Things are heat­ing up in Bangladesh’s po­lit­i­cal arena as tra­di­tional foes face each other in bel­liger­ent con­fronta­tion.

Southasia - - Front page - By Aye­sha Kabir

No Peace, No Pros­per­ity

Per­sonal ven­detta turns into po­lit­i­cal con­fronta­tion.

An­gry pro­ces­sions stretch down the streets of Dhaka and other ma­jor cities of the coun­try, as protests erupt con­cern­ing a mul­ti­tude of thorny is­sues. The phan­tom of con­fronta­tional pol­i­tics, en­demic to the re­gion, has raised its ugly head again and the na­tion has been gripped in a se­ries of har­tals (gen­eral strikes), vi­o­lence and gen­eral unrest. All is cer­tainly not quiet in the delta.

Two and a half years into the present rule of the Awami League, the ini­tial ex­u­ber­ance over their land­slide vic­tory has taken a nose­dive and a sense of frus­tra­tion, anger, and even de­spair, has set­tled over the coun­try.

The is­sues on the plate are many. While var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal and non-po­lit­i­cal quar­ters are stri­dently de­mand­ing ful­fill­ment of their re­spec­tive de­mands, the gov­ern­ment char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally ploughs ahead with its own agenda. “Com­pro­mise is not on the cards and never was,” says Nasim Ali, Man­ag­ing Editor of In­ter­na­tional Her­ald Tri­bune in Bangladesh, “Con­fronta­tion is in­evitable and the gen­eral pub­lic are col­lat­eral dam­age.”

The sys­tem of care­taker gov­ern­ment has been abol­ished which Bangladesh had for the hold­ing of na­tional elec­tions un­der an in­terim and, pur­port­edly, neu­tral care­taker gov­ern­ment. In­ter­est­ingly, it was the Awami League that had in the past ral­lied stri­dently and suc­cess­fully to in­stall the care­taker sys­tem as an ap­pendage to the ex­ist­ing sys­tem of par­lia­men­tary democ­racy, while the other ma­jor po­lit­i­cal party, Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ist Party (BNP), ve­he­mently op­posed it. Now the Awami League gov­ern­ment has de­ci­sively put an end to the care­taker sys­tem. “Given the propen­sity of what­ever party is in power to ma­nip­u­late the elec­tion in their own fa­vor or rig the re­sults,” says a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst, “the care­taker sys­tem won wide ac­cep­tance among the peo­ple.”

Bangladesh was eyed as a role model in this re­gard. The BNP along with other ma­jor and mi­nor po­lit­i­cal par­ties in the op­po­si­tion, have strongly op­posed the move as this is, ac­cord­ingly to them, sim­ply a ploy for the gov­ern­ment to con­trol the polls and stay in power. In a clever move, the gov­ern­ment put the onus of abol­ish­ing the care­taker sys­tem on the ju­di­ciary, while again the op­po­si­tion claims to be highly politi­cized. The Supreme Court ruled out the care­taker sys­tem, but main­tained that the next two elec­tions would be held un­der the care­taker sys­tem, a sort of wean­ing pe­riod be­fore polls con­ducted by a po­lit­i­cal gov­ern­ment. Now the gov­ern­ment has done away with this ‘grace’ pe­riod and the next elec­tion will be held sans care­taker. Hence the protest.

The gov­ern­ment has taken up con­sti­tu­tional re­forms with gusto,

changes be­ing blithely made to the con­sti­tu­tion with no ref­er­en­dum or cog­nizance of pub­lic opin­ion. Pub­lic opin­ion is of par­tic­u­lar per­ti­nence in this in­stance as cer­tain changes per­tain to ex­tremely sen­si­tive is­sues of faith and re­li­gion. In the orig­i­nal Con­sti­tu­tion of 1972, Bangladesh was de­scribed as a sec­u­lar na­tion. Later, when late Pres­i­dent Zi­aur Rah­man came to power, he added “Bis­mil­lah” to the Pre­am­ble of the Con­sti­tu­tion, which was ap­pre­ci­ated by the Mus­lim ma­jor­ity and ap­proved by other Mus­lim states, par­tic­u­larly those of the Mid­dle East.

Later still, when Gen­eral HM Er­shad as­sumed power, he took things a notch higher by adding Is­lam as the state re­li­gion in the Con­sti­tu­tion. Other than a few groups like the Hin­duBud­dhist-Chris­tian Joint Coun­cil, no one was un­happy about this. After all, Bangladesh en­joys en­vi­able re­li­gious har­mony and adding the clause to the Con­sti­tu­tion re­ally did not make a dif­fer­ence to the so­ci­ety as a whole, other than ful­fill­ing what­ever agenda Er­shad may have hand up his sleeve. The present gov­ern­ment has re­stored sec­u­lar­ism to the Con­sti­tu­tion and has re­placed the word “Al­lah” with “Cre­ator.” As ex­pected, the Is­lamic po­lit­i­cal par­ties and or­ga­ni­za­tions have taken to the streets in protest and even the man on the street is not happy with this.

