Saturday, March 21, 2009

Democracy back with a bang in Bangladesh, Islamists on the run

The Pioneer | 4, 2009 | Agenda Cover Story

Joy Bangla
The December 29 general election in Bangladesh has resulted in the rediscovery of the soaring spirit of 1971, when a nation was born after a bloody liberation war

Kanchan Gupta

After two years in power, the military-backed interim Government of Bangladesh, which everybody thought would stave off polls till it was forced to hold them, has delivered on its promise: An absolutely free and fair general election has been held, resulting in the rediscovery of the soaring spirit of 1971 when a nation was born after a bloody liberation war. The Awami League’s sweeping victory, reducing the Islamist-pandering Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to an irrelevant rump, reminds us of a similar electoral victory nearly four decades ago when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman swept the polls and staked his claim on Rawalpindi, only to be denied his right. That rejection of West Pakistan’s suppression and loot of its eastern wing led to the liberation struggle of 1971 and the birth of Bangladesh.

But the collaborators, the razakars and their patrons in the Jamaat-e-Islami, had their sweet revenge, first through Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination and then by propping up tin pot dictators. The return of democracy was truly short-lived. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League Government bungled its way to defeat in the 2001 election. What followed was not only the repudiation of the spirit of 1971 but also an assault on the idea of Bangladesh. ‘Joy Bangla!’ was replaced by the Jamaati war cry of ‘Amra shobai Taliban, Bangla hobey Afghanistan!’ In a sense, the loot of Bangladesh during the five years when Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP was in power in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami became an incidental issue in the December 29 election; what dominated the people’s choice was their preference for a secular, liberal society, rooted in Bengali culture and tradition. The thumping vote for the Awami League is a tribute to the memory of the martyrs of Ekushe February when students rose against the forcible imposition of Urdu in 1952 and the mukti joddhas (freedom fighters) of 1971.

In his popular column which appears in Star Magazine, published by the liberal Dhaka-based newspaper, The Daily Star, ‘Chintito’ has captured the true message of the election result: “Who wants to be on the side of killers, rapists, looters and conspirators? … A standing ovation is due to our valiant freedom fighters, led once again by the brave sector commanders, who unleashed an unarmed war on the war criminals. For the handful of connivers, who tried to wickedly postulate the supreme sacrifice of millions as a civil war, the nation has spoken: 1971 war criminals do exist, and they shall be punished on this soil sanctified. Their political defeat is only a breaking of the ground…”.

The reference is to the Jamaat-e-Islami being wiped out in this election. Its cadre and affiliate jihadi organisations had unleashed a reign of terror between 2001 and 2006 when the BNP-Jamaat coalition was in power. ‘Bangla Bhai’ — executed for his jihadi perfidies by the interim Government — became the sinister face of the ‘Islamist Bangladesh’ that the Jamaat aspired to create through brutal force. Hindus were targeted in villages; men were murdered and women raped; temples were demolished with triumphant glee. The traditional celebration of the Bengali New Year, ‘Poila Boishakh’, was banned, as was paying homage to Bangabandhu Mujibur Rahman. Women were forced to wear the burqa and thousands of madarsas were opened with the help of foreign Muslim ‘charities’. In a comic display of aping their role models, Islamists owing allegiance to the Jamaat and its associates took to wearing the ‘Pathan suit’ and draping the Arabic kaffiyeh around their shoulders. The study of Arabic was vigorously promoted and a new genre, ‘Islamic music’, was added to the repertoire of Bangla music.

The neo-Taliban of Bangladesh thought they had won the battle for the country’s soul. But they have come a cropper in this election. Of the 38 seats it contested, the Jamaat has been able to win only two. In 2001, it had won 18 seats, and propelled the BNP to victory in many more by transferring its vote. That success has now been reduced to a footnote of history. “Two miracles happened in Bangladesh a few days ago. First, over 80 per cent of Bangladeshis voted in one of the most peaceful elections in its history. Secondly, Bangladesh, the second largest Muslim majority country in the world, voted for a party that believes in secularism by giving it 85 per cent of the Parliament seats,” says Prof Asif Saleh of Dhaka University. This is not an exaggeration. Stalwarts of the Jamaat, including its Amir, Matiur Rahman Nizami, and general secretary Ali Ahsan Mojahed, have been defeated in what was considered their ‘strongholds’. Of the two Jamaatis who have won, one contested against the official BNP-Jamaat candidate, and possibly got through because of the split in the vote.

