Since neither side is showing any sign of wanting to end the violent confrontation between the opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, and the Awami League government, headed by her archrival, Sheikh Hasina, there is danger that Bangladesh might plunge yet again into the kind of prolonged and virulent campaigns of murder and mayhem that have been endemic since the country’s blood-drenched birth in 1971. The current high-pitched conflict is provoked by the first anniversary of the last election, held on January 5, 2014, which returned Hasina to power because Khaleda had boycotted the poll on the grounds that the prime minister had refused to make way for a neutral government needed to ensure the fairness of the elections.
Hence, Khaleda described the occasion as “celebration of the day democracy was killed” and announced a countrywide “blockade” to “topple” Hasina’s “illegal government” so that fresh elections could take place under “neutral auspices”. For her part, Hasina dug her heels in and took advance action to ensure that Khaleda was “immobilised” inside her office. Even so, BNP members and their many allies have resorted to violence and arson in Dhaka and elsewhere. In Noakhali, there was a clash with the police in which two men were killed. Up to the time of writing, the casualties had risen to seven, and several other developments had aggravated the worrisome situation. For instance, the government ordered the arrest of the BNP’s acting secretary-general, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who avoided it by staying inside the National Press Club “under the protection of the club’s authorities”.
Another telling incident was the arrest of the owner of a private television channel, Ekushey TV (ETV). This happened immediately after his channel had covered live a speech in London by Khaleda’s elder son and nominated successor, Tarique Rahman, who is forced to live overseas because at home he is wanted by several courts of law on serious charges, including corruption, of course. But even more seriously, he is also accused of masterminding the grenade attack on Hasina in 2004. She was unhurt but 24 people lost their lives.
Tarique’s speech was utterly objectionable. For he said that Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was a “collaborator of Pakistan” and that the real first president of Bangladesh was his (Tarique’s) own father, General Ziaur Rahman. The general had taken over after the savage assassination of Mujib and all other members of his family who were with him on August 15, 1975. It is all the more remarkable that, according to the Bangladesh government, the ETV boss has been jailed because of “violation of the law against pornography”. In any case, Bangladesh’s high court has since ordered the media not to report in print or on TV any statement or speech of Tarique until he remains a “fugitive”.
Although this fact is well known, it is necessary to repeat that Hasina is the daughter of Mujib while Khaleda is the widow of General Zia, the army chief who took over after Bangabandhu’s assassination. While Zia himself was assassinated in 1982, his wife was immediately elected leader of the BNP in his place. Power, however, passed to the new army chief, General H.M. Ershad. Hasina had returned home after spending six years in exile in India. The early- to middle- 1980s was the only period when the “two begums of Bangladesh”, each leading her party, were on the same page. Indeed, they cooperated with each other closely to end the military rule and bring back democracy to their country. Ershad intensified repression to preserve his rule but failed because the joint leadership of Hasina and Khaleda was a formidable force and the people were seething with discontent.
In December 1990, Ershad resigned, and an interim government, headed by a highly respected judge, held democratic elections in 1991. In these, the relatively new Zia dynasty stole a march over the better known clan of Bangladesh’s founder. Khaleda became prime minister, and Hasina was angry and bitter. Her bitterness turned into fury when Khaleda’s government endorsed an existing indemnity law, granting almost complete impunity to Mujib’s murderers. Since then, the hostility between them has been implacable. Yet the two have been taking turns in ruling Bangladesh.
Henry Kissinger had once described Bangladesh as a “basket case”. The country’s impressive economic and social achievements have proved him wrong. Perhaps its record would have been even better had its political discord not been so self-destructive.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator