Hasina must be wary of authoritarianism
As the month-long celebrations for the 44th anniversary for the country’s Victory Day are in progress, the atmosphere in Bangladesh is now marked by a simultaneous sense of hope and despair. Victory day is a national holiday in Bangladesh celebrated on December 16 to commemorate the victory of the Allied forces High Command over the Pakistani forces in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971.
There is no reason for toeing the line championed by a group of academics and journalists that sheepishly question the modus operandi of the ongoing war crimes trials. At the same time, it will be a great disservice to the country if the streak of authoritarianism displayed by the Awami League-led government is not questioned.
But the greatest achievement of Prime Minister Hasina Wajed is that she has been able to line up an overwhelming majority of Bangladesh’s populace in her crusade against perpetrators of war crimes during the country’s liberation war. It is something unforeseen and unheard of in the history of Bangladesh, except the time when the nation was fighting for its independence against the Pakistani Army. Even Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father, had failed to achieve this feat on any given issue after becoming the Prime Minister. His graph of popularity had nosedived after he had formed the Bangladesh Krishak Shramik Awami League (BAKSAL), an authoritarian one-party state structure. His successors - Ziaur Rahman, H.M. Ershad, and Khaleda Zia - had a small and fractured support base.
This has led to another strange development. For the first time after the trials began, Matiur Rahman Nizami, the chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), the fountainhead of radical Islam in Bangladesh, admitted in the Supreme Court that he had committed war crimes during the 1971 War of Independence. This is a direct result of executions of some of his colleagues like Abdul Qader Mollah, Mohammed Kamruzzaman and Ali Ahsan Mujahid, and also the crescendo of public opinion against those involved in war crimes.
It is true that in almost all the trials, the number of prosecution witnesses was much more than that of defence witnesses - a point international human rights organisations often make. They have expressed doubts about the acceptability and genuineness of these verdicts. But this is only too natural as the crimes alleged to have been committed during the liberation war are so heinous in nature that finding witnesses for the prosecuted persons will always be difficult.
There is now a distinct possibility that Bangladesh’s relations with Pakistan will continue to deteriorate, given Islamabad’s open support to Jamaat leaders. Perhaps Pakistan has made a very bad move as the pride and self-consciousness of the Bangladeshi people seem to have been badly hurt by the former’s willful identification with “war time criminals”. This may have its repercussions in Islamic blocs like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Pakistan’s motive is understandable. With the defeat of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-JeI combination in Bangladesh, it has lost a vehicle for exporting terror to India.
However, Khaleda Zia, chairperson of the BNP, has read the situation correctly. The ongoing trials have sent Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a very influential member of the BNP standing committee, to the gallows. Salauddin was one of the chief financiers of the BNP and used to liaison with the BNP’s international patrons. But at the first standing committee meeting after Salauddin’s hanging, Khaleda did not allow the matter to be discussed at all.
The reason is obvious. At least for the present, Khaleda Zia does not want to identify her party anymore with those who are accused of criminal acts during the war of liberation. This is the ultimate triumph of Hasina Wajed.
Both the BNP and the Jamaat are now badly mauled. But this raises the spectre of an authoritarian state in Bangladesh.
The streets of Dhaka are now rife with hush-hush rumours about the disappearance of opposition party cadres. The accusing finger is pointed, rightly or wrongly, towards the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a section of police in Bangladesh dealing with anti-terrorist initiatives. According to one human rights organisation, 47 people have allegedly disappeared this year. Corresponding figures for 2014 and 2013 were 88 and 68 respectively. The bereaved families have moved the court. But justice is being delayed on one pretext or another and there is no effort from the government to expedite the process.
Hasina should guard against the fact that Bangladesh’s polity always tends to move towards authoritarianism which has always gone against the interests of common people. Even as the country celebrates its Victory Day on December 16, the uncomfortable fact that 30 percent of the population earns less than one dollar per day, 80 million people live in shanties, and 10 percent of big landowners hold 50 percent of the country’s land, cannot be swept under the carpet.
(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are strictly personal)