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Islam and Politics ( 3 Jan 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Bangladesh: rejection of Islamist politics

The case for cautious optimism

While there is plenty of reason to celebrate the end of the tenure of an unelected regime, and the apparent electoral rejection of Islam-pasand politics, in purely qualitative terms the nature of our politics remains largely the same as pre-2007, writes Mahtab Haider


The deluge of optimism that most Bangladeshis are feeling in the wake of what appears to have been largely uncontroversial elections on December 29, is at once rare, and yet familiar. From past experience, the aftermath of most elections have featured ritualised exchanges of accusations between the two major parties, and the public’ foreboding of a coming violence in clashes to establish a new incumbency. In the past, elections gave way to signals of an imminent breakdown of parliamentary accountability — possibly the most crucial form of accountability in a democracy — with the losing party threatening a boycott. This time, in contrast, the murmurs of discontent over the election results have been drowned by the din of a more popular endorsement, so much so that the BNP seems to have grudgingly accepted. This, and the idea that five years of misrule and corruption by the BNP-led alliance has been rejected overwhelmingly may be at the heart of the optimism apparent in the media and in public opinion.

   But there is also a great deal more to be optimistic about on January 4, 2009, compared to the same date in 2007. For all practical purposes the country is no longer dangerously poised for violent street clashes between the BNP and the Awami League as it was two years ago. It is no small feat that the elections are behind us with the use of a voter list arguably more accurate than any in the past. And perhaps, most importantly, a two year interregnum during which a military-controlled interim government ruled the country under the cloak of a draconian emergency is all but ceremonially over.

   In this season of optimism, though, perhaps we are allowing ourselves the luxury of easily forgetting some of the painful lessons of the past two years. Is it churlish to suggest that the aftermath of January 11, 2007, was a time of similar optimism?

   Two years ago, were we not just as desperate to believe that a military-controlled government would cleanse politics of black money and violence and the administration of partisan bias and corruption? When Fakhruddin Ahmed’s cabinet took over, there was a deluge of public endorsement — led by sections of the complicit media and civil society — of the agenda of the ‘final solution’ that its architects propagated. The final solution doctrine posited that a ‘vanguard’ of capable and ‘well-intentioned’ citizens, though unelected, could reform the political process and bring true democracy to a society through a benevolent autocracy.

   In the two years that have passed, public endorsement of this doctrine gave way, first to rejection, and eventually to loathing, as people gradually realised that a government of unelected technocrats — no matter how well intentioned — still needs the checks and balances that a free media and a parliamentary opposition furnish among others, to operate according to norm.

   So it was that over the 23 months of emergency rule that characterised the tenure of the military-controlled interim regime, 319 people were killed in custody of one or another of the country’s security agencies, 38 of them allegedly dying of torture according to the human rights group Odhikar. So it was that the interim regime apparently realised early on that they had promised too much when they promised to create institutions to tackle corruption in governance and instead transformed the process of anti-corruption into an event – involving the arrests of allegedly corrupt lawmakers and power brokers in both major parties on flimsy evidence that have raised questions in popular perception. So it was that these corruption allegations were investigated by a newly convened Anti-Corruption Commission that has descended into controversy, accused of selectively applying the law, often to suit the convenience of ongoing secret negotiations between the interim regime and the jailed former prime ministers.

   Meanwhile, it is evident that the interim government’s tenure saw the Election Commission mired in controversy because of its attempts at political engineering, trying desperately to fuel a split in the BNP, in vain. While Fakhruddin Ahmed repeatedly claimed to his international backers that his government had painstakingly allowed the media to exercise freedom, media intimidation and the threat of violence against journalists were one of the defining characteristics of the past two years of governance. Palace intrigues were common, and by the end of the first few months, it had dawned on all but the dullest of political observers that the civilian cabinet was a useful front for the real decision makers in the cantonment, whose intentions were far from evident.

   And yet, there was an ilk of civil society luminaries who refused to lose faith in the failed doctrine of a failed and increasingly autocratic government. Members of the so-called ‘vanguard’ as they believed they were, it was difficult for them to accept that the best solution to a faltering democracy is more democracy. Those in society who had the courage to call the interim government on its increasingly sinister agenda were reduced to a minority accused of standing in the way of the country’s ‘progress’. Strangely enough, some of those prominent opinion leaders who had carried the banner of the interim regime on January 11, 2007, inspiring public optimism, are now leading the charge for unqualified optimism in the outcome of the elections and the imminent restoration of democracy. Judging from their words on TV talk-shows and Op-ed columns it would seem that now that the elections have been held and the parliament looks set to become operational once again, with a majority of the MPs already sworn in, the public can rest easy. Once again, this unqualified optimism is premature, and may require a somersault shortly.

