The arrest of the well-known journalist-activist Shahidul Alam in Dhaka falls in that category of mistakes that even rulers who claim to be democratic make when they are insecure about continuance in power and give free rein to their authoritarian instincts. It is puzzling that no such ruler seems to have learnt from the experience of others that this does not help retain power, but only further erodes legitimacy. Alam was produced in court after an international outcry, and a video of him being escorted to the courtroom showed quite clearly that the police had employed methods that they will not admit to. The Dhaka Metropolitan Police said they has arrested him for his Facebook posts and statements supporting a school students’ protest against the killings of two students by a rashly driven bus. Why should an expression of support for a teenagers’ protest rattle the Sheikh Hasina government so much? The government’s response has been ferocious — a crackdown with rubber bullets and teargas, suspension of internet, restrictions on media coverage. Perhaps the government senses that the protests reflect a deeper discontent against the systemic corruption and the brazen partisanship that has come to identify its policies over the last five years, after it was elected unopposed in polls boycotted by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
In the run-up to the next election, due at the end of this year, the protests paradoxically echo those that broke out 10 years ago, demanding punishment for those who had betrayed the nation in 1971. Those protests laid the ground for the Hasina government to set up a tribunal to try several “traitors”, who were hanged after their conviction, and eventually for the banning of the Jamat-e-Islami. If the first years of the Hasina government polarised politics on the lines of “with Awami League or against Bangladesh”, the next five years have seen opinion coalesce against an increasingly authoritarian PM. Earlier this year, Khaleda Zia, BNP leader, was sent off to jail for five years on corruption charges.
That India has stood by Hasina all this time — the BNP’s unsavoury Islamist allies have always worried Delhi — seems to give her political confidence. But if Delhi has any leverage in Dhaka, and is interested in regional security and stability on its eastern borders, it should be counseling its friend against the path she seems determined to take.