By Bhaskar Roy
It is about time that the United States Congress realized that the current political turmoil in Bangladesh may see a return of terrorism to Bangladesh.
Eradication of terrorism from the country was one of the top priorities of Sheikh Hasina when she took over prime ministership in 2009. She delivered on her promise. Bangladesh was fast becoming a new center of terrorism under the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) government. The Al Qaida was testing the grounds. The return of the Awami League led 14 party alliance government thwarted externally promoted and JEI spearheaded conspiracy to turn Bangladesh into a Wahabi Islamic country.
The Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs organized (November 20) a 90 minute hearing titled “Bangladesh in Turmoil : A Nation on the Brink”. An apt title for the subject, given the open threats the country is facing from its own constituents.
Representative Steve Chabot who chaired the meeting highly appreciated Bangladesh’s development but was dismayed by the positions taken by the political parties threatening the upcoming general elections. Chabot had just returned from a visit to Bangladesh where he met the top political leaders including Prime Minister Sk. Hasina and opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia.
Ed Royce, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee told the hearing that the Bangladesh government was not doing enough to protect the minorities. He raised a pertinent question : whether madrassa education was instigating fundamentalism in Bangladesh like in Pakistan. He noted the deep crisis that fundamentalism has created in Pakistan as the authorities failed to nip it in the bud.
Maj. Gen. (Retd) ANM Muniruzzaman, President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) felt that Sk. Hasina’s refusal to bring back the “caretaker government” (CG) system could delay the elections and ultimately draw the army in. The constitution has been amended to make coup a treason, and the three current services chiefs have sworn not to interfere in politics. Bangladesh is no stranger to military coups and martial law, but one of the reasons a coup was avoided in 2007-08 was the UN Secretary General’s warning that a coup would render Bangladesh military personnel ineligible for lucrative UN peace keeping jobs.
A recent editorial, in the influential New York Times (NYT) held Prime Minister Sk. Hasina responsible for all the woes of Bangladesh. It said that top political opposition leaders and human rights activists have been arrested; courts have delivered guilty verdicts and death sentences that flout the most basic standards of due process; the banning of the JEI, an ally of the BNP, from participating in the electoral process was only forcing frustrated supporters into the streets.
An influential weekly, the Economist, has been reporting biased stories against the Awami League which included swipes at India, for almost three years. A couple of its earlier articles appeared almost dictated by the opposition leaders.
It is known that the western countries especially the US, exercise significant influence over Bangladesh. They are the main donors and control aid agencies and international financial institutions. On one platform, they all demand free and fair elections which is what everyone wants. This is how it should be.
However, should outside interference force a democratic sovereign nation to change its constitution to accommodate their favourite parties? While writing a secular and democratic constitution, should a popular government elected by the people in an internationally acknowledged free and fair election have draft national constitutions passed by foreign powers?
These questions arise because there is quiet pressure on the Bangladesh government to reinstate the caretaker government system. Certainly, Sk. Hasina in the past had favoured the caretaker system. But the experience with the last caretaker government showed this body could easily be manipulated by the immediate government.
This is exactly what happened in 2006. The caretaker government which was supposed to hold elections within 90 days of its takeover failed to do so. Many members changed. There was a plan to jail both Sk. Hasina and Begum Khaleda, the famous “minus two” formula and bring in a third front. The caretaker government got extended by almost two years.
A repeat of that situation is in nobody’s interest, and the country would stand to lose its impressive development trajectory. If the BNP suspects rigging of the elections by the government it could have joined the poll time government and scrutinize the election process. This they have refused to do.
Begum Khaleda’s uncompromising demand is the removal of Sk. Hasina from her post. This is politics of personal vengeance. Polls are to held by January 24, next year, and many BNP leaders are beginning to lose patience with these leaders. Politicians cannot stay away from parliament for long.
The interest among western governments, NGOs and media to encourage a free and fair elections, as said earlier, is welcome. But there is something curious about the way they are conducting this process.
The Awami League is seen in the west as a socialist inclined party and does not fully subscribe to the American sense of democratic politics. So are most of Awami League’s allies. The BNP, on the other hand, is perceived as more capitalist oriented in sync with some western political views.
Is there a 1971 hangover in the US government and media? Despite US support to Islamabad Pakistan lost the war and Bangladesh was born at a huge humanitarian cost. People of that generation still recount that the waters of Foy’s Lake near Chittagong turned red with bodies of Bangladeshis including minorities killed and dumped there by the Pakistani army and their Bangladeshi collaborators who represent the JEI.
There is a clear sympathy for the JEI for having been banned from elections. Would western democracies allow political party like the JEI who refuse to abide by the national constitution and promote Sharia Law, where the ideology goes back to the dark ages and who are emphatically anti-women, take part in their politics? The JEI is the vector of radical Islamism in Bangladesh. The Hifazat-e-Islam (HEI) put up by the BNP and the JEI has emerged as a serious religious arm of the JEI-BNP agenda.
When US Congressman Ed Royce blamed the Bangladesh government of not doing enough to protect the minorities like Hindu and Christians from, violence, he apparently forgot to mention who or which party was committing the violence. It is mainly the JEI and they are not afraid to own it. In their ideology non-muslims including Ahmediyas have no right to exist.
There is a lot of criticism of the trial of the 1971 collaborators who killed Bangladeshis in hundreds and thousands. The west shows little or no understanding that unless the 1971 killings are put to rest there will be no peace in Bangladesh. More people were killed and more women raped by the Pakistani army and their collaborators than the Nazis did.
It is time the US Congress and others sit down and take into account how and why terrorism grew during the BNP-JEI rule between 2001-2006. It is time the Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger policy towards Bangladesh be buried in the US State Department, Congress and the media.
BNP president Begum Khaleda Zia is making a momentous mistake of overly depending on the JEI. It will be the case of the tail wagging the dog.
(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail email@example.com)