Bangladesh: Political quagmire


South Asia Journal, April 26, 2018

Bangladesh has been on a development cycle for quite a few years, and the future could be brighter if several indicators could be kept in check; the prominent being floundering political stability. Political stability will only come if the nation can revert to democracy or the rule of the people rather than a dynastic framework. While the present system is benefiting a small group who are on the fast track towards wealth, it is hurting the moral structure of the country and the most people on the bottom end of the totem pole. Wealth is being allocated to a privileged group both for consolidating power and managing the same state of affairs for a long time to come. This group is also responsible for most of the corruption, defaulting on loans, swindling the stock market and money transfer to banks or entities abroad.

All thoroughfares throughout the nation are filled with life-size pictures, posters, and statues of the ruling family. Photo credit – South Asia Journal

As one sees in Bangladesh today – every big road or building or a bridge is named after one person. The satellite in the sky to the naval ship at sea – nothing has been spared. They all bear one name. Next generation of naming already started in Bangladesh. The present Prime Minister laid the foundation stone for military base named after her. It will probably continue for generations.

The Sheikh family was not the only one trying to establish the family dynasty. Begum Khaleda Zia followed late Ziaur Rahman, and now she is trying to groom her son Tareq for the party leadership. The difference is that Zia never practiced this family business. When Zia was president, people knew very little about his family members. However, former president Ershad practiced the family business in political life as his wife was second in command and his brother under training (probably because he had no son).

Like any other autocracy in the world, what we see in Bangladesh is a consolidation of power in one or two families. This has laid the foundation of many irregularities in the administration of the nation which presently looks at one person for all decisions.

The casualties of this process have been human rights, freedom of expressions, press, civil liberties. Human rights issues include extra-judicial killings, torture, arbitrary or unlawful detentions, forced disappearances by government security forces. Media outlets that criticised the government have experienced an adverse government pressure.

Freedom of expression

The government maintained editorial control over the Bangladesh public television station (BTV) and mandated that private channels broadcast government content at no charge. The civil society said that political interference influenced the licensing process since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.

According to an Al Jazeera report on Oct. 7, 2015, the decline in advertising of some prominent newspapers followed instructions from Bangladesh’s military intelligence agency to major companies to stop advertising in two leading independent newspapers after they published on Aug. 16 (2015) a story on the army’s killing of five men in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, whom they termed as “indigenous” instead of “terrorists.”

Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam in a TV talk show in 2016 conceded that reports published in the newspaper in 2007 alleging corruption by Sheikh Hasina, now prime minister, were based on uncorroborated leaks fed by military intelligence. The fact is that almost all the media than did the same but without admitting it. Anam’s admission led to attacks against him from the government and ruling Awami League loyalists. He faced around 80 cases of sedition and defamation.
When the country’s most prominent editor faced such actions, other media got the message about the sort of challenge they may meet for speaking against the government, however true it might be. Self-censorship in the press became more common.

The law also threatens media freedom. Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006 has been severely criticized, particularly for section 57, which criminalizes online content regarded as defamatory or blasphemous. Dozens of journalists, bloggers, and rights activists have been charged under this repressive law. Amid local and international criticism, the government decided to revoke the draconian provision only to reinsert it in the upcoming Digital Security Act.

The new law, which has already been passed, has made the lives of journalists, writers, free thinkers and rights advocates even more difficult. The government says the law aims to curb online crime and terrorism following an inevitable rise of militancy, but the act also includes some controversial provisions that would thwart freedom of expression. The law entails severe, non-bailable penalties for offenses relating to hurting religious sentiments, defamation, causing deterioration of law and order and instigating against any person or organization through electronic media or websites. It all means the space for freedom of expression is shrinking fast in Bangladesh and apparently there is no respite in sight soon.

Freedom to demonstrate

All the street demonstrations are controlled by the government. The opposition is not allowed the space to express effectively. With the election looming ahead, the government forces have succeeded in curbing the main opposition party BNP from demonstrating in public places. With the media under the leash, it indeed feels like China or some other autocratic nation.

With recent massive protests by the students about the unfairness of the quota system, where 56% of the civil service jobs are guaranteed for certain individuals, the government came down hard by employing security wing to suppress the students. Making a legitimate claim on the state or voicing political dissent is a violation of fundamental democratic principles.

A democratic state should have a space for dissent, and its police force is usually led by people who see protestors as fellow citizens exercising legitimate rights, rather than as political subversives whom they have to put down. In Bangladesh, this has never been the case.

Presstv. Recent nationwide demonstrations of students protesting against a 56% quota reservation in civil service jobs were met with a brutal force by the law enforcement agencies

It is a fact that the two major parties in the country failed to bring out any positive changes in the existing quota system. Instead, the agriculture minister Matia Chowdhury addressed 80 percent of the demonstrating students as children of Razakars (Razakar was a force of volunteers who collaborated with the Pakistani occupation forces during the Bangladesh War of Independence). But the collective leadership of the student’s movements retaliated and stated ‘No place for inequality in Bangabandhu’s Bangla,’ ‘We want quota reforms,’ and ‘We are not children of Razakars.’ Though Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced the slashing of the quota system in government jobs, students will have to wait for long to see it as a government order.

