By Hiranmay Karlekar
11 January 2014
Scrapping a free election that has already been held and holding another at the insistence of the West and the opposition parties in Bangladesh would be a disaster for that country and its hard-won liberal ethos
If there is a civil war in Bangladesh, with its consequences spilling over into India in the form of hundreds and thousands of Hindu refugees fleeing rape and mass murder, the Western countries that are denouncing the recent election in that country will be responsible in a large measure. These — particularly the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada — have been alleging that the non-participation of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiya (National) Dal (Party), the violence that marked the polling and the low percentage of the latter-have made the elections “unrepresentative” and “lacking in credibility”. Further, a report in The Daily Star of January 7, stated, “They said the results of Sunday’s elections had failed to reflect the will of the people, and called the new Government and all political parties to immediately engage in dialogue to find a path forward for holding a new national election that is free, fair, credible, peaceful and truly participatory.”
It is easy foresee that their stand will encourage the BNP, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami and the allied Islamist fundamentalist bodies, to ratchet up the level of violence they have unleashed in the hope that international pressure and an uncontrollable tide of domestic violence will force the Awami League-led constitutionally-elected Government to order a re-poll. It will also be logical for them to conclude that the Awami League supporters, demoralised by the setback and no longer in power, will not be able to resist the pre-election and polling day violence. They, particularly the Hindus, will not be able to vote, and the BNP and its allies will romp home to power.
It cannot be that the foreign ministries of these countries-which have seen the large-scale violence the BNP and the Jamaat unleashed before and during the January 5 election, do not foresee all this. The BNP-Jamaat alliance celebrated its victory in the parliamentary election of October 2001, by large-scale assault on Hindus and their property and mass rape of their women. Its regime, presided by then Prime Minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, saw a massive campaign of terror and intimidation launched against the supporters of the Awami League and members of the country’s secular intelligentsia.
Sheikh Hasina gave a chilling account of what was happening when she said on April 2, 2004, that 26,000 leaders and activists of her party had been killed across the country since the BNP-led Government had come to power. The argument that she was exaggerating, is countered by the fact that the followers of the BNP, Jamaat and Islamist terrorist organisations like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh, the Jamaat ul Mujahedeen Bangladesh and the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, were killing with impunity. The most glaring of the many supporting examples was the murderous attack on Ms Hasina, then leader of Opposition, on August 21, 2004. Ms Hasina, who was addressing a rally in Dhaka, escaped with injuries but 22 Awami League leaders and activists were killed and many more injured.
The list of those killed during the BNP-Jamaat regime included former diplomat and Finance Minister of Bangladesh and an eminent writer, Shah AMS Kibriya, noted trade union leader Ahsanullah Master, and the scholar and educationist, Principal Gopal Krishna Muhuri of Nazirhat college in Chittagong. Widely-respected writer Humayun Azad who was severely injured in a knife attack, died some months later in Germany. British High Commissioner to Bangladesh Anwar Choudhury was hurt in a grenade attack in Sylhet on May 21, 2005.
Bangladesh was held to ransom by fundamentalist Islamist terrorist leaders like Bangla Bhai (JMJB), Muhammad Asadullah al Galib (JMB) and Mufti Abdul Hannan (HUJIB), who operated freely until international pressure compelled the BNP-led Government to act against them. All of them functioned under the Government’s patronage. Indeed, Maulana Moti ur Rahman Nizami, Industry Minister in Begum Zia’s Government and now awaiting sentencing on charges of rape and murder during the liberation war, had said, as had Begum Zia herself, that no one called Bangla Bhai existed!!!!
The reasons cited by spokespersons of the US, the UK and Canada for demanding a new election are specious. According to Bangladesh’s Election Working Group, a forum of 29 domestic election observer bodies, voter turnout in January was 30.1 per cent on an average. According to Bangladesh’s Election Commission, it was 39.8 per cent. The argument that a substantial part of it represented commandeered votes is offset by the fact that a very substantial number was prevented by the murderous violence unleashed by the BNP and the Jamaat. On balance, even 30.1 polling is impressive considering the BNP and allies and a section of the Jatiya Dal voters did not exercise their franchise.
Remarkably, the US, Canada and the UK ignored this as also that the violence and boycott that marked the elections were all of the BNP and the Jamaat’s doing. The argument that they did all this and decided to stay away because they were sure that the polls would be rigged against them, is rubbish. The Awami League lost the election to all the four city corporations — Rajshahi, Barisal, Khulna and Sylhet to which elections were held in June, and Ghazipur in July 2012 — under the present Election Commission and a Government headed by Ms Hasina.
The violence during and before the January 5 election is a continuation of that launched by the BNP, the Jamaat and fundamentalist organisations like the Hefazat-e-Islam against the sentences pronounced by the International War Crimes Tribunals in Dhaka. Its level rose sharply after February 5, 2013, when Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal-2 sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah, Assistant General Secretary of the Jamaat, to life imprisonment (30 years) for committing crimes against humanity during the Liberation War. Their movement further widened to oppose and violently destroy the huge, peaceful mass movement launched by the Ganojagoran Mancha at Shahbag Square, Dhaka, in February 2013, demanding death sentence to Mollah (carried out on December 12 last year) and all convicted war criminals of 1971. The movement also stood for a secular, democratic and liberal Bangladesh.
Finally, the Jamaat has been judicially debarred from contesting the election because its fundamentalist Islamist constitution contravenes the principles of the secular democratic Constitution of Bangladesh. It can only hope to contest again if an obliging BNP wins the parliamentary poll with a sufficient majority to amend the Constitution to remove its disqualification. This will not be possible through a free and fair election given the BNP-Jamaat’s record in Government during 2001-2006 and the deep political polarisation caused in Bangladesh by the war crimes trials. It can only happen if all opponents of the Jamaat and the BNP are terrorised into not voting.
Can India watch idly while the groundwork for such a travesty of the electoral process is laid in Bangladesh?