Millennium Post

Split wide open

The People’s Republic of Bangladesh had a general election on 5 January 2014, which the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) as well as many smaller parties boycotted. They demanded for the restoration of recently abolished election-time caretaker government (CTG) for ensuring level playing field for all, which was not met by in power Awami League (AL). The latter declined on the point that the last CTG abused the erstwhile provision by holding on to power for two years, instead of six months, which resulted, in their language, persecution of politicians.

 Naturally, in this election the ruling Awami League of the incumbent Prime Minister Shaikh Hasina won landslide. The voter turnout was very low though. The official Election Commission figure is 39 per cent and that boosted by some false voting of AL activists throughout the nation is a huge fall in comparison to 87 per cent of the last election. General elections are something like a festivity in Bangladesh and, baring this one, all polls of recent years have seen high presence of electorate in the polling booths.

The BNP not only just boycotted the polls; it also asked its leaders and supporters including the same of its alliance partners to resist the polls. The BNP-led alliance also has the organisationally strong and battle-hardened and now desperate for its very existence – the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI).

Hence, the election was mired by worst Election Day violence ever in Bangladesh, where about 20 people died. Polling was disrupted and cancelled at about 150 centers across Bangladesh. Religious minorities are being targeted at places for showing up in polling centres in post-election violence and there are already attacks and destruction of property in some villages of Jessore and Dinajpur.

The imbroglio in Bangladesh is more complex that it apparently looks. After being elected with a whopping three-fourth majority in the Jatiyo Shangshad, the parliament of Bangladesh, in the election of 2008, the AL started delivering on its pre-election promises of bringing the 1971 war criminals, especially the Bangladeshi collaborators of Pakistan army who themselves also committed flagitious atrocities. Most of the accused or convicted by now are the leaders of the JI which has been politically rehabilitated by the military rulers of Bangladesh the past and which is now a vital ally of the main opposition BNP.

But the AL made a mess of time calculation and the conduct of the trial and implementation of the verdicts, which got prolonged and now overlapped with this election. One of the senior JI leaders, Kader Mollah, has already being hanged in Dhaka jail last December after he was found guilty and being sentenced to capital punishment by the War Crime Tribunal and later the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, the AL lost popularity mostly on the ground of poor governance, law and order situation and some corruption scams. Now, they know they have to be in power to complete the unfinished task of war crime trial and cleansing Bangladeshi politics off the anti-liberation forces of 1971. Following a higher court verdict the Election Commission of Bangladesh has cancelled the registration of JI few months back. The AL also feared vengeance and reprisal from the BNP-JI alliance if they lose power to them in a fair election. It was predicted by many that in a fair election the BNP would have won like they won all the five city corporation elections recently.

But the AL realising of late the political mess they conceived a political gameplan, the crux of which is to cling on to power at any cost at the time of, in their language, ‘such a crucial juncture of remaking of history of the nation’ – meaning eliminating the anti-liberation forces from Bangladeshi polity for good. There was an attempt on the life on the present AL Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina when BNP-JI alliance was in power back in 2004. She barely survived and about 30 of her political colleague and supporters died in the attack. Because of the farcical police investigation that followed, the hardcore AL men suspect BNP-JI behind that attack. That memory is still bright in their mind. Their desperation to hang on to power also stems from these this past event.

JI in the past also resorted to malicious propaganda against the AL and the creative and liberal segment of Bangladeshi society. For the AL and its affiliated intelligentsia, going after JI is like killing a known venomous snake before it bites you further. The AL also wants to bring the original national political narrative of Bangladesh back in prominence in public discourse on which the whole independence movement, liberation war and post liberation affairs revolved around.  The party holds that after the counterrevolutionary change of 1975 the original national narrative has been deliberately and systematically distorted against the spirit of liberation war just to legitimise illegitimate usurpers of state power. This alternative narrative accommodates religious majoritarianism, new definition for nationalism in Bangladesh and slanted history.

But uprooting the distorted narrative from the society isn’t too easy simply because of the political strength and expanded social base of the parties who adhere to this. One major i.e. BNP and two moderately big i.e. JI and Jatiyo Party (JP) of former president Ershad are of this alternative political school, by and large. In fact, the political location of JI is at further right and they only buy a portion of even this alternative narrative.

These two competing narratives involve many things ranging from explanation of history, supposed nature of the Bangladeshi state, foreign policy, construct of the polity and many major facets of public life. They also include conflicting personality cults of their respective ideological leaders i.e. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for AL and Ziaur Rahman for BNP. While the AL narrative stresses upon the secular Bengali identity that was formed through the collective political struggle of all people of East Bengal against Pakistani neo-colonialist between 1947 and 1971; the BNP narrative tilts more towards majority Bengali speaking Muslim identity leaning Bangladeshi nationalism propounded by Ziaur Rahman. Both Zia and Ershan used the Islam card to create political mobilisation in their favour. That’s how the Frankenstein JI was resurrected in Bangladesh from the ashes of post 1971 period. But they have their own radical agenda and went beyond the shadow of their military mentors to create their own socio-political web.

JI have much similarity with the Sangh Parivar of India. Both have many social and political subsidiary branches for various purposes. JI have affiliated hospitals, financial institutions professional groups and so on.  JI, according to Maulana Moududi’s world view, political doctrine and scheme of action (as their chief inspiration), is defined as a reformed Islamist by the political scientist as they have done some adaptation to be able to use modern political institution as means to achieve their end, i.e. Islamic theocracy with some modern utilities.

Again there is the other radical Islamist who is Quaomi Madrasa-based and propagates their rendition of raw Islam. They reject modernity outright like the Taliban in Afghanistan with the exception that majority of them haven’t yet take up hostile means. Although they were split among themselves but recently they also came under one umbrella – Hefazat-e-Islami – and was able to make some political wave in Bangladesh.

They also have their view on the nature of Bangladeshi state, which is radical to the extreme. Interestingly, no Islamist party or alliance, despite their organisational capacity, was ever able to achieve any considerable vote share in the electoral history of Bangladesh. The centre left/ centrist Awami League or the center right BNP always came out on top.

Now about the liberals’ strategy of dealing with radicalism, there were differences of opinion among politicians and analysts. Some thought that the overwhelming support for the AL in 2008 election offered the opportunity to settle the ideological score in the political domain of Bangladesh forever, which they AL chose to go along. The other idea was not to stir this controversy; rather allow the alternative narrative and its adherent BNP and also JI and other Islamists to be in the polity as they are in a status quo. The latter was abandoned by the 2008 victorious AL. But the price the nation has to pay for the conflict path they opted for is very high. The AL though has maintained a limited objective that they want to try the war criminals of 1971 and remove the party that opposed Bangladesh’s birth from the polity. Even such an objective is hard to achieve.

If they are able to force, with some understanding with the BNP, the young generation JI leaders and activists to discard the toxic old guards and undergo some metamorphosis, that could be a face saver for all. It’s difficult to see other form of compromise coming where the AL has to recoil or reverse the developments that took place in last five years.

It’s hard to say where Bangladesh heads for from the present impasse. With both tactical and fundamental split so wide open in Bangladesh politics among the political forces the immediate future is now any body’s guess. But eventually democracy will have to come back in Bangladesh for in this post-communist world system, much of the developing countries’ fate, for good or bad, depends on the external sway of the democratic West.

The author is an associate research fellow in Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS). He writes on politics, society, inter-state relations and geo-strategy. He can be reached at

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