Dhaka’s missing man

A leader’s disappearance highlights politics of fear and loathing in Bangladesh

Written by Syed Badrul Ahsan | Published: May 4, 2012 3:10 am

A leader’s disappearance highlights politics of fear and loathing in Bangladesh

On April 17,the 41st anniversary of the formation of the Bangladesh government-in-exile in 1971,a politician of the opposition party,the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP),M. Ilias Ali went missing in Dhaka. Nearly a fortnight into the incident,Ali,former lawmaker and leading political figure in the country’s northeastern region of Sylhet,has remained untraced. The curious bit in the story is that no one,in government or outside,seems to have any knowledge of what might have happened to the abducted politician or who could have been behind his disappearance. In a country where citizens have,over the past couple of years,been disappearing,with little chance that they might turn up in public (some could have been murdered),there are reasons to fear for Ali’s safety.

The fear has now engulfed the whole country. Ali’s party,the BNP,together with an assortment of 17 other smaller,right-wing political parties,has now opted for extreme forms of agitation on the streets. These measures have included hartals across the country. In the last 10 days,the country has been subjected to a shutdown for as many as five days. And the opposition has promised more of the same unless Ali is recovered alive and handed back to his family. His party has made it clear what it thinks of his disappearance. It believes the government,through its security forces,has abducted Ali and is now unwilling or unable to own up to this fact.

For its part,the ruling Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina finds itself in a spot. With the police and other security agencies unable so far to recover Ali or even come up with an idea of what might have happened to him,the government’s predicament only gets worse. The incident is a new embarrassment for the authorities,coming as it does on top of their failure to make any headway in the investigations on the murder of a journalist couple in February this year. A few weeks later,a Saudi diplomat based in Dhaka was shot near his home in the affluent Gulshan residential area. Nothing has come out of this investigation,despite a visit by a team of Saudi investigators. Add to that the general deterioration in law and order in the country and you have a picture of the chaos that appears to have descended on Bangladesh’s politics.

The government’s attitude to the Ali episode has been a bundle of contradictions. On one hand,Home Minister Shahara Khatun has gone around reiterating the government’s seriousness in solving the mystery. On the other,Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has openly accused the BNP of being a past master in the disappearing acts of its own people. She had,of course,in mind the instance of at least one BNP politician who some years ago vanished without a trace,until the truth of his having been kidnapped and put to death by his party rivals eventually came to light. But the prime minister’s views on Ali’s disappearance swiftly became a subject of ridicule. She is expected to meet Ali’s wife. The wife,asking for the meeting a few days ago,has sought the government’s assistance in locating her husband. If there is any case against Ali,she maintains,the authorities are free to pursue it. But first Ali’s family needs to know of his whereabouts.

The reverberations of Ali’s disappearance have been severe and,therefore,worrying. The hartals have quickly snowballed into violence,with public vehicles being torched by opposition activists. Bombs exploded within the putatively secure premises of the secretariat,the seat of the government. It was made fairly clear by leading BNP figures,including former prime minister Khaleda Zia,that they were looking at the issue as a way of forcing the ouster of the government. The government,against this backdrop of violence or an incitement to it,has chosen to come down hard on the opposition. The police,having issued warrants of arrest against BNP leaders,have been raiding their homes,looking for them as well as for incriminating evidence against them. The acting secretary general of the BNP,Mirza Fakhrul Islam Munshi,has gone into hiding and so have others. Quite a few,however,have been taken into custody. The police have asked the courts for permission to take the detained men on remand.

At this point,an uneasy lull seems to have enveloped the political atmosphere. That is not in any way a guarantee,however,that the government has been able to bring order into life. As a matter of fact,the Awami League,which stormed into power on the strength of a three-fourths majority in 2008,has never been as embattled as it is today. The parliament remains ineffectual because of the opposition’s boycott of it; the economy keeps on taking a mauling; political violence by the opposition and the ruling party supporters does not appear to have an end in sight.

Bangladesh is,today,prey to divisive politics at its worst. The ruling party is not ready to give its foes an inch. And the opposition is determined to have the government bite the dust. Meanwhile,Bangladesh’s citizens are fast losing faith in the ability of either of the two parties to lead the county out of the morass it is caught in.

The writer is executive editor,‘The Daily Star’,Dhaka

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