Foreign policy

Two foreign governments are significant for Bangladesh; India and China. While China uses trade as a power, India has been directly involved in the internal affairs of Bangladesh. India is embedded in Bangladeshi politics about the upcoming elections at the end of this year. India was the first country to recognize Bangladesh’s questionable polls in 2014 as Indians feel more at ease with Sheikh Hasina. Bangladeshi political parties look towards India to get overt and covert help in winning elections. Recently a team of influential ruling Awami League leaders visited Delhi to curry favors from the Indian ruling party “BJP.”

While India has been Bangladesh’s longtime trade and aid partner, China has emerged as a serious rival. China, which has invested US$3 billion in the country since 2007, has been involved in building bridges, roads and power plants in the country. It is also Dhaka’s biggest supplier of military hardware.

In his October 2016 visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised $20 billion worth of investments in infrastructure. One analysis says that this could rise to $31 billion and that if the commitments are implemented, China could emerge as the most significant investor by far in Bangladesh. India cannot match China, but it has upped its credit line to $4.5 billion, the highest it has offered anywhere.

The Rohingya issue has the potential to poison both Indian and Chinese relations with Bangladesh. On the one hand, China has not permitted any condemnation for the Myanmar government’s role in triggering the exodus of Rohingya Muslims, and on the other, some in India remain concerned that the Rohingya will infiltrate into India in more significant numbers and pose a threat.

Spirit of liberation

Spirit of liberation remains a rhetorical slogan of the ruling class political parties, the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in particular. Most Bangladeshis hear almost every day, and that too for years, the slogans of the ‘spirit of liberation war’ and ‘nationalism’ while the politically conscious sections of the people have painfully been observing for years now that both the parties, when in trouble to retain or return to power, rush to foreign powers, far and near, for multidimensional blessings. Understandably, the foreign powers find the phenomenon very useful, for it provides the foreigners with ample opportunity to interfere easily with the host country’s domestic affairs and twist arms of the leading political parties when necessary to get things done in their national interests.

Under such a political circumstance, any country’s patriotic intelligentsia is expected to critically intervene in analysing the actions and inactions of the political class as to how the latter’s subjugation to foreign powers compromises the ‘spirit of liberation war’ – national progress with dignity being one, and ‘nationalism’ – preference of national interests to any other things on earth that is, and mount popular pressure by way of guiding public opinions in the right direction. But, alas, Bangladesh’s mainstream intelligentsia is sharply divided on a partisan line and, therefore, they support, and make efforts to justify, whatever approach their respective parties take to foreign powers and whatever foreign policies those parties adopt and pursue, instead of presenting before the public the critical analyses of the approaches and policies from the point of view of the ‘spirit of liberation war’ and ‘nationalism’.

The result is obvious: foreign powers continue to interfere with Bangladesh’s national politics, and at times substantially influence the process of change of guards in power in gross disregard to the nation’s spirit of the liberation war and the nationalistic pride of the people at large. The people of Bangladesh, after all, did not fight for national independence to get the state controlled by any foreign country, including India that had helped us achieve independence from Pakistan in 1971.

A recent visit by the ruling party delegation to New Delhi, India to get blessings from the Indian bigwigs. Image credit:

The subservience of the ruling class parties of Bangladesh to foreign powers has reached such an ugly state that some foreign countries, India for example, do no longer feel constrained to hide their interferences with Bangladesh’s internal political process – the recent public disclosure of such intervention in 2008 by Pranab Mukherjee (b 1935), a former minister and president of India from the Indian National Congress, being a glaring example. Mukherjee has unambiguously stated in the recently released third volume of his biography as to how he had decided the course of Bangladesh’s internal politics in 2008, which, understandably, led to the process of Awami League’s return to power and a smooth exit of General Moeen U Ahmed who had illegally grabbed power in 2007.

While the ruling class political forces of Bangladesh have visibly deviated from the ‘spirit of liberation war’ and ‘nationalism’ in the true sense of the terms, the country’s intelligentsia committed to the ideals is expected to remain critical of the policies and performances of the political parties and their foreign ‘friends’ in question.

The people of Bangladesh fought the liberation war with the unambiguous objective of creating a democratic republic based on the professed principles of ‘equality, human dignity and social justice’, but the successive governments of the ruling class have pursued policies that generate pervasive inequalities, strip the citizens of human dignity and breed injustice across society. The freedom fighters laid down lives for creating a state that would shape its destiny based on the consent of the people at large, but the political forces of the ruling classes have developed the habit of retaining or returning to power with the help of their ‘foreign friends,’ ignoring the people’s consent. Under such circumstances, it is time that the country’s intelligentsia present before the public multidimensional critical analyses of this shameful phenomenon and provide the citizens with a clear sense of direction towards a democratic future, imbibed with liberation war spirit and, thus, do justice to those who sacrificed their lives for the country’s independence.