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A communal agenda

Print edition : Nov 10, 2001 T+T-

Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government in Dhaka faces a serious challenge following post-election atrocities on Awami League supporters and members of the minority community by the ruling coalition's fundamentalist supporters.

THE pro-Islamic Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its fundamentalist allies, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Okiya Jote (IOJ) faced the first challenge after coming to power from their main political opponent, the Awami League, on October 28, the day the country's eighth Parliament opened.

The Awami League boycotted the session, held a massive rally in Dhaka, the first such since the October 1 elections, and announced a nation-wide programme to protest against the "wanton killing, torture, loot, rape and arson" of its leaders, workers and minority Hindus for voting the party. The Awami League won 41 per cent of the total votes cast.

The four-party alliance led by Khaleda Zia won nearly 47 per cent of the vote; the share of the BNP, the major partner, was 37 per cent. The coalition won 202 seats in the 300-member Parliament. The Awami League won 62 seats.

The new government assumed office on October 10 with the swearing-in of a 60-member Council of Ministers, the largest ever in Bangladesh, with Khaleda Zia taking over as Prime Minister for a second time. This automatically ended the 87-day tenure of the controversial non-party caretaker government of Justice Latifur Rahman.

Although the conduct of the elections by the caretaker government was certified as "clean and credible" by some Western and local non-governmental organisations, including the controversial Fair Election Monitoring Alliance, the Awami League rejected the results, claiming that they were "manipulated under a well-orchestrated blueprint". Doubts about the fairness of the elections grew as some major newspapers began projecting instances of the "highly partisan role" of the caretaker government, the Election Commission and the law-enforcers who, it was alleged, were hell-bent on defeating the Awami League in at least 120 seats. The operation was conducted skilfully and in a professional manner, some newspapers said.

Whatever the truth in the allegations, simple arithmetic shows that the Awami League's defeat was inevitable since it fought alone against an alliance.

Khaleda Zia has set her government's priorities for the first 100 days, identifying 25 specific targets and calling upon the people to wage "two wars" - one to suppress terrorism and the other to achieve economic emancipation.

For the first time in the country's 30-year-old history there is now a government that includes the Jamaat-e-Islami, which opposed Bangladesh's (formerly East Pakistan) independence from Pakistan. It is regarded as the most organised fundamentalist organisation in the country and has links with radical groups in Pakistan and the Taliban. The Jamaat-e-Islami, which won 16 seats, had also supported or benefited from the bloody unconstitutional changeover of 1975 when the country's founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was assassinated and his Awami League government overthrown.

But the BNP-led alliance believes in or propagates the idea that the defeat of the Awami League, which had led the Liberation War of 1971, was a vote against its "divisive politics" that is one of dividing the population into two groups - forces of secularism and those of religious fundamentalism.

Ironically, despite its crusade against terrorism, the first serious challenge the new government is confronted with is the terror allegedly unleashed by its own men, in the form of wanton destruction, killings, looting and rape in rural Bangladesh, against Awami League supporters. While the minority Hindus constituted the prime targets - because of the widely held belief they voted for the Awami League - there were also instances of atrocities committed against Muslim sympathisers of the liberal democratic party.

For the first time since the genocide by Pakistani troops in 1971, Bangladesh witnessed widespread communal attacks. Hindus constitute 10 per cent of the population. Hundreds of them fled their homes, some even crossed the border, fearing for their lives. Neither the BNP nor its allies had a communal agenda in their poll manifestos, but their campaign trend had a serious communal bias that suited their traditional politics.

The Awami League, the Left parties and several secular-minded organisations have described the atrocities as "highly politically motivated", meant to wipe out all secular aspects of Bangladeshi society. However, Home Affairs Minister Air Vice-Marshal (retd) Altaf Hossain Chowdhury dismissed the reports on the attacks as "exaggerations" by the media. Top BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami leaders see the media reports of barbaric acts as being part of the Awami League's "post-election strategy". Nonetheless, the pre-election threats against and the massive post-election violence on the minority community will remain a black chapter in the country's political history. They may also provide reasons to worry about a possible emergence of Pakistan-style politics in Bangladesh.

Another issue that has come to the fore post-election relates to allegations of a secret deal struck by the ruling coalition with some U.S. companies to supply natural gas to India through pipelines. Incidentally, the Indian Prime Minister's special envoy, Brajesh Mishra, made a brief trip to Dhaka in the third week of October, becoming the first foreign envoy to "establish contact" with the new government. The issue of natural gas export has been a sensitive one for traditional anti-Indian politicians. Sheikh Hasina, who headed the previous Awami League government, described her party's debacle as "forced defeat under a blueprint" since her government had refused to export gas before assessing the extent of domestic reserves. Sheikh Hasina was firm on protecting the "lone natural resources" of the poor country in order to ensure that its domestic requirement is met first. "Gas is the only resource we have. However, it is tough and dangerous for the poor to keep a wealth in their possession," she said at the post-election rally in Dhaka. She pledged "all-out resistance" to any move to sell the gas, undermining the national interest. "The United States asked us to export gas to Delhi, but I refused. I have even told the U.S. President, 'you conserve your country's resources for your people. I'll do the same.' Before I take a decision to export, I must know how much gas we have."

The Awami League did not mention the Indian ruling party's involvement in the alleged gas deal, but media reports and commentaries by secular intellectuals in the national dailies have hinted at a "conspiracy" by New Delhi and Washington to instal the BNP-led coalition in power.

Never before has India figured so prominently as now in a post-election scene. Secular forces had suffered random attacks for decades for being "pro-Indian". Many progressive thinkers now fear that the developments may turn a sizable section of secularists against India, which would help further consolidation of a communal political culture.

The new government's decision to publish within 90 days a White Paper on the previous government's acts of corruption and to impound the passports of several former Ministers and Awami League stalwarts is a much discussed issue now. Since the ruling coalition has a brute parliamentary majority, it can reshape the country's character at will. In this context, the move to amend the Constitution, prescribing separate electorates for the minorities and declaring Bangladesh an Islamic Republic, is to be watched keenly. A "brute majority" in Parliament, as the country's political experience has shown, never gave Bangladesh political stability because of its wanton misuse.