The bitter friction between ruling Awami League and opposition parties – Jammat-e-Islami (JI) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) - in Bangladesh, just a few months ahead of upcoming national elections may lead to yet another South Asian quagmire. Not only has territorial neighbours like India remained on alert, the international community too has been suggestive of resolving the problem amicably as soon as possible to thwart any egregious situation.
The trigger to the unabated political turmoil is the recent explicit rulings by International Crimes Tribunal (ICT), a specially constituted body in 2010, to prosecute those responsible for atrocities committed during the War of Independence in 1971. Several JI leaders have been held responsible for 1971 war crimes which have led to polarisation among supporters on ideological lines. The supporters of a multi-religious, secular establishment in Bangladesh are in favour of a government led by Sheikh Hasina. The conservatives wanting the rule of Islamic law, rallied by JI, have been challenging the government's actions at every step.
The ICT has handed down six judgements since January this year with the first one being against Abul Kalam Azad who was found guilty of crimes against humanity, genocide and rape and sentenced to death followed by Jamaat leader Abdul Qader Mollah who was sentenced to life in prison. Later, the vice-president of the religious party Delwar Hossain Sayedee was also convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death. On 15 July another top JI spiritual leader Ghulam Aza was sent to prison for 90 years for masterminding atrocities during the war. Recently Abdul Quader Molla, another JI leader, was convicted for committing mass murder during 1971 and was given the death penalty.
Resultantly, these convictions have witnessed face-off between the Jammat supporters and the police. The police have even been accused of killing protesters by use of force. Apart from Jammat-e-Islami, BNP leader Khalida Zia also criticised the government's actions and said that 'these rulings will always remain questionable.'
Calling on the government and police not to use force against demonstrators, she asked the courts to take into account the expectations of the public in deciding on their verdicts and sentences. However, in the past few months she has remained silent, which has given an opportunity to the ruling Awami League to question her credibility.
Polarisation due to these rulings
According to estimates, since January at least 100 people have died in violence that broke out after the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) convictions of Jammat-e-Islami leaders for war crimes.
Given Bangladesh's deeply polarised society and the passions associated with this case, analysts believe they're bracing for more violence in the near future. 'Jamaat is an important component in the opposition coalition, and the government reportedly tried to sway the party over to its side. After talks reportedly broke down, Bangladesh's high court ruled in August that Jamaat-e-Islami is registered illegally, effectively preventing the party from competing in the general election expected in January,’ said Shahnawaz, a research scholar at Jamia Millia Isliamia writing his dissertation on Bangladesh. He added that this has led to immense polarisation in the society which may intensify as elections approach.
'There is polarisation between those who favour a nationalist, multicultural, multi religious identity for Bangladesh, and those who favour a more Islamic identity,' said David Lewis, an expert on South Asian affairs at the London School of Economics in an article in Duetsche Welle.
The International Crimes Tribunal, which has been criticised by human rights groups, is accused of operating against the rules set by international body United Nations. ICT was set up in 2010 by the current government to try those accused of collaborating in 1971 with Pakistan to stop Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, from gaining independence.
Moreover, the Islamic party recently received another blow when Dhaka's High Court ruled on 1 August in favor of a long-running petition which argued that the JI should never have been allowed to register as a political party. The petitioners had argued that JI's charter violated the country's secular constitution as it called for 'The rule of Allah' and discriminated against minorities and women. The JI reacted to this by appealing to the Supreme Court and calling for a 48-hour nationwide bandh.
The ministry of external affairs (MEA) officials has been maintaining that they are constantly monitoring the situation in Bangladesh and are in regular touch with their embassy in Dhaka. 'Stability in Bangladesh is imperative for the peace in the South Asian region and we are willing to extend all our support in ensuring that peaceful elections are undertaken in the country,' a senior MEA official said.
New Delhi has considerate relations with the Awami League's Sheikh Hasina government and is sceptical of emergence of Jammat-e-Islami as the more powerful party in the country. 'Such parties may prove to be detrimental for the secular growth of Bangladesh which is imperative to manage the ethnic heterogeneity of the country,' the MEA official added.
India also fears any situation facsimile to Pakistan where the Islamic parties have been able to penetrate profoundly into the state's institutions. Islamisation of Pakistan's powerful military during General Zia-ul-Haq's martial law has been posing challenges to the country's democratic evolution till date. Certainly New Delhi dreads any such repetition in Bangladesh for stability of the region.
Bangladesh's surmounting political feud has caught the attention of international players such as the United Nations and the European Union too who have expressed that the country might descend into political instability. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon talked to Bangladeshi foreign minister Dipu Moni and stressed the 'critical importance' for the political leaders of the country to engage in constructive dialogue. Moon also phoned the opposition leader Khaleda Zia and talked for around half-an-hour. He conversed about current political situation and the next general elections.
As former US ambassador to Bangladesh William Milam told Duetsche Welle, 'Bangladeshi leaders seem to consider losing an election a near-death experience, impossible to tolerate. Winners always wreak vengeance on the losers. And it seems that the penalties for losing become more severe with each election cycle. This is not a fertile ground for substantive democracy to flourish,' adding that, 'The political imperative in Bangladesh to get elected, or re-elected, is just too fierce, and neither major party would be able to put the temptation to cheat behind it, even if it wanted to.' To conclude, these developments in Bangladesh have put the equilibrium of the South Asian region in quandary. Even as Awami League attempts to bring perpetrators of 1971 war crimes to justice by International Crime Tribunal they should also realise that it could lead to invigoration of unscrupulous elements. A collective resolution within the existing political set-up is what all parties should aim at, keeping aside their personal gains.
Polarisation along ideological lines is averse for any democracy and unfolding violent developments in Bangladesh could cause tremors which would be felt across borders.