Sunday, July 14, 2013

After Awami League has met its Gazipur

It was inevitable. After its defeat in four big city corporation elections, ruling Awami League (AL) has been humiliated in Gazipur, otherwise known as its own turf. In the electioneering days, the AL leaders quite vociferously called the city the party’s second bastion after Gopalganj, the hometown of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The margin of votes by which the rather clean AL-backed candidate has been defeated clearly indicates the party’s declining popularity. There’s no denying that its grassroots now stand humiliated and demoralised, especially at a time when the general election is only less than six months away.
Given the trend the five city polls have set, it will be difficult for the party, impossible almost, to return to power in the national election, if its leadership does not introspect and show brinkmanship. While doing so, it will find that, the government has created many issues that are impossible to handle in less than 180 days. And after the election schedule, supposed to be declared in September, the AL might find the administration act in a not-so-friendly way.
It is indeed surprising the way the AL rank and file has expressed shock and disbelief after the electoral tsunami. The disaster has always been looming large, and its ferocity could always be forecasted. The AL government has strings of achievements to boast, but the way proverbial bad apples spoil the whole bunch, the party’s success stories are now forgotten by the ordinary voters thanks to some Awami Leaguers’ unbridled corruption and its student wing’s thuggery and gangsterism.

The results suggest a steep fall in popularity and it is time the AL arrests it to keep the casualty to the bare minimum. The best move would have been to dissolve the parliament in February to hold an early election under a caretaker government. It could have given the party a chance to bag the fruit of the Shahbag movement. It is indeed sad that Shahbag has become a skeleton of its previous self and a Prothom Alo survey says that despite the front-page treatment it has received during its helicon days, it has not been able to take its message to the ordinary masses. No chance there.
So, an early election is not a possibility. The war crimes trial verdict and its execution might not save the day for other bigger issues have now overshadowed it. The government should invite the main opposition to a dialogue to settle the issue of the caretaker government. Meanwhile it must take some face saving measures to regain the level of popularity it had enjoyed only four and a half years ago. The AL leadership might not like him, but Professor Muhammad Yunus is hugely popular among ordinary Bangladeshis, especially the Grameen’s borrowers, which amount to 900,000 poor Bangladeshi women. Splitting their bank will not surely go down well with them. As the first step to restore sanity, the government can sit with Yunus to find a way to resolve the Grameen crisis.
Then there is the albatross round the AL’s neck–the Padma Bridge. For the party, what could have been a jewel in the crown has turned into a thorn in the flesh. The AL leadership’s denial of corruption and comparing it with Bangabandhu’s uncompromising stance against imperialism (Sheikh Hasina’s budget speech) will not help any of the parties involved. There’s only one person’s alleged involvement in the scam that has prompted the World Bank (WB) to show its back to the bridge’s finance, and that person and his feelings should not come before national interest. The government should sit with the WB again and do the needful to bring it back to the project.
Besides the collapse of Rana Plaza, alleged abduction of labour leader Aminul and Bangladesh’s labour law has contributed the most to the suspension of the GSP facility that Bangladesh used to enjoy in the US market. Instead of nabbing the culprits or amending the law, the government has pursued a strange policy according to which it blamed everyone but the real culprits for GSP suspension. Now that the EU has told Bangladesh that the latter should not take its GSP for granted, the government should do everything to retain the GSP facility in the European market.

And on top of it all, the AL must immediately sit with the main opposition to find a way to hold an election that will be acceptable to all the parties. Holding a one-sided election with Gen HM Eshad’s Jatya Party is not a sane idea; neither is inviting an unconstitutional power, the apprehension of which former President Baddruddoza has expressed the other day.
AL has led Bangladesh towards its glorious independence. Whim and arrogance is unbecoming of the party that has for years fought military dictatorship to uphold people’s right to vote. AL leadership’s future decisions should reflect its august past. The party, like the country is at a crossroads; it is a time when a single political move can make or break.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Wonderboy and Wondergirls

Former President General (rtd) HM Ershad has an interesting record to his name. Once ousted, hardly any military dictator or his party has ever fared well in a free and fair election across the world. Ershad is an exception. In the election that was held after his ouster in a bloody mass upsurge, Ershad's Jatya Party (JP) won 35 seats. The former dictator, then imprisoned on an array of corruption charges, won all the five seats he contested, a feat he shared with only Khaleda Zia in the 1991 elections.

