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Bangladesh: Violent Countdown

Bangladesh: Violent Countdown

Violent Countdown Ever since the countdown to Bangladesh

BANGLADESH

Violent Countdown

E
ver since the countdown to Bangladesh’s ninth general elections began in end October, a violent stand-off between Bangladesh’s two main political alliances has persisted. On several occasions since early November, Hasina Wajed’s Awami League (AL), leading a 14-party alliance, succeeded in bringing the country to a standstill with its blockades and strikes. These moves were part of its efforts to press charges of political bias against president Iajuddin Ahmed’s caretaker administration and for electoral reforms to ensure free and fair elections. The caretaker administration has been in governance since Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led four-party coalition government handed over power, three months before elections in January 2007. Blockades and the AL threat to boycott the elections, a decision the alliance subsequently recanted on December 23, did move Ahmed to make concessions. These included a drastic revision of the electoral rolls as also a revamp of the election commission to remove officials seen as close to the BNP. But with less than a month left for the January 22 elections and the army already deployed to maintain order, the situation remains on tenterhooks.

The AL has labelled its blockades a “success”, and proof of the widespread support it enjoys. There is evidently seething resentment against the BNP-led coalition. The latter’s deliberate subversion of several constitutional norms while in power made apparent its blatant desire to retain power at all costs. In this category too falls its amendment increasing the retirement age for judges so as to enable a justice of the administration’s liking head the caretaker government. Even Ahmed’s action in nominating himself as caretaker head of government (when he was already president) smacked of favouritism.

Matters have not been helped by the antagonism, driven by personal rather than ideological differences between Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed. Parliament has been hardly effective in the last five years, with the AL boycotting the house in repeated attempts to compel the government to resign and call fresh elections. The animosity has also grown on account of the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in Bangladesh. Since 2003, the country has witnessed a series of bomb blasts that even targeted a political rally addressed by Hasina Wajed and her coalition partners, and which have since been attributed to extremist groups such as the Jamaatul Mujaheedin and the Jagrata Muslim Janata. The BNP, criticised for the spiralling disorder in the country, has been accused of being unwilling to take on religious extremism, as it owed its hold on power to parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami that lent it vital political support.

Democratic norms and procedures have as yet a fragile foothold in Bangladesh. Democracy born in 1971 was short-lived and ended by army rule in 1975, which lasted till 1990. Bangladesh, a nation that emerged from its distinct linguistic identity, and whose laws and constitution were framed on secular lines, has been, since the 1990s, and owing to influences within and without, increasingly divided on religious lines. Polarisation of the populace along these lines, in its short recent history, have disallowed other definitions of the nation from emerging. For instance, groups such as the chakmas and other tribes on its eastern and northern borders have been rendered marginal, as they do not fit into rigidly imposed definitions. Extremist groups have also been a virulent influence; parties such as the Jamaat-e-Islami and Islami Oikya Jote were part of the BNP-led government and enjoy increasing support among the populace as seen in the 2001 elections. Their popularity has compelled even parties ostensibly secular, such as the Awami League, to veer towards upholding a moderate Islamic identity for Bangladesh.

The rancour that has accompanied democracy in Bangladesh and its history of military coups have made difficult the rise of a grass roots democracy. The country’s social development has been impressive as seen in the changes in human development indicators over the last decade. This has been largely the initiative of NGOs and dedicated groups such as the Grameen Bank and the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, which have worked in areas related to education, health and most vitally, women’s empowerment. This month, as Bangladesh witnessed a violent political showdown yet again, the Grameen Bank and its founder, Mohammed Yunus, were awarded the 2006 Nobel peace prize in Oslo. While the expansion of grass roots initiatives to include civil society driven political activism may take a while yet, it holds promise for the future of democracy in Bangladesh. EPW

Economic and Political Weekly December 30, 2006

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