Even in their darkest hour, Bangladeshi leaders have refused to rise above the self-destructive political feud that has dominated the country since independence in 1971, refusing to bury the hatchet, refusing closure and most tragically, refusing to stand at the same podium and collectively grieve for the 22 victims of their country’s worst terror attack at an upmarket café in Dhaka over the weekend.
In her address to the nation after Bangladeshi forces liberated the café, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pointed out that terrorists had no religion. But unable to resist a jibe at her main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), she added, “They’ve taken a path of terrorism after having failed to win the hearts of people through the democratic process.”
Hasina’s colleague, Health Minister Mohammed Nasim, was pulling even fewer punches. “All six killers (who stormed the café) were Jamaat-Shibir activists,” Nasim said, referring to the Jamaat-i-Islami, an ally of the BNP, and its student wing, Shibir. Nor was BNP leader Khaleda Zia at a loss for words. Describing the attacks as a “bloody coup,” she first sniped at Hasina’s handling of the security situation, then called for a government of national unity to tackle the problem.
Hasina was quick to retaliate. Any such government could only be contemplated if the BNP washed its hands of the Jamaat-i-Islami, accused of perpetrating some of the most violent crimes during Bangladesh’s war of independence.
Only in May, the international war crimes tribunal set up by Hasina had ordered the hanging of Jamaat-i-Islami chief Motiur Nizami, who had served as industry as well as agriculture minister in Khaleda’s government, from 2001-06. Prosecutors said that Nizami had ordered Shibir in 1971 to become a “de-facto death squad which assassinated professors, writers and journalists.” Pakistan protested the hanging.
The key problem with Bangladesh’s political class today is that the main parties as well as the women who head them have refused to move on from the events of 1971. Hasina’s father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib-ur Rehman, was of course the hero of the events that preceded as well as followed the bloody birth of the new nation, as was Khaleda’s husband, the late Zia-ur Rehman.
The animosity between the two women is palpable. In a by-now infamous telephone conversation that was leaked to the press in October 2013, Hasina repeatedly refers bitterly to the events of August 15, 1975, when her entire family as well as her young brother, Rasel, were brutally murdered.
Bangladeshis say they are doomed to be caught in this toxic fight. In that infamous October 2013 telephone call, Hasina invited Khaleda for all-party talks and requested her to call off a BNP-led nation-wide strike. But Khaleda refused and the talks fell apart. A few months later, the Bangladeshi PM prohibited the Jamaat from participating in the elections — much to the displeasure of the US. The BNP boycotted the polls.
This, then, is the situation in Bangladesh today. In Parliament, there is no Opposition to speak of, so all legislation is passed by a volley of ayes. The BNP has taken to the streets. It is said that BNP spokesman Salahuddin Ahmed was abducted from a friend’s apartment where he was hiding in March 2015 by members of the Detective Branch.
As for journalists like the well-known editor of the English-language ‘Daily Star’ and an old Hasina friend, Mahfuz Anam, criticism of the PM has led the state to slap 67 cases of sedition against him.
So as the democratically elected Hasina, Mujib’s daughter and India’s friend, turns an increasingly authoritarian page, it is clear the fight against individual targeted killings — atheist bloggers, Hindu priests and Buddhist monks — as well as mass terror, like the recent attacks in the Dhaka café, will become increasingly fraught as well as fragmented.
A divided polity that refuses to learn the lessons of the past is certain to fall prey to outside forces. Both Hasina and Khaleda must realise that they cannot allow themselves to be stuck in some ghoulish nightmare of 1971. That they must move on, for the sake of their people. The Dhaka attacks are a wake-up call. Political failure to learn from these could end up dividing the citizenry. The future of Bangladesh is at stake.