   While there is plenty of reason to celebrate the end of the tenure of an unelected regime, and the apparent electoral rejection of Islam-pasand politics, in purely qualitative terms the nature of our politics remains largely the same as pre-2007. While the Awami League has shed some of its high-profile criminal party stalwarts, the BNP did not, and ‘reforms’ and ‘internal democracy’ have become anathema to both party supremos. Meanwhile, though the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami won only two seats in parliament, there is little reason to believe that the Islamist credo will no longer be a powerful factor in the political arena. While a strong social mobilisation seems to have emerged in rejecting war criminals, this mobilisation must be carried through over the next decade for the campaign to yield a lasting political legacy. In short, now that elections have been held and an alliance proclaiming progressive values has won a landslide majority, can the public rest easy? Far from it. And that is democracy – a process through which a government, no matter how heavily mandated by the people, is still held accountable day after day through checks and balances in which public consciousness, a working parliament, and a fiercely independent media must play their role. If the past performances of the two major parties are anything to go by, election promises will likely be forgotten, the administration will once again be influenced by partisan bias, corruption will likely


Honour the people’s mandate


People want to do new things, bring about changes, and accomplish much more. There is an unmistakable potency in their desire to succeed that must be harnessed and skilfully used. The new leadership must not miss these vital signs and work hard to see them to fruition, writes Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb


The long awaited elections are now over. The people have spoken with certitude as witnessed by the overwhelming voting pattern. There can be no ambiguity about the results. But one must be careful in interpreting the results. Whether the people have spoken with unmitigated favour for the Awami League-Jatiya Party alliance or whether they spoken with an acerbic tongue against the BNP-Jamaat alliance is a moot question. Some have even interpreted the results as a choice of the lesser of two predicaments! After all both alliances have much to answer from their past attempts at governance.

   As things begin to settle down, it is important for ‘all’ political parties to respect the voters’ verdict and begin to cater to their long ignored dreams and aspirations. In particular, this is no time for whining by those who were not favoured, nor is it a time for gloating by those who won. Responsible behaviour is expected from both major parties so that people’s lives are neither disrupted nor encumbered any more.

   After all, despite successive years of poor leadership, much has been accomplished. Whether it is the GDP growth, the flow of remittances, the contributions of the garment industries, the rise of shipbuilding and pharmaceuticals, the burgeoning cultural ethos among the youth, and many other positive indicators, signs of vitality are profoundly evident in the Bangladesh landscape: all of this achieved under difficult circumstances and not made any easier by past governments.

   People want to do new things, bring about changes, and accomplish much more. There is an unmistakable potency in their desire to succeed that must be harnessed and skilfully used. The new leadership must not miss these vital signs and work hard to see them to fruition. They must realign their outlook where nation should precede party, and where party should precede person. For a mature leadership to shape a new Bangladesh, it is time to look beyond the ego.

   To those who have been bestowed the mantle of power, this election has given them an opportunity to give back Golden Bengal to its people. The opportunity must not be squandered. This is a time to exhibit that brand of leadership that will inspire the people to harness their collective abilities and bring about real change. That real change must be grounded in ideological soundness that can uplift the spirit of the nation and send it on its way to the promised dream: sonar Bangla.

   What is important is for the new leadership to demonstrate a genuine interest to be in tune with the people who have empowered them for a five-year term. Here’s what you must do:

   Provide clear goals. The people want to know where you intend to take the country and their destinies. How will the people benefit from your leadership?

   Be humble. The atrocious arrogance of past governments has not been forgotten and this election may have been a resounding reflection of how people treat such arrogance. The leadership must also be humble enough to recognise that it is the voters who brought you to your position of power; assuredly the voters can bring you down too as they have demonstrated time and again.

   Build trust. Much has been promised in the past; relatively little has been delivered. This has shattered the fabric of trust in those who exercise power. It is time to say what you mean and mean what you say. Then deliver.

   Be patient. Also persuade voters to be patient. Change will not happen immediately. Under the circumstances don’t be rash and impulsive. A wet log takes time to catch fire that must be nurtured with patience.

   Be inclusive. Bring in people who are capable and honest even if they are not from your party. The righteous and the able will best guide the nation out of the morass.

   Be inspirational. Discard frivolous talk and avoid pointing fingers at those you dislike. A vengeful attitude will alienate your support base. The people will do all of that    when they see it befitting; trust their judgment.

   In the final analysis, it must be recognised that the people owe nothing to the politicians; instead it is the politicians who owe much to the people for the privileges with which they are endowed. When the voters are accorded that respect a new era of partnership can be launched with them; the benefits and positive externalities can be immense.

   Dr Syed Saad Andaleeb is a professor at the Pennsylvania State University and editor, Journal of Bangladesh Studies. He can be reached at


Second chance for Bangladesh

Hiranmay Karlekar

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Rarely does history give a second chance to a country. It has given that to Bangladesh in the form of the results of the December 29 parliamentary election. The outcome doubtless reflects the way people voted. But then history is never a process moving according to its own autonomous dynamics. It is made by people, and the people of Bangladesh have enabled their country to move away from the regressive, pre-feudal social order and the reign of terror into which it seemed to be descending two years ago.


In a remarkably sweeping verdict, the Awami League has won 230 of the 299 seats which went to the polls and 49.2 per cent of the total votes polled against 62 seats and 40.13 per cent respectively in the 2001 election. The grand alliance it spearheaded has won 262 seats with the Jatiya Party accounting for 27 (against 14 in 2001) seats and others five. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Begum Khaleda Zia, which won 193 seats in 2001, has now won only 29, with its vote share declining from 40.97 per cent to 32.74 per cent. Its principal ally in the four-party alliance, Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh has its seats reduced from 17 to two.