I have always been amazed the way Ershad runs his trade, and during the last caretaker government's term in office I interviewed the former military strongman. He lamented the fact that his party MP hopefuls were not allowed to work in the run up to the first election since the restoration of democracy in 1990. Strange it may sound, his allegations were true--JP faced an unofficial ban at that time, and Ershad's popularity was one of the reasons why Khaleda nodded to the idea of amending the constitution to reintroduce Westminster-style government.

It might be why Bangladesh's new constitution that brought back parliamentary form of democracy vests the Prime Minister with power that only a Mughal emperor can outmatch. Add to that is her absolute power in the party where she handpicks her presidium/central committee members. In the councils of both the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party it is Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia who were 'trusted' by the councillors with the responsibility of choosing members of both the parties' highest policymaking bodies.

The irony does not escape us: even though both the parties and their leaders talk about democracy in every breath they take, at heart and at home they remain all powerful autocrats. In the case of the BNP, it is not surprising at all for the party was founded at the height of General Zia's martial law. What is strange is the way the AL, the vanguard of our Liberation War, has started to entertain undemocratic practises in its fold. There's hardly any difference left now between the way the AL and the BNP are now run.    

There's however now denying that in Bangladesh politics both the ladies enjoy the status of minor deities. Is it because the electorate sees some kind of mother figure engrained in their collective consciousness? Hardly so. Hasina and Khaleda thrive for the same reason Ershad, after the fall of his autocratic rule, had garnered 11 percent votes. Ordinary Bangladeshis do not have options, their choice always shuffle back and forth between the two major parties because they were never presented with a viable alternative to the duopoly that the two ladies created in local politics.

Politics in Bangladesh has remained a messy affair; members of the civil society have always shied away from it. To make matters even more grievous, young leadership that both the parties' quasi-democratic rule is producing is heavily infected with corruption and gangsterism. Change is the order of the day. But when, and, more importantly, how? 

First published in The Daily Star on June 7, 2013

So shall you Reap

In 1852, Karl Marx wrote an essay on the French coup that took place on December 2 the previous year.  NapolĂ©on Bonaparte had just assumed dictatorial power, the national assembly was dissolved and the French Empire saw a rebirth.  Marx began the essay, Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleon (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte), with: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." Ironic though it may sound, 111 years after Eighteenth Brumaire, two leading ladies are about to prove Marx wrong. Or they already have done it.

It all goes back to the winter of 1995: a negotiated settlement over the caretaker government had failed, and the main opposition Awami League (AL) and Jamaat launched a non-cooperation movement to force Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government to introduce a non-party election time government. A flurry of strikes called by the two main opposition parties crippled the country's economy. The following year, Khaleda went on with a one-sided election after the opposition MPs resigned from the parliament.

The 6th parliamentary election in which the BNP won all the 300 seats did the party more harm than good. Showing an uncompromising stance while you are in opposition might help, as it earned Khaleda a lot of respect during the anti-autocracy movement in the mid and late eighties. But for the ordinary Bangladeshis, stubborn behaviour to cling onto power is a major turnoff.  

The decision to hold a one-sided election was indeed suicidal, for within four months, another general election was held, this time under a caretaker government, in which BNP bagged 116 seats, 34 short to form government. It has been a painful lesson for the party as it showed that had it not dilly-dallied over the caretaker government, it could have won 130/135 seats and forming government with Jatya Party (32 seats) wouldn’t have been impossible. Bangladesh in 2013 eerily resembles its 1996 self.

The AL it seems has not learnt from the lesson that it has so famously given to the BNP. There is no denying that the party's popularity is plummeting sharply as day passes by. A recent survey by Prothom Alo says 90 percent of ordinary Bangladeshis support reinstatement of the caretaker government system and almost the same number of people think the country's present situation is bad. In fact, the AL would have fared really well if it had reintroduced caretaker and went for snap polls in January this year--the party and its allies had the chance of winning single majority in the parliament. That possibility is running slim now. Ordinary Bangladeshis want their votes to matter; at the same time they want all the political players to be present in the electoral process.

Given the acrimony that both the parties share with each other, it will be impossible to run a government if both of them have equal presence in the cabinet. The 5+5+1 formula which suggests the formation of an interim government led by five elected MPs each from AL and BNP and Sheikh Hasina/President/Speaker as its head might fall flat because of the ever pervasive mistrust in Bangladesh politics.
In fact, the situation is graver than it used to be in 1996. A string of scandals, coupled with violence and the advent of Shahbag and Hefazat-e-Islam, have made Bangladesh look like an unsolved jigsaw puzzle, which its political actors are inept at solving.  Failure of this kind is unpardonable and the politicians might not find it so pleasant when such vacuum is filled. 

