The warmth with which Bangladesh’s Nobel laureate Mohammed Yunus greeted Amartya Sen, the other Nobel laureate from the subcontinent, when the two met in Dhaka recently, does not unfortunately transmit itself to political masters of the two countries. It definitely does not get transformed into even bare civility between the two ‘Ladies’ of Dhaka. Instead, they have now had years of mutual suspicion and unremitting hostility visible in absolute obduracy and violence on the streets.
Domestic compulsions and truculence translate into not even wanting to help themselves economically, simply because that might help India in the process. Thus, instead of using India’s vast neighbourhood markets and resources as an opportunity, Bangladesh politics demand that India is considered a threat. This can only be countered by cosying up to China, which had opposed Bangladesh’s creation, and Pakistan, which had oppressed it for 25 years, and by using the terrorist weapon as a force equaliser of some sort with India.
New Delhi has taken the right decision to bypass Bangladesh and signed a gas pipeline agreement with Myanmar. Bangladesh has to quickly decide whether it wants to be a member of the South Asian community or metaphorically anchor itself somewhere else or stay in a time-warp.
The endless feud between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia has polarised Bangladesh politics and given political space to various jehadi groups, allowing them to mushroom all over the country. Quite often this has been with the active encouragement or tacit approval of the Khaleda Zia government. Apart from Jamatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh, whose notoriety emanates from the 459 simultaneous bomb blasts it organised on August 17, 2005, there are several other jehadist outfits like Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, Hizbul Mujahideen, Al-Haramain Foundation and Al Mujahid.
The prominent Bangladesh newspaper, The Daily Star, had carried out a survey and published some startling findings on August 21, 2005. It spoke of the jehadi nexus with mainstream political parties, about their access to arms and official and political tolerance. Many of the members are Afghan jehad veterans, and funding from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait continues with the aim of introducing a more orthodox system of Islamic education and governance. The argument cannot be that they are fanciful groupings of a few or that they may not be effective; instead the fear is that this shows an evolving mindset in our neighbourhood.
Changes in ideology take place incrementally; these are like continental drifts until it is too late and then tectonic changes occur. In this age of modernity, there is also a move towards religious fundamentalism mixed with politics and militarism. Our neighbourhood is not immune from these influences. All three major parties in Bangladesh have contributed to this shift. General Zia-ur Rahman (now fondly known as Shaheed Zia) resorted to introducing religious concepts in the principles of State policy and removed the word ‘secular’ from the Constitution. His successor, General Ershad, in an electoral alliance with the Awami League, but hounded out by a BNP-inspired campaign for his impudence, declared Islam as the State religion. Both these leaders encouraged the rehabilitation of fundamentalists who had collaborated with Pakistan in 1971. Khaleda Zia cobbled an arrangement with the radical Jamaat Islami and Islamic Oikya Jote as part of a four-party alliance in governance since 2001.
The sudden decision of the Awami League, known for its liberal and secular credentials, to have an election arrangement with the ‘fatwa’ party, the Bangladesh Khilafat Majlis, sent shock waves in sections of Bangladesh society. This rather cynical electoral politics alarmed the minority who had always assumed that the League’s secular credentials would keep it relatively safe. The last bastion for the minorities in Bangladesh — the Hindus, Buddhists and Christians — seems to be crumbling.
Apart from electoral compulsions, there is immense significance in the symbolism of this five-point ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ as the Awami League calls it. One of these is that no law would be enacted that contradicts Quranic values, the Sunnah and the Shariat. The League’s problem has been to counter a vociferous and powerful opposition that insists on describing this adherence to secularism as disrespectful to Islam. Besides, secularism in the subcontinent is too Indian a concept to be readily acceptable in Bangladesh where sections want the country to become increasingly Islamic.
The League has nominated two veterans from the Afghan jehad from, Sylhet-1 and Narail-2 constituencies, apart from other Islamist candidates. Whether or not the arrangement Sheikh Hasina has worked out will last or whether or not she gains from this, the important point is that today the daughter of Sheikh Mujib feels that this alliance could lead to gains that would be greater than the loss from the annoyance of the minorities. And, therefore, considered worth it. In India, we play vote-bank politics by playing to the minorities; in Bangladesh and Pakistan, they play the majority tune all the time.
The stage is now set for the elections scheduled for January 22. The run-up to this has been one of the most violent in recent years and October 28 was the high point. There have been attempted assassinations. Sheikh Hasina had a lucky escape in August 2004 while former Minister S.A.M.S. Kibria was not so lucky in January 2005. Sections of the media have been intimidated very often and the authorities have been more amenable to taking action against minorities than against the majority. The Awami League has suspected, not without good reason, that there would be enough skullduggery so that the League is kept away from governance. The mastaans, who run organised crime syndicates and protection rackets, have had their political patrons but are now striking out on their own and are now part of the problem. The line between politics and crime, business and crime, has blurred.
India has chosen to stay out of any advisory roles because anything we say or do will be held against us. The West has been more explicit in expressing its worries at what might be and Dhaka-based British, US and Canadian envoys have given gratis advice on democracy and the need to hold free and fair elections. They have also been urging the young to exercise their franchise, several of whom are not on the voter lists or have been removed from the lists, because of selective revision. Usually, such mysterious omissions are names of those who belong to the minorities.
It is difficult to predict the outcome of the elections but the BNP government that has handed over power to the caretaker
authority would be carrying the usual baggage of the ‘anti-incumbency factor’ — common in our region unless one is ruled by a military dictator. The threat to boycott elections that the League sounds from time to time is another worrying factor, because sometimes, a threat repeated very often develops its own momentum. That would be tragic and the BNP would get elected unopposed and untested.
It is important for Bangladesh, indeed for the entire region, that free, fair and participatory elections are held. If not, it will be easy for Bangladesh to slip into fundamentalist chaos and radicalism. This will be a retrograde step that could lead the country to violence and extremism.
Vikram Sood is former Secretary, Research & Analysis Wing