By voting the Awami League and its allies resoundingly to power, Bangladeshis have demonstrated that they want their country to be a modern Islamic democracy committed to gender justice, economic progress, administrative transparency and efficiency, at peace with itself and its neighbours. They have defenestrated the Jamaat, the fountainhead of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh, and the spawning ground of terrorists who came to head outfits like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh, the Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and the Ahle Haadith Andolan Bangladesh. They have also made it clear that they want the war criminals of 1971 —— like Matiur Rahman Nizami, the Jamaat’s Amir, and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid, its general secretary —— who participated in the Pakistani Army’s campaign of brutal repression of the liberation struggle of that year, to be tried and punished. Finally, they have signalled their rejection of the pathologically anti-India posture of the Jamaat, which identifies India as Bangladesh’s enemy, and the BNP, which insinuates the same.


Sheikh Hasina cannot be unaware of these messages; nor of the fact that she will not be forgiven if she fails to deliver in a significant measure. Unfortunately, Bangladesh has a long history of missed opportunities, opportunistic alliances and policies, and misplaced generosity. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s effort at a post-liberation national consensus achieved through reconciliatory measures was carried too far. The general amnesty declared on November 30, 1973, which covered even those convicted of savage war crimes, allowed people like Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojahid to emerge from the woodwork and work surreptitiously for a revival of pro-Pakistan and fundamentalist politics.


Sheikh Hasina has now to deal with both of them and others from the same stable, particularly since bringing war criminals to justice is one of the main promises made in the Awami League’s election manifesto. It will not be easy. Supporters of war criminals have become firmly entrenched in Bangladesh’s premier intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces’ Intelligence, which has close links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. They, as well as their fellow travellers, who have infiltrated into the armed forces and civilian administration, will fight bitterly to frustrate the new Government’s efforts.


Sheikh Hasina, however, will not be without support. The Sector Commanders’ Forum, an organisation spearheaded by the sector commanders of the Mukti Bahini during the 1971 liberation war, has sustained an intense campaign for the trial and punishment of war criminals over the last two years. Thanks to them and efforts by the Muktijuddher Chetana Bastabayan O Ekattorer Ghatak Dalal Nirmul Jatiya Samanyay Committee (National Coordination Committee for the Realisation of the Consciousness of the Liberation War and the Eradication of the Killers and Agents of Seventy One), evidence will not be difficult to come by. Besides, Mr Ian Martin, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy, has promised Sheikh Hasina, whom he met on Thursday to congratulate her on her victory, all help in bringing the war criminals to justice.


The question is of political will. Sheikh Hasina’s and the Awami League’s credibility will be severely dented if they are seen to be unable and/or unwilling to act firmly. Besides, war criminals, left alone, will try to stage a comeback and resume the campaign of murder and terror they had unleashed in Bangladesh between 2001 and 2006. Sheikh Hasina, who has survived several attempts on her life, including the grenade attack on a rally she was addressing in Dhaka on August 21, 2004, should have no illusion on the score. Besides acting against war criminals, she must also dismantle the Jamaat’s economic empire which sustains the party’s activities and openly promotes a jihadi mindset.


Linked to punishing the war criminals is the issue of terrorism, both within Bangladesh and across the border in India. Most war criminals are joined at the hips with Bangladeshi terrorist outfits which, in turn, have close links with the DGFI and the ISI. The HUJIB has been involved, along with Pakistani terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, in most terrorist strikes in India during the past several years. Since it, patronised by a section of the BNP, has also been attacking and, sometimes, murdering supporters and leaders of the Awami League as well as members of Bangladesh’s civil society and intelligentsia, squelching it and other similar outfits will be in Sheikh Hasina’s and Bangaldesh’s interest too.


Cross-border terrorism and Bangladesh’s support to violent secessionist groups of north-eastern India have lent a sharp edge to the issue of illegal migration from that country. Dealing with the latter may become easier if Bangladesh cuts out all help to Indian secessionist groups and eliminates the terrorist outfits which use the illegal migration route to send terrorists into, and sustain sleeper cells in, India. Neither all this nor rooting out corruption, streamlining the administration and improving the law-and-order situation will be easy. But then, saving a country never is. On its part, India must walk that proverbial extra mile to ensure that Sheikh Hasina gets all the help she needs.


Bangladesh: Some good news at last

Editorial in Asian Age

Our eastern neighbour Bangladesh has had a stunning election, and a just as stunning election result. From its inception, the country has been engulfed in internecine domestic political violence, chiefly on account of the efforts of an influential section, which did not easily accept the country’s independence from Pakistan, to push it along the path of religious extremism and political authoritarianism — in other words, to make Bangladesh something of a clone of Pakistan. The spirit of violence that pervaded public life ensured that national elections were never straightforward. Violence usually begat violence. Extreme partisanship was the order of the day. In the country’s ninth parliamentary election held last Monday, however, the voter rose above this past. But for relatively minor incidents, the polling was peaceful. About 85 per cent of the electorate voted in possibly the fairest election Bangladesh has seen. Such high voter participation is a record for the country. No less remarkable is the crushing victory of the Awami League-led Grand Alliance over the four-party alliance headed by the BNP, which had ruled between 2001 and 2006 in a manner that led to the formation of an Army-backed emergency government. The party of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, now led by his daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and its allies are believed to have won close to 80 per cent of the seats. Leading lights of the BNP and its coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami, which made every effort to take the country in the direction of an Islamic state, in which the minorities are discriminated against as a matter of state policy, bit the dust.


