By Haroon Habib
December 11, 2013
ON NOVEMBER 28, ON THE THIRD AND FINAL DAY OF their 71-hour nationwide blockade demanding parliamentary elections under a non-party interim government, opposition activists set fire to a crowded bus near Shishu Park in central Dhaka. Nineteen passengers died of severe burns, some instantly. Doctors attending on the victims who were admitted to a hospital said most of them had suffered 90 per cent burns and were unlikely to survive. The driver of the bus is among those whose condition is critical. The injured passengers include a woman journalist, a woman High Court lawyer, a woman banker, a policeman, a college student and a daily wage earner. They had nothing whatsoever to do with politics.
The Dhaka Metropolitan Police said high-powered Molotov cocktails or gunpowder, which was hurled at the bus, ignited the fire. At least 20 drivers of public transport have come under arson attacks since the latest spell of agitation began on October 26 following the announcement of the schedule for the elections to the country’s 10th Parliament. Several of them have succumbed to burns while others are under critical care.
The three-day blockade demanding a postponement of the elections followed a series of violent hartals. The opposition combine, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and including its right-wing allies such as the Jamaat-e-Islami, called the protest to force the Election Commission and the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government to suspend the elections scheduled for January 5, 2014.
The violence has claimed more than 60 lives and left thousands injured. Anwara Begum, a 45-year-old bank employee, died of injuries she sustained in a bomb explosion in the fourth week of November. Sabed Ali, 33, was burnt to death inside the compressed natural gas-run auto rickshaw he was driving when it was attacked with a petrol bomb. Rubel, another auto rickshaw driver from Comilla, died after a similar attack on November 25. Ishaq Ali, a promising cricketer, lost vision in one eye after he was hit by a stray pellet when the police opened fire at violent opposition activists in Rajshahi. The list of people caught in the crossfire is getting longer every day. Many opposition leaders have been arrested, but the situation is getting worse.
On November 30, the opposition alliance began to enforce yet another 72-hour nationwide blockade.
Opposition leader Khaleda Zia, who leads the Islamist alliance in which the Jamaat plays a dominant role, alleged that the government was trying to organise a unilateral election. She warned Sheikh Hasina of “dire consequence”.
Sheikh Hasina, who now heads a smaller interim Cabinet, appears firm on going ahead with the election plan in order to honour the nation’s Constitution and sustain the democratic process. She has inducted her alliance partners into the interim Cabinet. Her repeated appeals to Khaleda Zia to join the interim government were turned down. Many independent observers feel that Sheikh Hasina should have persuaded her opponent more forcefully in order to avoid a violent confrontation. But the Prime Minister argued that that the BNP was trying to frustrate the electoral process.
Although the BNP had fared well in the recent municipal elections, it genuinely feared a defeat in the general elections, Sheikh Hasina said. She said Khaleda Zia was desperate to implement the “design” of the Jamaat whose right to contest the elections was curbed by the Election Commission. Further, the Supreme Court barred the Jamaat from contesting the elections, declaring that its charter contradicted the secular Constitution of the country. Approving a long-running petition that the Jamaat should not be allowed to register as a political party, a panel of judges, in a brief verdict, declared the Jamaat’s registration “illegal”.
While announcing the election schedule on November 25, Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Rakibuddin Ahmed said that the Commission had “repeatedly urged the major parties to reach a consensus to fulfil the nation’s expectations”. Since the ninth Parliament had held its last session, the holding of elections before January 24, 2014, had become a constitutional necessity.
The stand-off between the BNP and the ruling Awami League over the system of forming a neutral administration to oversee the elections has a background. Bangladesh held three consecutive elections—in 1996, 2001 and 2008—under the constitutional framework of a non-party caretaker government. After the Grand Alliance led by Sheikh Hasina formed the government, winning more than a two-thirds majority in the 2008 elections, the ruling coalition introduced some fundamental changes in the national charter, which had been bedevilled by the military governments of the past. It also nullified the caretaker system by amending the Constitution in 2011. The amendment was criticised bitterly by the opposition and a section of civil society although the government, to support its action, had cited a landmark verdict of the nation’s highest court declaring the caretaker system illegal and unconstitutional.
Bangladesh’s politics has been at the crossroads several times in the past. But the recent violent protests have given rise to fears of an imminent civil war. For the first time, the railways, a secure mode of public transportation, has become the target of the opposition’s violence. The blockaders ripped up fishplates and set fire to tracks and carriages, bringing the railway network to a grinding halt. Over 70 such attacks took place on the railways across the country in the first phase of the blockade, which began on November 26. Jamaat-BNP activists also set fire to several election offices. Media reports have indicated that the sabotage was mostly carried out by the “well-trained cadres” of the Jamaat who were reportedly more active than BNP men in the campaign. The protesters also disrupted road transport, thereby affecting business. Prices of essential commodities have soared, so much so that even those clearly opposed to the Sheikh Hasina government view the current phase of violence as “terrorism” and not as a political protest.
