January 5, which marked a year since the elections that brought the Awami League to power in Dhaka, was to be celebrated as the “Victory Day of Democracy” by the ruling party and mourned as the “Democracy Killing Day” by opposition parties, led by the BNP. Over the past week, security forces have cracked down on opposition protests, in which at least seven have been killed. Opposition leaders have been arrested, BNP chief Khaleda Zia has reportedly been confined to her office since last Saturday, and a media ban imposed on speeches by her son, with editors who dare to defy the ban facing arrest. In response, the BNP has called for a nationwide blockade, which is beginning to have economic costs. Amid the turmoil, one thing seems clear: the space for democratic dissent and debate has shrunk alarmingly in Bangladesh.
Last year’s elections raised troubling questions about the Sheikh Hasina government that refuse to go away. The polls crowned weeks of violent protests, registered low turnouts and were held in spite of an opposition boycott, which meant that 153 members of a parliament of 300 won their seats uncontested. The Awami League’s victory was foretold and the violent conflagrations that followed were firmly put down. Over the last year, it has failed to consolidate its fragile mandate, facing allegations of trying to restrict the freedom of the press and blot out opposition voices.
Since the Shahbag protests of 2013, Bangladesh has been riven by a conflict between secular and fundamentalist forces that threatens to change the nature of its polity. The Sheikh Hasina government has fought valiantly for secularism, restoring the four founding principles of the Bangladeshi constitution to reverse the gradual Islamisation that had taken place over decades and staving off demands for an anti-blasphemy law. The secular space it has carved out is embattled. It must not be delegitimised now by an intolerance for dissent.