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