A year of troubles

Published : Oct 25, 2002 00:00 IST

One year on, the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party finds itself in the midst of growing criticism and resentment over the manner in which it has handled issues on several fronts.

THE manner in which the four-party combine headed by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia began its tenure in Bangladesh last year was startling. It had won a more-than two-thirds parliamentary majority, crushing the hopes of the secular and liberal democrats. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) alliance, consisting of the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Islamic Oikya Jote and a faction of the Jatiya Party, emerged victorious in the wake of the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001.

As the alliance a blend of religious nationalists, militant fundamentalists and subdued communists is set to complete one year in power on October 10, the process of stock-taking is on. Elaborate plans are under way to hold country-wide rallies and demonstrations through the year. But there are people who feel that the electoral arithmetic was not the sole reason for the humiliating defeat of the Awami League in the elections. They see a plan that was "largely backed" by foreign interests, behind the defeat. Even non-partisan individuals and groups who had been critical of the Sheikh Hasina government feel that although their `support' to the Khaleda Zia regime was "justified", they should not endorse the "misdeeds" of the government.

And signs of the people's new mind-set are already visible. The large-scale persecution of members of the minority community and the opposition that followed last year's election are no longer an issue. It has been overshadowed by the situation arising from a sharp deterioration in the law and order situation. Powerful newspapers, which had been highly critical of the Awami League regime, are warning the BNP-Jamaat coalition of a popular backlash. The 11-party Left democratic alliance, which is bitter about the performance of the Khaleda Zia government, is in favour of a "third alternative force". "The crimes committed so far by the BNP-Jamaat coalition have already surpassed those committed by the last Awami League government during its full five year tenure," a senior alliance leader said.

According to a report brought out by Transparency International, Bangladesh tops the list of countries where corruption is rampant. In a mid-term review meeting that was held in Dhaka recently, representatives of countries that are major donors of aid to Bangladesh expressed unhappiness over the government's failure to separate the powers of the judiciary from those of the executive. They said that the government should pay more attention to issues of governance on a priority basis. In their opinion, "the situation has worsened to such an extent that the people, both poor and rich, feel increasingly insecure". They pointed out that cases of murder, abduction, repression of women and children and extortion, allegedly committed by pro-government activists, were on the rise, adding that in such a situation developmental measures would prove futile. However, the donors praised the government for some of its economic reform measures, which included the closure of the giant Adamjee Jute Mills, the constitution of the Revenue and Expenditure Review Commission and the latest decision to form an independent Human Rights Commission.

Even as the BNP-Jamaat government completes its first year in office, there is mounting concern about its ability to conduct governance in a transparent manner. The growing nexus between crime and politics, increasing violations of human rights, extra-judicial killings and repression and torture of political opponents have become routine. In April 2002, the first major corruption scandal came to light and based on this the Danish government withdrew a grant of $45 million to the Ministry of Shipping. Since then a number of cases such as the aviation fuel scandal, the textbook scandal, the alleged involvement of a member of the Cabinet in a gold smuggling case and so on have hit the headlines.

The "Wheatgate Scam", as the English newspaper, The Daily Star called it, involved the "procurement" at a cost of one billion taka of 100,000 tonnes of wheat, supposedly from local farmers as part of the government's scheme to provide support and subsidy to poor farmers at a time when there was no production of wheat in the country. Although the government, following the media revelation on the scandal, formed a couple of committees, so far, the reports of neither of them has been made public, nor any "political patronisers" punished. According to Sheikh Hasina, the ruling alliance has terrorised its political opponents in order to "destroy the Awami League, which nourishes the secular pro-liberation spirit".

Even if Hasina's observations seem to be politically motivated, many people think that the ominous culture of intolerance and vengeance might pose a fresh threat to the country's democracy. Indiscriminate arrest of political opponents, framing of cases one after another, extra-judicial detention and torture and raiding the houses of Opposition leaders, allegedly without warrants, have discredited the government. Citing specific examples, Amnesty International issued a number of statements criticising the government for instances of extra-judicial detention, torture and violation of human rights. The High Court, in a unique step, ordered the release of some detainees right from the court premises because they had not been released from custody despite being granted bail. Recently, a former Minister, Dr. Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, was released from jail after seven months of detention as the High Court granted him bail in a total of seven cases, including one that involved the charge of treason.

Meanwhile, a United Nations Development Programme report has come down heavily on the country's criminal justice system. The report refers to absence of protection to human rights despite constitutional directives and highlights the misuse of constitutional provisions such as those for preventive detention and arrest without warrant. It points to the illegal use of the provision of "safe custody" and the existence of an anti-poor bail granting system as examples of weakness of the country's legal framework when it comes to the protection of human rights.

An overwhelming majority of the country's Bar Council members as well as Opposition politicians and civil society leaders have expressed the opinion that the government is making the country a "police state". They have alleged that the proceedings in the sensitive Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Murder Case were still hanging fire in the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court because of the government's "dirty game". Independent media reports suggest that during the past 11 months, the government has freed at least 38,000 under-trials claiming that the cases against them, which were framed during the period of the Awami League government, were " politically motivated". Following a "review", more than 300 cases have been withdrawn. Corruption charges that had been framed against several BNP leaders were also withdrawn. Referring to the recent unprecedented cordoning off of the central Shaheed Minar by the police and the paramilitary, a popular daily said in its editorial : "We do not think that BNP has lost public support sufficiently for it to adopt anti-democratic measures to continue its rule. But its frequent and unnecessary use of police gives the impression that it prefers to rely more on the brute force of the state rather than the support of the people, which we think they still have, if not to the same extent as when it got elected."

