Battling begums must rethink

The threats to Bangladesh’s unity, integrity and of Islamic extremism overshadowing secularism and liberalism cannot be ruled out, nor can the enormous economic damage

Battling begums must rethink

As was only to be expected, the tenth general election in Bangladesh has been badly marred by deadly violence, low voter turnout and the conversion of the whole electoral exercise into a one-horse race because of the poll boycott by the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia. She is the arch rival of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, whose party, the Awami League, has secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament for the second time in succession – a first in the country’s 42-year history. But this victory is worth little because it lacks legitimacy and the threat of even worse violence and chaos emanating from the BNP and its ally, Jamaat-e-Islami, the equivalent of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, is real.
Something has got to be done, and done urgently, to prevent total disaster, which requires that both the battling begums rethink their respective stands, talk to each other and arrive at a consensus on the future course of action. Unending hatred between these two, who have alternated as prime ministers in the past and never hesitated to muster muscle power in the street against each other cannot but be suicidal.
Both the enormity and complexity of the grave crisis Bangladesh faces are obvious. Violence of the most virulent kind began long before the demand for the postponement of the election, until a neutral government takeover became an issue. The Jamaat and other new Islamists had started large-scale killings as a protest against death sentences awarded to Jamaat leaders for their crimes in the 1971 war for the independence of Bangladesh, and this orgy of murders reached a crescendo after the execution of Abdul Qader Mollah, also known as the ‘Butcher of Mirpur.’ Those who collaborated with the Pakistani army in its Nazi-like atrocities in 1971 do deserve the worst punishment. But they have become more and more defiant because of the protection and encouragement they have received not only during Begum Zia’s years in power, but also during the fifteen years of military dictatorship, from 1975 to 1990. It should not go unnoticed that the hanging of Mollah was strongly condemned by Pakistan’s home minister, Chaudhury Nisar. Unfortunately, some Bangladeshi and foreign observers feel that the composition of the War Crimes Tribunal had left something to be desired.
As for the controversy and conflict over the election, Sheikh Hasina might have been correct strictly according to the letter of the law, but wrong politically. She was also against the spirit of democracy. She had used her two-thirds majority to abolish the constitutional provision that before every election, the government should cede power to a neutral authority. She had opted instead, for an all-party government, headed by her. Begum Zia had every right to reject this. But she made things worse by flatly refusing to meet the Prime Minister to discuss the matter. Sheikh Hasina even made a phone call to her rival, but their 36-minute talk unsurprisingly turned out to be a dialogue of the deaf.
Early in December when Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh went to Dhaka, her advice to all concerned was that, as a “fellow democracy”, India wanted Bangladesh to have elections that were “free and fair” and in which there was widest participation. Thereafter, New Delhi’s position changed to giving Sheikh Hasina full support. For this, there were several reasons: an election before January 24, 2014, was a “constitutional necessity.” It was not merely a question of the election’s timing, but Bangladesh had to “preserve” its identity as a secular entity and not allow jihadi Islamists to take over. In other words, the country had to complete the “unfinished business of 1971.”
Another reason for the policy of “all support to Sheikh Hasina” was what western powers, especially the United States and some members of the European Union and the Commonwealth were up to. They not only pressurised the Bangladesh Prime Minister to postpone the election and come to some agreement with Begum Khaleda, but they also refused to send observers to witness the January 5 poll, and threatened not to recognise the post-poll government. These arrogant powers have yet to explain why they never took such a strong line in 1996, when the roles of Sheikh Hasina and Begum Zia were exactly the reverse.
None of these factors can be brushed aside. But, as against them, the grave dangers confronting Bangladesh also need to be faced squarely. Few would take the Awami League government Mark-2 seriously, and indeed there might be divisions within it. A former military
ruler, General (retd) H M Ershad, founder-president of the Jatiya Party, Bangladesh’s third la-rgest, was a staunch ally of Sheikh Hasina until about a month ago. Then he joined the other side in boycotting the poll. Strangely, his wife, Raushan Ershad, led a dissident faction of his party into the election and won 12 of the 147 seats for which elections were held. The Awami League had won unopposed 153 seats in a House of 300. But of the 147 seats that were contested, it won only 95 and in these, it faced
“formidable competition” from “rebel Awami Leaguers.”
This pales, however, compared with the consequences of almost certain violence that looms ahead in our eastern neighbour. The threats to the country’s unity and integrity and of Islamic extremism overshadowing Bangladeshi secularism and liberalism cannot be ruled out.
Moreover, the likely damage to Bang-ladeshi economy could be enormous, perhaps unbearable. Most people remember Henry Kissinger’s jibe that Bangladesh was a “basket case.” In recent years, however, the American investment house, Goldman Sachs, has been listing the country among “Asia’s Emerging Tigers.”
The Dhaka Chamber of Commerce has estimated that the disturbances during 2013 have cost Bangladesh $ 4 billion, a fourth of it to the manufacture of garments, a sector in which Bangladesh is second only to China. Much of the Bangladeshi economy is at a standstill because of strikes and blockades. Extended lawlessness could be catastrophic.
In the circumstances, the time has come when New Delhi should advise Sheikh Hasina to reach out to Begum Zia and other opponents and work out a settlement with them. She has publicly stated that fresh elections can still be held. Let these wise words be translated into action.

INDER MALHOTRA

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