Fight for Bangladesh: Country seeks to retain its identity amid growing Islamic influence

It's an election centred around the very idea of Bangladesh.

Written by Shubhajit Roy | Published on:January 5, 2014 8:35 am

With today’s elections being held under an Opposition boycott,Shubhajit Roy finds a country seeking to retain its identity amid growing Islamic influence and “the unfinished business of 1971”

Muntassir Mamoon is a worried man today. The 62-year-old history professor at Dhaka University has warned his children he would “snap relations with them if they follow extremist ideologies spread by some political forces in the country”.

As Bangladesh heads to polls today,to elect its 10th parliament,for Mamoon,and many other citizens of the country,these elections are not about the usual issues of corruption,economy or law and order. It’s an election centred around the very idea of Bangladesh — should it be a secular democracy or a theocratic state? A Bengali republic or an Islamic nation?

In the protests called by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP),which is aligned with the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami,more than 150 people have been killed in clashes in the past two-and-a-half months. The BNP has boycotted the polls,calling them a “farce”,and asking people to stay away.

In a statement on Friday,when it called for a 48-hour shutdown,beginning Saturday morning and including the polling day,BNP chief Khaleda Zia said: “No one at home and abroad will recognise it as an election and,through this,the Awami League government will appear anew as an illegal structure.” More than 150 lawmakers have already been elected uncontested due to the boycott by the BNP-led alliance and other political parties,who say Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina should resign as elections under her will be rigged.

The BNP has also accused the government of pushing the country towards a “civil war”. Since November,when the poll date was announced,protests,strikes and blockades have led to a loss of 800 crore takas (Rs 645 crore rupees) per day.

Mamoon,who was attacked four times and jailed once during the BNP-Jamaat’s crackdown on liberal voices during the 2001-2006 regime,says the society is “polarised”. “It’s a question of ideological warfare between the Awami League-led alliance and the BNP-Jamaat combine.”

If the Awami League’s politics is about “I am a Bengali first”,for the BNP and Jamaat,the identity that counts is being “a Muslim first”. The Jamaat,that had opposed Bangladesh’s separation from Pakistan,was de-recognised as a political party in August 2013 by the Bangladesh Election Commission,but continues to have a bearing on the BNP’s poll strategies.

The election,predicts Mamoon,will have a long-term impact. Of the 16 crore people of Bangladesh,54 per cent are below the age of 25,which is why he worries for his children.

Under such circumstances,the BNP’s boycott,ensuring the Awami League’s return to power in the 300-seat parliament,portends worrying signals. The official reason for the Opposition boycotting the polls is that unlike previous times,when elections were presided over by a non-party caretaker government,the ballot is being cast under the watch of the Awami League regime. Hasina,with her brute majority in parliament,carried out an amendment to change the caretaker system in 2011.

Just 10 months ago,Dhaka streets were reverberating to completely different protests. In 2010,the Awami League-led government had established the International Crimes Tribunal to prosecute those who helped the Pakistan army and participated …continued »

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