India and others in the world who care for the nurturing and spread of democracy have reason to be relieved on account of the Bangladesh verdict. The mere return of the Awami League does not, of course, automatically mean the affirmation of democratic principles. If triumphalism and hubris take over, and if Sheikh Hasina is not alive to the dangers of the politics of revenge-seeking, we may well expect the return of the spiral of violence. But, in principle at least, the Awami League is a secular party as well as a liberal one. Such a sweeping victory — described by a leading local newspaper as a "shock-and-awe rout for the BNP" — should give it strength not to pander to the religious extremists, as it has sometimes done in the past in order to "prove" to its detractors that it is not against Islam. Democracy would require that the incoming government curb the spread of jihadi activity in the country, but without taking recourse to extra-judicial means. The Indian people would nurse the expectation that a government led by Sheikh Hasina would do its utmost to eliminate the activities of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and its local networks in the regions bordering India. These are deeply involved in infiltration and terrorist activities within India and enjoyed considerable leverage under the previous dispensation. Traditionally, India has never stinted on showing good neighbourliness to Bangladesh if Dhaka had not been impervious to gestures of friendship.


Joy Bangla

By Kanchan Gupta

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The December 29 general election in Bangladesh has resulted in the rediscovery of the soaring spirit of 1971, when a nation was born after a bloody liberation war, writes Kanchan Gupta


After two years in power, the military-backed interim Government of Bangladesh, which everybody thought would stave off polls till it was forced to hold them, has delivered on its promise: An absolutely free and fair general election has been held, resulting in the rediscovery of the soaring spirit of 1971 when a nation was born after a bloody liberation war. The Awami League’s sweeping victory, reducing the Islamist-pandering Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to an irrelevant rump, reminds us of a similar electoral victory nearly four decades ago when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman swept the polls and staked his claim on Rawalpindi, only to be denied his right. That rejection of West Pakistan’s suppression and loot of its eastern wing led to the liberation struggle of 1971 and the birth of Bangladesh.


But the collaborators, the razakars and their patrons in the Jamaat-e-Islami, had their sweet revenge, first through Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination and then by propping up tin pot dictators. The return of democracy was truly short-lived. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League Government bungled its way to defeat in the 2001 election. What followed was not only the repudiation of the spirit of 1971 but also an assault on the idea of Bangladesh. ‘Joy Bangla!’ was replaced by the Jamaati war cry of ‘Amra shobai Taliban, Bangla hobey Afghanistan!’ In a sense, the loot of Bangladesh during the five years when Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP was in power in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami became an incidental issue in the December 29 election; what dominated the people’s choice was their preference for a secular, liberal society, rooted in Bengali culture and tradition. The thumping vote for the Awami League is a tribute to the memory of the martyrs of Ekushe February when students rose against the forcible imposition of Urdu in 1952 and the mukti joddhas (freedom fighters) of 1971.


In his popular column which appears in Star Magazine, published by the liberal Dhaka-based newspaper, The Daily Star, ‘Chintito’ has captured the true message of the election result: “Who wants to be on the side of killers, rapists, looters and conspirators? … A standing ovation is due to our valiant freedom fighters, led once again by the brave sector commanders, who unleashed an unarmed war on the war criminals. For the handful of connivers, who tried to wickedly postulate the supreme sacrifice of millions as a civil war, the nation has spoken: 1971 war criminals do exist, and they shall be punished on this soil sanctified. Their political defeat is only a breaking of the ground…”.


The reference is to the Jamaat-e-Islami being wiped out in this election. Its cadre and affiliate jihadi organisations had unleashed a reign of terror between 2001 and 2006 when the BNP-Jamaat coalition was in power. ‘Bangla Bhai’ — executed for his jihadi perfidies by the interim Government — became the sinister face of the ‘Islamist Bangladesh’ that the Jamaat aspired to create through brutal force. Hindus were targeted in villages; men were murdered and women raped; temples were demolished with triumphant glee. The traditional celebration of the Bengali New Year, ‘Poila Boishakh’, was banned, as was paying homage to Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman. Women were forced to wear the burqa and thousands of madarsas were opened with the help of foreign Muslim ‘charities’. In a comic display of aping their role models, Islamists owing allegiance to the Jamaat and its associates took to wearing the ‘Pathan suit’ and draping the Arabic kaffiyeh around their shoulders. The study of Arabic was vigorously promoted and a new genre, ‘Islamic music’, was added to the repertoire of Bangla music.


The neo-Taliban of Bangladesh thought they had won the battle for the country’s soul. But they have come a cropper in this election. Of the 38 seats it contested, the Jamaat has been able to win only two. In 2001, it had won 18 seats, and propelled the BNP to victory in many more by transferring its vote. That success has now been reduced to a footnote of history. “Two miracles happened in Bangladesh a few days ago. First, over 80 per cent of Bangladeshis voted in one of the most peaceful elections in its history. Secondly, Bangladesh, the second largest Muslim majority country in the world, voted for a party that believes in secularism by giving it 85 per cent of the Parliament seats,” says Prof Asif Saleh of Dhaka University. This is not an exaggeration. Stalwarts of the Jamaat, including its Amir, Matiur Rahman Nizami, and general secretary Ali Ahsan Mojahed, have been defeated in what was considered their ‘strongholds’. Of the two Jamaatis who have won, one contested against the official BNP-Jamaat candidate, and possibly got through because of the split in the vote.


