Efforts to unify Bangladeshis not in sight
by Ramtanu Maitra on 06 May 2013 3 Comments

Shackled by feuding partisan political groupings lodged firmly in two hostile and conflicting camps, Bangladesh is heading toward another general election in early 2014. In all likelihood, the ruling Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) party’s failure to provide citizens with the hope of a better future will bring its rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to power. What will take place thereafter is likely to be no different than what is going on now. These two political groupings have locked Bangladeshis into a vicious trap of violence and isolation.


Even more ominous is the threat that decades of revenge politics may escalate into yet another civil war.  Bangladesh went through a bloody civil war at its inception in 1971. The next one could be even more costly, yet fail to resolve the issues that keep these two groups clutching at each other’s throats.


Two nations within a country


The philosophical and ideological divide that causes so much violence in Bangladesh existed, although less sharply, long before the 1971 civil war, in which Pakistan’s eastern wing was clipped to become Bangladesh. At that time, a section of the population who identified themselves principally with Islam rather than their native Bengali culture swung their support to keep Pakistan in one piece, and picked up arms. The others sought separation from their non-Bengali rulers, who dictated events from a distance, and achieved total independence with the help of neighboring India’s military power. Ever since, however, Bangladeshi social and political leaders have been unwilling to unify or even build durable bridges between the two warring camps, condemning the country to 40 years of perpetual violence and political score-settling.


Intolerance has been the hallmark of these two camps from the outset. After the Bangladesh provisional government took charge of the country’s destiny in late 1971, following the defeat of the Pakistani army and its surrender, those ideological differences became the anchor-stones on which a political system was built. The country’s military, a major participant in the independence war against Pakistan, was highly politicized and showed its hand early in this violent “game” as each camp sought to impose its own ideology and, in the process, secure absolute control of this densely populated nation. Missing in this struggle was any attempt at good governance and/or efforts to improve conditions for the population. The powerful and moneyed elite have paid no attention whatsoever to the needs of the millions, who remain steeped in poverty and illiteracy, deprived of even basic economic necessities.


Over the years, the conduct of these two camps made the ground conditions conducive for some external players to wade ashore and do their bit. One such group, labeled “Islamists” by the other camp, now receives significant financial help from abroad to keep their ammo dry and plentiful. The generous givers are mostly the Saudis, Kuwaitis and various extremist UK-based Islamist Bangladeshi groups who continue to flourish and thrive under the watchful eyes of British intelligence.


Another willing and active facilitator of this group, of course, was, and is, the Pakistani military. Having lost Pakistan’s eastern wing, aided by India’s machinations, its military and intelligence apparatus long ago vowed to go to any length to undermine India’s security and well-being. For them, Bangladesh is a natural spot from which to operate.


This “Islamist” camp claims Bangladesh is an Islamic state and its identity is religious Islam. Supporters of this group demand that the government-in-power must implement its social, cultural and political policies to rejuvenate Islam; associate itself with similar Islamic states; and consider enemies those who want to weave both pre-Islam and post-Islam traditions, dominated by the Hindus and “tainted” by western thoughts, into Bangladesh’s social and political fabric. This group’s beliefs have attracted various militant pro-Islamic groups, including some of the international jihadi organizations, to their cause. Over the years these ostensibly pro-Islamic forces have gelled together to emerge as a pillar of strength for the BNP, led by Begum Khaleda Zia. This party is now the chosen political vehicle to get these camp followers, and the other beneficiaries, to their cherished destination.


That is not to say that the Muslim identity in Bangladesh/East Pakistan is a recent phenomenon created by outside forces. In fact, the Muslim elite, representing Muslim aristocrats, clergy, rich peasants and small landlords, had successfully mobilized Bengali Muslims against the dominant Hindu landlord, educated gentry and wholesalers in the early 20th century and became a powerful and viable political force during the 1947 partition of India and partition of Bengal. Yet, even today, most Bangladeshi Muslims remain confused about their individual identity. They are not sure which comes first - their loyalty to Islam or to Bangladesh’s geographical perimeter and socio-cultural traditions that come with it. Instead of establishing a common nationalist identity, both camps exploited this confusion, plunging the country into perpetual tension and violence.


