BANGLADESH: A LIBERATION UNDER SIEGE

The seemingly interminable violence in Bangladesh is being propped up not by internal elements alone but also by countries that have a vested geostrategic interest

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

On the day the Indian Foreign Secretary, Sujata Singh, landed in Bangladesh, 40 people were killed in clashes. These deaths were a sickening addition to an unending continuum of killings that have racked Bangladesh ever since the government of the Awami League began trial of those involved in war crimes during the country’s bloody freedom movement. The violence has spiked during the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 5, 2014, which the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP) is boycotting after it failed to get a response to its unconstitutional demand to have the polls under a caretaker government.

The elections to the Bangladesh national assembly is not just important for itself as it tries to exorcise the ghosts of the past that still animate the politics of this country, but also India, which is joined with Bangladesh at the hip. Although the Indian government has tried to convey to the Bangladesh political parties and people that it could work with anyone, Sheikh Hasina Wajed’s Awami League or Khaleda Zia’s BNP, the country’s violent and polarised politics leaves no one in doubt what New Delhi really wants. Besides backing democracy and peace in the neighbourhood, India would want a government in Dhaka that is cognizant of its national interest and, which does not provide safe haven to terrorists and radical Islamist elements. Besides improving trade and connectivity, friendly relationships could revive a moribund economy in northeastern and eastern India. From this standpoint, the elections in Bangladesh matter to India as much as they matters to itself.

The Shahbagh movement was meant to re-establish the identity of Bangladesh around its rich and inclusive culture, and the Bangla language

It is due to these reasons and more that the efforts of the BNP to lower the credibility of the electoral process serves the interests of Islamist organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islam, which had opposed the independence of Bangladesh some 42 years ago, and in turn helped Pakistan preserve its shaky instability. Subversion of the democratic process provides the Jamaat valuable space and time to regroup. Also, the Jamaat sees in the trial a serious existential threat as most of those on death row are their followers. The trial, though, has phenomenal ground support. Distressed by the lazy progress of the trial and inadequate punishment for the accused, young bloggers had spawned a colourful and noisy congregation at the Shahbagh roundabout in Dhaka earlier this year. These secular protesters wanted hanging for the accused and greater efforts by the government to preserve the values of the freedom movement. Most important, they wanted a closure to a painful past where the perpetrators of the genocide had not only gone unpunished, but prospered under subsequent regimes. There were fears amongst many survivors of those dark days that the return of the Jamaat backed-BNP could result, once again, in the return of murderers and rapists. The Shahbagh movement was meant to re-establish the identity of Bangladesh around its rich and inclusive culture, and the Bangla language. It was to be distinct from the Jamaat’s vision of Bangladesh, which was to create a Sharia-based society that was inherently undemocratic. Jamaat could not comprehend the purpose of partition with Pakistan if Bangladesh had to be secular, inclusive, and so on.

Hence, the Jamaat and their other front organisations like the Hefazat-e-Islam cleverly used the message emanating from the Shahbagh movement as a threat to Islam. Violence has not really waned. Earlier, in May 2013, the agitation by the Hefazat-e-Islam threatened to overrun Dhaka before the army chased them out. Since then, Bangladesh has been teetering on the brink.

When the war crimes trial tribunal announced the death sentence for Abdul Quader Mollah, a pro-Pakistan Islamist leader, there was fear that the country would go up in flames. Intriguingly, a number of western countries, along with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, had been pleading that the Bangladesh government go easy on the Jamaat. Faults have been found in the conduct of the war crimes tribunal and also in the quality of evidence. The Jamaat had employed some high-profile spin-meisters to show them up in better light. In a bizarre change of stance, all of the western powers, Arab countries and human rights organisations were happy to be on the side of Islamic extremists, killers and rapists, against those who wanted to build a secular and inclusive Bangladesh. Their support for the Jamaat on the specious and outdated grounds of co-opting extremist Islamic ideology in the democratic processes to build social stability was not a good enough reason to lobby for the release of war criminals.

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Emboldened by the support of the western powers, the Jamaatis spilled over to the streets to seek revenge for the hanging of the despicable “Butcher of Mirpur”, Mollah, who was accused of rape and murder of ordinary Bengalis. Images of burnt buses and cars, and dead bodies on the road became commonplace. Now, not a day passes when there is no hartal or a shutdown. The economy has been brought to its knees. The end seems nowhere in sight for the tragic showdown.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014