First published in The Daily Star on May 31, 2013

Monday, May 20, 2013

Time's Arrow

The acrimony between two leading ladies of Bangladesh politics has finally received the international attention it truly deserves. The country has long been the lone poster-boy for ‘moderate Muslim democracy’ in the world, and now that that image has gone through some battering is reason enough to make the United Nations and the United States worried. A few weeks ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed his concern over political violence in the country, hoping all the major political parties find a way towards a peaceful solution. That rather saintly advice has, quite expectedly, fallen on deaf ears. UN’s latest move has come last week when Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, the organisation’s Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, made a hectic visit. From newspaper editors to politicians, the envoy met an array of people in his sojourn in Dhaka.

However, the 56-year-old Argentine might have found Bangladesh, especially its politicians, as perplexing as ever. In any other civilised country, it is the incumbent that usually remains in power, limiting its responsibilities to routine activities and lets the Election Commission (EC) oversee the polls. Then again, Bangladesh is no ordinary country. Had we followed the ‘civilised way’ of holding elections, no other party but the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), would have won the election since 1991. In the general sense of the word, Bangladesh’s politicians consider the country their fiefdom. They believe it is their birthright to rule their subjects, and bending rules ‘a little’ (read: Rules? What are they?) is the necessary evil one must do to keep the ‘right’ party in power.

 There is no surprise then that no incumbent political party has ever lost while it is in power while the EC has overseen the poll process: Awami League (1973), BNP (1979), Jatiya Party (1986), Jatiya Party (1988), and BNP (February, 1996). Of them, only the election in 1973 can be called free and fair; most of the others were a sham. Interestingly, in all the elections held under a neutral caretaker government, the ruling party lost: Jatiya Party (1991), BNP (1996), Awami League (2001), BNP (2008). The trend tells us that as in other nascent democracies across the globe, ordinary Bangladeshis do not want to see a political party rule the country twice in a row. Fernandez-Taranco’s visit has an eerie resemblance with Right Honourable Sir Ninian Stephen’s move to bring a political settlement in Bangladesh in 1996. And the funny part is Sir Stephen also came to mediate between Khaleda Zia (then the Prime Minister) and Sheikh Hasina (then the Leader of the Opposition). In the early 1996, Hasina-led Awami League (AL), coupled with Jamaat, launched violent street agitations across the country, resulting in one general strike after another that crippled the country’s economy. The aim was to make Khaleda’s government pass an amendment to the constitution that will introduce caretaker government. Sir Stephen’s mission failed.

There is a fear that Fernandez-Taranco’s might as well. The country’s recent political history also stands against the latter’s move. No political dialogue in Bangladesh’s history has ever seen success. Then again, there’s always a first time for everything. Ordinary Bangladeshis will collectively heave a sigh of relief if the politicians reach a consensus on the election-time government. Having said that, it will be difficult for the AL leadership to agree to hand over power to a group of people who are not party loyalist. At best, it can propose an interim government with Sheikh Hasina or the Speaker as its chief; of other 10 cabinet members, five will be from the AL and the rest from the opposition. Given the amount of mistrust it shares with its AL counterparts, it might not be possible for the BNP high command to accept such a proposal. Fernandez-Taranco has said something interesting at the presser last Monday. He thinks a settlement can be negotiated, as there are many common grounds. Asked what will happen if the dialogue fails, the envoy says Bangladesh’s history is a good indicator, and the political actors can clearly understand what the consequences will be. Are the Begums listening? This article was first published in

The Daily Star on May 17, 2013



There is a staggering number of prisoners held in different jails across the country now. From a newspaper editor to the Secretary General of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), as of last week, the government has in total kept 81,305 citizens in confinement. The prisons, which have a capacity crowd of around 41,000, might have to grudgingly welcome more inmates, as Dr Hasan Mahmud, a senior government minister, has said that more BNP leaders will be arrested if necessary. When it comes to the BNP, the government is apparently following a zero-tolerance policy. The prisons are full, yet the police, it seems, have been told to follow a blanket arrest policy. Two BNP spokespersons have so far been arrested, Shamsuzzaman, the latest, might be arrested as well.

The last few days he is staying in the party office, and during this week’s shutdown he did not even get down to the street to brief journalists. The government’s arrest on sight policy has also given birth to small little business enterprises in the remote parts of the country. According to a newspaper report, the money is mostly made by local policemen who arrest and free suspects– hundreds of unknown people stand accused of vandalism–in lieu of cash. There are villages where the law enforcers were manhandled when the latter tried to do some brisk business. There are also instances where perpetrators of violence are given a clean chit or are allowed to abscond for as meagre an amount as a few hundred taka. If you are not poor, it might look like a win-win solution. Actually, it is not.  


