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The uncertain tug of war

The Bangladesh Supreme Court has handed down death sentence to Abdul Qader Mollah, assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami but better known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur’ for his killing of innocent men, women and children during the liberation war in Bangladesh. Mollah had, earlier this year, been sentenced to life imprisonment by the War Crimes Tribunal.

There were widespread demonstrations against the sentence, as angry people demanded nothing short of Mollah being hanged. The Bangladesh government appealed to the Supreme Court against the Tribunal’s judgement. By a 4-1 judgment, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court presided over by Chief Justice Mojammel Hussain, upheld the government’s appeal and awarded the death sentence to Mollah on 17 September. Within hours the Jamaat and its student wing, the Islamic Chhatra Shibir, announced a 48-hour nationwide general strike or hartal and their activists and supporters hit the streets all over the country with an assortment of weapons like sticks, swords and Molotov cocktails. They attacked the police, burnt police and public vehicles and stoned to death a driver of a three-wheeler who had dared to ply his vehicle defying the strike. The process of sharp political polarisation between the Islamic conservatists and liberal democrats which is going on will be further sharpened with Mollah’s death sentence in the run up to the next general elections due early next year. The battle, it is feared, will be more intense and violent, as both sides are preparing for a final showdown. The outcome of this battle will decide who will be the winners.

The term of the present parliament expires next month, on 25 October. Under Article 123 of the Bangladesh constitution, general elections will have to be held within 90 days after that. Initially the constitution provided for the appointment of a caretaker government to oversee the elections. But after coming to power, Sheikh Hasina as the prime minister of the Awami League government, amended the constitution to delete this provision. Now the opposition is demanding restoration of this provision. It has become a major campaign issue for the BNP-Jamaat camp. It would not be correct to underestimate the strength of the opposition and take the Awami League’s victory for granted. Sheikh Hasina is being consistently attacked on a number of issues – from setting up of the War Crimes Tribunal to her alleged ‘pro-India’ stance. The uncertainty hanging over the fate of the Indo-Bangladesh Treaty on sharing of Teesta waters and Hasina’s failure to persuade India to sign the Treaty has given a handle to the opposition.

In the coming elections, the Jamaat-BNP combine will take full advantage of this issue and try to turn public opinion against her and India, both being their common targets of attack. This is a sensitive issue, which rankles many hearts in Bangladesh, not all of whom are anti-Hasina or anti-India. It is unfortunate that the difference between the Centre and the West Bengal government on the Teesta accord could not be resolved either before the Prime Minister’s Dhaka visit two years ago or till now. The Bangladesh parliament witnessed a major shift of public opinion between 2001 and 2008 when the last elections were held. The BNP won 198 seats in 2001 but suffered a drastic reduction in strength in 2008 when it could win only 30 seats. In contrast, the Awami League, which could win only 62 seats in 2001, returned with a massive mandate, bagging 230 seats. The fortunes of the Jamaat, an ally of the BNP, also changed – from 18 seats in 2001 to a mere two seats in 2008.
The Awami League and the BNP-Jamaat combine represent two irreconcilable political ideologies. The League and the people supporting it want Bangladesh to be a modern, liberal, democratic and secular state, while BNP and Jamaat want the country to become an Islamic Republic. In the United Nation’s view, Bangladesh is a ‘moderate Muslim democracy’ but the country’s Foreign Minister Depu Moni refutes this. She insists Bangladesh is a ‘secular’ and not a ‘moderately Muslim’ country. This year (2013) saw the emergence of another fundamentalist player, the Hefajat-e-Islam with a 13-point charter of demands including cancellation of the Women’s Development Policy adopted in 2009 and of the Secular Education Policy. Both the demands smack of Talibanism.

It may be recalled that earlier this year, when the students went on a protest sit-in at the Shahbag Square in Dhaka demanding death sentence for Mollah, activists of the Hefajat-e-Islam attacked the students and their sympathisers at many places. They attacked and killed policemen and indulged in widespread damage of public property. It is not known whether it will take part in the polls but ideologically it is on the side of the BNP and Jamaat.

The coming elections in Bangladesh will see the confrontation between these two forces, one for liberal, secular democracy and the other for religious fundamentalism and Islamisation of
the polity. IPA
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