If Bangladeshis have rejected the Jamaat for promoting fanatical Islam, they have punished the BNP for allowing the Jamaat to turn Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dream into a seemingly unending nightmare. Also, the BNP has paid for its corrupt ways. Begum Khaleda Zia ruled from her home, ‘Hawa Bhaban’, and chose to shut her eyes to the sufferings of the masses. As prices of essential commodities rose to unaffordable levels and hoodlums roamed the streets, her sons Tarique and Koko looted the country in the most brazen manner. No deal was signed, no agreement finalised without their approval, which followed only after 10 per cent of the total amount had been paid to them. People would scathingly refer to how Gen Zia-ur Rahman, the dictator who was killed in a failed coup, had left his begum and sons only a ‘broken suitcase’, and how they had come to accumulate huge riches by abusing power and office.


It is, therefore, not surprising that Begum Zia, who now claims that the December 29 election was “stage-managed” to ensure the Awami League’s victory, should have suffered such a massive political setback. The BNP, which had won 193 seats in 2001 with a vote share of 40.97 per cent — .84 per cent more than that of the Awami League — has been able to scrape through in 29 constituencies this time; its vote share has plunged to 32.74 per cent, compared to the Awami League’s remarkable 49.2 per cent.


Sheikh Hasina Wajed has reason to celebrate her comeback. After all, it is not often that a party wins 85 per cent of the seats. Moreover, there was a time when it appeared that she had become a spent force, a liability for the Awami League rather than an asset. But she has proved her critics wrong. With the Awami League’s 230 seats, she does not need allies for a majority in the Jatiya Sangsad. But she will have to carry her alliance partners along with her, namely Lt-Gen HM Ershad’s Jatiyo Party and five members of Left parties.


But once the celebrations are over, Sheikh Hasina will have to get down to the task of fulfilling her promises and rebuilding Bangladesh. Most important, she will have to ensure transparency in governance and keep the Islamists at bay. As Bangladeshis will readily admit, theirs is not an easy country to govern. The mess that was inherited by the interim Government has been cleared to a large extent, but a lot more remains to be done.


Sheikh Hasina’s ‘Vision 2021’, which aims at creating a modern nation which is prosperous, stable and forward-looking, has received wide support from young Bangladeshis, who comprise 32 per cent of the voters. The generation which has come of age after the birth of Bangladesh, wants the country to move ahead by tapping its human resource, which is vast and varied. They have neither the time nor the inclination to tread the path of Islamic revivalism and fundamentalism. It is this generation which will keenly watch how Sheikh Hasina performs in office this time.


Simultaneously, she will have to complete the unfinished agenda of the liberation war — the trial and punishment of the collaborators so that they get their just desserts and are never able to take the country to the brink of disaster again. Sheikh Hasina owes this to the generation of 1971. And, it is necessary to re-establish the supremacy of Bangla culture and tradition, rooted in liberalism and tolerance, which together define the idea of Bangladesh. For Lt-Gen Ershad, this will be an opportunity to redeem himself and bury his not-so-pleasant past.


A last point: Sheikh Hasina has to be mindful of not repeating her mistakes of the past, especially pandering to powerful individuals in the Awami League who are also massively corrupt. That is on the domestic front. On foreign policy, she will have to work extra hard to mend relations with India, which had taken a nosedive during the BNP-Jamaat combine’s rule when Begum Khaleda Zia had unleashed a virulent hate India campaign. Sheikh Hasina’s post-election statement, that she will not allow Bangladeshi soil to be used for staging terrorist attacks on the country’s neighbours, is a welcome declaration of intent. The proof of the pudding is in its eating: She will now have to walk the talk.


With Sheikh Hasina taking charge of Bangladesh, the interim Government will stand dissolved. But the people of Bangladesh, as well as the victors of this general election, owe a debt of gratitude to those who stepped into the breach and prevented the country from descending into Islamist violence and political chaos. Agreed, the interim Government’s ‘minus two’ formula for cleansing Bangladeshi politics of malcontents didn’t quite work. The two begums remain the two poles of that country’s politics.


Yet, had it not been for the interim Government, there would not have been a free and fair election. To it goes the credit of striking off one crore bogus names from the electoral rolls that had been included by the BNP when it was in power, and issuing a photo identity card to every adult Bangladeshi. The vigorous prosecution of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats launched by the interim Government helped restore the people’s faith in the system and the judiciary.


Above all, the interim Government helped restore and revive Bangladesh’s secular ideals. It amended the election law to bar parties and candidates who subscribe to an Islamist agenda; it made it mandatory for parties and candidates to swear by the liberation of Bangladesh as an absolute and final deed (forcing the Jamaat to swallow its spiteful propaganda); and, it kept the most venal of the lot out of the electoral race.


We can almost hear the resonance of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s stirring slogan, “Joy Bangla!”, once again.



How about an extradition treaty?

Kanchan Lakshman

Saturday, January 3, 2009


A friendly regime in Bangladesh could help not only in tackling NE insurgency, but also to neutralise Islamic terror groups propped up by ISI in that country


Within hours of the Prime Minister-designate Sheikh Hasina Wajed declaring that "Bangladeshi soil will never be used to carry out any terrorist act against our neighbours," militants of the proscribed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) triggered three bomb blasts in Guwahati killing five persons and injuring 60 on January 1. The ULFA, Assam's dominant militant group, has many camps/safe houses and extensive business interests in Bangladesh and its top leadership, including 'commander-in-chief' Paresh Barua and 'chairman' Arabinda Rajkhowa, is located in that country.


