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Bangladesh must protect its secular fabric

The January 5 parliamentary elections are crucial for the country to shed its basket case image. Chiranjib Haldar writes.

ht view Updated: Jan 03, 2014 23:31 IST

As violent pre-poll clashes between Opposition activists and security forces dot Bangladesh’s landscape, the tussle extraordinaire between Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia and Prime Minister and leader of the Awami League Sheikh Hasina continues.

While Zia has termed the hustings a farce, an unrelenting Hasina has incessantly refused to hold elections under a caretaker regime.

When the Shahbag unrest intensified, some called it an upheaval, some an awakening of sorts.

Representative reality may be mired in illusion, as many sceptics would say, but, in this case, a visible spontaneous movement was sustained despite attempts to stifle it by two major opposition parties.

The Awami League is determined to push through the polls on January 5 despite the Opposition boycott with the BNP and 17 smaller parties refusing to file nomination papers. The question confronting the average Bangladeshi is whether this resilience and pent up anger can be combined with intelligence and wisdom for development and enrichment of life, rather than to intensify hatred.

A question that crops up is will one of Asia’s youngest nations be able to preserve its secular fabric. If 154 Members of Parliament are elected unopposed to the 300-member Jatiyo Sangshad (parliament) from the Awami League, the elections will largely be a formality.

While the BNP has termed the election an ultimate treachery and deceit, the Awami League has termed it as a final frontier between forces who favoured the creation of Bangladesh and those who opposed it.

Zia has reiterated that elections cannot be free and fair with the Awami League in power. If one objectively analyses the Hasina and Zia regimes, forces both of cohesion and disunity have coexisted in a precarious balance.

A diplomatic shove by India over the past two years to pragmatically engage with both Hasina, seen by many in Dhaka as pro-India, and Zia is because New Delhi feels Indo-Bangla ties are better insulated from upheavals in Dhaka’s domestic politics.

For the Shahbag movement to happen around ‘Ekushe February’ (February 21) was indeed reinforcing the win of linguistic nationalism over religious nationalism. Even if Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had gone to Pakistan in 1974 to attend an Islamic brotherhood conference, for Bangladeshis, the liberation war and Ekushe February can’t be claptrap. Bangladesh must look inwards.

For the Awami League, keeping up the division between pro- and anti-liberation forces is critical for sustaining its political grip. The bridge on the River Padma may boost Sheikh Hasina’s chances and shed Bangladesh’s basket case tag.

But the Teesta water sharing and the Indo-Bangla land boundary agreements are yet to fructify. If these don’t materialise after the polls, Hasina will face a demanding electorate and risk accusations that she has not been reciprocated by India.

And this failure is where Zia could derive her nationalist springboard from in future.

Chiranjib Haldar is a commentator on South Asian affairs

The views expressed by the author are personal