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Didi vs Didi, running for long next door

- Even court is compelled to wonder why Hasina and Khaleda won’t meet and talk

Dhaka, March 31: Everything looks so familiar to someone from Calcutta. Hartals, burning of buses and cars on the streets, kidnapping and killing of rival political activists, deaths in police firing, endless political processions and road blockades.

And now, while Calcutta is astir with the battle between some intrepid didis and Bengal’s original Didi, the other Bengal across the border is burning, thanks to the bitter rivalry between its two leading ladies.

Of course, the battle of the ladies in Bangladesh is much older. The “Apa” (elder sister) of Bangladesh, as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is known to her followers in the ruling Awami League, has never had any love lost for her rival Begum Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who is simply “Madam” to her supporters.

Few among the common people here remember when the two ladies last met. Fewer still can recall how long Khaleda’s party and its allies have been boycotting parliament. There have been attempts by some members of the diplomatic corps here to bring the two together for some kind of a dialogue. Nothing came out of these moves.

Such is the anxiety among some sections of the people over the complete collapse of political dialogue between the two top leaders of the country that the intervention of the high court was sought to break the ice. In an unprecedented ruling last week, the court issued a notice to both sides asking them to show cause why the two leaders would not meet and talk about the political crisis that has gripped the country.

Nobody believes, however, that the court ruling is going to make any difference. If anything, the Shahbag movement demanding “death by hanging” for the “war criminals” of the nation’s 1971 liberation war and a ban on the Jamaat-e-Islami party, and the BNP-Jamaat-sponsored violence against the war crimes trials have hardened hearts and positions on both sides.

A rare opportunity for the two leaders meeting and breaking the stalemate came with the death of the country’s President, Mohammed Zillur Rahman. Both Hasina and Khaleda were at the President’s official residence at the same time when Rahman’s body was kept there. They stood in the same hall, only a few feet from each other, but kept the distance and the silence.

“Hasina would have gained huge political points if she had made the first move and walked up to Khaleda to exchange simple greetings,” a veteran political analyst commented soon after.

To most leaders in the Awami League, such a move by Hasina was simply out of the question.

“How can she ever exchange greetings with someone whose husband was her (Hasina’s) father’s killer,” snapped an Awami League parliamentarian during a conversation. The reference was to the old allegation that Khaleda’s husband and army chief-turned-President Ziaur Rahman was involved in the plan to kill Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father and the leader of the country’s struggle for liberation from Pakistan.

Let alone talk, the two ladies now want each other out of the country. “Go back to your beloved Pakistan. Do not trouble the people of Bangladesh,” Hasina advised Khaleda during a ceremony to mark the country’s 42nd independence day here.

Only a few days earlier, Khaleda had a warning for Hasina. She told a BNP rally that Hasina would not be allowed to “flee” the country after the next elections, which she hoped to win. “Even if she fled the country, we would capture her and bring her to justice.”

To this, Hasina replied: “She has talked of my escape. I will stay here. This is my homeland.”

But what added a different dimension to the public spat was Khaleda’s open invitation to the army “not to stay quiet” if the current political turmoil in the country continued.

Hasina rebuffed her rival, saying: “This isn’t 1975 (the year Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and many others of his family were killed by some army officers at his residence here). This is 2013. The world has changed.”

To Hasina, Khaleda’s call for an army intervention was yet another proof that she had no faith in democracy.

The rhetoric apart, both sides face fresh challenges in the run-up to the general election due at the year-end. The war crimes trials and the Shahbag uprising have further sharpened the political polarisation in the country. Hasina faces a challenge of living and acting up to the aspirations of the younger generation that formed the core of the Shahbag movement.

“If she can’t do it now, she will never have another opportunity to crush not only the Jamaat and its leaders accused of war crimes but also all anti-liberation forces,” Nazmul Bhuina Joy, a business administration graduate from the American University of Bangladesh, said as he, along with eight others, sat on an indefinite fast at Shahbag, trying to force Hasina’s hand.

Khaleda’s challenge is to face the fresh surge of pro-liberation forces which have closed ranks. No wonder the BNP has made common cause with the Jamaat in organising strikes, indulging in violence and even attacking homes and places of worship of people belonging to the minority communities.

Her other challenge is to revive the demand for a caretaker government before the next election. In the post-Shahbag turmoil in the country, the demand for a caretaker government and the BNP’s agitation for it have clearly taken a back seat.

As the two sides step up their actions, Bangladesh has little hope of a respite from the current turmoil. Two programmes next week will probably set the course of the coming weeks and months. On April 4, the Gano Jagaran Mancha, which sprang up from the Shahbag movement, takes out a procession to the Prime Minister’s office to press its demand for a ban on the Jamaat. Two days later, a “long march” from across the country, to be organised by an Islamic group, is to converge on Dhaka, demanding punishment for the “atheists” of Shahbag.

“It’s going to be a long and bloody battle,” Muntasir Mamoon said at his home at upmarket Dhanmondi, not far from the house where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and most of his family members were killed.

Mamoon is a professor of history at Dhaka University, but he is better known as one of the main organisers of the first movement in Bangladesh in 1993 demanding death sentences for the “war criminals” of 1971.

He is one of a dozen civil rights activists who have been accused of being “murtad” (atheists) by some fundamentalists in the wake of the Shahbag movement and live under a fatwa of death. “This isn’t the first time people like us are living under the shadow of death. But there’s no escaping this battle in Bangladesh,” Mamoon said, almost to himself.