The utter failure of the first BAL administration, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, considered the founder of Bangladesh by the followers of the non-Islamist camp, worsened matters. Sheikh Mujib’s chaotic rule under a “socialist-secular” banner allowed the “Islamists” to re-emerge. Seizing the hour, they pushed political Islam to the people in order to legitimize their ideology and broaden their political base. It could be described as state-sponsored policies, bringing a section of the civil and military forces into the Islamic camp.


The other group, which can be loosely identified as the “secular-democratic group,” rejects the notion that Bangladesh is an Islamic nation and refuses violently to adopt Islamic laws. This group had sought and received military help from non-Islamic India in 1971 to secure “freedom” from non-Bengali Pakistani rulers. They demand that all Bangladeshis recognize the historical, cultural and traditional values associated with Bangladesh’s existence prior to Islam’s arrival in Bengal in the thirteenth century. This group has affiliated itself politically with the BAL, now led by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wazed.


The politics of settling scores


The hardliners who provide backbone to the BNP call the BAL an anti-Islam and pro-India political party, while their counterparts within the BAL spitefully dismiss the BNP as an Islamist lot. Following the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and most of his family members in a 1975 coup conducted by uniformed army men, the Bangladeshi military brass, espousing Islamic sentiments, took power and kept it for almost 16 years. The junta leaders dedicated that entire 16-year period primarily to protecting themselves and furthering their reign.


Contrary to the expectations of the BAL, the parliamentary elections of 1991, the first general election held after the overthrow of President Gen. H.M. Ershad, brought Begum Khaleda Zia, the widow of the President Gen. Zia ur Rahman, assassinated in 1981, to power. Her party, the BNP, already identified as “Islamist” by the BAL camp followers, received support from the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).


In subsequent general elections, it became apparent that the people in general were not impressed by either administration’s dedication and commitment to its camp followers to widen the division within the nation. Since 1991, no government in Bangladesh has secured a second term, and the electorate has repeatedly voted en masse to punish the government-in-power for its unwillingness to do any good for the people.  Yet the mindless battle between these two camps continues “to set things right” through a process of annihilating each other.


The two camps began to flex their muscles soon after the formation of Bangladesh. Those who were identified with mosques and mullahs and had earlier backed the Pakistani Army to prevent formation of Bangladesh became targets of the so-called secularists.  The irony is that the Pakistan Army, who triggered the civil war before Bangladesh was born, was not battling to fly an Islamic flag, but was exhibiting its raw power and authority to quash the democratic rights of the citizens of then East Pakistan. In fact, most of the Pakistani brass - like the top Pakistani political figure at the time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who came riding on the Pakistan Army’s shoulders to become an illegitimate prime minister of an undivided Pakistan -practiced blatantly un-Islamic activities such as drinking alcohol and killing fellow Muslims.


The never-ending confrontation unleashed by these two groups has politically isolated Bangladesh, as well, but neither the BNP nor the BAL leaders are interested in lifting a finger to change that. Bangladesh’s foreign policy has remained centered around India: while the BAL would like a pro-India policy for reasons not altogether difficult to fathom, the BNP opposes it. As a recent editorial in the Economist put it: “The Awami League, which now runs the government, has longstanding friendly ties with India. But in a country with a strong tradition of anti-Indian sentiment, the sympathetic view of India has always been a hard sell with the voters. And so, for far too long, Bangladesh’s political parties have been unable to keep the India question from spoiling domestic politics.” [The Economist: The begums and the two giants: Jan 9, 2013]


Mindless provocations


The recent crisis, which will further aggravate animosities between these two warring groups, erupted on Feb. 5, triggered by the conviction of Abdul Quader Mollah, a senior official of the country’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), by a specially constituted war crimes tribunal. The International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) that conducted the trial is exploring the unsolved killings allegedly committed by militias and political groups that sided with Pakistan during the 1971 conflict.


