Pol­i­tics or Blood Feud?

Po­lit­i­cal in­tol­er­ance has made a sham­bles of democ­racy and turned pol­i­tics into a blood feud in Bangladesh.

Southasia - - Region - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

Po­lit­i­cal dis­sent is the very soul of democ­racy. Elec­tions per se presage the ex­is­tence of more than one school of thought and agenda for bet­ter gov­er­nance. Each party there­fore presents its man­i­festo be­fore the elec­torate to en­list their sup­port.

Their viewpoints may be poles apart and to­tally op­posed to each other; such as cap­i­tal­ist or so­cial­ist or com­mu­nist; re­li­gious or sec­u­lar, con­ser­va­tive or lib­eral and so forth. Each en­joys the free­dom to pro­ject its opin­ion on na­tional is­sues. They do not dis­turb each other’s meet­ings or at­tack their ral­lies.

In the United States, where the no­tion of free speech is stretched to its ex­treme, there have been shouts of “Kill him!” against Barack Obama at Repub­li­can meet­ings. Yet, Democrats never tried to at­tack them.

Vi­o­lence in pol­i­tics is a fea­ture pe­cu­liar to the sub­con­ti­nent. But in com­par­i­son with In­dia it is more vir­u­lent in Bangladesh and Pak­istan. In what is Bangladesh now, the seed of vi­o­lence in pol­i­tics was sown by the Awami League when it was East Pak­istan.

Out­raged at the killing of young stu­dents by the po­lice on 21 Fe­bru­ary 1952 in the lan­guage move­ment, the Awami League, led by Maulana Ab­dul Hamid Khan Bhashani with Sheikh Mu­jibur Rah­man as his able lieu­tenant, started coun­try­wide ag­i­ta­tion to de­nounce the Mus­lim League gov­ern­ment of chief min­is­ter, Nu­rul Amin, for sup­press­ing the na­tional as­pi­ra­tion for Bengali as an­other na­tional lan­guage.

To flay the gov­ern­ment with fiery rhetoric and ag­i­tate, peace­fully, was the Awami League’s demo­cratic right. But too soon its op­po­si­tion to the Mus­lim League de­te­ri­o­rated into al­most per­sonal an­i­mos­ity as if it were a blood feud, in the same fash­ion as to­day.

Dur­ing the elec­tion cam­paign for the pro­vin­cial elec­tion in 1954, the Awami League took an ag­gres­sive pos­ture. Its work­ers of­ten re­sorted to vi­o­lence to dis­rupt the meet­ings or­ga­nized by ri­val Mus­lim League can­di­dates. Dur­ing the same pe­riod, once, the Awami Lea­guers drove an ele­phant into a pub­lic meet­ing in My­mensingh that was be­ing ad­dressed by Nu­rul Amin, lead­ing to a stam­pede and in­juries to peo­ple.

Af­ter the land­slide vic­tory of the Jukta (United) Front, com­pris­ing Awami League and Kr­ishak Sramik party in 1954, Awami League be­came more ag­gres­sive. From 1954 to Ayub’s as­sump­tion of power in 1958, the two par­ties waged a cease­less battle for power so no gov­ern­ment could last for more than a few months.

Later, Dhaka Hall and Ja­gan­nath Hall be­came the ar­se­nals of the Mus­lim League and Awami League re­spec­tively where firearms were stored and vi­o­lence be­tween stu­dent wings of the two par­ties be­came rou­tine. When Sheikh Mu­jibur Rah­man was pros­e­cuted in the Agartala con­spir­acy case un­der Ayub Khan, ten­sion be­tween Awami League and Mus­lim League reached a fever pitch. And Ab­dul Mu­nim Khan, a Mus­lim Lea­guer, who was East Pak­istan’s chief min­is­ter was shot dead soon af­ter he re­lin­quished his of­fice. His killers, sus­pected to be Awami Lea­guers, were never ap­pre­hended.

Awami League-led 14 party coali­tion at present rules over Bangladesh. But it has given no proof that it is any bet­ter than its ri­val BNP. In fact it seems to be try­ing to out­smart the BNP in sup­pres­sion of dis­sent.

