There was something unreal about the Victory Day celebrations in Dhaka on Monday. The huge crowds and colourful processions could make one assume that these were unusually happy times for the nation. The reality, though, is very different. The celebrations, this year, came amidst unending street violence that claimed over a hundred lives in the past few months. The latest crisis in Bangladesh started with the Opposition’s demand that Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the prime minister, resign before the coming general elections. However, the crisis has acquired a more sinister dimension following the execution of a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, for his alleged crimes during the country’s liberation war in 1971. The violence that the Jamaat has since unleashed has little to do with the elections or the controversy surrounding them. The Islamist party has openly threatened to kill and burn in order to avenge the hanging of its leader. It has even sought to disown the nationalist history of 1971. In the Jamaat’s latest rhetoric, the birth of Bangladesh is a historic blunder. If it cannot overturn that history, the party will try all it can to turn the country into another battleground. If the Jamaat has its way, then all freedoms will be in danger in Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, major political parties in Bangladesh seem to have only an inadequate understanding of the nature of the Jamaat’s threat. That is why the Opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, has no qualms about taking the Jamaat’s help in fighting her battle against Ms Wajed. In fact, there are signs that the Jamaat has almost hijacked Ms Zia’s agitation. Equally worrying is Ms Wajed’s handling of the vandalism by the Jamaat cadres across the country. Her government seems to be totally powerless to tackle the violence. The result is a situation in which the people live in dread of the rampaging mobs on the streets. If the violence has bared the brutal face of the Jamaat and its sponsors, it has also exposed Ms Wajed’s failure to govern. She must not lose any more time to stem the rot. She has to try and do two things simultaneously. She must prove that she can be firm and save the country from a worse crisis. At the same time, she needs to do much more in order to reach out to Ms Zia. She could even postpone next month’s elections, which Ms Zia and her allies have boycotted. Together, the two leaders owe it to the new nation to save its hard-won freedoms.