If Bangladeshis have rejected the Jamaat for promoting fanatical Islam, they have punished the BNP for allowing the Jamaat to turn Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s dream into a seemingly unending nightmare. Also, the BNP has paid for its corrupt ways. Begum Khaleda Zia ruled from her home, ‘Hawa Bhaban’, and chose to shut her eyes to the sufferings of the masses. As prices of essential commodities rose to unaffordable levels and hoodlums roamed the streets, her sons Tarique and Koko looted the country in the most brazen manner. No deal was signed, no agreement finalised without their approval, which followed only after 10 per cent of the total amount had been paid to them. People would scathingly refer to how Gen Zia-ur Rahman, the dictator who was killed in a failed coup, had left his begum and sons only a ‘broken suitcase’, and how they had come to accumulate huge riches by abusing power and office.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Begum Zia, who now claims that the December 29 election was “stage-managed” to ensure the Awami League’s victory, should have suffered such a massive political setback. The BNP, which had won 193 seats in 2001 with a vote share of 40.97 per cent — .84 per cent more than that of the Awami League — has been able to scrape through in 29 constituencies this time; its vote share has plunged to 32.74 per cent, compared to the Awami League’s remarkable 49.2 per cent.

Sheikh Hasina Wajed has reason to celebrate her comeback. After all, it is not often that a party wins 85 per cent of the seats. Moreover, there was a time when it appeared that she had become a spent force, a liability for the Awami League rather than an asset. But she has proved her critics wrong. With the Awami League’s 230 seats, she does not need allies for a majority in the Jatiya Sangsad. But she will have to carry her alliance partners along with her, namely Lt-Gen HM Ershad’s Jatiyo Party and five members of Left parties.

But once the celebrations are over, Sheikh Hasina will have to get down to the task of fulfilling her promises and rebuilding Bangladesh. Most important, she will have to ensure transparency in governance and keep the Islamists at bay. As Bangladeshis will readily admit, theirs is not an easy country to govern. The mess that was inherited by the interim Government has been cleared to a large extent, but a lot more remains to be done.

Sheikh Hasina’s ‘Vision 2021’, which aims at creating a modern nation which is prosperous, stable and forward-looking, has received wide support from young Bangladeshis, who comprise 32 per cent of the voters. The generation which has come of age after the birth of Bangladesh, wants the country to move ahead by tapping its human resource, which is vast and varied. They have neither the time nor the inclination to tread the path of Islamic revivalism and fundamentalism. It is this generation which will keenly watch how Sheikh Hasina performs in office this time.

Simultaneously, she will have to complete the unfinished agenda of the liberation war — the trial and punishment of the collaborators so that they get their just desserts and are never able to take the country to the brink of disaster again. Sheikh Hasina owes this to the generation of 1971. And, it is necessary to re-establish the supremacy of Bangla culture and tradition, rooted in liberalism and tolerance, which together define the idea of Bangladesh. For Lt-Gen Ershad, this will be an opportunity to redeem himself and bury his not-so-pleasant past.

A last point: Sheikh Hasina has to be mindful of not repeating her mistakes of the past, especially pandering to powerful individuals in the Awami League who are also massively corrupt. That is on the domestic front. On foreign policy, she will have to work extra hard to mend relations with India, which had taken a nosedive during the BNP-Jamaat combine’s rule when Begum Khaleda Zia had unleashed a virulent hate India campaign. Sheikh Hasina’s post-election statement, that she will not allow Bangladeshi soil to be used for staging terrorist attacks on the country’s neighbours, is a welcome declaration of intent. The proof of the pudding is in its eating: She will now have to walk the talk.

With Sheikh Hasina taking charge of Bangladesh, the interim Government will stand dissolved. But the people of Bangladesh, as well as the victors of this general election, owe a debt of gratitude to those who stepped into the breach and prevented the country from descending into Islamist violence and political chaos. Agreed, the interim Government’s ‘minus two’ formula for cleansing Bangladeshi politics of malcontents didn’t quite work. The two begums remain the two poles of that country’s politics.

Yet, had it not been for the interim Government, there would not have been a free and fair election. To it goes the credit of striking off one crore bogus names from the electoral rolls that had been included by the BNP when it was in power, and issuing a photo identity card to every adult Bangladeshi. The vigorous prosecution of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats launched by the interim Government helped restore the people’s faith in the system and the judiciary.

Above all, the interim Government helped restore and revive Bangladesh’s secular ideals. It amended the election law to bar parties and candidates who subscribe to an Islamist agenda; it made it mandatory for parties and candidates to swear by the liberation of Bangladesh as an absolute and final deed (forcing the Jamaat to swallow its spiteful propaganda); and, it kept the most venal of the lot out of the electoral race.

We can almost hear the resonance of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s stirring slogan, “Joy Bangla!”, once again.

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