Bangladesh is said to be “float­ing on oil and gas.” Hyper­boles aside, the fact of re­mains that western en­ergy com­pa­nies have for long fo­cused here, try­ing to strike deals for ex­plo­ration and drilling rights. Re­cently two off­shore gas blocks were leased out to the U.S. com­pany, Cono­coPhillips, which has un­leashed strong protests from sev­eral cit­i­zens’ groups such as the Com­mit­tee for the Pro­tec­tion of Oil, Gas, Coal and Nat­u­ral Re­sources. They claim that pre­cious en­ergy re­sources are be­ing handed over to out- siders with lit­tle ben­e­fit to the coun­try. The Pro­duc­tion Shar­ing Con­tract (PSC) re­mains an enigma, the gov­ern­ment not main­tain­ing any trans­parency in this re­gard. The po­lit­i­cal par­ties pre­fer to main­tain an am­bigu­ous stand, un­will­ing to in­cur the wrath of the big­ger pow­ers.

Be­ing a big and pow­er­ful neigh­bor, it is only nat­u­ral that In­dia looms large in the mass con­scious­ness of Bangladesh. All through al­most 40 years of Bangladesh’s in­de­pen­dence, its re­la­tions with In­dia have been fraught with is­sues of con­tention – wa­ter shar­ing, trade prac­tices, bor­der killings and more. With all-out ef­forts of the gov­ern­ment and Prime Min­is­ter Sheikh Hasina, re­la­tions with In­dia have never been bet­ter, but crit­ics see prob­lems.

In­dia has long been seek­ing a transit route through Bangladesh to its in­sur­gency-rid­den north­east­ern states. Bangladesh had held back for long from grant­ing such transit fa­cil­i­ties but Prime Min­is­ter Hasina and her In­dian coun­ter­part Man­mo­han Singh have now signed a joint com­mu­niqué, pro­vid­ing In­dia the long sought fa­cil­ity.. And that too with no fee – out of sheer good neigh­bor­li­ness. Ex­perts see this more of a cor­ri­dor than transit and peo­ple are ask­ing what Bangladesh gets from this deal. If In­dia was so des­per­ate for transit, they ask, why couldn’t we have used this as a bar­gain­ing point to get at least some of the things we want from In­dia?

De­spite hav­ing signed a longterm Ganges wa­ter-shar­ing treaty, In­dia still does not give Bangladesh its fair share of wa­ter. Mighty rivers in Bangladesh have been reduced to mere trick­les. En­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion has set in and salin­ity is tak­ing toll of the man­grove forests in the Sun­dar­bans - a World Her­itage site and home to the fast di­min­ish­ing Royal Ben­gal Tiger. Sim­i­lar prob­lems re­volve around shar­ing of waters from other rivers.

Bangladesh is also in a fra­cas with In­dia and Myan­mar over the de­lin­eation of the mar­itime bound­ary. With the Bay of Ben­gal re­plete with oil and gas fields, the coun­try stands to lose much if its ter­ri­to­rial waters to its neigh­bors.

Strict trade re­stric­tions and tar­iff im­po­si­tions have held Bangladesh back from ex­ploit­ing a huge mar­ket in In­dia, whereas In­dian goods en­ter Bangladesh both through for­mal and in­for­mal chan­nels. There are sev­eral other bones Bangladesh has to pick with In­dia, in­clud­ing bor­der fenc­ing and bor­der killings.

A num­ber of other is­sues which have served to bring the gov­ern­ment down to the dumps in terms of pop­u­lar­ity in­clude the re­cent share mar­ket scam, vil­i­fi­ca­tion of No­bel Lau­re­ate and mi­cro-credit guru Pro­fes­sor Muhammed Yunus, hooli­gan­ism by stu­dent fronts, et al.

As anti-gov­ern­ment ag­i­ta­tion grows, there is talk of BNP re­sign­ing en masse from par­lia­ment to force the gov­ern­ment to hold mid-term polls. But this ploy may fall flat on its face if the wily for­mer Pres­i­dent Er­shad and his Jatiya Party, along with smaller al­lies, de­cide to con­test in the by-polls and sim­ply re­place BNP in the House. This may even cause se­ri­ous rifts within BNP it­self.

The peo­ple are look­ing to the gov­ern­ment for the ba­sics – af­ford­able prices, law and or­der, eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity. The gov­ern­ment hasn’t been able to de­liver this sat­is­fac­to­rily. The peo­ple have been pa­tient, but how long will they ac­cept the ap­a­thy and com­pla­cence on part of the rulers?

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