Five days before Bangladesh goes to polls, the battlelines are drawn between the ruling Awami League and the main Opposition alliance over growing incidents of violence and denial of permission for a campaign rally.
On Tuesday, the Opposition stormed out of a meeting with the Bangladesh Election Commission and later alleged that the panel was “biased”. The Opposition alliance is also upset at the denial of permission for them to hold a rally in Dhaka on December 27. Meanwhile, the Awami League too approached the poll panel to complain that their workers were being targeted by the BNP. Read in Bangla
It’s the 11th Parliamentary elections in the country’s history and the contest is fierce this time between the Awami League, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, and main Opposition Jatiyo Oikyo Front (National United Front) which has joined forces with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose leader Khaleda Zia is in jail on corruption charges. “Monday was the most violent day. Police and ruling party cadres attacked the rallies and campaigns of the Opposition,” BNP’s senior leader Ruhul Kabir Rizvi alleged.
These charges were strongly denied by the Awami League. “We have lodged our own complaint against Jatiya Oikya Front and BNP-Jamaat men as they are attacking and harassing our supporters and activists across the country,” Awami League leader Akhtaruzzaman said.
With the Army deployed to calm the tense atmosphere, one of the poll planks here is the treatment of minorities, which is seen as a “sensitive issue” that is increasingly attracting attention from the diplomatic community in Dhaka.
Minorities form about 10 per cent of the population of Bangladesh’s 16 crore people — Hindus account for about 8-9 per cent, Christians about 0.5 per cent and the rest are Buddhists.
“We are aware about the threats posed to minorities in the past. While the government is taking measures to address the situation, we are also mobilising the community to not vote for communal forces. There should be a neutral and secular government at the centre,” Nirmal Rozario, president of the Bangladesh Christian Association, told The Indian Express.
Rozario recalled that after the election in 1991, “minorities faced torture and repression for around a month” and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), whose leader and former prime minister Khaleda Zia is now in jail on charges of corruption, was allegedly “involved”.
However, the largest such attack came after the 2001 election, when the BNP-Jamaat coalition came to power and minorities, mostly Hindus, were targetted for their affiliation to the Awami League. In 2009, following a court directive, the Awami League-led government under Sheikh Hasina formed a judicial commission to investigate about 5,000 incidents of atrocities, including killings and rapes, and recommended action against many, including 25 ministers and lawmakers, from the BNP-Jamaat coalition.
However, the commission’s report was not made public. And no action was taken against the perpetrators even after 10 years of Awami League rule, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. “This time, we are vigilant… in Bangladesh, the cycle of violence has often taken place after the elections as well, like in 2001,” Rana Dasgupta, one of Bangladesh’s top Hindu minority leaders, told The Indian Express.
This fear has prompted the Bangladesh Hindu Bouddha Christian Oikya Parishad (Bangladesh Hindu, Buddhist, Christian Unity Council), the representative body of the minority communities, to hold discussions with all major political parties and the Election Commission to ensure their security.
“Everybody irrespective of their political affiliation, caste and creed, gender, religion, minority community and ethnic minority group will be able to cast vote and can stay safely at their residence afterwards,” the poll panel has said.
The major political parties are also trying to woo and reassure this votebank by fielding candidates from minority communities: Awami League has fielded 18 candidates, BNP seven, and H M Ershad’s Jatiya Party three. Besides, the Awami League has said in its manifesto that it will form a national commission for minorities. “All discriminatory laws and systems against minorities and ethnic minorities will be abolished and there will be no discrimination,” it said.
The BNP has also promised to set up a separate Ministry for Religious Minority Affairs. “Right to life, property, and social dignity of the minority and ethnic nationalities living in the hills and the plains would be fully protected,” its manifesto states.
On Tuesday, the top Bangladesh leadership, including President Abdul Hamid and PM Hasina, exchanged greetings with members of minority community on Christmas. While political parties make their pitch, Uttam Kumar Taha, an employee at Agrani bank in Dhaka, says that Bangladesh cannot “become another tinderbox”. “It is not in our interest, not is it in India’s,” he said.
As Dhaka celebrated Christmas, a majestic white building, with wide arches and Colonial-era architecture, was lit up with blue fairy lights in the city’s centre opposite the residence of the Chief Justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court.
Hung on the gate outside the colourfully decorated St Mary’s Cathedral on Kakrail Road in Romna, was an orange poster with a message in Bangla: “Shubho Boro Din (Merry Christmas)”.