Establishment of the ICT, with the intent to punish those activists who fought on behalf of the Pakistan Army in 1971 and opposed the formation of Bangladesh, was itself a provocation and a deliberate move to deepen the fissure that has kept the country polarized.  On Dec.11, weeks before the judgment against the JI leader was announced, Justice Nizamul Huq, one of the three senior judges presiding over the trial, resigned. The Economist acquired 17 hours of leaked Skype conversations and hundreds of e-mails that passed between him and a Brussels-based legal expert, Ahmed Ziauddin, and according to those documents, Huq told his friend that the government is “absolutely crazy for a judgment. The government has gone totally mad. They have gone completely mad, I am telling you. They want a judgment by 16th December... It’s as simple as that.” [Foreign Policy Journal: The Midlife Crisis of Bangladesh: Joseph Allchin: Dec. 21, 2012]


As American South Asia hand and former ambassador Howard B. Schaffer observed, the ICT’s “procedures - and the very idea of trying people 40-odd years after their alleged crimes - were criticized by international and Bangladeshi human rights groups, legal authorities, and others. But the trials are close to Sheikh Hasina’s heart and important for her government, and she persisted in them. As expected, Jamaat reacted violently against the court’s ruling.” [South Asia Hand: Political Confrontations Grip Bangladesh: Howard B. Schaffer]


The Feb. 5 decision energized the JI, which moved quickly to commit violent acts of protest in their strongholds. But the “secularist” group was not altogether happy by the decision, either. Those who wanted Abdul Quader Mollah to receive a death sentence for his role in carrying out atrocities during the 1971 civil war took to the streets in protest. Their center of activity was the Shahbag neighborhood in the capital city of Dhaka. On Feb. 28, the ICT sentenced Jamaat-e-Islami leader Delwar Hossain Sayeedi to death for crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence. While the proponents of one camp cheered the verdict, the opponents set off protests in which at least 30 people were killed. Non-partisan observers point out that although Moulana Sayeedi is a JI leader, his popularity goes beyond the party boundary. Thousands of non-partisan religious people used to flock to his religious sermons, these observers claim. Critics say the charges were politically motivated.


The whole procedure that led to this latest blow-up was no doubt steeped in political manipulation.  Over the years, the two political parties, BNP and BAL, representing the two contesting camps, have intervened relentlessly in the judiciary and law enforcement systems, making a mockery of the democratic process.  As one Bangladeshi analyst noted recently, when politicians establish an absolute or even a loose form of control over the judiciary - the most important institution for any country - it is easy for them to exploit other institutions for their own interests. This is exactly what the BAL is doing now.


Having encouraged her own “secular” constituency to wage battle against the “Islamist” camp, Sheikh Hasina’s government appealed to the Supreme Court on March 3 seeking a death sentence for Abdul Quader Mollah on each of the six charges he faced at the ICT; he had instead received life imprisonment for committing “crimes against humanity” during the country’s independence war in 1971. It is evident that the BAL has set the ball in motion for more future violence.


Both groups mobilize thousands on a daily basis to hurl epithets and lethal weapons at each other. What neither the BAL nor the BNP wants to realize is that they are engaged in a zero-sum game that is rejected by a vast majority of Bangladeshis, who still struggle for the basic necessities of life. As Dr. Khondoker Golam Moazzem, assistant director of Bangladesh’s leading private think tank, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), told International Press Service (IPS): “Despite notable developments in poverty eradication, over 40 million people still live below the poverty line.”


There is, however, a new and potentially promising element in Bangladesh’s political strike that has surfaced in the “secularist” grouping’s protests in Shahbagh.  As reporter Naimul Haq has observed: “While the immediate demand of the peaceful, non-partisan movement - which in the last two months has spread to other cities around the country - is punishment for ‘war criminals,’ the core issue holding the students and activists together is the call for a secular democracy in Bangladesh and a ban on religious fundamentalist groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, and its students wing, Shibir (Islamic Chhatra Shibir).”