There is some consolation in New Delhi and elsewhere that Sheikh Hasina's Awami League (AL) and its grand alliance swept the ninth general elections in Bangladesh. Awami and its allies won a record 261 out of the 300 parliamentary seats while Hasina's bête noire Begum Khaleda Zia and her Bangladesh National Party-led alliance could win merely 31 seats. New Delhi will be keen to positively engage the new regime in Dhaka on many bilateral issues, including terrorism. A friendly regime in Bangladesh will be of considerable help not only in tackling the multiple insurgencies in India's Northeast but also in efforts to neutralise the use of Bangladeshi soil by Islamist militants attacking multiple targets in urban India.


Along with North-East militant groups like the National Liberation Front of Tripura, All Tripura Tiger Force, Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council, Kamtapur Liberation Organisation, National Democratic Front of Bodoland and ULFA, Islamist militant groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) flourished under the earlier regime of Khaleda Zia. Using the Bangladeshi route, militant groups like the HuJI, LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed have, since 2004, with considerable assistance from local groups like the Students Islamic Movement of India, established an extensive network across urban India. Additionally, since the October 12, 2005 suicide attack on the Special Task Force of the Hyderabad Police, footprints of the Bangladeshi chapter of the HuJI have been witnessed in each of the terrorist attacks that have taken place in India's urban centres. The Border Security Force, during its Directors General-level talks with the Bangladesh Rifles on August 24, 2008, had handed over a list of 263 militant leaders and cadres currently settled within Bangladesh and the detailed location of 110 militant camps/safe houses.


Thus in the current context, the advent of Sheikh Hasina has generated optimism that such anti-India forces would henceforth be disallowed to operate from Bangladesh. New Delhi is also hoping that the new government will sign an extradition treaty with India and handover the most-wanted fugitives.


India's security establishment will keenly await the new Government's measures to prosecute the campaign against anti-India militant groups, which have good ties with elements within the Bangladeshi security agencies and mainstream political formations. The most optimistic perception is that with the Awami League in power, groups like theULFA and HuJI may not get direct patronage from the regime in Dhaka. Will regime change lead to effective counter-terrorism? On paper, Sheikh Hasina's humungous mandate and the traditional pro-India postures should be enough. But it will take a lot more than that to neutralize the entrenched Pakistani influence within the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and elsewhere in Dhaka's security establishment. There is evidence, also, of increasing cooperation between Pakistan's ISI and elements within the DGFI vis-à-vis support and protection of anti-India militant assets in Bangladesh, and between Pakistani and Bangladeshi jihadi groupings. Moreover, during the previous tenure of the Awami League also, top ULFA leaders and of other militant groups were safely ensconced in Bangladesh.


More importantly, consistent political will and intent is crucial in counter-terrorism. Electoral mandates can be frittered away very easily. For instance, numerous regimes in India, a country with a far better capacity to govern, have done exactly that vis-à-vis counter-terrorism.


Bangladesh is increasingly recognised as the locus of a significant and expanding threat emanating from radicalised Islamist extremist mobilisation and its systematic transformation into political and terrorist violence. It has, for some time now, been an established staging post for terrorism within the region, and is seen as a potential centre of Islamist consolidation for the 'global jihad' as well – despite repeated and vociferous official denials. Worse, these processes are rooted in an entrenched political dynamic that has progressively diminished the space for secular or moderate politics in the country. These trends have been compounded further by the combination of religious mobilization, intimidation and extremist violence that radical parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami and their armed fronts engage in, as well as their very wide and expanding presence in the social sector, particularly education.


It is necessary for India to understand the dynamic of these processes, as well as to make an objective assessment of their real and potential threat, both in terms of internal stability and external security. Reliance on friendly regimes helps to a certain extent. But eventually, India must fight its own battle against terrorism. A radical reevaluation of existing border management policies and practice on the Bangladesh front is imperative. India must also prevail upon the new Bangladeshi Government to initiate time-bound measures to neutralize militant camps and extradite fugitives before Dhaka adopts a denial mode.


Kanchan Lakshman, Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management



Democracy returns with a bang

Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Saturday, January 3, 2009

As Bangladeshis rang in a liberal government, the world acknowledged that democracy can work in even the poorest of Islamic societies


While the world is welcoming the New Year, our eastern neighbour, Bangladesh, is getting ready for a new government and say goodbye to the military-backed caretaker regime. The ninth parliamentary election held on December 29, 2008 has shown to the world the resolve of the people of Bangladesh in democracy and liberal values. It has also removed all concerns of prolonged military rule. Democracy in Bangladesh was under suspension for two years as the election which was scheduled for January 22, 2007 was cancelled following the proclamation of emergency to withstand the deteriorating law and order situation.


