A MOLOTOV COCKTAIL OF POLITICS
The mood in Bangladesh is sombre, with violence ripping the country following Quader Mollah’s execution, ahead of the crucial general election which the BNP-Jamaat is out to boycott and disrupt
Sadiq Naqvi Dhaka
“Now, we will have to respond to the violence,” says Asaduzzaman Noor, an Awami League MP and an acclaimed Bangladeshi actor. He is one of the 154 candidates of the Awami League who will possibly be elected unopposed after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, announced that it is boycotting the January 5 elections. The crisis has brought the country to a standstill after the BNP and its main ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, organized blockades and strikes against the decision of the Awami League government to go ahead with elections. Earlier, the BNP wanted the elections under a caretaker government, but now it just wants Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed to resign – a concession from its earlier demand. As the government has refused to wilt under the politics of terror and violence, arson and targeted attacks have become commonplace, deepening divisions in a highly polarized Bangladeshi society that is engaged in a serious existential struggle.
The timing of the elections coincides with the violent face-off over the interpretation of the 1971 liberation war between those who want Bangladesh to be a secular and plural society and others – who were also perpetrators of some of the most beastly crimes committed in South Asia – who were against the partition of Pakistan and would want Bangladesh to turn into an Islamic State. The elections would offer some clue about the direction Bangladesh will take in the coming months.
Noor has reasons to be angry with the BNP-Jamaat agitators. On December 14, he had a narrow escape. “I had gone to meet the members of the minority community in Nilphamari, my constituency. They were living in fear after their houses were torched by members of the Jamaat’s student organization, Islami Chattra Shibir. On the way back, two of the cars, which were slower, were waylaid by a large group of people. Two of my supporters were hacked to death by machetes and Chinese axes. That’s how brutal they are,” Noor says. Nilphamari is said to be a stronghold of the Jamaat and its student wing, Shibir, the now de-recognized political outfit said to be behind the ghastly attack that happened a day after Quader Mollah’s execution.
Mollah, the Butcher of Mirpur, an epithet he earned for his brutalities against the pro-liberation people of Bangladesh, was earlier convicted on charges of complicity in killings during the 1971 war. A former member of the Al Badr militia, he was one of the 10 Jamaat and BNP political activists who have been convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal. He was also the first to be hanged while four others await execution. More than 100 people have succumbed to the fresh spell of violence after the Supreme Court verdict on the government’s appeal against the tribunal awarding him a life sentence.
“Dhaka has become a city of Molotov cocktails,” says Tanweer Haider, a student of business administration at Dhaka University. “My parents in Chittagong are worried all the time. They keep telling me to stay indoors. The Chhatra Shibiris or the Chhatra Dal members emerge from nowhere, attack and run away. They act like guerrillas.” There have been dozens of such attacks in the last few months after the BNP and Jamaat announced strikes and blockades. Many have succumbed to injuries. In November, several people died after a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a moving bus close to Shahbagh square.
“They are smart. One of them walks in with gunpowder in a cellophane pouch, sprays it and walks away. The next one comes in, ignites and runs,” says Mohammad Zameer, a member of the Awami League Advisory Council. Zameer recalls how he escaped an attempt on his life after a young woman armed with grenades was caught by the police. “She came to my house, possibly angered over one of my poems, which they construed as blasphemous,” he says.
“Stay put in Gulshan (the diplomatic avenue). Don’t venture to the other parts of the town,” the cabbie warns, pointing to a crowd that has been prevented from entering the premises of Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal airport the morning after Mollah’s execution. “The security forces are not taking any chances. They are expecting a wave of violence and revenge attacks,” he continues, as the car zips through largely empty roads with only the sirens of the ambulances and the police cars disrupting the eerie quiet that engulfs the city. “Now some people even use ambulances to commute. The fear of violence is palpable,” he says. The fears are well-founded. By evening, there were reports that the Jamaat cadre was out on the streets, throwing bombs and torching vehicles. Almost 150 vehicles were burnt and a few people killed across the country the same day. Days before Mollah’s execution, the Jamaat and its allied outfits had threatened to launch a wave of attacks if the government went ahead with the hanging.
“Barring a few deadly attacks and skirmishes, Dhaka has been relatively quiet. It is the other areas in the hinterland that are bearing the brunt,” says Humayun Kabir, a former diplomat. “The mood in the country is sombre. The crisis has thrown life out of gear. Today they have given a breather, for tomorrow is Victory Day. That is probably why everyone is out shopping. Day after tomorrow, the rolling strikes begin again.” The BNP is using Jamaat for all the dirty work, points out Zameer.
