Too quiet for comfort

The looming political crisis in Bangladesh

By Politics and Play - Ramachandra Guha
  • Published 3.12.15

In the 1970s and 1980s, Bangladesh was widely regarded as a paradigm case of a nation whose poverty was a direct consequence of over-breeding. It was the proverbial 'basket-case', kept (barely) afloat by periodic shipments of wheat from the West. Influential biologists like Garrett Hardin urged that all aid be stopped, and the Bangladeshis be left to die, as perhaps they deserved to.

It is just as well that the aam admi (and aam aurat) of Bangladesh did not read the New York Times, still less the learned journals in which the biologists and ecologists issued their predictions. They just went about rebuilding their newly-won nation. As I argued in my last column (see The Telegraph, November 28), the Bangladeshis have shown a surprising resilience over the decades. They have made impressive strides in manufacturing, done far better than India with regard to health and women's rights, all the while renewing their literary and cultural traditions.

Given the inhospitable conditions (civil war, cyclones, and sectarianism) in which it came into being, the economic and social advances made by Bangladesh are noteworthy. What remains a worry, however, is the lack of progress on the political front. Bangladesh was created only because West Pakistan did not give adequate space to the major political party of East Pakistan, the Awami League. Now, in a bitterly ironic twist, the selfsame Awami League stands in the way of the development of a multi-party system in Bangladesh.

The political history of Bangladesh has always been rocky. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Awami League stalwart who led the movement against West Pakistani domination, headed the new nation's government from 1971 onwards. In early 1975, however, Mujib made a major push towards creating a one-party state. Many Opposition leaders were arrested. Popular disaffection grew, and ultimately the army stepped in, junior officers assassinating Mujib, while senior officers (led by Ziaur Rahman) took control of the government.

The regime led by Ziaur Rahman was in office till 1981, when Zia himself was assassinated and the pro-Islamist general, H.M. Ershad, took power. Ershad was in control for almost a decade. Then, after a prolonged period of unrest and protest, elections were finally held in 1991. The Bangladesh National Party, led by Zia's widow, Begum Khalida Zia, won the elections. Five years later, she lost power through the ballot box to the Awami League, now led by Mujib's daughter, Sheikh Hasina. In 2001, the BNP came back, ruling till 2006. A caretaker government then assumed office; elections were finally held in December 2008, with Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League winning power.

When the next general elections were due in 2013, the BNP demanded that the Awami League demit office beforehand so that the polls could be supervised by an administration of independent technocrats. The Awami League refused, whereupon the BNP and other Opposition parties boycotted the elections. Elected unopposed, Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have since had untrammelled control of the government, the Parliament, and the administration.

In her most recent term in office, Sheikh Hasina has vigorously pursued the prosecution of those who supported Pakistan in 1971, and are alleged to have conducted war crimes against ordinary citizens. When I was in Dhaka in late November, two senior politicians had just been sent to the gallows. One was a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious grouping that had opposed the creation of Bangladesh. The other, the son of a prominent pro-Pakistan politician of the 1950s and 1960s, had himself been an adviser to Begum Khaleda Zia and the BNP.

I was in Dhaka when these two men were hanged. A day later, Begum Zia returned from a long spell abroad. A day later still, the Jamaat called for a countrywide strike. In past times, thousands of BNP supporters would have made a public display of solidarity with their leader, while the hartal called by the Jamaat would have led to empty streets and shuttered shops. This time, everyday life in Dhaka was largely unaffected by either event. On both days, I was travelling across the city, meeting friends, speaking to students, eating in restaurants. The Awami League government, aided by the police, paramilitary and army, appeared to be in complete control. No public dissent was permissible, or permitted.

There is no question that horrific crimes were committed by the Pakistani army in 1971, these aided by local collaborators. Nonetheless, there are serious reservations about how these recent trials have been conducted, and about the recourse to the death penalty. An even greater worry is the way in which Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have used the war crimes tribunal to deepen their political and ideological control over State and society. They are helped, of course, by the fact that there is no Opposition in Parliament. Yet journalists who raise legitimate criticisms about due process have been harassed. Academics who worry about the larger implications for Bangladesh's democratic future have been abused.

In Bangladesh today, there is a halo around the nation's founding figure, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Whereas many Indians can (and do) refer to Gandhi as Gandhi, it is hard to find public references to Mujib as Mujib. He is invariably Bangabandhu, the friend of, and to, the Bangalees. That Mujib was imprisoned for long periods by the Pakistanis and then murdered while in office add to the aura around him. Sheikh Hasina's prosecution of war criminals is motivated partly and perhaps even largely by love and admiration for her father. Yet it must be said that the manner of her administration's present functioning is dangerously reminiscent of her father's most ignoble period, those early months of 1975 when he amended the Constitution to virtually outlaw dissent and consolidate power in himself.

The political opponents of the Awami League, the BNP and the Jamaat, are defeated and demoralized. Meanwhile, the administration has forged an alliance of mutual convenience with the army. Always an important player, the army has recently been awarded lucrative contracts in construction and road building. The army's growing power has assumed dangerous proportions - in one case, it forced telecom companies to stop advertising in a prestigious newspaper that had been critical of its actions.

Sheikh Hasina and her advisers would do well to acquaint themselves with the history of one-party regimes that originally came to power through the ballot box. The Nazis were in power a mere 12 years, not the thousand years they had promised themselves and their followers. Turning to South Asia, the Indian National Congress, the Pakistan Peoples Party, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party all attempted to build one-party states - none lasted more than a few years.

One-party states are therefore fated to fail. But in the time they are in power they can wreak considerable havoc. Indira Gandhi and the Congress damaged the bureaucracy and the judiciary so badly that they have never since properly recovered their autonomy (or efficiency). The excesses of Bhutto and the PPP paved the way for the re-entry of the Pakistani army into politics and also enabled the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLFP gave a massive filip to Sinhala chauvinism, while undermining the universities, the press, and other institutions vital to democratic functioning.

Of Bangladesh's political future only one thing is certain - that the dominance of Sheikh Hasina and her party will end, and sooner than they themselves hope or expect. It may be that, with the existing avenues of dissent closed, sections of society shall turn to Islamic groups for succour. Or else the army may make a fresh bid for power. Either option will further delay the transition to a functioning multi-party democracy.

There is much to admire about Bangladesh today: the advancement of its women, the creativity of its entrepreneurial class, its superb civil society organizations, its many gifted artists and writers. But further progress, whether economic, social, or cultural, has now been put in peril by the arbitrary and sometimes vengeful conduct of its government.