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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > July 28, 2007 > Democracy in Peril in Bangladesh

Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 32

Democracy in Peril in Bangladesh

Sunday 29 July 2007, by Muchkund Dubey


The domestic politics of Bangladesh was poised in a delicate position at the beginning of the year 2007. The country was heading towards a general election which was doomed to be a farce. The first caretaker government which, according to the constitutional provision, took over the reins of the government after the expiry of the five-year term of the last elected government of Begum Khaleda Zia, was reconstituted by President Iajuddin Ahmed, following the resignation by a number of members in protest against arbitrary arrests of people in wanton violation of human rights. The reconstituted caretaker government was heavily tilted in favour of the BNP/Jamaat combine. Subsequently this caretaker government was dismissed and the President who had been handpicked for the post by Begum Khaleda Zia and whose allegiance to the BNP was widely known, took over direct control of the government. He decided to go ahead with the elections as scheduled on January 22 in spite of the prolonged agitation, of the Awami League and its allies, for the replacement of the Election Commissioner whose links with the BNP were well-known, and drastic revision in the electoral roll which was heavily rigged. This left the Awami League and its allies no alternative but to announce the boycott of the elections.

In this context, the declaration of emergency, the suspension of the general election and the swearing-in of a new caretaker government on the January 11 came as a great relief to the nation. The head of the caretaker government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, is highly regarded as a person of integrity, probity and quiet efficiency. The campaign launched by the new government to cleanse the Bangladesh society of corruption with a view to creating conditions conducive to holding a free and fair election, evoked widespread support. Senior officials, prominent businessmen and politicians who were initially arrested on charges of corruption and fraud came from the entire range of the political spectrum of the country. This went towards confirming the impartiality and objectivity of the new government. Some of the big-ticket arrests like that of Tareq Zia, the eldest son of Begum Khaleda Zia, and the punitive action taken against some extremist religious leaders proved to be popular and gladdened the heart of the liberal forces in the country.

When Professor Mohammad Yunus, the noted Bangladeshi economist who was last year awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, announced his intention to float a party of his own for contesting the next election, it was universally seen as a step taken under the sponsorship of the caretaker government. Some intellectuals and leaders of civil society organisations enthusiastically welcomed Yunus’s initiative and agreed to work for him. The leaders of the political parties,
however, did not seem to be too concerned because they knew that in the absence of grassroots support and party infrastructure, this initiative was unlikely to go very far.

The people were generally carried away by the euphoria of the early success in the crackdown on corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen and by a sense of nemesis against those who had held the country to ransom. There were, however, some big question marks about the new caretaker government which unfortunately did not figure prominently in the political debate in Bangladesh. The people did not take too long to discover that the emergency and the associated changes in the political set-up had been manipulated through the intervention of the Bangladesh armed forces, and that the military was exercising a major influence in the running of the government. Moreover, there was an ambivalence regarding the military’s attitude towards the forces of religious extremism. On the one hand, the higher echelons of the military establishment were seen to be capable of perceiving the long-term danger to Bangladesh polity and society posed by these forces. They are also perhaps under the pressure of major economic powers, particularly the USA and EU, to curb these forces. The chances of the military heeding their advice can be rated high because these countries provide the main market for Bangla-desh’s principal export, that is, readymade garments, extend financial and technical assistance, and, above all, determine the extent of Bangladesh’s involvement in UN peacekeeping operations, which has emerged as a major source of foreign exchange earnings by the country. On the other hand, over the last few decades there has been considerable accentuation of religious overtones in the training of the Bangladesh Army. It is also believed in some quarters that the Pakistani external intelligence agency, the ISI, through the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence of Bangladesh, exercises considerable influence on the Bangladesh Army. This has the implication of the Army adopting a softer attitude towards the religious extremist forces if not really supporting them.