The AL-led government has done some major development work in the last four and a half years. Its magnitude and penetration into the grassroots very few governments in Bangladesh’s modern history can match. Despite some hiccups (read corruption/scandals), it has steered the country’s economy at a time when major economies are experiencing negative growth; the number of school-goers has increased significantly; internet penetration has reached a level where people are arrested for liking Facebook pages and ordinary people’s standard of living has got better. All the reasons are there for the ruling party to start dreaming of coming back to power in the next election, if not in an electoral landslide but by a slim margin. Not so, it seems. The AL-led Mohajote government in its last year in office has suddenly given birth to a flurry of crises that any political party anywhere in the world will be uncomfortable to handle.

It is not expected of a mature, seasoned political party like Awami League to decide to send police into the office of the main opposition, ‘retrieve’ some handmade bombs and arrest top BNP leaders on charges that are ridiculous in nature. If the AL policymakers had thought it a good idea, one can accept it as a tactic, but the party it seems has made this a strategy. Arrest of top BNP leaders and the denial of bail to most of them is not actually harming the opposition much, it is on the other hand, giving them an excuse to call one general strike after the other and keep the momentum of its movement for the caretaker government going.

In the run up to Hefajat-e-Islam’s (HI) Dhaka siege, local administration officials and central AL leaders are holding talks with HI leaders, trying to dissuade them from holding any programme on May 6. Dhaka is abuzz with a rumour that the government has established an unofficial line of communication with an important junior member of the 18-Party Alliance. But the government has not taken any initiative to hold a dialogue with the BNP. It is evident from the speeches of senior AL leaders that the party leadership is not open to the idea of a neutral election-time government. Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. It is indeed ironic for the AL had refused to participate in the election even under a caretaker government in 2007, saying late President Iajuddin Ahmed was not neutral enough and an election held under his leadership would not be free and fair. And rightly so. An election held with Iajuddin as the Chief Adviser would not have been acceptable by all the political parties.

 A Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose

The AL had led the nation in its glorious war of independence in 1971. It is the largest political party in Bangladesh and it has members even in the remotest of villages. It should not be afraid of handing over power after its term to a caretaker/interim government and join the polls. There is always the risk of losing and the 64-year-old party has faced such a situation in its chequered history before. The party should prepare itself for an electoral defeat, not that it is going to lose the next one (or it might), but a party like the AL should be strong enough to stand even a political tsunami.

To clear the air and to ensure a smooth transition of power, the government should free the remaining BNP leaders and sit with the main opposition to hold a dialogue on the formation of an election-time government. It will spare the economy of the fallout of general strikes that have crippled the country’s future growth. As the party in power, Awami League has to take the initiative and the new President Abdul Hamid can do the primary mediation. It does not matter what it will be called– caretaker or interim– but without a neutral election-time government some major political parties will not participate in the election, which might not give it the acceptability that an election needs to have to call it free and fair. Even when Fakhruddin Ahmed-led government finally set the roadmap, it had to make sure that all the parties had participated it. It is not time to predict the outcome of a venture that is yet to see the light of the day. But it can be said with perfect certainty that any dilly-dally in starting the dialogue might cost both the AL and BNP dearly. If only they knew.

This article was first in The Daily Star on April 26, 2013

Everything that Rises Must Converge

Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), one of the largest political parties in the country, is now taking its cue from Hefazat-e-Islami Bangladesh (HIB), it seems. It plans to hold a big gathering in Dhaka where its chairperson Khaleda Zia is going to give a speech. It interestingly coincides with the HIB’s Dhaka seige programme where it plans to lay seige at all the entrance points of the capital to bring home its 13-point demand. Some of the HIB’s patrons wanted the group to stage a sit in for a day or two after its April 5 grand rally at Shapla roundabout in the capital, which the HIB top brass politely rejected, surprising those who thought the organisation was politically immature. Instead, it went for the May 5 seige, and a few big gatherings across the country.

It is clear now that the HIB wants to spread its wings and wants to bring under its shadow as many ordinary people as it can. Even though the group calls itself a non-political entity, there is no denying that the manner in which it has chalked out its programme smells of a long-running ambition that can be associated with the next general election. It is quite difficult for an elected government to deal with the HIB, for whatever the political parties say, at the end of the day all of them use religion–Islam to be precise–to get votes. And the parties need the support of those who wear taqiyah on their head, don a beard around their chin and give the Friday sermons (sometimes even fiery) in thousands of mosques across the country. The HIB primarily belongs to the qawmi madrasa paraphernalia and their graduates take up jobs in madrasas by becoming teachers or join mosques as muezzin or imam.