Huq continues: “While poverty has long kept millions silent on the issue of politics, the Shahbagh protests are changing that trend. According to Poonam Chakraborti, a protestor who teaches in a private school, ‘Ordinary people have joined us in frustration over decades of dirty politics in the name of democracy.’  Scores of other protestors told IPS they were fed up with a political system that allowed the opposition to boycott parliamentary sessions, set fire to public buildings and vehicles, and create a climate of anarchy.


Others expressed dissatisfaction with a society divided between only two parties, the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP. ‘The people in the streets represent the voters who will decide tomorrow’s rulers of the nation,’ Chakraborti told IPS. ‘So Shahbagh [represents] a crucial turning-point in the country’s political system.’” [Asia Times: Bangladesh protests evoke liberation: Naimul Haq: March 22, 2013]


India’s ineffectual role


Bangladesh is yet another example of India’s utter failure to provide adequate leadership in its immediate neighborhood. Having helped to bring forth a new nation that is surrounded by India, New Delhi has remained a “big brother” whose role is difficult to fathom. Unlike the United States, which puts all its engines in motion to change regimes it does not like, India does not show its hands clearly in such situations. Yet it politically opposes the regimes it dislikes. India has done this consistently throughout Bangladesh’s existence, and it has led to major policy failures that endanger India’s own security.


There have been many opportunities for India to transcend Bangladesh’s conflicting politics and intervene productively in the country. In the first place, New Delhi could have utilized the land link that Bangladesh offers to connect India with Southeast Asia. To push the two-decades-old “Look East” policy, Sheikh Hasina had agreed to allow India use its territory for transit. The absence of proper roads within Bangladesh makes the concession non-workable at the moment, but it also provides an opportunity for India to build roads in Bangladesh as it did in Afghanistan. But instead of choosing a path that would have redeemed India’s role in some Bangladeshis’ eyes, India is now making plans to circumvent Bangladesh to access Southeast Asia.


India is developing a deep-sea port in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine state in Myanmar. The port is 500-odd km from Kolkata, India’s main port on the Bay of Bengal and part of India’s so-called Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project - a gateway to India’s landlocked northeastern states. Rather conveniently, Sittwe is also close to Myanmar’s massive Shwe gas field. The idea will be to run a canal, a highway, and possibly a pipeline from Sittwe to a newly constructed river port in Myanmar’s Chin state, and then on to the border with the Indian state of Mizoram. The project is expected to become operational by mid-2013. And so Bangladesh looks likely to be left in its isolation.


Also, India has found it hard to make real progress on its thorny bilateral issues with Bangladesh. Water-sharing, land demarcation, and the killing of Bangladeshis by Indian border forces have remained problems beyond resolution (India’s Border Security Force killed 48 Bangladeshis in 2012). Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, an Indian state with which Bangladesh shares a 2,216km (1,377-mile) border, rejects the kind of compromises that would be needed to resolve most border-related issues. [The Economist: The begums and the two giants: Jan 9 2013]


An Indian analyst recently pointed out that in order to make substantial political investments in Bangladesh, India needs to adopt a more magnanimous stance on contentious issues like the sharing of the riparian Teesta river waters and other such issues. In the economic sphere, India could contribute substantially through economic aid, joint ventures, and infrastructure development. This could jump-start Bangladesh’s economy, increase employment opportunities and thereby reduce political frustrations that undermine the country’s stability. Sizable Indian financial investments in Bangladesh infrastructure, especially those contributing to Bangladesh east-west connectivity, would greatly add to India’s image.


In short, India could have been the engine that would break the zero-sum politics of Bangladesh.


Instead, the failure of the UPA-2 to help lessen the civil war threat through a more hands-on interaction with Bangladesh may have a lasting negative effect.  It is likely that the BNP will assume power in Dhaka in early 2014, as the UPA-2 is getting ready to leave the scene in Delhi. The BNP seems convinced that India somehow had a hand in the Shahbagh demonstrations in Dhaka and BAL’s rejuvenated campaign against the JI, and will most likely revert to the party’s longtime suspicion of Indian motives and intentions. Using its familiar allegation that the BAL is a tool of New Delhi, a BNP government may give succor to those forces who would like to undermine India’s security in the troubled northeast and unleash fresh rounds of violence.

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