Monday, March 2, 2015

Suhas Chakma - Bangladesh: A point of no return

The strikes called by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)-led 20 party alliance since 5 January demanding the resignation of the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League(AL) government and holding of midterm elections under a neutral caretaker government appear to be losing steam. Despite the deaths of over 100 people and detention of over 7,000 opposition political activists and house arrest of Khaleda Zia, none in the international community has supported the BNP’s demands. Instead the BNP has been called upon to sever ties with the Jamaat-e-Islami (Jamaats). 

The BNP, lacking the ability to enforce its strikes, however continues to  rely on the Jamaat’s machinery and insurgency-style tactics to target civilians in the fire-bombing of the vehicles, train derailment, arson etc. Nonetheless, targeted violence still remains vicious as the murder of blogger and writer Avijit Roy on the night of 26 February by alleged Islamic fundamentalists suggests.

The ongoing crisis is not just another episode in the long-running “battle of the begums” between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, or simply a manifestation of the country’s immature democratic culture. It is actually a continuation of the civil war started during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War between the AL, which led the liberation war, and the Jamaat leaders who perpetrated war crimes to oppose the independence of Bangladesh. 

This civil war had actually never ended. The parliament of Bangladesh enacted the International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973 to establish accountability of the war criminals but most Jamaat leaders fled to Pakistan. Following the assassination of Mujibur Rahman, leader of the liberation war on 15 August 1975, General Ziaur Rahman went on to rehabilitate the Jamaats who became part of the multi-party alliance for the restoration of democracy after his assassination in 1980. The war between the liberation forces and anti-liberation forces remained dormant during the pro-democracy movement. 

NB: 'This civil war had actually never ended..' is a profound observation; and is relevant to the partition of India, not only the partition of Pakistan. The civil war was launched and is carried on by all kinds of communalists, is directed against the forces of secular democracy, and is meant to maintain the region's politics in the grip of military-industrial ruling elites.

Following the fall of General HM Ershad in 1990, the Jamaats became a natural ally of the late Ziaur Rahman's party, the BNP and extended support to the BNP to form the government after the 1991 general elections. The pro-liberation forces led by the "Ekattorer Ghatak-Dalal Nirmul Committee" demanded the trial of Jamaat leaders but the BNP was not expected to take any measure against its alliance partners. The AL which was in power from 1996 to 2001 also ignored the accountability of war criminals.

The return of the BNP and the Jamaat alliance to power after the 2001 elections was marked by massive attacks on Hindu minorities while support to Indian insurgents including the United Liberation Front of Assam during this period became a matter of state policy. Most importantly, despite being in power, the Jamaats sought to eliminate the AL from Bangladesh -- an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on the life of Sheikh Hasina in a grenade attack on 21 August 2004 while the AL’s former Finance Minister SAM Shamsul Kibria was killed in a similar grenade attack on 27 January 2005. 

The intervention by the Bangladesh Army on 7 January 2007 following disagreement between the AL and the BNP over the caretaker government to conduct the elections however changed the situation. The military-backed caretaker government not only launched an anti-corruption crackdown on the Bangladeshi political elite but also arrested Begum Zia and her two sons, Arafat Rahman and Tarique Rahman with the latter being subjected to torture including being allegedly suspended from a ceiling on 31 December 2007.

Considering the arrest, detention and torture of many BNP leaders including Tarique Rahman, the Bangladesh Army feared reprisals in the event of the BNP coming to power in the next parliamentary elections slated for 29 December 2008. The Bangladesh Army openly supported the AL, for the first time since the 1975 coup d'état and assassination of Mujibur Rahman, and the AL’s victory in the elections became a foregone conclusion. The BNP, already battered by the Bangladesh Army, accepted the election results.

However, the AL was not allowed to settle down. In the Pilkhana massacre on 25 February 2009, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) personnel massacred 74 people including 57 army officers deputed to the BDR. The Jamaat’s role in the Pilkhana massacre was suspected. The AL not only saw the massacre as an attempt to dislodge its government but also an attempt to oust the AL from the country by any means. 

The AL government took a number of measures to counter the Jamaats. In order to bring the Army on its side, the Army was allowed to take revenge on the BDR personnel accused in the Pilkhana massacre -- about 70 BDR personnel were murdered in Army custody while 152 others were sentenced to death. The AL further established War Crimes Tribunals with the sole aim to take Jamaat leaders out of circulation that the Jamaats had originally set up for the AL leaders. Most importantly, the AL amended the constitution of Bangladesh in 2011 to repeal the system of caretaker governments conducting parliamentary elections and to solidify its rule. In fact, when the AL won the deeply flawed elections on 5th January 2014 boycotted by the BNP, the international community in a clear rebuff to the sort of regime change being pushed for by the BNP recognised the victory of the AL. 

Bangladesh has reached the point of no return. Of the thirteen Jamaat leaders sentenced to death by the War Crimes Tribunals, only Abdul Quader Molla had been hanged so far. The hanging of the remaining twelve is likely to intensify the civil war. On the other hand, any return of the Jamaats to power on the back of the BNP will surely lead to unprecedented backlash against the AL and the Hindu minorities. 

In this civil war between the liberation forces, who are by definition the ultra nationalists, and the anti-liberation forces, the BNP as the claimant of Bangladeshi nationalism faces an identity crisis. What is more troubling is the failure of Begum Zia to realise that the demand for guarantees for ensuring free and fair elections for the 2019 elections is more likely to be supported by international community than a midterm election, which means reversal of the decisions taken to recognise the elections of January 2014. Asking Khaleda Zia to wait for another four years is akin to asking her to become a Bangladeshi Kejriwal, which is an unlikely prospect. But the prospects for a continuing undeclared civil war are certain.
The author is Director, Asian Centre for Human Rights
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