The Battle for Dhaka’s Soul
January 17, 2014
In Bangladesh, politics has been on the boil for months. In August last year, the high court in Dhaka banned the country’s largest Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The court declared the party as “anti-secular”, and against the Constitution of the country. This aggravated the already tense political paradigm ahead of the 5 January General Election.
At the centre of all this are the two Begums of the country’s political castles. Between incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), they have shared 20 years either being the leader of the country or sitting in the Opposition against one another.
Last year, Sheikh Hasina’s regime faced protests from various sections of the Opposition. In February, Dhaka’s central neighbourhood of Shahbag Square saw thousands of protesters demand the death penalty for Abdul Quader Mollah, who was convicted for war crimes by the International War Crimes Tribunal.
Both the Awami League and the BNP saw these protests as an opportunity, even as the Jamaat-e-Islami — which did not support the country’s independence from Pakistan in 1971 — took to the streets to protest against the decision. Around 60 people were killed as clashes erupted between Jamaat supporters and the police.
The Shahbag protests fizzled out in April after the country’s laws against war criminals were strengthened. However, further political trouble was brewing by the middle of the year when the BNP demanded that Sheikh Hasina amend the Constitution, dissolve Parliament and appoint a caretaker government. Along with the Election Commission, the BNP wanted the caretaker regime to oversee the election and organise the transfer of power.
However, because Sheikh Hasina’s government decided to sideline all such demands, the BNP, along with its 18 allies, started to orchestrate strikes and protests all around the country. On 29 December, Khaleda Zia, whose party by now had adopted the street-protest style of dissent, called for a rally against the government.
But Sheikh Hasina ordered a crackdown, which saw most roads leading to Dhaka being shut down. As part of efforts to cripple the rally, the police arrested more than 1,000 supporters of the Opposition parties and this succeeded in preventing any mass political gathering.
During the past few months, violent groups belonging to a mash-up of Jamaat and BNP supporters kept orchestrating sporadic attacks. Reports of killings became a pattern on a daily basis. This gave further strength to Sheikh Hasina’s government in opposing Khaleda Zia. The Awami League argued that under Khaleda Zia, the country may become a “valley of death”, pointing towards the record of the BNP-Jamaat coalition that ruled the country from 2001 until 2006.
On 5 January, Sheikh Hasina’s government held a “farcical” election, which it won as most of its candidates went uncontested around the country. Eighteen protesters were reportedly killed on polling day, taking the total toll of people killed since 2013 to well beyond 500. More than 100 polling stations were set on fire. Never before had so many people been killed in the country since 1971.
Even as the world watched Sheikh Hasina come back to power in an unopposed election, the BNP did not have enough strength to orchestrate a powerful counter to the new government. BNP leaders are now hoping that the new regime will crumble under its own fallacies.
Amidst all this chaos, India maintained a safe distance from directly commenting on the election and the violence in its neighbourhood over the past year. Even as western countries such as the US called for a free and fair repoll, New Delhi seemed content with seeing Sheikh Hasina back in power for the time being.
The South Block maintained that the polls was part of Bangladesh’s “internal and constitutional process” and that “it is for the people of Bangladesh to decide their own future and choose their representatives in a manner that responds to their aspirations. Violence cannot and should not determine the way forward. The democratic processes must be allowed to take their own course”.
On 5 January, Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh visited Dhaka. While addressing the local media, she reminded everyone that democracy processes have their “twists and turns”, and that it is no “set of linear equations”. Foreign ministry officials have also been quoted as saying that Sheikh Hasina had done “everything according to the book and made reconciliatory offers to the Opposition that were turned down. There was nothing unconstitutional or illegal about the election”.
It is now seemingly clear that New Delhi is happy with Sheikh Hasina retaining power. The main reason behind this preference is the fact that the Jamaat is an influential partner in the BNP’s politics and India is not certain whether she will be able to control the radical elements in her party if she were to become the PM.
India shares a very porous border with Bangladesh and has in the past faced challenges in reining in extremist elements crossing in from the country. Jamaat and its related elements were seen as one of the possible culprits of the July bombings at Bodh Gaya in Bihar last year. The Islamist organisation, which is known to be very active in the southern parts of Bangladesh, specifically around Cox’s Bazaar, has been known in the past to radicalise youths in order to bolster their cadre.
As Bangladesh also shares an equally porous border with Myanmar, Jamaat’s student wing, the Islami Chhatra League, is known to have been radicalising Rohingya Muslims, who are fleeing Myanmar. This region, starting from Cox’s Bazaar to the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, is considered to be a safe haven for extremism, weapon smuggling, drug trade, etc.
Some Indian diplomats have also expressed their displeasure at western powers trying to push through a fresh election in Bangladesh. The US has called for the resumption of an “immediate dialogue” between the Awami League and the Opposition parties and labelled the election as not credible. In response, Bangladesh’s Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu has said that western “friends” should first ask the BNP to forego violence and come forward for constructive talks.
In response to western opinion on the Bangladesh polls, India’s Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid discreetly pointed out the fact that what happens in Bangladesh is more important to India’s interests than America’s. “While the US is at some distance from Bangladesh, we are right next to it,” he told the media.
In the coming days, a few ‘endgame’ options still remain on the table for both the Begums of Dhaka. These include the possibility of the Awami League being brought to its knees by continuous strikes orchestrated by the BNP, fruitful talks between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in order to break the deadlock, even though they have a poor track record, and lastly the military generals intervening again, as they have done in the past.
For now, Sheikh Hasina is expected to remain the prime minister. If the past is any indicator, the country’s delicate democracy may offer her many more challenges in the months to come, which may again change the landscape for Bangladesh’s citizens and the two Begums.
Kabir Taneja is a freelance journalist specialising in foreign affairs and a scholar at Takshashila Institution