Millennium Post

Political strife in Bangladesh

With general elections in Bangladesh not far away, the timing of the Shahbag square secularist agitation in Bangladesh, regarded by some as the South Asian equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, has intrigued observers.

Kolkata-based analysts are not surprised. A senior journalist known to be on close terms with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina says that during her present tenure, a direct showdown between the Islamic fundamentalists and the secular forces was always ‘a matter of time’.

‘The prime minister has said on several occasions that the secular agenda of the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s political revolution in 1970-1971 was left unfinished when he was killed in 1975. Active opponents of the freedom struggle and pro-Pak collaborators staged a political recovery, making common cause with religious fundamentalists to seize power. They tried to negate and demolish Sheikh Mujib’s political objectives. Therefore, the decisive battle between religious fundamentalists and the secular forces was yet to be fought in Bangladesh, according to her.’, he says. Hasina was not the only one who felt this way. Her political opponents including the Jamaat-e-Islami and similar forces also knew the score and were equally prepared for the final battle that lay ahead.

In one respect, the Shahbag mass movement against war criminals and Pak collaborators represented by the Jamat-E-Islami, Al Badar, Al Shams and Razakars, mirrors the Arab spring political pattern seen in Egypt and elsewhere. Political activists did not launch the Shahbag agitation on 5 February. It started off, as with most game changing agitations in Bangladesh, in the wake of cultural programmes that annually climax on 21 February. This was the day Pakistani troops shot dead in East Pakistan five students who defied the law to demand official language status for Bengali, not just Urdu. The year: 1950. The students’ protest was brutally suppressed.

Who would have predicted in those days, that within two decades, the entire Eastern province of Pakistan would secede from the domineering all powerful Western wing?

However, the ruling Awami League, rewrote the Arab Spring script somewhat, seized the political initiative in Bangladesh and not the opposition parties and groups.. The League’s stand on secularism as against Islamic fundamentalism, its stress on the Bengali language, culture and identity, found ready resonance with the predominantly young Shahbag agitators. Many of them would be new voters when the country goes to polls later. Clearly, parties like the Jamat and other religious groups that support it, judging by the depth and longevity of the agitation against war criminals seem to have lost out to the League in attracting new blood.

As things stand one month after the Shahbag agitation was launched on 5 February, the League emerges with several advantages in the backdrop of an otherwise daunting scenario. The economy, as with most countries in the world is none too healthy, despite the healthy garments industry and foreign remittances. Prices are high, industrial production remains low, the power situation erratic, relations with the US unsatisfactory, the Teesta water treaty still unsigned and the issue of enclaves still not settled with India.

But on the credit side, India, in the shape of the significant visit made at this time by President Pranab Mukherjee has firmly thrown its weight behind the ruling government. The majority of people and opinion makers seems to be in favour of an independent, secular ruling ideology, not religious fundamentalism or Islamic orthodoxy. At home or abroad, the young generation with earning power is firmly committed to the concept of new nationhood, Bengali culture and language.

Bandhs and hartals organised by the Islamists and their Jamat backers and supported by the main opposition BNP have not crippled the country. Their attempts to cause physical damage have been countered effectively. Common people have hit back against the disrupters, according to reports, ready to take the fundamentalists and opponents of freedom struggle head on.

Such a trend cannot be encouraging for the BNP. The petulant refusal of its leader Khaleda Zia to attend a scheduled meeting with Mukherjee only showed her continuing dependence on Islamic hardliners within the BNP, which stands isolated internationally and partially alienated from the political mainstream. In the first eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation against the League, the BJP, Jamat and other allied forces have blinked first. At some cost to the country’s image and the national economy the, League has put itself well ahead on points against its enemies, by not yielding to the threat of violence.

In so doing, the League has silenced its critics among Islamic countries allied with Pakistan. Some months ago, President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, wrote to Hasina, requesting her not to proceed with the trial of alleged war criminals. He appealed to her not to try and hang very old Jamat and other leaders for their crimes. He feared that Bangladesh might face a civil war like situation if it went ahead with its plans to bring to book its war criminals.

The last word remains unspoken on the subject, but one month after the Shahbag agitation was launched, it is clear that the government remains firmly in control, still enjoying the confidence and support of the majority of the people. Gul need not worry about the future of Bangladesh. He may be better advised to make sure that his country does not get sucked into the turmoil of the civil war in Syria, in which its role is not exactly that of a neutral bystander or honest mediator. (IPA)
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