The Dhaka pattern

The Dhaka pattern

Khaleda Zia’s agitation has taken an intemperate turn.

Khaleda Zia’s agitation has taken an intemperate turn.

A few weeks ago in Bogra,the former Bangladesh prime minister,Khaleda Zia,warned the country that the army would not stand idly by if the government went ahead with its plans to organise elections without a caretaker system in place. In Khulna on Sunday,she asked civil servants,members of the armed forces,police and Ansar-VDP to join the opposition campaign to force the government to restore the caretaker system by October 25. Her call is a clear invitation to the institutions of the state to destabilise a constitutionally and morally established government. It is a move that threatens to undermine the democratic course,however tenuous,that the nation has followed since 1991.

The opposition desperately wants the restoration of a caretaker system that will oversee the next general election in the country. For its part,the ruling Awami League remains adamant that the voting will take place on its watch,albeit with it as an interim government. The issue is thus clear. But it is one the ruling party and the opposition will need to sort out between themselves. For Khaleda Zia to solicit the support of the civil service,the armed forces and the police to destabilise a duly elected government is tantamount to encouraging anarchy in the country.

It is sad that,despite having served as prime minister twice,Zia has chosen to throw all caution to the wind in pursuit of her partisan interests. In the past five years or so,the BNP has stayed away from parliament on some pretext or the other. It has cheerfully sided with disruptive forces such as the Hefajat-e-Islam in its effort to push the government into a corner. On the war crimes issue,having kept mysteriously silent for a long time,the leading lights of the BNP are now demanding freedom for those convicted of crimes committed in 1971.


Zia’s call for the institutions of the state to join her campaign against a democratically and legally constituted government can only draw one’s attention to some of the more sordid of episodes that have undermined constitutional rule in Bangladesh. In August 1975,the usurping regime of Khondakar Moshtaque Ahmed celebrated the violent fall of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government as a noble deed carried out by “children of the Sun” (shurjo shontan). In November 1975,just hours after the newly installed president,Abu Sadat Mohammad Sayem,promised new general elections in the country,a so-called sipahi-janata revolution triggered off a spree of killings in cantonments across the country,leaving hundreds of freedom-fighter officers dead. The idea of democracy seemed remote.

Between the end of 1981 and early 1982,General H.M. Ershad,the chief of army staff,put pressure on the newly elected president,Abdus Sattar,to set up a national security council incorporating elements of the armed services. In the end,Ershad could not wait. He ousted Sattar and seized power. Democracy was once again a fugitive. In May 1996,when the army chief,Mohammad Nasim,moved against Bangabhaban,the presidential residence,the president,Abdur Rahman Biswas,took swift action by divesting the former of his position and restoring the authority of the government. It was a bright moment for democracy in Bangladesh.

But this promise dimmed again a decade later. Between October 2006 and January 2007,the former president,Iajuddin Ahmed,with enthusiastic support from the BNP,took charge as chief advisor of the caretaker government. What followed was an unmitigated shame. A partisan election commission produced tens of thousands of fake voters,including individuals who had passed away,in the electoral lists. The administration operated on instructions from Hawa Bhaban,the political office of the chairperson of the BNP. The state teetered on the edge of disaster. And then the army came in,on the back of the Fakhruddin caretaker government. It stayed in place for two years.

Bangladesh is not the only country in the subcontinent whose democratic processes have been contested and threatened by the army. For instance,in 1977,the opposition Pakistan National Alliance made it clear that it would welcome the overthrow of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s embattled government by the military. In early July that year,the army struck. The soldiers then stayed in power for eleven years.

The coup of 1975 seems to have a dark afterlife in its implications for democracy in Bangladesh. A few days after leading the coup that left Sheikh Mujibur Rahman dead and his government overthrown,Khondakar Moshtaque travelled to Santosh,Tangail,to solicit Moulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani’s blessings for the coup. Bashani had a simple question for him: “Why have you taught the tiger to taste blood?”

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