The HIB steadfastly follow the sunni-hanafi school of thought, which is far away from Salafi/Ahle-hadith. Most of the Salafis are peaceful. But from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jemaah Islamiyah– all the major extremist groups that use Islam as an ideology follow an extreme interpretation of the salafi path. Most of the Salafis in Bangladesh have their own mosques and consider many religious practices that HIB imams follow as reprehensibly innovative and hence must be shunned. It is interesting to note that, after the astik-nastik (believer-atheist) debate broke out centring the Shahbag movement, Salafis in Bangladesh, known as Ahle-hadith, talked against the ‘atheist bloggers’, which prompted many to believe that they might shelve their differences with the HIB and forge an alliance with the group. It did not happen as the Salafis in the country mysteriously became silent. There is hardly any possibility of the HIB to go in the line of the Jamiatul Mujahideen Bangladesh. What is worrying, however, is the HIB’s future plan. In the run up to the 9th Parliamentary Election in 2008, some Salafis in the country formed Islamic Democratic Party, with the intention to participate in the election, which had to be abandoned as the then Election Commission did not approve of its formation. But denying that to the HIB, a hardcore sunni-hanafi group with no apparent terrorist record, will be difficult. The HIB leadership knows that and it has time and again emphasised on its Deobandi-Tablighi character.

 In a country predominantly Muslim, even secular politicians paste posters on the walls showing them praying or holding both their palms together in the holy mosque of Ka’ba. Military generals who seized power also used religion. But, the country has never experienced something like Hefazat-style Islamic nationalism before. The emergence of the HIB is also a sign that Bangladesh has become highly polarised. The urban Dhaka middle class on one hand and on the other is the poor and members of the middle class of relatively small towns. The group, prior to its Dhaka seige programme, is holding one big procession after the other across the country to cash in on its newfound image as much as it can.

The BNP and Jatya Party (JP) are supplying those who are joining the HIB gatherings across the country with water, watermelons and cucumbers, to get political mileage. Both the parties think they are using Hefazat. It might actually be the other way round. The rise of the HIB spells danger for all the political parties in the country, especially those who talk about secularism. Presently the HIB is playing with both the big parties in the country. Sometimes, its speeches go in the BNP’s favour; sometimes it tries to balance–one of its leaders, on one occasion, has even called Sheikh Hasina netri (leader), and prayed for her. The HIB leaders, in its speeches, do not put blanket blame on the Awami League (AL)–they blame the ‘nastik-Left’ of the party, saying these people are harming the AL. This is political brinkmanship, which shows that Hefazat is playing its cards rather too well. The BNP taking its cue from the HIB might as well be a small beginning. There can be a lot more to come. That is a scary prospect for many of us.

This article was first published in The Daily Star on May 3, 2013

Ministry of Magic

Dark and difficult times lie ahead, and soon we have to make a choice between what is right and what is easy.  

Return of Religion?

Only days ago, there were talks of banning political use of religion and establishing secular thoughts in our daily life. Not any more, it seems. Religion has bounced back with a renewed vigour into politics and from the Prime Minister of a supposedly secular government to chiefs of non-political civic bodies, everyone is quoting–rightly or wrongly–the Quran and incidents described in the hadith of the Prophet (Peace be Upon Him; PBUH). A few months ago, while putting emphasis on the necessity of holding a war crimes trial, Sheikh Hasina herself has talked about qisas, lex talionis or the principle of an eye for an eye, as described in the Quran. Recently she has said that she will run by the way of the Prophet (PBUH), adding Bangladesh will be governed by the Medina Charter. Now, this is news. Does Sheikh Hasina, leader of Bangladesh’s largest secular party, want to run the country according to Islamic faith? Why has this sudden urge to become Islamic? Thanks to Hefajat-e-Islam’s (HI) rally and the astik-nastik (believer-atheist) debate centring the Shahbag Movement, Islam has suddenly become in vogue in Bangladesh politics. It has been murky as it is, but the sudden entrance of HI into the scene has made religion, especially Islam, an important issue in the next election. To make matters worse, no one it seems is able to contain the HI. Use of religion in politics has always been risky, and those who are not used to using it must handle it with care.  

Why aren’t you Talking?