For in­stance, re­cently when the BNP de­clared har­tal to protest what they called the mul­ti­ple mis­deeds and ques­tion­able ac­tions of the gov­ern­ment, the rul­ing party re­acted to the sit­u­a­tion by tak­ing a hard-line strat­egy to nip in the bud the op­po­si­tion’s ca­pac­ity to or­ga­nize an ef­fec­tive protest.

BNP’s vice-chair­man, Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, who is also a valiant free­dom fighter and a for­mer diplo­mat, was ar­rested while ob­serv­ing the strike. BNP law­maker, Shahidud­din Chowdhury An-

nee, was ar­rested dur­ing an on­go­ing par­lia­men­tary session, “when he had sought refuge in a hos­pi­tal af­ter a pin­cer at­tack by the po­lice and Chat­tra League goons.”

The Rapid Ac­tion Bat­tal­ion as­saulted the oc­cu­pants in the house of Mirza Ab­bas in­jur­ing his fam­ily mem­bers. Even the BNP’s hu­man chains, a peace­ful po­lit­i­cal pro­gram, was vi­o­lently at­tacked by the po­lice and the goons of Awami League’s as­so­ciate or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Even a rally of the Na­tional Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Oil, Gas, Min­eral Re­sources, which was quite apo­lit­i­cal and a demo­cratic right of the peo­ple, was sub­jected to po­lice ac­tion.

A re­port in the Econ­o­mist with Dhaka date­line last year June summed up the sit­u­a­tion thus: “‘The chances of an­other coup in Bangladesh are close to zero,’ says a for­mer gen­eral in Bangladesh’s army. That sounds ex­cel­lent. But the coun­try’s ‘ri­val queens’ – Sheikh Hasina, the prime min­is­ter, and Khaleda Zia, (for­mer prime min­is­ter) – who were both jailed dur­ing an anti-corruption drive by an army-backed care­taker gov­ern­ment in 2007-08 – seem to see the sol­diers’ docil­ity as an op­por­tu­nity. The re­sult is that, 18 months af­ter Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won a par­lia­men­tary elec­tion in a land­slide, Bangladesh’s pol­i­tics is back to nor­mal; per­sonal, vin­dic­tive and con­fronta­tional.”

And in­side the par­lia­ment, Awami League mem­bers de­nounce the late hus­band of BNP chief Khaleda Zia in the most vir­u­lent terms. One of them called Pres­i­dent Zi­aur Rah­man a “killer,” re­cently. But when BNP boy­cotts the par­lia­ment, the Awami Lea­guers blame it as un­demo­cratic.

Sheikh Hasina told vis­it­ing U.S. prin­ci­pal Deputy As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary of State for the Bu­reau of South and Cen­tral Asian Af­fairs, Ge­of­frey Pyatt, that her party and gov­ern­ment want the op­po­si­tion to join the par­lia­ment session and play its due role in strength­en­ing democ­racy in and out­side the par­lia­ment. “We want op­po­si­tion party joins the par­lia­ment and play its role as a strong op­po­si­tion,” she said, adding, “We used to be happy with the op­po­si­tion crit­i­cism in the House, as we could rec­tify our­selves by over­com­ing our lapses and faults.”

No won­der, the United States de­scribed present democ­racy in Bangladesh as “real democ­racy” and highly ap­pre­ci­ated Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina’s lead­er­ship in strength­en­ing the demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

But the ground sit­u­a­tion be­lies the as­ser­tion and claim. With more than two-thirds ma­jor­ity the rul­ing party can and does ride rough-shod over any dis­sent from the op­po­si­tion. BNP al­lies, Ja­maat-i-Is­lami and the Is­lami Oikya Jot, are de­nounced as ex­trem­ists and sub­jected to ha­rass­ment.

How­ever, in a rare dis­play of de­cency the two ladies ex­changed good wishes for the Bengali New Year that be­gins on April 14. If this spirit takes hold it will be a good au­gury for the peo­ple of Bangladesh. The writer is a se­nior po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst and the for­mer edi­tor of SouthAsia Mag­a­zine.

The op­po­si­tion is of­ten ha­rassed

by the gov­ern­ment.

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