stations in Chittagong. He served the Army under Mujib until 1975, and was promoted Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army during the Awami League's tenure. He later became the Martial Law Administrator and President.

The removal of the portrait has struck a sensitive chord in the rank and file of the Awami League, now slowly recovering from the shock of the electoral defeat. Although the party's initial agitation programmes had failed, the anti-government demonstrations that followed the passage of the Bill brought it much-needed popular support.

The Awami League has dubbed the Khaleda government as a "terrible regime of lawlessness, murder, extortion and rape". It has also charged the government with harbouring "Talibani elements" - a veiled reference to its coalition partners, the Jamaat and other fundamentalist groups. Civil society is also becoming increasingly critical of the lawlessness and the denial of democratic rights to the Opposition. At the recently held Bangladesh Aid Club meeting in Paris, the issues of law and order and governance received serious attention.

WHILE denying allegations of a deteriorating law and order situation, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia held the Opposition responsible for what she saw as "planned lawlessness". She also warned it against resorting to "anarchy in the name of a democratic movement". But reports that the offenders belonged to the BNP have given a jolt to her government's image. There are also allegations of widespread persecution of minorities and political opponents, reports of arrests and torture of scores of Opposition leaders including former Ministers and filing of "conspiratorial graft cases" against more than a dozen ex-Ministers, including former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Sections of the intelligentsia allege that the new government has distorted the history of the country's independence from Pakistan in school textbooks.

With the resignation threat from Awami League MPs still existing, things have reached a standstill. However, the hardliners in the ruling coalition, whose voices are reported to be more dominant , have termed it a "mere threat". The heightening tension has forced the government to make the offer of a dialogue. But the Awami League has put forward certain conditions. It wants the revival of the portrait law, removal of restraints on its right to exercise its democratic right to protest, and an end to the persecution of the BNP's political opponents. The chances of an immediate settlement, therefore, seem bleak.

Sheikh Hasina, who has dubbed the last elections as a round "manipulated under a national and international blueprint", said her party could not be part of a Parliament that disgraced the Father of the Nation. "Bangabandhu and Bangladesh are synonymous. The BNP-Jamaat regime is desperate to banish the spirit of the liberation war against Pakistan," she said.

The Awami League does not have enough strength in the 300-member Parliament to ensure the government's demise. The party that won 62 seats, now has only 58 seats because it boycotted all the byelections held so far. It is also boycotting the three mayoral elections - in Dhaka, Khulna and Rajshahi, scheduled for April. The BNP and Jamaat together have more than 220 seats. Nonetheless, the threat lies not in the parliamentary strength of the Opposition but in the effectiveness of Parliament in the absence of the Opposition.

If the Opposition MPs resign, the government will have two options: to hold byelections to all the 58 vacant seats or to go for general elections. The government will surely go in for the first option, but the risk of a more intense agitation will remain since it will be a "mini-general election". According to political analysts, even if the government succeeds in this attempt the situation may become more volatile than it is today.

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