 Currently the US Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena is also one of the most energetic persons in town; he has been running up and down the country–from Banglabandha to Bandarban, Mozena is spotted in the remotest corner of the nation, earnestly hoping Bangladesh becomes the next big thing in the world economy. He has also time and again publicly pleaded with the politicians to sit together to forge a consensus on the type of government that is going to oversee the next general election. All, it seems, has fallen on deaf ears. Like Mozena, the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency International and Centre for Policy Dialogue have told politicians to clean up the mess. The call has been ignored by the leaders of the two major parties, who, it seems, are happy with the news of charred corpses and burnt, mangled vehicles that hog the headlines every alternate day.

Be it in police fire or in opposition-sponsored violence, people are being killed, adding human fuel to the raging fire that is threatening to consume the very tenets on which the nation once wished to progress further. Former President AQM Badrudozza Chowdhury is right–violence would have stopped right away had the government sat with the main opposition over the caretaker government issue. But with its entire leadership save for Khaleda Zia in prison, will the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) agree to let go of a moral advantage that has been created in its favour? The Awami League, it seems, is reluctant to sit with the BNP over the caretaker-government issue, as it believes it will do the party good to go on with a one-sided election which will be participated from outside the Mohajote by its biggest ally Gen (rtd) Ershad-led Jatya Party. Why will the AL, then, take the trouble of holding a dialogue with the BNP over an issue that it thinks has already been settled by a highest court verdict?  

Magic Wand

To make matters more grievous, the history of dialogue between both the parties has never produced any pleasant outcome. The latest of its kind was between then AL General Secretary Abdul Jalil and BNP General Secretary Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan. Their failure to reach a solution over the chief of the government to force the general election led to the declaration of state of emergency in 2007. Dan Mozena has already said foreigners don’t have any magic wand; Bangladeshis have to decide on a way out of the present political impasse. It seems a far cry. Ordinary Bangladeshis want peace and stability that only good governance and rule of law can give. That is the magic wand that none of the two parties seems to have.

This article was first published in The Daily Star on April 19, 2013

Meet Boro Huzur


The government, it seems, has started to crack down on the bloggers who have made ‘blasphemous’ comments in their blogs and social networking sites on Islam and its Prophet (Peace be Upon Him). Mashiur Rahman Biplob alias Allama Shaitan, Russel Parvez alias Apobak and Subrata Adhikari Subho alias Lallu Koshai were arrested in a predawn raid from different parts of the capital. All of them are organisers of the Shahbag movement, which is demanding death penalty to all the war criminals and an immediate ban on Jamaat for committing atrocities against unarmed Bangladeshis during the country’s war of Independence in 1971. Right after the arrests, two senior ministers, in a presser last Tuesday, have said that the government is planning to make the law more stringent to try those who defame religion. The move has been clearly aimed at appeasing Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh (Protectors of Islam; HIB), a qaumi madrasa based organisation with its headquarters in Al-Jamiatul Ahlia Darul Ulum Moinul Islam (Hathazari Madrasa) in Hathazari, Chittagong.

Politically speaking, the government has some reason to try to pacify the group. Established in 1896, the madrasa is the second largest University of its kind in the Indian subcontinent. At the primary level, it teaches Fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence, along with Bengali, English and other subjects. At the tertiary level, it has Solar Science, Hadith and Tafsir (interpretation of the holy Quran). It follows Hanafi School of thought and respects its relationship with the Darul Uloom Deoband in India. The institution has around 50,000 students but its clout goes beyond that. It has hundreds of graduates who are now employed as imams at different mosques across the country, the number of which will be in thousands. To make matters even more serious for the government, Hathazari Madrasa is the highest seat of learning for students of around 40,000 qaumi madrasas that are funded by private individuals. Neither the Awami League (AL) nor the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has any fan following in these places.

The HIB first hogged the headlines on February 24 this year by holding a procession in Chittagong, it organised a gathering in the Laldighi Ground in the city and picked up a fight with the cops where a gun was snatched away from a policeman. The group–it refuses to call itself a political party–came up with a 13-point demand on March 9, saying it will launch a long-march to Dhaka from all over the country if the demands are not met. The group’s ameer (chief) is Maulana Ahmad Shafi, a religious scholar and the Muhtamim (Rector) of Hathazari Madrasa, which he joined as a student at 10. Fondly called boro huzur by his supporters, Maulana Shafi is also the Chairman of qaumi madrasa board.  

