Originally Published 2015-01-12 00:00:00 Published on Jan 12, 2015
The political situation in Bangladesh is reverting to the bad old days of hartals and blockades. Major countries which could influence the Sheikh Hasina government, including India, seem reluctant to pressurise her. India has been clearly backing her for the time being, knowing that the alternative could be worse.
Bangladesh: Warring Begums

The political situation in Bangladesh is reverting to the bad old days of hartals and blockades. The trigger for the latest round of violence was the decision of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party's (BNP) and its 20-party alliance, led by its Chairperson and main opposition leader, Begum Khaleda Zia, to observe a "Murder of Democracy Day" on 5th January, the anniversary of the last general election. The 20-party alliance had boycotted the last election, demanding the resignation of Sheikh Hasina and elections under a neutral Caretaker government. The boycott ensured that Sheikh Hasina, her Awami League Party (AL) and sundry allies romped home and captured a formidable majority in the 300-member Bangladesh Parliament. Sheikh Hasina became Prime Minister for the 3rd time, equalling the number of times her bitter political rival Khaleda Zia has occupied the same position. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's government promptly banned the demonstration. Political tensions, therefore, rose as the anniversary started approaching with the opposition looking for an opportunity to rejuvenate and reinvigorate the political opposition.

The demonstration ban led immediately to the opposition calling for a nationwide movement to force the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign and hold new elections under a neutral Caretaker government. The opposition has issued a nationwide call for an indefinite blockade of roads, railways and waterways leading to the capital, Dhaka. As anticipated, the police cracked down with a heavy hand on opposition protestors leading to the death of at least 4 protestors and incarceration of hundreds. The police, usually partisan and subservient to the government in power, raised the banner of security and rejected allegations of being a tool of the government and the AL.

To add insult to injury, AL lawyers filed and obtained a gag order barring the media from publishing statements by Tarique Rahman, the older son of BNP leader Khaleda Zia and Vice-Chairman of the party who lives in exile in London and directs political activities in Bangladesh long-distance. This court order is quite unusual and has no precedent. Government authorities have also confined Khaleda Zia in her Dhaka office and other senior party leaders, including the party's Secretary-General, have been arrested. Tarique Rahman has been subjected to a number of arrest warrants and faces several corruption charges which he denies and claims that the government has unleashed these to harass and silence a vociferous critic.

The truth, as always, is more mundane. Tarique Rahman was a law unto himself, when his mother was Prime Minister from 2001-2006 and notorious for his involvement in cronyism and corruption on government tenders and contracts. He was also impugned in several cases of arms smuggling to anti-Indian insurgent groups in India's north-eastern states. His close crony, Lutfuzzaman Babar, a former MOS in the Interior Ministry has been convicted of arms smuggling. The Jamaat leader and former Minister Matiur Rahman Nizami also stands convicted in the same case. The latter has also been convicted for War Crimes by the International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) for atrocities, committed during Bangladesh's war of liberation, in collaboration with the Pakistani military which conducted a campaign of genocide against the people of then East Pakistan.

The Sheikh Hasina government denies that it has detained Khaleda Zia, claiming that it has provided her with "enhanced security" at her own request. Predictably, the opposition alleges that the government is detaining her illegally, denying her rights as a citizen and preventing her from leading the protests. These arguments and counter arguments are nothing new and form part of the staple diet of Bangladesh's volatile and fractious politics. The Sheikh Hasina government has also been criticized by human rights groups for arresting the chairman of Ekushey Television (ETV), the oldest private TV channel, a few hours after the channel had broadcast a speech by Tarique Rahman.

Critics have accused the government of high handed behaviour and unwarranted pressure on cable operators to blackout the channel. The cable operators' association has avoided any comment and the government has denied any wrongdoing. ETV has been targetted ostensibly on account of a case filed by a woman who had alleged that the channel had broadcast pornographic images of her. ETV has defended its position saying that as per accepted editorial norms, the channel had broadcast blurred images in an investigative program.

Most opposition leaders have disappeared into hiding and neutral observers have decried the clampdown on the opposition. Politics in Bangladesh entered a turbulent phase before the last general election, when the 20-party alliance boycotted the election. There seems to be no meeting ground between the two bitterly divided major political parties. The walkover in the last election has led to the questioning of the mandate and legitimacy of the Sheikh Hasina government. Critics are blaming her for hounding and intimidating the opposition. She has also been accused of using her brute majority in Parliament to push through Constitutional amendments that her critics regard as undemocratic.

While value judgements can be made about Sheikh Hasina's political moves, it would be incorrect to assume that any illegality has been perpetrated, either in going ahead with the election or amendments to the Constitution.. This has left the opposition frustrated and desperate to deploy the only weapon that Bangladesh's politicians seem to know - street agitation, hartals and blockades - with the hope that if the country is thrown into chaos, then the Army will step in and the government will have to step down. For the opposition subverting democracy is a small price to pay for political revenge and an eventual grab for power. In the days ahead it is possible that Khaleda Zia could be arrested and charged with sedition. She is already facing trial on corruption charges and if convicted will fetch her time in jail. The execution of Jamaat leaders convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death, could further add fuel to the political maelstrom.

Major countries which could influence the Sheikh Hasina government, including India, seem reluctant to pressurise her. India has been clearly backing her for the time being, knowing that the alternative could be worse. The BNP has been sending emissaries to India and appealing for India's intervention in "restoring" democracy in Bangladesh and to stand by the people of Bangladesh and their democratic aspirations. Some BNP leaders have warned that the failure of democracy will push the country towards extremism with serious security implications for India and if India fails to protect democracy, it will lose the goodwill of the people of Bangladesh. The Indian leadership is unlikely to be swayed by these arguments, coming from a party which in power had actively colluded with Pakistan and militant Islamist groups to blackmail and undermine the security of India.

China is actively courting the Sheikh Hasina government despite its known inclination towards the BNP. Chinese President Xi Jinping told Sheikh Hasina during her visit in June that his country wanted a better strategic relationship with Bangladesh. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Dhaka recently and is reported to have said that between Bangladesh and China there is "only friendship and cooperation". Sheikh Hasina had visited China in June this year and both sides agreeing to take relations to "a new height", with China promising to invest heavily in Bangladesh. Among projects China has been eying are the deep sea port, electricity production and transmission, agricultural productivity, training of personnel, including Chinese language teachers and technology cooperation. China's deep pockets have become a diplomatic tool for quite some time.

While the world has changed since the tumultuous events of 1971 when Bangladesh became an independent country, the people of Bangladesh will not forget that a pre-reforms Communist China opposed the creation of Bangladesh, because of its friendship with Pakistan. China also cast a veto in the Security Council to block new Bangladesh's entry into the United Nations. For geo-political reasons, Bangladesh has cultivated relations with China to balance India and also to source defence equipment and much-needed investments into the country. Dhaka is hoping that either the Chinese President or the Prime Minister will visit Bangladesh during the celebration of 40 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The recent election result in Sri Lanka that has led to the crushing defeat of President Rajapakse should hold a lesson for Bangladesh too, in the context of its growing romance with China. Bangladesh has a tough balancing act to perform.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India)

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Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty

Pinak Chakravarty was a Visiting Fellow with ORF's Regional Studies Initiative where he oversees the West Asia Initiative Bangladesh and selected ASEAN-related issues. He joined ...

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