The present election has been one of the most peaceful ever held in Bangladesh and full credit for the same goes to the revamped Election Commission (EC) under the caretaker government, which worked overtime to prepare fresh and genuine voters lists, train officials and also reform the election laws that became complicated following a lack of consensus among political parties. In the new voters list there were 80 million voters, much less than the previous one prepared during BNP regime, which had 12 million bogus names. Again, to arrest the involvement of muscle and money power, the Bangladeshi EC made it mandatory for all candidates to file their personal and income details and stringent scrutiny was undertaken for all the applications. Of the 2,500 applications submitted, only 1,500 were accepted. Anticipating foul play in the electioneering process, the EC requested government for special security arrangements in the election booths and 14-15 security personnel were deployed in each of the election centres.However, the most significant aspect was the result of the election. Though the Awami League's victory was anticipated, the humiliating defeat of BNP and its allies, notable among them the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami, was the biggest surprise. In this election, the fight was between two coalitions: one led by Awami known as the "Grand Alliance" and the other led by BNP- the four-party alliance consisting of the Jamaat, the Islami Oikyo Jote and the Bangladesh Jatiya Party. The Awami-led formation won an impressive 263 seats of a the 299 and the BNP-led alliance was able to manage only 31 seats. Awami won 232 on its own and its major ally, the faction of the Bangladesh Jatiya Party led by former military dictator Hussien Mohammad Ershad, won 27 and others 5. The BNP won only 28 seats, Jamaat 2 and the Bangaldesh Jatiya Party only 1 seat. However, despite the BNP's poor performance, Khaleda Zia has managed to win all the three seats that she contested. Hasina also won all her own three seats. However, not all the political heavyweights were as lucky. Some of the prominent ones to be defeated are Motiur Rahman Nizami, the all powerful Jamaat chief. The Islami Oikyo Jot leader Delwar Hossain Saidee was also routed. The BNP's M. Saifur Rahman, who was finance minister under Khaleda, lost as did the party's general secretary, Khandakar Delwar Hossain.


What led to the Awami's landslide victory? The outcome of the present election has been interpreted as the 'people's verdict' against the use of religion for attaining political goals and also against the bad governance of the erstwhile BNP-Jamaat coalition. The Awami was prudent in sensing the people's aspirations and thus stressed on the importance of change during its campaign. By 'change', it promised to establish a society that would be driven by development and economic upliftment and also provide better education and health facilities. Sheikh Hasina also promised to arrest price rise and increase power generation to provide better electricity. The party also spoke about fighting corruption, improving law and order and curbing the growing militancy.


On the other hand, the BNP tried to counter Awami by seeking votes to ‘save Islam’. This did not find a chord with the electorate when they were suffering from growing religioun- based militancy in the country. Hasina promised to root out militancy and establish a liberal democratic society. Hasina herself has been a major militant target- she survived a grenade attack at a rally in 2004 and lost the hearing in one of her ears. Hasina also pledged to develop good relations with its neighbor member countries in SAARC, BIMSTEC and the D-8. She also offered the proposal for setting up a joint task force in the region to fight terrorism.


The people have given their mandate in support of these promises. Still, skepticism persists about her ability to deliver. It is also doubtful if the Awami would be able to maintain its focus on corruption because common experience holds that its own leaders are not free of vices. Besides, there are many issues on which the ruling coalition would need the help of the Opposition. One of the important ones is giving democracy deeper roots in the country. Sheikh Hasina has agreed to take the Opposition into confidence while taking decisions, but the support of the BNP as a responsible coalition is doubtful. Further, the government would also have to take care of the Army, which is expected to play a more influential role in the country's politics than it was during the earlier democratic regime.


For India, having a democratic regime in Bangladesh is always beneficial. From that point of view, an Awami victory is definitely good news. The bilateral relationship was at its best during the last Awami regime (1996-2001). Being strategically located between India's mainland and its North-East, Bangladesh's strategic location can’t be overlooked. There are outstanding bilateral issues like security, trade, transit and the sharing of river waters which need to be resolved. The most important need of the hour is a time-bound action plan against fundamentalist forces active in that country. The Awami's promised fight against militancy has been welcomed by India but this might not be easily achievable as the militants have important reservoirs of support. However, there are a lot of issues which both countries could work on, which would be a factor in the eventual confidence of the people.


Some of the steps taken by the caretaker government need to be sustained by the Awami-led government and taken to their logical conclusion. These could lead to India being granted port access to her North-East. Bangladesh could earn enormous revenue and generate employment. The trilateral gas pipeline project for bringing gas from Myanmar could be re-examined as this would help both in resolving energy crunch. Again, India could contribute in the economic development of that country by more investments. As the Awami League is perceived as friendly to India, there are great expectations for improvement of Indo-Bangla relations in the coming years. It remains to be seen how the new government starts its innings but definitely Sheikh Hasina cannot ignore the spirit of the mandate.

The writer is Associate Fellow, observer Research Foundation


Is Hasina-II good news for India?

Udayan Namboodiri

Saturday, January 3, 2009


Going by inherited wisdom we must rejoice every time a ‘friendly’ regime takes over in Dhaka. Hasina let us down before, but now we may have a new Hasina


Rajiv Gandhi commented after his landslide victory in the 1984 election: "People's expectations are scary". The same thought may have crossed Sheikh Hasina’s mind this week after her party, the Awami League, was voted back to power with a margin that reminded many here in Delhi of Nehruvian era elections. For, let us not forget that if there is ever such a thing as a poisoned chalice of a political high office, the one that Hasina took over from the caretaker government is it.


Bangladesh's predicament is no secret to readers of Saturday Special, or for that matter The Pioneerl. Our colleague, Hiranmay Karlekar, won global recognition for highlighting the pernicious honeymoon between Bangladeshi polity and Talebanist forces. His depiction of that overcrowded, penurious little nation (Bangladesh: the next Afghanistan, New Delhi, 2005) struck a chord in concerned circles. Now that the hopes of Bangladeshis have been reposed on this matron who symbolises the liberal face of Bangladeshi Islam, what does she do with it?