You Turn

When the Shahbag movement broke out after Quader Mollah was not given death penalty by the War Crimes Tribunal, the AL, like any other political party, saw it as an opportunity to get some extra mileage. The party, after all, led the country towards independence, and it rightly considers the war of independence its forte. Even when allegations of ‘blasphemy’ against some bloggers surfaced after the murder of Rajib Haider (Thaba Baba), the party leadership fiercely defended Shahbag. And the party has been true in its defence that not everyone in Shahbag is an atheist. A handful was, and their comments, which were quite blasphemous, were widely circulated to make Shahbag controversial. The presence of these bloggers in Shahbag was discomforting for a section of the AL, add to that is the HIB’s pressure and all the centre right parties support behind the long march. The biggest blow perhaps came from within the AL; Shahbag has been a non-political platform and the party should have left it as it is.

But the party leadership was worried that the movement would be hijacked or, worse still, that other unpleasant issues such as corruption or misgovernance might pop up in some corner of the roundabout. So it did what any other big party in Bangladesh would do: it tried to gobble the movement up. And now the government is trying to pacify the HIB and other like minded groups and arrested some bloggers. The AL, which is the flag bearer of non-communal politics in Bangladesh, according to a newspaper report, has asked HIB elders for some time to pass a bill that will ensure the death penalty for those who defame religion. It is difficult to tell if the HIB will suspend its long march to Dhaka, but it can be said with perfect certainty that the AL leadership has turned a little right to make sure that it does not have too many enemies on that side of the political spectrum.

The AL however will not able to materialise everything that the HIB has demanded as it includes a lot of issues that the party might feel a little more than uncomfortable to handle. Like the country, the AL is at a crossroads now. The party does not want people to think it anti-Islamic, so it cannot use force to stop HIB’s programme; at the same time, it has to make sure Shahbag remains alight in some form or the other.  

April 6

Former Awami League MP and leader of government-backed Tarikat Federation Nazibul Bashar has said that all hell will break lose on April 6, the day HIB plans to march into the capital. His prophecy is grim, it makes one think of heaps of body bags strewn all over the potholed streets of Dhaka. The HIB leaders have said that they will remain peaceful. In fact, that was what qaumi students were when they had a gathering last time protesting what they called government interference into their madrasas. On that occasion, the government budged to their demand, they peacefully held a rally of around 200,000, a victory procession, and left Dhaka. Whether the HIB will remain peaceful this time one cannot tell. We are not even sure whether it will go on with their long march or not. But everyone must show restrain. At the end of the day, our religion is dear to us, it literary means peace, and who knows it better than the boro huzur?

This article was first published in The Daily Star on April 5, 2013

The General and His Labyrinth

Former dictator Gen (rtd) HM Ershad is in a strange dilemma now. He is ready to leave the Awami League-led Mohajote government, so is the entire presidium of his party, yet Ershad is afraid of making the move. The former President, who has already spent a few years in prison, does not want to go to jail again; and that too at an old age like his. So, Ershad, who is increasingly using extreme rightist rhetoric, is calmly biding time for the opportune moment to arrive so that he can skirt the jail gate and leave Mohajote at the same time. The dictator, who ruled the country for almost a decade with an iron fist, is finding the present political scenario a missed opportunity. The old cases that are hanging around him like a dead albatross are forcing him to remain in, what his party colleagues are calling, “an unpopular government”.

In his speeches after coming back from a trip to the US, he is talking about upholding the spirit of Islam and punishing the bloggers “who have made blasphemous comments about the Prophet (peace be upon him) of Islam”. He has even called those who ‘defame’ Islam to change their faith. In a recent visit to a district, the former dictator also promised to give free electricity to mosques and madrasas across the country. Ershad has found that taking side of Shahbagh might not yield him the result he wanted to get. Instead, the nastik (atheist)-blogger issue is now more lucrative to him to manipulate, for most of his voters in Rangpur division are deeply religious and are badly infected by Khaleda Zia and Jamaat’s nastik-blogger propaganda. Ershad thinks this is where his forte lies, and he might have felt that his moves are not enough to tell his voters that he is more ‘Islamic’ than BNP and Jamaat put together. The spectre of jail looms large over his political fortune and the former strongman does not want to take any risk.

In a scenario where Ershad is sent to prison in one of the old cases that have dogged him since his ouster from power in a mass upsurge in 1990, Jatya Party (JP), which he heads, might have to face the Balkan effect. In his absence, JP runs the risk of becoming both the major parties’ plaything. Ershad does not want that to happen. Be that as it may, JP’s popular support is declining. In the election of 1991, Bangladesh’s first since the restoration of democracy in 1990, when Ershad was in prison, the JP, which was thought to be hugely unpopular, surprised everyone by bagging 35 seats. The party’s seats declined in the next election, but its popular support shot to a staggering 16.4, the JP’s best performance in any democratic poll so far. In both the elections, the party walked the electoral path alone. In 2001, the party formed Islamic National Unity Front with some religion-based political parties, but that did not stop the erosion in JP votes across the country–the JP got only 14 seats this time (around 7 percent of the total votes cast). Even though the party’s presence in the parliament bounced back to 27 in the last general election, his popular support is stuck at 7 percent, which is Jamaat’s average vote in the last four polls that the latter has participated.

