By Syed Badrul Ahsan
Nov 07 2013
The ruling Awami League has mismanaged. The opposition BNP shows no remorse for its past misrule.
The sentences delivered on mutinous soldiers of the erstwhile Bangladesh Rifles will be a matter of relief for Bangladesh’s people. Coming more than four years after a carnage that left as many as 74 people, including 57 army officers deputed to the BDR, dead at the hands of rebellious soldiers, the sentences include the death penalty for 152 of the mutineers and life imprisonment for a host of others. A good number has been acquitted.
The sentences, similar to the death penalties passed on a number of war criminals, are a testimony to the determination of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to get the wheels of justice rolling in a country where assassinations occurred with impunity and where trials of the guilty were carefully averted by every government that took charge between the first military coup in August 1975 and the Awami League’s (AL) return to power for the first time in 21 years in June 1996. The trial of the killers of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led to the execution of five of them. Five others are absconding abroad. Fresh investigations have been launched into the November 1975 prison killings of four leaders of the 1971 provisional Bangladesh government.
The trials are a significant statement on how Bangladesh has dealt with political casualties since it achieved independence. But while efforts are on to ensure justice, there remains the very real danger of the slide the country could suffer if its politics continues to deteriorate. In the space of two weeks, Bangladeshis have been subjected to 120 hours of general strikes called by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies in the rightwing 18-party alliance. The strikes, called to force the ruling AL to concede to the opposition’s demand for a caretaker government to oversee general elections — that must be held by January 24 — have predictably led to chaos in business, education and citizen’s movement across the country. As many as 18 people have died, with countless others injured.
Hasina, whose ruling 14-party alliance abolished the caretaker system in 2011 following a judicial decision that the system was illegal, insists that the next election could be conducted by an all-party government, with ministers inducted from the opposition, that of course would be led by her. Opposition leader and former PM Khaleda Zia is not ready to compromise on the caretaker government and is in no mood to see Hasina as interim PM. Apologists for the ruling party explain that free and fair elections are indeed possible under the AL government. They support their argument by drawing attention to the five city corporations the AL recently lost to the BNP. That does not convince the opposition. A telephonic conversation between Hasina and Zia — a rare happening in the country’s prevailing political circumstances — a fortnight ago, not only led to nothing but also made public the degree of animosity between the two.
What Bangladeshis have before them today is a curious amalgam of irony and dark reality. The irony is that, despite storming back to power at the 2008 general elections with a four-fifths majority, the AL and its allies have been unable to deliver on their promises. Additionally, corruption, notably in matters such as plans for a bridge over the River Padma, has taken the shine off the government. Financial scams involving organisations and banks have undermined the administration’s credibility.
A second irony is the apparent glee with which the BNP dreams of a return to power despite the massive corruption, unprecedented in Bangladesh’s history, its leading figures indulged in during its last stint in office between 2001 and 2006. Zia’s elder son Tareq Rahman, now in exile in London, ran a parallel power centre when his mother was PM. Besides, he and his younger sibling, in exile in Singapore, have regularly been accused of financial corruption along with their friends. A number of Zia’s cabinet colleagues are noted for their lack of probity. All these individuals today look forward to returning to power if credible elections are held. Zia has promised to run a different kind of administration — meaning it will be different from the way things were in 2001-06. But such promises do not persuade many that she will do better the next time round, and for important reasons.
In the first place, memories of the plunder and pillage BNP activists carried out against Hindus and AL supporters moments after their party returned to power at the 2001 elections have not quite gone away.
Second, the BNP is today more definitively aligned with the Jamaat-e-Islami, whose senior leaders have been sentenced to death for war crimes committed in 1971, and with the Taliban-like Hefazat-e-Islam, which publicly advocates a programme that can only mean a return to the medieval age. It is difficult to see how much of an enlightened leadership can be provided by a party that remains notorious for its corruption and for its association with extreme rightwing groups, and which has been instrumental in the rise and consolidation of communal politics in Bangladesh.
A common refrain doing the rounds is that when the AL wins an election, it is progressive politics with all its democratic liberalism that is triumphant. When it loses, it is the people of Bangladesh who go down with it. The dilemma today for Bangladesh’s people is that the Awami League has mismanaged governance and the opposition BNP has shown no contrition over its past misrule. The space for good choices is thus extremely narrow.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is executive editor, ‘The Daily Star’, Dhaka