April 6, 2015 12:12:48 am
Bangladesh is an unhappy country these days. Its unhappiness goes up a few notches, day by day. The recent murder of yet another young blogger, Washiqur Rahman, by Islamic fanatics in Dhaka is a sign of the impunity with which criminality thrives in the country.
Rahman’s killing comes a little over a month after another blogger and writer, Avijit Roy, was butchered to death in full view at the Ekushey book fair organised in remembrance of the language martyrs of February 1952. Roy, who held dual Bangladeshi-US citizenship, had been threatened with death for a long time, but he clearly did not take such threats seriously. On a visit to Bangladesh with wife Rafida Ahmed, who also came under attack, he obviously thought, like so many others, that the book fair grounds were a safe place for Bangladesh’s liberal classes. The police and other security forces had, after all, assured citizens that there were three or four layers of security on the premises. In the end, those layers amounted to nothing.
And therein lies a fundamental problem in Bangladesh today. The country is still reeling from the effects of an unending siege and general strike called by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in early January, to demand fresh general elections under interim arrangements. The BNP, leading a so-called 20-party alliance and headed by former prime minister Khaleda Zia, has found itself in a spot, partly because of its own political miscalculations and partly because the government has doggedly ensured that party members and leaders are unable to appear in public.
A large number of senior BNP politicians are in prison; others are fugitive, within the country and abroad; some have lapsed into silence. Khaleda Zia remains in self-imposed confinement at her party office in Dhaka’s affluent Gulshan residential area. She has defied summons by the court to appear before it in a corruption case. Her lawyers and she have demanded that prior guarantees of security be provided before she makes her way to court.
The government has laughed off the suggestion.
The ruling Awami League, for all its bravado about conditions in the country being normal, is worried. Fears of a slide in the economy, which projects an annual GDP growth rate of slightly over 6 per cent, remain paramount. Then there is worry about the government’s image slipping from not-so-good to bad, given the incompetence it has displayed of late. The case of the missing BNP politician, Salahuddin Ahmed, is a glaring instance of failure on the part of the security agencies. Like Ilyas Ali, a former BNP lawmaker abducted three years ago by individuals whose identities remain unknown, Ahmed was reportedly picked up weeks ago by a group of men in the middle of the night, and has been missing since. Ali never came back. And Ahmed’s whereabouts are still not known. The police and other security agencies of the government have said Ahmed was not seized by them, a claim dismissed by his family and party. But the agencies have not been able to locate the missing politician either. It didn’t help that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina chose to be flippant about Ahmed’s disappearance in the parliament.
The nation’s unhappiness has spread, affecting more and more spheres of life. In the past couple
of months, students sitting for their school-leaving examinations have been under tremendous psychological strain because the BNP agitation meant their exam dates were constantly shifted around. All appeals to the party to halt its strike and allow students to complete their examinations went in vain. Leading BNP figure and former minister Hafizuddin Ahmed even retorted angrily that the political movement came before everything else.
The functionaries of the Awami League-led government are not to be left behind. Information Minister Hasanul Haque Inu, who leads a faction of the Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal (JSD), has made it clear that the place for Khaleda Zia is not negotiations with the government but in prison. Last month, in what was described as a news conference but in which she declined to take questions, Khaleda Zia laid all the blame for the current crisis on the Awami League. There was no expression of contrition over the death of nearly 140 citizens in petrol bomb attacks across the country, triggered by the BNP’s programme of blockade and hartals. On the sidelines, former military ruler Hussain Muhammad Ershad has injected fresh, though unintended humour, into the political scene. Allah, he has told the country, would like to see his Jatiyo Party back in power.
All said and done, there is an overwhelming sense of insecurity among citizens. The police remain woefully inadequate when it comes to investigating crime or taking suspects into custody. The government falls back, every time a crime occurs, on cliché: no criminals will be spared and justice will be done. Brave words, hardly followed by effective action. Add to that the widespread perception that security forces happily harass opposition activists but look the other way when crimes are committed by elements linked to the ruling party. As if that were not enough, a minister of state, Pramod Mankin, advises the country’s indigenous population to act and think like Bengalis. It is a throwback to 1972, when Bangladesh’s newly formulated constitution declined to give space to its non-Bengali population. At the time, the country’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, had made it known that all citizens of Bangladesh were henceforth to be known as Bengalis. The ramifications were to be terrible in places like the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
Bangladesh is a sad place today. Its institutions remain weak, its education system is endlessly battered, its economy is under assault from politicians determined to wrest back power from their enemies, its law-enforcement agencies do not perform to public satisfaction. Society has split right down the middle, along political lines. In this chaos, religious bigotry rears its ugly head, again and again. It is an existential crisis that Bangladesh faces today.
The writer is associate editor, ‘The Daily Observer’, Dhaka.
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