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POLITICS IN BANGLADESH

The winning game

by Lamia Karim

BANGLADESH is considered as the moderate face of a predominantly Muslim society. It is a country where more than four million women work in the readymade garment industry, and over twenty million women are associated with microfinance programmes and NGO activities in rural areas. For the past few years, the economy has grown at an annual rate of six per cent. While the growth has largely benefitted the middle class, and poverty remains widespread, the Human Development Index has given Bangladesh positive marks in education of girls and in infant mortality.
Sadly, politics in this country of 160 million has taken a turn for the worse with the 10th general elections held on January 5. The last few elections were presided over by caretaker governments with a view to ensuring that these were free and fair. However, the Awami League boycotted the ninth general elections, originally scheduled for January 22, 2007, alleging that the president Iajuddin Ahmad-led caretaker government was out to manipulate the electoral process in favour of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance. The boycott and resultant political violence led to the takeover by a military-backed interim government in January 11, 2007.
Eventually, the ninth general elections were held on December 29, 2008 under the interim government and the Awami League-led alliance registered an electoral landslide. After its assumption of office in January 2009, the AL-led government had the constitutional provision of election-time caretaker government removed through the 15th amendment to the constitution. The BNP-led alliance took to the street for restoration of the caretaker government provision claiming that elections under a partisan government would not be ‘free and fair’, and subsequently boycotted the January 5 elections. One could say that the caretaker solution is not as foolproof as the middle class seems to think.
After coming to power in 2007, the military-backed caretaker government tried to float a new political party made up of ‘eminent citizens and NGO leaders’ and adopted a minus-two policy, that is, forcing the two former female heads of state from politics into exile. That policy failed, and Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League came to power in a landslide victory in 2008. People had hoped that the Awami League would take the country on a new path of economic growth and stability. However, within a few years, the AL-led government lost the faith of people at large through activities that were about vengeance (Yunus and Grameen Bank), corruption (Hallmark Group and Padma Bridge), and lucrative deals given to India. Less attention was paid to the needs of ordinary people. In my conversations with street vendors, rickshaw-pullers, and small shop-owners in December 2013, I found that people were disillusioned about the future of Bangladesh, and they faulted both parties as equally at fault. It is in this context that one has to read the actions taken by Sheikh Hasina to ensure her party’s victory in the 10th general elections.
Hasina is a skilled strategist in the game of politics. She put chains around her two major opponents — Khaleda Zia, the BNP chairperson, had not been allowed to come out of her house since January 28, and the former military dictator HM Ershad of the Jatiya Party was taken to an army hospital and kept under guard between December 12, 2013 and January 11, 2014. Ershad’s wife has now emerged as the leader of the opposition with 30 seats in parliament. Upon his release, Ershad too has taken oath to join the 10th parliament. The opposition Jatiya Party has been offered two full cabinet positions, and two posts of state minister. In other words, the opposition is now part of the ruling regime as opposed to the opposition party’s role of holding the government’s feet to the fire.
Both the leading national parties (AL and BNP) win between 36 and 38 per cent of the vote. Jamaat-e-Islami gets around 6 per cent. So, an alliance is necessary to win the elections, or one has to eliminate the smaller foe, in this case Jamaat. This was done skilfully through manipulation of the Shahbagh movement, which began on February 5, 2013. It was a spontaneous people’s response to the verdict of life imprisonment for Quader Molla, a Jamaat collaborator during the war of independence in 1971. Molla was executed in December 2013 amidst claims of a compromised judicial process. The Shahbagh movement, which initially saw thousands of Bangladeshis on the streets demanding justice for the killings in 1971, was organised by five bloggers (or so we are told) but was soon captured by the Awami League. This movement has lost much of its steam and support once it became identified as pro-Awami League as opposed to a people’s movement. I spoke with some of the organisers of Ganajagaran Mancha after their demonstration in front of the Pakistan embassy in December 2013. Most of them are young students and activists who are genuinely concerned about the future of the country, but also remain disturbed by the intermingling of national politics with their movement for justice for 1971.
In times of crises, the military has moved to restore law and order in the country. Yet, the military has been participating as UN peacekeepers in war-torn countries from Afghanistan to Sudan. This has resulted in good salaries for the officers and the soldiers. In this case, the west has been complicit in sending mixed messages. In December 2013, UN assistant secretary general Oscar Fernandez-Taranco visited Bangladesh and failed to negotiate the stalemate between the Awami League and the BNP. His trip was followed by the UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon requesting 5,000 more peacekeepers from Bangladesh for South Sudan. Perhaps, the conversation took place along the lines of Taranco asking Hasina to postpone the elections and mediate with the opposition and with Hasina reminding Taranco of Bangladesh’s unique role in supplying soldiers as cannon fodder for western, imperialist missions in many parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. For now, the military has sided with the ruling party and soldiers have patrolled the streets to ensure security during the elections.
The four million women in the garment-manufacturing sector form another vote bloc. They have been somewhat mollified by the raise in their wages from $37 to $67 by Hasina’s intervention in early December. The raise in wages was timed to coordinate with the elections. Organised labour used to vote for the Awami League in the past, but it is unclear whether the wage change influenced them this time. My conversations with several female trade union leaders revealed that they did not feel either the Awami League of the BNP was their ally, and that they had to organise around the vital role that their labour played in the economy.
On May 5, 2013, hundreds of madrassah students belonging to Hefajat-e-Islam (caretakers of Islam), a coalition of madrassah teachers and students, walked to Dhaka city from all corners of the country to make known their demands such as the implementation of death penalty for all blasphemers of Islam, and the separation of women and men in public spaces. Hefajat-e-Islam was a result of the National Women Development policy of 2008 under the caretaker government that wanted to address inheritance inequities in sharia laws between women and men. This is based on a western mandate (CEDAW) to ensure universal rights for women. The fact that one cannot impose universal rights from the outside escapes the bureaucrats engaged in shaping Muslim societies into replicas of western democracies, which so far is a failed project. That said, Hefajat-e-Islam cannot ideologically support Khaleda Zia, who is a woman, as a leader of the country. Hence, contrary to expectations in certain quarters, they did not respond to her call for a ‘march for democracy’ on January 29. Hefajat too has fallen out of the mainstream discourse, which goes to show its marginal place in political society.
In the aftermath of the elections, attacks on the minority Hindu population by Jamaat-Shibir are reprehensible, to say the least. Yet, this was an expected outcome given past election trends. Why did the AL government not take precautions to prevent such attacks on the Hindu community? Many Bangladeshis consider the Hindu population as ‘visitors’ as opposed to citizens with full rights, and their allegiance to Bangladesh is often questioned. While this history of mutual distrust goes back to the partition of Bengal in 1905 and later the partition of India in 1947, Bangladesh is yet to reconcile with the status of minorities on a national level. All Bangladeshis, regardless of faith and ethnicity, are citizens, and they must be given the full protection of the law, and it is the role of the government to ensure that.
In the days leading up to the elections, it was expected that the US and western countries would put pressure on the Awami League to postpone the elections but they failed to change the status quo. In the broader geopolitical map of the region, the United States will not intervene because their primary country of interest in South Asia is Pakistan. The United States will defer to India because of its economic dependencies on India. India, the key supporter of the Awami League, wanted the election to take place because of its road transit to its north-eastern provinces (the separatist uprising in Assam was effectively shut down with the help of the AL-led government arresting members of the United Liberation Front of Assam in Bangladesh), and many other lucrative deals. India needs a pro-India government in Bangladesh to maintain stability along its Maoist border with West Bengal and to squelch separatist movements in the northeast.
Interestingly, the Chinese, who are a major player in the geopolitics of South Asia from building deep-sea ports to investments in construction, communications and readymade garments, have been silent. The Chinese are not considered as a major stakeholder in regional politics by the Bangladeshi media or the public, which is a serious mistake. It is important to take note of the fact that Khaleda Zia’s first meeting upon her release was with the Chinese ambassador. The Chinese do not engage in the internal affairs of a foreign country, but with Chinese interests in the region shifting, it is important to remain vigilant to how things develop in the future.
Democracy is the rule of the majority. A true democracy ensures the safety and security of the minority populations in its midst. That, of course, means the rule of law, and respect for the judicial process. Can that happen in Bangladesh with an uncontested election that gets a very low voter turnout, ongoing attacks on minority populations, a compromised judicial process in the International Crimes Tribunal, the creation of dynastic democracies (the name of the game in South Asia with the Gandhis, Bhuttos and now Joy and Tarique), and political parties engaged more in ‘winning’ than in the welfare of citizens?
Lamia Karim is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon in Eugene.




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