What is alarming for the party is its reliance on Mohajote to get the 7 percent votes that it has received. In Dhaka and Chittagong Divisions, The JP might not have won seven seats without the support of Awami League. The prospect of getting reduced to less than 10 seats is huge in the fold of the JP, and the party leadership, might find it convenient to fight the next election– if and when there is one– under the comfort of an alliance with one of the major parties. Ershad might have other plans up his sleeve. If the BNP does not agree to participate in the next election without a caretaker government, Ershad and JP might come handy. In a scenario like this, he will try to garner enough support to win 100 seats and become a formidable opposition; or to even pull a surprise.

Then again, Ershad is a pragmatist. He knows that participating in a one-sided election might harm his political future, if it did not help the BNP in 1996, it will not help him in 20013. More so when the caretaker government issue is a popular one, and any attempt to tamper with people’s mandate does not go down well with the electorate. Ershad knows it well that his future lies in becoming a key ally of one of the two major parties. Now he is with the AL, but he might swing to the BNP, at any time, on any day. And he might even come back to the AL-led alliance after a few years with the BNP. He is Ershad, after all.

First published in The Daily Star on March 22, 2013

Talking Politics

In the last two weeks the country has witnessed political violence at an unprecedented level. Members and supporters of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) took to the streets of several districts, and, armed with sticks and machetes, attacked police stations and other such establishments to protest the verdict of a war crimes trial that handed down death sentence to the party’s central Nayeeb-e-Ameer (Vice President) Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. It has claimed the lives of around 100, of whom, according to an unofficial account, only 36 were members of the JI and six belonged to the police.

 Since the war of Independence in 1971, the country has never seen the loss of lives and the destruction of public and private property to such an extent. In the southwestern city of Bogra, the district administration had to ask for the deployment of the army to protect a police station. In an Upazila in northeastern Chittagong, policemen ran for their lives and hid in a building which was set on fire by members of the JI. The magnitude and barbarity of the assaults point to intelligence failure, because of which the civil administration across the country might have been caught off-guard. There is no doubt that the loss of 100 lives could have been avoided had the intelligence agencies been performing their jobs well. Having said that, we still do not know whether the agencies have bungled their jobs or there has been a failure from the part of the political leadership to handle the crisis.

It has been evident that in our country the police are not trained to handle riots. Policemen were heavily outnumbered, and the way violence was unleashed across the country suggests that the police had no clue as to what was in the offing. In fact, they were put in such a situation without any proper briefing, let alone any training, and what has followed is an inevitable outcome of ineptitude. The JI’s violence and police firing, along with the BNP throwing its weight behind the JI, has encouraged the extreme rightist elements, which are now trying to cash on the nastik (atheist)/murtad (heretic) blogger issue. The issue has become so lucrative to rightist politicians that even General (rtd) HM Ershad has joined the fray and in several speeches since his return from the US has talked about upholding the spirit of Islam. He has even promised to give free water and electricity supply to all the mosques and madrasas in the country.

Since the country’s independence in 1971, the nation has never been so polarised. And the continued violence and now–thanks to the BNP–a sustained political struggle for the popular caretaker government issue might push the government to take desperate measures, all of which might not be good for the AL and the country. The way out lies in holding a fruitful dialogue. Some AL leaders have already talked about sitting with the main opposition over the caretaker government issue, which is quite heartening to see.

But police raid on the headquarters of the main opposition, as an AL leader has already pointed out, is uncalled for and might push the BNP further towards the JI. The latter wants to strike while the iron remains hot, and the party leadership, it seems, has found an ardent admirer of its theory in Khaleda Zia. Leaders of both the parties have so far turned up with comments that tell us that they haven’t thought of the kind of dialogue they want to hold. Splitting the BNP, along the Muktijoddha vs Razakar line, might sound a good idea to the AL leadership, but at the end of the day an election held without the participation of all the major parties will not be acceptable to anyone, especially the masses, who see election time as a festive occasion, on which they exercise their right to choose their leaders for the next five years. What might happen if the dialogue fails? The history of dialogue in the country – the most recent being between Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Abdul Jalil – has never produced any fruitful result. Still, there is no harm in trying. There is always a first time for everything.

First published in The Daily Star on March 15, 2013