Another casualty of the violence is the country’s education system. Many children have either died or suffered injuries in the indiscriminate bomb and arson attacks. Examinations have been postponed repeatedly.
Several attempts by the international community have failed to persuade the opposition groups to go in for a negotiated settlement. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and United States Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition and asked them to hold constructive talks. Ban Ki-moon, in a letter to the two leaders on November 29, recommended inclusive elections. In October, Sheikh Hasina had invited Khaleda Zia to a dinner. But Khaleda refused to attend.
The U.S. has expressed “grave concern” over the prevailing situation in Bangladesh. The New York Times, in an editorial, blamed Sheikh Hasina for the political crisis, a proposition which was seen as “partisan”. Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, is scheduled to visit Dhaka on December 6, nearly seven months after his first effort to mediate between the Awami League and the BNP failed.
The vital question is what will happen if the political players continue to disagree? H.M. Ershad, an ally of the Awami League and a former President of the country, decided to join the elections but expressed the fear that violence would cast a shadow on them. The Jatiya Party, which he heads, is the third biggest political formation in the country.
The political polarisation is clear. While the Awami League has the support of all secular “pro-liberation” political parties, including the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) and the Workers Party, the BNP has the strong support of the Jamaat, an organisation that had opposed the country’s independence from Pakistan. Almost all radical Islamist groups, including the newly formed madrassa-based Hefazat-e-Islam, which never reconciled with the secular character of the nation, are with the BNP. Although shaken by the ongoing violence, a significant section of the population believes that the BNP, or for that matter the Jamaat, will not disrupt the electoral process. The Awami League and other parties, barring the BNP, have already started their electoral preparations. This section of the population feels that even if the opposition succeeds in causing partial disruption of polling, it will not be able to stop it completely as the Election Commission plans to deploy the Army to ensure the free conduct of the elections.
Political analysts are, however, divided in their opinions. Many aver that even if the current phase of violence is indicative of a bleak future for the ruling coalition, the ultimate political strength of the pro-liberation forces cannot be undermined. The secularists are united, barring groups such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh, which has no parliamentary representation. The pro-liberation groups believe that the “defeated forces of 1971”, under the leadership of Khaleda Zia, are now “all out” to challenge the nation’s secular polity. They also feel that they must not let the “enemies” of the nation’s liberation go unchallenged. However, the credibility of the elections will come into question if the BNP, which is the major opposition group, stays away. But many government leaders argue that the credibility of an election depends on the voter turnout and not on which party participated in or boycotted it. Independent observers maintain that despite the BNP’s large political base, the weakness of its organisational strength has been evident in the anti-government blockades. The party has been “nearly dependent” on the cadre strength of the Jamaat, whose main agenda is to become a national political alternative and create a situation that will help foil the ongoing trial of war criminals and free its leaders who have been convicted and those who are under trial. The Bangladesh war crimes tribunals have so far convicted 10 persons for committing crimes against humanity—genocide, mass rape, torture, arson and forcible abductions —during the liberation struggle. Eight of them are key leaders of the Jamaat, which was a cohort of the Pakistan Army.
By all indications, the country is faced with three crucial questions: What form of government will oversee the next elections; whether secular democracy will survive and defeat the resurgent religious extremists; and whether the major political players will bury their differences and allow the democratic process to go on. The national consensus is for an election in which all stakeholders participate and ensure a level playing field. However, if civil order deteriorates further, there is the fear that the situation may warrant the intervention of the armed forces.
The situation is like the one that prevailed in 2007 when a similar crisis led to the promulgation of a state of emergency and the installation of a military-backed caretaker government. However, the amended constitutional provisions are too harsh to deal with any such unconstitutional measures. The volatile political situation has already invited the intervention of the U.S., the European Union, the U.N., China and the World Bank, who have demanded a government-opposition dialogue. The Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who became a staunch critic of the government on the Grameen Bank issue, has openly sided with the opposition. It is evident from certain developments that India differs with the U.S. on the Bangladesh situation, even though they are strategic allies.
Independent observers agree that a solution to the crisis would have been far easier had the BNP not patronised the Islamists. Bangladesh society, in the past four decades, has transformed into two distinct ways. The positive transformation is the emergence of a large number of young and educated people, who, braving all odds, have become the vanguard of the nation’s history. The negative transformation is the comeback staged by the “defeated forces” of 1971.
In the current conflict, even in the face of a genuine anti-incumbency mood, the Awami League and its allies have two right causes on their side: legality or constitutionality, and the firmness to deal with the Islamists. For the BNP and its allies, the right cause is participatory elections under a non-party interim administration. In the final analysis, a negotiated settlement of the crisis is certainly more desirable than a violent solution.