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia has held her political opponents responsible for the deteriorating law and order situation. She blamed the Opposition for the growing unrest on college campuses. "The Opposition is trying to destabilise the government," said Maulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, Agriculture Minister and Ameer of the Jamaat. But as reports prepared by two leading voluntary organisations revealed, 2,460 people have been murdered over the past nine months, a significant number of them for political reasons. At least 720 women, including 113 children, were raped, as a result of which 131 have died. Some 384 women were gang-raped and two women were raped by policemen. A report of the Bureau of Human Rights, Bangladesh stated that a total of 4,776 people were killed in different incidents during the period. Ninety-one journalists were tortured and 72 were threatened. Besides, 126 cases of police repression were reported, resulting in the death of 24 persons in custody. During the period at least 1,148 incidents of terrorism, 1,754 incidents of robbery, 81 incidents of abduction, 524 cases of theft and 216 instances of mass beating and lynching were reported. According to the report of `Adhikar', another leading non-governmental organisation, a total of 1,647 incidents involving child victims, 310 cases involving acid-throw victims and 88 incidents of killings in border violence have occurred over the past nine months. In the 1,647 instances of crimes against children that were recorded, 472 children had been raped and 353 were murdered. Ninety-eight children had committed suicide. In various incidents of attacks on journalists, three have been killed, 95 injured, 12 arrested, three abducted and 34 assaulted.

The abrupt closure of Ekushe TV (ETV), the country's first private channel, by the government after its licence was declared illegal by the court and the subsequent expulsion of British journalist and ETV managing director Simon Dring from the country, have put the government's intentions under question. Simon, who covered the widespread genocide that took place during the country's war of liberation in 1971, was first expelled from Bangladesh by Pakistani authorities.

On the economic front, despite a 32 per cent increase in foreign direct investment inflows into South Asia in general, FDI in Bangladesh plunged from $280 million in 2000 to $70 million last year, a fall of 72 per cent. Politically, the alliance government is not facing any immediate threats in the form of organised mass agitations. The threat, if any, will come from the Awami League, but the party does not seem to be in a hurry. "Let the people see how they [the government] treat them," a top Awami League leader remarked. But certainly the Awami League is benefiting from the growing popular resentment against the parties in power. Nevertheless, its performance as an Opposition party and some of its actions, particularly in the latter phase of its tenure, continue to be controversial.

But the biggest threat that the ruling coalition faces is the massive downslide in its credibility. The recent hike in the prices of essential commodities has alienated a major section of the fixed income groups. The attitude of the Khaleda Zia regime towards the concept of a secular nationhood, the country's culture and heritage and its attempts at distorting the history of the country's war of liberation have endeared it to votaries of the "Two Nation Theory".

Moreover, the quick "Jamaatisation" of the BNP has become a cause of worry for the moderates within the party. Most political observers agree that over the past one year, the net dividend was perhaps bagged by the Jamaat-e-Islami. Although it holds only two portfolios in the government, it is widely believed that the Jamaat, which had opposed Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan, has penetrated successfully the country's key institutions and organisations. The fundamentalist party, which lacks a popular base but has a strong cadre base, has been allegedly instrumental in shaping key government policies. The splinter fanatic groups within the government who are opposed to "the axis of U.S., Israel and India," had thrown a united challenge to the government led by Sheikh Hasina. But they could not harness the support required to unseat the government. Secular opinion within the country feels that the `undercurrent of fanaticism' is more harmful than it appears to be.

As far as its relationship with India is concerned, over the past one year, progress on issues such as trade, especially the export of natural gas, travel, border management and so on has been slow. So far, the BNP-Jamaat combine has not taken any initiative to amend the Ganga waters sharing treaty, although it was an election pledge. Although, some of the senior members of the coalition speak in favour of scrapping the much-acclaimed Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Treaty, observers believe that will not happen. On the issue of the export of gas, despite "pressures" from institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, most people believe that the government would take time to take a decision on the matter because it is under pressure from opponents.

The Bush administration is continuing its support to the government despite the fact that the State Department had found some "terrorist links" in Bangladesh. However, the government is under pressure from the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Mary Ann Peters, to allow a private container terminal port to be set up in the estuary of the Chittagong port as proposed by an American company, SSA. But the project, which was approved in 1998, is under fire. The "undiplomatic" utterances of the U.S. Ambassador regarding the container port and gas export issues have been criticised by leaders spearheading the movement to "Save the Chittagong port" and "Protect the national wealth".

While the U.S. State Department's Country Report on Bangladesh implied the presence in the country of some notorious Islamic terror outfits, Ambassador Peters is satisfied with the situation. She has termed the country a "moderate Islamic country" a perception that came under attack from several quarters because Bangladesh has been the "People's Republic" ever since independence. While the Awami League, the Left parties and the country's civil society leaders are worried about the "presence of the militant outfits" in the country, the government denies any such presence.

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