Meanwhile, Shamsher Mubin Chowdhury, the Vice-Chairman of the BNP and former foreign secretary, is a worried man. Although the party has remained intact, rumour had it that 100 of its possible candidates were mulling hopping over to the other side, a plan that did not materialize. Chowdhury asserts that the BNP is boycotting the elections because it fears rigging if they are held under the incumbent government. “Look at all the opinion polls. All of them suggest that the BNP is coming back to power if fair elections are held,” he points out. After the Supreme Court ruled that caretaker governments were undemocratic and illegal, the Awami League-led government moved a constitutional amendment to do away with the institution of a caretaker government. “We are strengthening our Election Commission (EC) the way India and other parliamentary democracies have done. The elections will be conducted by a statutory and autonomous Commission with powers to conduct elections without any control or interference by the government,” Gowher Rizvi, the powerful adviser to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina,
Rizvi’s claims of having an independent EC finds few takers. “There is a larger belief that the EC is working on the whims of the government,” a former diplomat comments. The assertions find credence if one looks at the recent reports where General Hussain Mohammad Ershad’s (said to be in custody in a hospital) Jatio Party candidates were allowed a free run in some constituencies as the Awami League candidates withdrew nominations after the designated date. “This sort of scenario worries me. This strengthens the belief that the EC is working under directions from the Prime Minister’s office,” says Khushi Kabir, a noted women’s rights activist.
A political commentator points out that the political turmoil in the country hasn’t allowed the institutions to grow and become stronger. “Earlier, people had faith in the courts. Now, even that faith has eroded,” adds Towhid Samad, a known businessman and one of the founders of a large private university.
Chowdhury alleges that the Awami League is not interested in any negotiations. “No society has seen an electoral fraud of this magnitude,” he adds, referring to the three rounds of negotiations that were initiated after UN Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez Taranco’s visit to Dhaka bore no fruit. “They refused to heed our demands. They did not even agree to release our leaders,” Chowdhury says, adding that even he could be picked up soon. “Several of our leaders are in jail. One of them was picked up from the party office in Mirpur at 4 am.” He suggests the government is using the security agencies as “armed bandits” and that this is nothing but “an orchestrated plan to prosecute the opposition”.
But a close aide of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina suggests the problem could be something personal. “Frankly, the fundamental reason why this standoff persists is Begum Zia’s refusal to contest any election under Sheikh Hasina.”
A top Awami League leader, though, hints at an ulterior motive on the part of the BNP. “In the talks, the BNP was adamant that we postpone the elections for three months. But we don’t want to be lured into that trap. That would be unconstitutional. They are citing one particular emergency provision in the constitution, the presidential decree, which could be invoked to postpone the elections. But what if they go to the court and get an order terming the government unconstitutional?” asks the leader.
He also claimed the government arrested only five leaders after they were instigating people to engage in violence. In the case of Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the BNP joint secretary who was picked up in the wee hours of the morning from the party office, he adds that the politician had on record exhorted people to burn more buses. “What do you do with such people? Of course they will be released once the situation improves,” he says. “PM Hasina has shown flexibility. She has been inviting the BNP to join the all-party election-time government. What do we do if they are not ready?” asks Zameer. “They could have joined the elections. And if they were not satisfied they could have put pressure for a re-run. Who was stopping them?”
Rizvi explains his government’s logic: “It is the will of the people. If after January 5, people say, ‘Well, this election is not as good as we would have liked but in the circumstances, to restore peace, law and order, let the government continue,’ we will continue. But if the people say it’s not valid, then we will have to rethink.”
The stalemate in Dhaka has put India in a precarious position. “India has put all its eggs in one basket,” is the chorus that’s echoed in the elite corridors of Dhaka. “There is a belief that India is allowing a fraud election,” Chowdhury laments, referring to the Indian politicians who ‘wish’ the Awami League to return to power. “Our alliance with the Jamaat could be a reason for distrust, but India should understand that it is not an ideological alliance. It’s just an electoral alliance,” he claims, an assertion which is refuted by the Jamaat’s top brass. “Did Khaleda Zia say this too?” asks barrister Abdur Razzaq, the assistant secretary general of the Jamaat. “BNP and Jamaat are natural allies. In each of the 300-odd constituencies, Jamaat has a minimum of 15,000-30,000 votes. It was the BNP that gave the Constitution an Islamic character. We have fought together for 25 years.”
It is this alliance that’s making the Indians wary. An Indian official recalls the mayhem when the BNP was last in power. “The Jamaat was running berserk. They not only provided a safe haven to terror groups but also unleashed violence on the vulnerable minorities. Things were so bad you had terror safehouses right under our nose in Gulshan,” says the official.