Then, there is her other problem -- the upsurge of hope that has followed her victory in India. Almost every foreign policy expert in India believes that with Hasina in power in Dhaka, half of India's problems with her North-East are over. But there is little evidence to suggest that the period between 1996 and 2001 – the only time that Hasina has been in power -- was marked by remarkable collaboration on snuffing out North-East militancy. It is also time for the CII types to re-string their sitars to play the old tunes about gas collaboration, transit rights to the North-east and the oh-so-pleasurable "cultural ties". But even here her record has been topsy turvy.


As Kanchan Lakshman (The Other Voice) points out, hope and despair alternated in the Indo-Bangla track during the late 1990s. The December 1996 Ganga water sharing agreement was the starting point of a foreign policy based on deceiving India to the point where the victim begins to actually enjoy fantasia. Of course, we Indians must admit that something patently Hindu called "Gujral doctrine" provided the enabling environment for the premiers of all South Asian countries to guarantee everything, including the sun, moon and stars to their neighbours. So powerful was the drug of sham cooperation that nothing short of Pokhran II could end the somnabulence.


Hasina played an important role in that surreal drama. She got the three-decade-old Ganga water-sharing problem resolved in her favour along with a basket of other goodies that included trade benefits. Yet, she gave nothing in return. On several crucial issues Hasina revealed she had her father, the late Bangabandhu’s, skill of running circles around India.


It's not polite to recall a lady's past in her hour of glory, but the memory of the Anoop Chetia incident just won't go away. Chetia, one of the founders of the dreaded ULFA, was enjoying the sanctuary given him by Khaleda Zia during her 1991-96 term. In early 1997, some police officer, mistaking his Prime Minister's glib talk as serious intent, raided Chetia's safehouse and arrested him. But the Hasina government did not do the next logical thing – deport Chetia as promised – but booked him in a hundred little cases and went on with business as usual. Eventually, a Bangladeshi court sentenced him and he served a part of it.By the time of his release(2005), Khaleda was back in power.


Now, in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, New Delhi has revived the whole gamut of issues --North-East, HuJI etc. Home Minister P. Chidambaram told the Lok Sabha on December 16: " A message must go that Bangladesh is duty-bound to honour its commitment and assurances." He went on to say that his ministry had 'information' regarding the presence of Indian insurgents in Bangladesh soil.


This could be the first touchstone for Hasina. She has already made the customary right noises. She has promised that Bangladeshi soil would not be permitted for use by terrorists. She has also called for setting up a joint task force to act against terrorism in the region. " It is crucial to combat terrorism and (carry out) development of the region. The (proposed) task force could end the mutual blame-game (on terrorism issue) between the countries in our region," announced the 61-year-old Prime Minister elect. But that is old hat. The first part of her statement is déjà vu. As for the 'proposal', it's nothing but a kite – first flown by Pakistan's Musharraf in the January 2002 SAARC Summit.


Let's also not forget that the Mankachar incident happened when Hasina was in power. In April 2001, a group of Border Security Force (BSF) jawans led by an Inspector was brutally murdered by Bangladesh security personnel. The chief of Bangladesh Rifles kept his job despite India's protests. That was the point when grave doubts surfaced in Indian policy circles about the leverage enjoyed by New Delhi in a Bangladesh led by "Mubib's daughter". For the first time, Indian realised that the post-1992 policy of putting all its eggs in the Awami basket was all wrong.


It was too late. Hasina was voted out of power in October that year. The news was received in India with complete shock. Remember, it was not four weeks since 9/11, and suddenly you had India sandwiched between two Islamic fundamentalist-backed nations. The grimness was exacerbated by the realisation that the doctrine of pandering to Hasina and ignoring the other Begum--Khaleda Zia--had led to a situation where it was clear that India lacked entry points to the new Dhaka establishment.


However, the Hasina of 2009 may not be the Hasina of 1996. As Joyeeta Bhattacharjee (Lookback) )points out, what we have just seen in Bangladesh is a mandate against religious fundamentalism, the very Talebanism of which Karlekar had alerted the world. Being the wily politician we know her as, it is unlikely that Hasina would give the mullahs a second chance. She was herself an almost-victim of a terrorist attack (2004) and therefore rides the crest of public sympathy. It may not be politically wise on her part to throw that goodwill away.


Another important change to the setting is America under Barack Obama. For decades, Washington has treated Bangladesh as inconsequential, a basket case (a Kissinger legacy) who has been caught in the whirlwind of Islamic fundamentalism as part of a general post-9/11 tendency. But when a time comes when a US President takes genuine interest in a comprehensive view of terrorism, it would be apparent that Bangladesh is Pakistan’s strategic depth, a veritable reserve fund of the ISI, part of a bigger axis of evil. Of course, pegging this hope on Obama is part of the scary expectations that he encounters at the end of a campaign that changed everything in America. If and when Obama asserts himself ,a lot things, including Hasina’s hour to make good on her pledge, could happen.


For now, the very fact that 75 per cent of the world's poorest Islamic nation voted, and that too in a superbly managed election, is evidence of a new era in the offing. In fact, Hasina, in her second innings, may be the point of rally for a new, self-cleansing movement within Islam. In this, she deserves all the support she needs from the world's other great democracies.

-- The writer is Senior Editor, The Pioneer