It should have been clear right from the very beginning that corruption cannot be eliminated by military measures like mass scale arrests, punishment through trials in kangaroo courts and removal from politics of the leaders of major political parties. Corruption is basically a social and political phenomenon and the only means of curbing it is the adoption of measures of social transformation and widespread popular cam-paign against it at the grassroots level. Besides, history shows that the military breeds its own brand of corruption, at times more pernicious and ubiquitous than civilian corruption.

Finally, though in view of the deep-seated intolerance of the military dictatorship and strong and volatile urge for democracy among the Bangladeshis, the Bangladesh armed forces may have no appetite for a direct control of the government, a slide towards decisive military influence over the government may become irretrievable in the short and medium run.

THE recent developments, particularly the arrest of Hasina on July 16 and the issue of a summons to Khaleda Zia to appear in the court on a charge of corruption, raise further questions regarding the intentions of the Bangladesh Army and of the government supported by it, and the future of democracy and liberal values in Bangladesh. There can be little doubt that these actions are a part of the move by the caretaker government to weaken, if not to decimate, the two major political parties and, in any case, remove Hasina and Khaleda Zia from the leadership positions, before the nation goes to the poll. This move should be seen together with the attempt by the government to trigger reforms in these two political parties with the same objective in view. The principal element of the reforms, being considered by both the parties, is to exclude the possibility of any leader holding the post of the chairperson of the party for more than two terms. Some of the other elements are to eliminate dynastical transfer of leadership and introduce internal democracy in the functioning of the parties.

Seen in this light, the charges of extortion against Hasina and corruption against Khaleda Zia appear to be only a frame-up. Moreover, there was no compelling need under the law of the land to arrest Hasina and keep her in custody before the investigation of her case is completed. She is not the type of person who would become a fugitive from law. Nor is she likely to tamper with the evidence being collected against her with the full backing of the Army. The summary rejection of her bail petition was, therefore, astonishing. That the method of her arrest was unsavoury is very well expressed in the statement on the subject issued by Khaleda Zia the day after the arrest. She said: “I am deeply disheartened to see that being an ex-Prime Minister, chief of a political party, daughter of a national leader, and an aged woman as well as a distinguished citizen of the country, she faced a disgraceful and indecent situation in the court premises.” The arrest was more of a design to humiliate and harass her and tarnish the esteem in which she is held by the people, than to make an example of her for the purpose of rooting out corruption. There is no doubt that of late Hasina and Khaleda Zia have become unpopular in the country except among their loyalists, because they are seen as a symbol of dynastical rule which they are determined to perpetuate, and because of their sordid record of holding the Bangladesh economy and democracy to ransom through frequent hartals and prolonged boycotts of Parliament. The major powers exercising influence in Bangladesh would also like these leaders eased out of politics because of the same reasons.

But it should be realised that the evils which these leaders have come to symbolise are not going to disappear simply by removing them from their positions in their political parties. For, these problems are too deep-rooted in the society and polity of Bangladesh to be amenable to solution by the quick-fix simplistic approach of removing these two leaders. The next rung of politicians in these political parties who would assume leadership after the exit of Hasina and Khaleda Zia, are dyed in the same wool as these two leaders. They may not have inherited leadership on the qualification of dynasty as Hasina and Khaleda Zia have done, but as the example of Indian politics shows, dynastical political inheritance and chronyism prevails pervasively at all the rungs of political leadership in most South Asian countries. Besides, some of the leaders spearheading internal reforms in the Awami League and BNP are not known to be free from the temptation of corruption.

The caretaker government should realise that beyond a point, the action being taken by them against Hasina and Khaleda Zia can prove counter-productive. The arrest of Hasina has already evoked widespread sympathy for her in Bangladesh and abroad and washed some of her presumed sins. The Awami League leaders have for the time being closed their ranks and decided to suspend all reform initiatives until Hasina is released. This has also lowered not only the caretaker government’s but also Bangladesh’s image abroad and has dented the popular support for the caretaker government.