Another diplomat takes the ‘once bitten, twice shy’ line. “It’s a known fact that the Awami is our historical ally. We are more comfortable working with them. But this doesn’t mean we are here to make or break governments. We have been more than categorical in telling them that we will deal with you if you come back to power. But we are not going to aid you in winning the elections,” he says. Indians point out that they have gone out of their way to keep Khaleda Zia in good humour. “She got a red carpet welcome during her last visit to Delhi,” says a diplomat. “But the BNP lives on anti-India rhetoric. That is why, when President Pranab Mukherjee was here, she announced a hartal to avoid meeting him. Even the Jamaat-run newspapers have been constantly feeding the anti-India rhetoric.”
Interestingly, the support that the BNP and the Jamaat have been able to garner from Western governments, especially the US, has also made the situation messy. Recently, the US Ambassador in Dhaka, Dan Mozena, landed in Delhi to talk to the Indian government about the ‘fraudulent elections’, an assertion that was not well received by South Block. The last few statements issued by Khaleda Zia, aimed at India with promises of ‘good relations with neighbours, commitment to counter terrorism and protection of the minorities’, also carry his imprimatur. “The latest joke in Dhaka is that Mozena has taken over as the general secretary of the BNP and these statements are nothing but handouts by the US embassy,” says the editor of a leading English daily. “We have been able to tell the Americans to not mess around in Bangladesh. What moral authority do they have to question what is happening here? What have they done in Guantanamo, Afghanistan or even in Iraq?” asks an official. “How is it in our interest to call it a fraudulent election and give any leeway to the regressive forces? If the BNP-led alliance comes in, they may even scrap the war crimes tribunal.”
At the Victory Day carnival at Suharavardi Park in Dhaka, thousands who had earlier taken part in an uprising calling for death penalty for the war criminals, gathered again to celebrate the historic day and the hanging of Mollah. Seeing the huge crowd, an Awami League supporter joked, “We should have elections between Victory Day and the Bengali New Year. The party’s support is at an all-time high during this period.”
Even as fireworks lit the evening sky and rock bands played in the background, the people took an oath to not allow fundamentalist forces to come in and dictate terms. Many of them were attacked and threatened after the Shahbagh movement early this year. “We will not allow the Jamaat and the Hefazat-e-Islam to take over the country,” said a student as chants of ‘Death to the war criminals’ echoed in the backdrop.
“Begum Zia calls them political prisoners,” says Mohammad Arafat, an academic and political commentator. “How does it square with their claims that they too are supportive of the spirit of liberation? It is the Jamaat, the party of war criminals, which is dictating terms to the BNP and not the other way round.”
With activists of the Jamaat and the BNP facing grave charges, the ICT has inevitably been politicized. “Mollah’s execution is judicial murder. People have started questioning it,” Razzaq says. The Jamaat may be on the backfoot at the moment, but its claim that the present government is anti-Islamic is feeding a certain section of the population, especially in the rural areas where people depend on madrasas for education. The rise of the Hefazat needs to be understood in this context. “Sayed Qutub was hanged in 1966. More than 40 years later, we saw the Muslim Brotherhood come to power in Egypt,” Razzaq says. He doesn’t add what happened in Egypt after that.
It is this long-term agenda of the Jamaat that is weighing heavily on the minds of everyone who subscribes to the secular ethos. “After just one hanging of Mollah, they have killed so many people. We saw it in 1971, we are seeing it again now. In the garb of a free and fair election, the 18-party BNP alliance wants to stop the war crimes tribunal,” says Nasiruddin Youseff, a leading cultural activist. “Religion is playing a key role. It is being misrepresented by the Mullahs.”
“They have been claiming that the tribunal is not of an international standard. Can they explain if there is an international standard one could subscribe to? It took three long years to arrive at this judgment and that too after giving ample opportunity to appeal in the court. Where else do you get this opportunity to appeal?” asks Tureen Afroz, one of the prosecutors. “For our future, we have to get our past correct.”
“It is not about democracy. It’s about reclaiming the spirit of the Liberation,” says Mozammel Haque, a political commentator and owner of Ekattor TV network. “The Jamaat supporters have destroyed the village theatre movement. They even stopped the jatras. We have to fight them. The government needs
to act,” Youseff adds.
However, even if a majority of Bangladeshis are in support of the tribunal, it won’t be wise to suggest that they also support the Awami League, which is going ahead with the elections without the BNP and other parties. “They should have made efforts to ensure that the BNP comes in,” says Ambassador Kabir. “Even I have been a Liberation fighter. I don’t approve of what is happening in the country.” But then, as a political analyst says, “both the ladies can be really stubborn.”