Betraying the dream


It’s difficult to understand who to blame for the upending of a democratic, free society, however flawed, that we have just witnessed in Bangladesh. The blatant disregard of the social contract that binds the government and the public shown by the party in power comes to mind first. The inability of the opposition forces to credibly mount a politically effective movement, beyond a worn-out resort to violence, must also be lamented. Equal blame must be shared by our “civil society”, whose commitment to a vibrant and free society must now be questioned, seeing their failure to heed very clear warnings that appeared on the horizon fairly early on of the power grab that was coming. Included in the list of culprits must be sections of the media that chose to go along with the show even after the government displayed its autocratic tendencies by shutting down both print and electronic outlets. All in all, everyone seemed not-too-bothered as the prime minister herself tightened her grip on power in Bangladesh, exercising control through a complex network of personal relationships that forms the backbone of the government that re-elected itself on January 5. We shall pay a heavy price for it.   What Sheikh Hasina has embarked upon, is effectively the same route that brought about her father’s downfall. Although the economic realities might be different today, with increasing prosperity a heady dose to distract the public, the prime minister is deluding herself if she believes Bangladeshis will stand from her what they failed to stand from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The guarantee of one’s political rights, enshrined in the constitutional declaration that the republic is to be a democracy, was fundamental to the values that defined our War of Liberation. By denying the public a legitimate choice in the matter of who governs them, the prime minister is taking on the same guilt as her father’s worst enemies as well, the military rulers of erstwhile West Pakistan, who couldn’t bear the results of the first ever general elections held in Pakistan in December 1970, that would have put the Awami League led by Mujib in power at the Centre. The failure to reach a political agreement back then had precipitated the birth of Bangladesh. This time around, it may mean an irreversible loss of the political goodwill once enjoyed by the Awami League, similar to the one suffered by India’s Congress party following the period that came to be known as The Emergency, Indira Gandhi’s two-year raid on Indian democracy that brought about the unseating of a Congress government for the first time in 1977.   Heavily dependent on Indian backing – along the lines dictated by the Congress government that is currently suffering paralysis at the Centre – for some legitimacy in lieu of an electoral mandate (one provided by an election process in which a majority of seats were awarded uncontested can be nothing of the sort), Sheikh Hasina must be aware of Indira Gandhi’s actions during that period. And revering Nehru’s daughter enough to confer on her the highest honour Bangladesh can on a foreigner, the Shadhinota Swamonnona for her role in 1971, it’s a good bet that Mujib’s own eldest fails to see some glaring flaws in the domestic politics of the ex-matriarch of the Congress. History should find both guilty of a glaring failure to read the pulse of the nations they led. For even though Mrs Gandhi’s shameless upheaval of democracy in a society that had been envisioned upon its basic premises had its defenders then, as it does today even – just as Sheikh Hasina’s acts do today, although the future is a different matter –  the overall negative effect it had on India’s progress is no longer much doubted.   Even more tellingly perhaps, the Emergency “revealed the undemocratic nature of the Congress party”, in the words of L.K. Advani, a senior leader of India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is favoured to take over the reins in New Delhi later this year when elections are held for the Lok Sabha. Up until the Emergency, Congress had ruled India uninterrupted for nearly three decades. The 21 months of the Emergency saw it lose favour with India’s vast electorate to such an extent that when Indira Gandhi eventually called elections in March 1977 (her intelligence top brass predicted a victory), the party was routed, losing nearly 200 seats as a loose coalition of parties opposed to it, the Janata alliance, rode a wave of anti-Congress sentiment to sweep 298 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha. Almost unthinkably, Indira Gandhi lost her own seat in Rae Bareli, the traditional seat of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in Uttar Pradesh. Her powerful son Sanjay Gandhi also lost.   Assuming Bangladesh returns to a legitimate democratic path sometime soon, can Sheikh Hasina hope to avoid a similar fate for the Awami League? There’s actually reason to believe the repercussions for the party of Bangladesh’s independence would be even worse than they were for the Congress, who recovered to win the next elections after the Janata alliance, with no previous experience of power, proved to be a weak government. Here, waiting in the wings will most likely be the BNP at the head of some sort of coalition that may or may not include the Jamaat e Islami, around whose fortunes today swings the pendulum for democracy in Bangladesh, on which more later. Irrespective of Jamaat backing, the BNP is certainly capable of running a government, and enjoy the grassroots support and ground-level organisation that can be consolidated to really hurt the League, on top of the damage they end up doing to their own standing.   