Politics or Blood Feud?
Political intolerance has made a shambles of democracy and turned politics into a blood feud in Bangladesh.
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.