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Mainstream, VOL LI No 52, December 14, 2013 | Focus on Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

‘Bangladeshis Reject Religion-based Violence’: Interview of Veena Sikri, India’s Former High Commissioner in Dhaka

Thursday 19 December 2013

The following is an interview Veena Sikri, India’s former High Commissioner in Dhaka, gave to the Mainstream editor. She was till recently a Professor at the Acadamy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. Currently she is the Vice-Chairperson, South Asia Foundation (India Chapter).

Ques: What is your assessment of the present situation in Bangladesh?

Ans: Bangladesh is facing a very serious challenge once again. It has faced many challenges over the last 42 years since 1971; and each time the essentially democratic and pluralistic nature of the people of Bangladesh have asserted itself. We saw that in 1991 when the will of the people asserted and the two political parties—the BNP and Awami League—came together for the restoration of democracy. And it was then that the military ruler, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, understood that if he continued in power, there would be widespread violence; so he ultimately stepped down bowing to the public pressure.

We saw that in 2007 when there was an Army-backed caretaker government. And the will of the people asserted again and elections took place in 2008. Popular pressure made it abundantly clear that the people will not accept any other solution.

The key problem today is again centred on the issue of the caretaker government. Khaleda Zia, heading the BNP, insists that she and her party will take part in the elections only under a caretaker government.

The idea of a caretaker government first came up in 1996 and the Constitution was amended to insert the provision of such a government. The immediate past Supreme Court Chief Justice headed the caretaker government.

During Khaleda Zia’s time, the CJ’s retirement age was raised. This was perceived as allowing her candidate to eventually become the head of the caretaker government. But this became a highly controversial matter. There was a huge public outcry. As a result, the immediate past CJ did not want to take over as the head of the caretaker government.

At the end of 2006, Iajuddin Ahmad, the country’s President during the tenure of Khaleda Zia as the PM, became the caretaker chief.

However, subsequently an Army-backed caretaker government was set up in 2007. It took time to clean up the electoral rolls and hold elections in 2008. But the people saw to it that the elections were finally held and the Army-backed caretaker government did not become a permanent feature.

Ques: But then how was this provision of a caretaker government deleted from the Constitution?

Ans: It so happened that the Supreme Court of the country sometime back gave a verdict that a caretaker government was ultra vires of the Constitution because in a parliamentary democracy you cannot have a caretaker chief who is unelected by the people.

Because of the SC verdict, an amendment to the Constitution was effected by the govern-ment so as to remove the provision of a caretaker government from it. So there is no way elections can be held henceforth under a caretaker government. That is the reality.

But then the BNP is resorting to unconstitutional methods spearheading the demand for restoration of the provision of a caretaker government. There is mayhem on the streets of Dhaka. What is happening is violence of the worst kind. Nothing can function. This is most undemocratic—I would say uncivilised.

Ques: But all these are the handiwork of the Jamaat, isn’t it so?

Ans: Well, as far as the Jamaat is concerned, it has been barred from contesting the elections by the Election Commission. Before the 2008 elections, when it was found that the constitution of the Jamaat-e-Islami did not conform to the country’s Constitution, the Jamaat was asked to alter its constitution to bring it in line with the democratic, secular Constitution of Bangladesh.

The Jamaat promised to the Election Commission that it would amend its constitution to make it in tune with the Constitution of Bangla-desh. But actually it did not do so. As a result, it cannot be registered as a political party and fight the elections.

Secondly, a number of Jamaat leaders have been indicted in the ongoing war crimes trial. Now with violence on the streets on the rise, this is perceived by the people as an attempt by the Jamaat-e-Islami to slow down the ongoing work of the War Crimes Tribunal.

Ques: How do you view the terror groups operating from Bangladesh and carrying out terror acts in India ?

Ans: Right from the days of military rule in Bangladesh (after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman), we have seen increasingly the use of the Bangladesh territory for giving shelter to Indian insurgent groups and for launching terrorist attacks on India by these and other jihadi fundamentalist groups. Pakistan’s ISI has been supporting such activity using the territory of Bangladesh.