In some of the comments on the functioning of the caretaker government, questions have been raised regarding its attitude towards religious extremist elements. In recent months, the government does not seem to have moved visibly and decisively against these elements. Some of the leaders of extremist religious groups against whom cases of murder are pending, are yet to be arrested. One of the reasons given for lesser activism with regard to dealing with these elements may be that they are relatively less corrupt than leaders belonging to the mainstream political parties. It is also possible that in the Bangladesh society, there may be greater tolerance for religious extremism than for corruption, which may come in the way of a severe crackdown against such forces. However, it should be realised that religious fanatics, though less corrupt, are more dangerous in that they are the purveyors of much of the violence that takes place in the society and because of their link with global terrorist groups. They also pose a greater threat to social cohesion, peace and progress than corrupt politicians.

THE recent political developments in Bangladesh have raised serious questions regarding the future of democracy and liberal values in this country. Going by the schedule of the elections recently announced by the government, it is going to be two years before democracy can be expected to be restored in Bangladesh. This is too long a hiatus in the democratic process. Surely, the revision of the electoral rolls should not take as long as two years.

Cleansing Bangladesh’s politics of corrupt elements in order to pave the way for holding free and fair elections is an open-ended goal the fulfilment of which can take years. This may be used for further extending the life of the caretaker government. Moreover, democracy of the kind that was prevalent in Bangladesh until recently cannot be rebuilt on the debris of the existing major political parties. The alternative arrangement under which the next elections are expected to be held, may very well turn out to be a mockery of democracy. A likely scenario is that the government that would come to power after the election would continue to remain military-backed and controlled, with the difference that the present set of caretakers would be replaced by a new set of “caretakers”, belonging to the sanitised Awami League or the BNP or a new political formation that may be created for this purpose. Such a government may not be averse to and may, in fact, be obliged to seek the support of the Jamaat and other religious elements to remain in power. This kind of government may continue for several years until it is brought down by popular resistance and movement, which would indeed be an uphill task entailing widespread strife and turmoil and tremendous sacrifice by the people.

WHAT should be the attitude of India towards the developments in Bangladesh? On Hasina’s arrest, the Government of India has taken the right stand in urging that “basic human rights should be fully respected in such high profile cases and there should be no violation of the due legal process”. This stand is not very different from that taken by the United States whose representative, in his statement after the event, underscored the general principle that everyone has the right of fair trial and self-defence, and underlined that the cases against Hasina should be dealt with according to the existing laws.

But what is at stake for India in Bangladesh is not the personal safety or the future political role of Hasina or Khaleda Zia but the fate of democracy and of the values which the Indian state stands for. Prospects in this regard do not appear to be bright. In any event, they are highly uncertain. Besides, India has little leverage to persuade the Bangladesh Government to desist from pursuing some of its misconceived notions and plans of how democracy should be restored in Bangladesh, and to hold free and fair elections earlier than scheduled.

Nevertheless, India should convey its concern to the Bangladesh Government in no uncertain terms, but in a proper diplomatic manner whenever there is an opportunity to do so. In any event, India should not give the impression that the caretaker government has India’s support for what it is doing. One gets the impression that some sections of the policy-makers in the Government of India believe that it is possible to do business with the present government in Bangladesh and get decisions taken on issues of concern to India on which no headway had been possible with the governments headed by Hasina or Khaleda Zia. This assessment is misplaced and the sooner it is given up the better it will be for all concerned. The present government in Bangladesh is hardly in a position to muster the courage needed for taking decisions on pending Indo-Bangladesh issues, like handing over ULFA militants who have taken shelter in Bangladesh, granting India transit facilities for its goods to move to other parts of the country through the territory of Bangladesh, and entering into long term arrangement in the energy field. The military is bound to be deeply divided on these issues. Besides, the present Bangladesh Government is too embroiled in domestic political problems to be able to devote the kind of time, attention and energy that is required for resolving these problems with India.

The author is a former Foreign Secretary of India.

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