Traffic in Dhaka may be among the slowest in the world, but rumours — be it on the Biden administration’s stand on Bangladesh or cricketer Shakib Al Hasan’s hamstring injury that ruled him out of some T20 World Cup matches — spread in the Bangladesh capital like wildfire and dictated public discourse for several days before a new topic caught the imagination.
Over the last ten days or so, Bangladeshis have found a new issue.
The discussion that’s keeping people in this Muslim majority country along India’s eastern border is the health of the three-time Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia. Rumour mills have been churning out reams of news on the 76-year-old leader, who is admitted in the CCU of a private hospital in Dhaka since November 13.
“Is she alive?” asked Uber driver Shamim referring to a WhatsApp message that reached his inbox on Sunday morning claiming that the former Premier was no more.
“But I have been receiving such messages from multiple sources over the last few days,” he added, making it clear that his trust in social media has been dwindling “these days” in the absence of any credible information on Khaleda’s exact health condition.
Within hours of Shamim expressing his disgust over the rumour mill, doctors treating the ailing Opposition leader held a news conference and said that she has been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and that she suffered three big internal bleeds in the past two weeks. Khaleda has also been suffering from chronic kidney disease and a heart ailment in addition to rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.
“If we want to save the life of the patient, we need to do a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt, a medical procedure available only in medically advanced countries such as Germany, the UK, and the US,” said one of the doctors, trying to build a case for her immediate travel abroad, on Sunday evening.
The fall out of the rumours on Khaleda, who has been barred by a court from leaving the country after being convicted on corruption charges in 2018, has been a debate on whether she can travel abroad for treatment.
While the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) activists staged multiple demonstrations, rallies and hunger strikes, party secretary general Mirza Fakrul Islam Alamgir even warned of waging a campaign seeking the fall of the Sheikh Hasina led-government if Khaleda is not allowed to travel.
Senior Awami League leaders like party general secretary Obaidul Qader have countered the narrative by blaming the BNP leadership for Khaleda’s ailments as she has been under the treatment of party-appointed doctors, who had refused to consult their counterparts in government hospitals.
Hasina, on the other hand, has stated clearly that the law will decide whether Khaleda should be allowed to go abroad for medical treatment.
The Awami League leadership has also argued that had the BNP been so eager to take Khaleda abroad for treatment, they would have moved the court or sought clemency from the President. The BNP’s attempt to make it an issue and organise street protests mean that they are trying to derive political gains from Khaleda’s illness.
“I have done whatever I can for Khaleda Zia. Now the law will decide the next course of action,” she said during a news conference last week.
Khaleda has been in jail since she was convicted in a graft case in February 2018 and as her health deteriorated, she was moved to a government hospital in April 2019. Through an executive order, the government released her last March for six months — the sentence was suspended again on four occasions — on the condition that she will stay at her home in Dhaka and not leave the country.
“Using whatever (authority) in my hand, I have managed to keep Khaleda Zia at her home,” Hasina added, after recounting how the BNP chairperson had made several attempts on the Prime Minister’s life and honoured people involved in the killing of her father Mujibur Rahman and other family members.
The latest war of words between the BNP and the Awami League leaders — most television talk-shows in Bangladesh are discussing the same topic — have suddenly heightened tension in Bangladesh, prompting the government to put the police and the security forces on high alert.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a security expert in Dhaka said that some top leaders in the BNP, a marginalised political force because of a leadership crisis and successive electoral debacles, are trying to mobilise the party ranks and create unrest using Khaleda’s health condition as an issue.
“They are planning to create chaos over Khaleda’s health condition as they think they can reap political dividends from sympathy for the former Premier,” said the expert.
Multiple sources in Dhaka backed this theory and some felt that the unrest is being planned in a calculated manner to create the platform for a change of guard — with two distinctly different possibilities — in the beleaguered BNP.
“Those who are loyal to Tarique Rahman, Khaleda’s fugitive son and the heir apparent, think that the sympathy wave will create the right situation for him to return to the country and take charge of the party,” said a source.
A section in the BNP who are against Tarique, in exile since 2008, think that the unrest will fulfil their objective of scripting a new course for the party.
“A section in the BNP are not at all happy with Tarique’s way of controlling the party in remote control from London... They are waiting for the opportunity to take control of the party, use sympathy for Khaleda and the anti-incumbency facing Hasina to dislodge the Awami League from power,” the source explained.
The prospect of a new beginning for the BNP, a diplomat with Awami League leanings admitted, has suddenly energised the party and its supporters are back on the street.
The Awami League establishment, however, are not worried as they think that the prolonged absence of Tarique has made him a non-entity in Bangladesh politics and the impending power struggle in the BNP would finally benefit the ruling party.
“We are well aware of all the rumours doing the rounds and the plans that the Opposition leaders are hatching to create unrest... We are taking stock of the situation everyday and we are capable of thwarting any attempts at creating unrest in Bangladesh,” said an intelligence source in Bangladesh.