The thing to understand is this: aware of its distinct unpopularity, the government is on a wing and a prayer with its notion that superior performance, allied to the damage they are able to inflict upon the BNP’s backbone (while severely dismantling Jamaat) will see the tide of public opinion turn in the Awami League’s favour by the time of the next election. But this is unlikely to work out in reality. Rather, the memory of the crass manner in which this second term was secured will serve to overshadow even the good work that they do over the coming months. And the longer these months get, the more unpopular they’ll keep getting.   Unopposed all the way   No matter how you look at it, the state of the opposition in Bangladesh politics today is dismal. The Awami League has not held back in its oppression of the BNP through use of the state machinery, and as if the High Court cancelling their registration as a political party was not enough, a systematic operation is being carried out to exterminate Jamaat. The latter is more a part of India’s designs for Bangladesh’s future, and there are parts of Bangladesh today that are besieged by this very plan moving into high gear. The disturbing state of life for people living in the border district of Satkhira, particularly in five of its seven upazillas that are known to be Jamaat strongholds, is a case in point. When Sheikh Hasina openly directs the BNP to let go of their alliance with Jamaat, she is repeating the same line that Indian interlocutors are said to have put forth to Khaleda Zia and the BNP. Ideally, the government would like to inflict as much damage on Jamaat’s grassroots organisational strength as possible before once more returning to the unfinished task of getting rid of the entire Jamaat leadership, now in the docks for alleged war crimes in 1971. That is their best chance of avoiding the unimaginable violence and bloodshed that is predicted to occur – potentially bringing the country to a standstill that will inevitably count against the incumbent – if revered figures of Islamist politics in Bangladesh like Maulana Delwar Hussain Sayedee, Ghulam Azam and Motiur Rahman Nizami meet the same fate as Kader Mollah.   It is profoundly sad, but the war crimes trials process has by now become tainted beyond redemption. This is no quest for justice – whatever bit of it may accrue to the nation is a by-product really, of a political programme necessitated by the emergence of the BNP-Jamaat alliance in 2001-6, and India’s unease with extremist elements they deem to have grown entrenched during those five years (as revealed by leaked cables detailing correspondence between Delhi and Washington during the said period and beyond) under Jamaat patronage. This is where the interests of the Awami League and their Indian backers are found to dovetail so perfectly, and the essence of their bond: a weakened, or negligible Jamaat makes India more secure, and by weakening the coalition opposed to it, makes the Awami League politically stronger. During the course of this pursuit, the memory of the martyrs of 1971 has suffered the greatest insult, for the way in which it has been carried out has turned a legitimate demand for justice into a political football.   The very claim that it would take a Sheikh Hasina at the country’s helm for the likes of Kader Mollah to hang, that became popular in the days leading up to the farcical election that was held on January 5 as a way to fire up the League’s base, is an admission of its political nature. And it is centring the endgame in the trials to come, for which measures are being taken to ensure their quickest possible disposal, that this land is likely to experience its greatest disturbances in the months to come. It won’t be for the faint-hearted, that much is certain. The road to realising the dream of Bangladesh still remains strewn with the worst nightmares.   That dream itself has been distorted and played around with almost wantonly over the last five years. Revisions of history with changes in government is part and parcel of life for Bangladeshis by now, but this time around, the means seem to have been more systematic. And they have concerned not only the matter of who did what and hence more for Bangladeshis, but also the very foundations on which the country was envisioned, the root causes that necessitated it. History tells us that a struggle to realise political rights was foundational to the fight for independence – the crass denial of the mandate handed to Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Awami League in Pakistan’s first ever general elections in December 1970 provided the spur for millions of Bengalis to pour themselves into the fight unitedly, and single-mindedly. It has become fashionable of late to advocate in its place a half-baked idea of Bengali nationalism built around the social and cultural heritage particular to the people of this region. By this reading, 1971 is viewed as the logical conclusion of a process that started in 1952 with the Language Movement. This is hogwash. The underlying, entrenched problem of united Pakistan was exploitation – mainly class-based, that eventually came to mark itself out in the two wings as well (quite naturally, since the ruling class was overwhelmingly based in the West, to the detriment of the East). Rehman Sobhan’s seminal paper on the “Two Economies” is instructive enough on this. The 1970 election offered a last chance to patch up this dichotomy, and the results should have dictated a more equal future. When it became clear that the Pakistanis weren’t the type to respect the basic premise of democracy that we had signed up for, there was no option left but to show them the way to the exit marked “Once and for all”.   It’s a safe bet that Sheikh Hasina is not much fond of Pakistanis, judging by some of her pronouncements over the years. Unfortunately, owing to her own disrespect for democracy that was laid out for the world to see on January 5, she might be headed for the same exit. –


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