However, under Sheikh Hasina’s government, this activity has been greatly reduced. The people of Bangladesh are not interested in and do not support such activity. Sheikh Hasina had promised in her election manifesto in 2008 that such activity would stop and she has kept her promise.

Ques: What do you make of the Shahbag movement ?

Ans: Those participating in the movement call it the Gonojagoran Manch. The importance of this movement is two-fold: it is wholly organised by young people, and it is completely non-violent. Even after the brutal killing of the young blogger, Rajib Haidar, by the Jamaat elements, it did not turn violent and remained peaceful.

The participants in the movement have been dubbed as irreligious. This is incorrect and an attempt to reduce the movement’s support and popularity. The participants in the Shahbag movement say: We are religious but religion is only one part of our identity. We are actually secular democrats, as the Bangladesh Constitution lays down.

Ques: What are the reasons behind the growth of the forces of religious fanaticism of late? If these forces come to power through direct or indirect means, what would be the implications of such a development for the future of secular democracy in Bangladesh as well as South Asia as a whole?

Ans: Well, I would say that such forces are trying to assert themselves across South Asia, and Bangladesh is no exception. Today these forces of fundamentalism and fanaticism are acting in such a way as to create anarchy through violence in civil society. They want to intimidate the people and secure their support based on fear. However, each time elections are held, it becomes clearer that the forces of religious fundamentalism have only a minuscule support base among the people. The vast majority do not want religion as a part of politics and thus reject religion-based violent activity. The Jamaat cannot fight the elections, so they are taking recourse to violence on the streets. The Jamaat is using its cadres for violent demonstrations in support of the BNP’s agitation to bring back the caretaker government. This is unconstitutional.

The question is: will the BNP allow the Jamaat to take over their party?

I would also say that if you are allowing streets to decide everything, it will lead to dangerous consequences. Non-violence should be the only course of struggle. Agitations need to be conducted peacefully through non-violent means.

Ques: What will be the impact of this development on the minorities in Bangladesh?

Ans: Minorities—mainly the Hindus all over Bangladesh and Buddhists in the Chittagong Hill Tracts—are under a lot of stress. The Buddhists’ rights provided under the CHT Accord are yet to be ensured; the accord remains largely unimplemented. There is strong and widespread criticism in and outside Bang-ladesh about the increasing attacks on the mino-rities. This is threatening the secular democratic fabric of Bangladesh. The situation could worsen for the minorities in the coming days.

Ques: What has been the response of the Government of India to the evolving situation in Bangladesh? What, according to you, needs to be done from the side of India to help stem the tide of religious fanaticism in that country?

Ans: The Indian High Commission in Dhaka has conveyed to all concerned that the Government of India feels that the people of Bangladesh be allowed to take their own decision without any external interference on how to hold free, fair and peaceful elections.

India has advised all parties not to adopt any step that would enhance tensions, to eschew violent and brutal methods because killing dissidents and destroying democracy are not part of the democratic process. If people are against the incumbent government, they will vote against it. But violence does not lead one anywhere. It would only hold up the electoral process, inject doubts in the minds of the people and pose a major challenge to democracy and the future of Bangladesh. Thus elections have to be held in a peaceful environment without employing violence on the streets. All points of differences among political parties can be negotiated across the table. But the electoral process should not be held up.

Ques: How do you envisage the future of democracy and secularism in Bangladesh?

Ans: My view is: a) the election process should go ahead; b) violence must stop; c) the BNP must participate in the elections; it could make the issue of caretaker government an election point and go to the polls highlighting it but not do so through violence as such a step militates against democracy; d) religion-based violence, fundamentalism and fanaticism will not help guarantee the democratic future of Bangladesh.

There are only a few weeks to go for the elections. So it is crucial that talks are held and the BNP agrees to participate in the polls. In that situation, the electoral process could be postponed for a few days to enable the party to file nominations etc. But no attempt should be made to indefinitely defer the elections which should be held on time before the five-year term of the present government is completed.

It is in everybody’s interest that the BNP participates in the polls.

But there is no reason to take a casual and careless attitude about the lives and property of the citizens, it should not be thought that the public at large supports such an attitude.

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