Bangladesh: In the Grip of Matsanyam 2

Published: February 2, 2015 - 13:02 Updated: June 16, 2015 - 15:21

The Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party have a hostile relationship that is almost comical and certainly absurd

Afsan Chowdhury Dhaka 

In ancient Bengal there was a phase which historians call ‘matsanyam’ or ‘fish eating fish’, meaning anarchy. It, however, ended with the warlords deciding to bury all enmity and elect one of them as king, thereby, kicking off the dynastic period of Bengal. Bangladeshis are hoping that since they have had all the anarchy they want, it will end as it did in the 8th century, with peaceful rule. Not everyone is convinced about the last part. 

The last two years have seen an almost unbroken spell of violence, with some short term dips, but the streets have always been kept ready for violence. Several causes have acted as igniters. When the Awami League (AL) government, through the 15th amendment to the constitution, ended the practice of Caretaker Governments (CTG) under which elections are held, the crisis began. This CTG system was set up in 1990, after the end of the Ershad regime, when the two warring parties decided that they could join elections only if a non-partisan government was in charge. This worked till 2011 when the AL did away with it. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) cried foul first, and later boycotted the elections. Meanwhile, the war crimes tribunal set up to try mostly members of Jamaat e-Islami (JI) for war crimes began its work. 

Jamaat is an electoral ally of the BNP. It was resurrected by BNP founder and leader General Zia, after the 1975 killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as part of the anti-AL alliance. Its electoral alliance was critical in helping BNP to power in 2001. However, the War Crimes Tribunal had a great deal of public support, and in fact, thousands came out to the street to protest the life imprisonment sentence given to the JI leader Quader Mollah. The crowd demanded a death sentence, and youth began gathering at the Shahbagh centre near the Dhaka University, and it became the most celebrated youth-based movement focused on bringing 1971 war criminals to justice. Initially distanced from it, the AL government later endorsed and ultimately took over the movement in a display of admirable politicking. 

Jamaat-e- Islami retaliated with street level violence and the conflict led to many deaths-- both from violent agitation and police action. Although the JI is a very organized, cadre based party, it has been seriously depleted by the arrests, trials and police action. But in 2013, it lit fire to the streets and life became extreme for people of Dhaka and other parts of Bangladesh. But the trials continued and sentences given to the accused including the JI leader Gholam Azam, who died in prison while in “jail unto death.” Several major leaders, including two BNP stalwarts, have been sentenced to death though the sentences have not been carried out yet. 

BNP too had agitated but it was against the 15th amendment and not the war crimes tribunal. It says that the trail is flawed but took the trouble to separate them from the JI agitation. But most consider the two a functioning combo.

In the run up to the national elections held on December 5, 2013, the BNP won almost all the local and municipality elections. It was slaying one AL stronghold after another and BNP leaders were very optimistic about the ultimate victory. The AL was nervous as several polls said the possible outcome was a BNP victory. But the BNP is a family business of sorts, with a significant part of it located in London, where Tarique Zia, Zia and Khaleda’s eldest son, lives in exile to avoid possible trial. He was against participating in the national election and he won the argument against most party leaders’ wishes. This was a disastrous decision as it forced the BNP to leave the political pasture, and in the voter-less election, AL and its allies romped home with almost all the seats. The AL didn’t gain credibility but the BNP lost both presence and power. It went into a slumber of sorts and with nothing to hold the party together, it cracked and crumbled. Barrister Moudud Ahmed, a top BNP leader, has ruefully said that Khaleda Zia decided to boycott the elections with the heart of a mother, not a politician. 

Meanwhile, the AL has effectively cut down the BNP, and its organizational structure is in a bad shape, with most top leaders in jail. Resources are always low when a party is out of power for long and with no certainty as to who runs the party, both men and money are at a low ebb. The AL has tightened the screw at every level so that case after case has been filed followed by jail and remands for many BNP leaders. 

The AL is banking that the BNP brand is so tarnished through its association with Jamaat that it isn’t a political force anymore. This has in parts worked particularly in the urban areas, and from December 2013 to December 2014, BNP failed to mobilize any serious agitation. It was only in January 2015 that blockades and hartals were again called with fiery violence. The use of petrol bombs has been particularly vicious, with death and injury figures running into digits and causing damage and loss of billions of taka. It is understandably one of the most violent political agitations Bangladesh has ever seen. At the back of this stand two political parties not willing to budge from their stated or unstated stands. 

The AL and the BNP have a hostile relationship that is almost comical and certainly absurd. When Khaleda Zia called a rally, permission to hold it was denied by the government and a loaded truck was parked in front of her gate, encircled by cops which prevented free movement.  When asked, the AL said that it was to protect Khaleda. So Khaleda refused to leave her office where she was joined by some of her supporters. It became a siege and even after the truck left, Khaleda refused to come out.   

When Khaleda’s younger son Arafat Rahman Coco died in Malayasia, PM Sk Hasina went to  pay her a consolation visit but the gate was kept locked. She was told that a devastated Khaleda was under sedation and couldn’t see her. Hasina waited for a few minutes and then left and AL supporters exploded. Khaleda was accused of being “inhuman, cruel”, and so on, and the AL leaders said that a historic opportunity for “peace talks” was lost.  

Although the government says it really hasn’t taken a hard line yet and more is to come, many feel that the promised hard line will not help the AL because people in general dislike violence after a point and will react negatively. And the funeral of Coco showed that the BNP has still a lot of supporters left. But the AL has said that there is no reason to give elections before 2019 when the term ends, and the BNP wants a cancellation and a new one. Meanwhile, the agitation continues. BNP is fighting for political survival and is desperate to make its presence felt, so the mayhem and blockade and strikes may not end for a while, it seems. A case filed against Khaleda for inciting arson will not make matters better but that’s how the game goes here in mud land. 

What is amazing is to see people keep going on with their lives amidst a bloody fight between two political parties not willing to sit and talk with each other except on their own terms. It is not their own fight but they are the victims. Sadly, one is not sure if matsanyam 2 will end or not.   


This story is from print issue of HardNews