Begum Khaleda Zia has been speaking of her party’s vision for the future. That is rather encouraging, for it is a demonstration of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s determination to carry the country purposefully into the future. The difficulty, though, is that in her enunciation of the future as she and her colleagues see it, the BNP chairperson was careful not to make any reference to the past. And a large swath of that past, for those of us who have consistently believed in a secular, democratic Bangladesh built on the strong foundations of the War of Liberation, remains in a very large way something of a nightmare. The nightmare came about, if you remember, through the many ways in which the founder of the BNP, Bangladesh’s first military dictator Ziaur Rahman, and his party knifed all our noble goals in their years in power.
But, of course, we do not complain. If the BNP is now willing to make amends for its blunders of the past, we will celebrate its resurgence as a party which identifies with our established national objectives. But Begum Zia has given us no reason to think that she and her party are willing to inform the nation that they have made a clean break with the past, that they have gone into contrition mode. Here is a caveat, though. No one is suggesting that conditions in the country are in perfect order at present. But what is obvious is that the Liberation War spirit is in the air. There are, yes, all our worries about the encroachment of outfits like the Hifazat in national politics. The positive side to the story is that the nation has raised its voice against the inroads of such medievalism in its body politic. We have kept the government under pressure. We have held fast to the idea that the forces of regression must not get the upper hand over such areas as the authority of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to exercise his powers in line with the Constitution.
So we are an alert citizenry. And such alertness now comes into our perception of the BNP’s vision for 2030. The Begum has let us in on the thought, her thought, that our State, based as it is on the principles of the War of Liberation, has slipped out of our hands under the present political dispensation. The former prime minister is surely entitled to her point of view. But when you look back at history, at the long tragic tale of how the War of Liberation and everything that it symbolized was undermined on the watch of the BNP, in the times of General Zia and Khaleda Zia, it becomes a trifle hard to believe that the very same BNP will now go back to respecting that significant part of history which was initially tampered with when Zia prised the principles of secularism and socialism out of the Constitution. And there was more that Zia did — and his party has touted over the decades: the spurious concept of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ was brought in, and Bengali nationalism was sent packing.
‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ patently and rudely caused a huge division in Bengali society. It was in essence a deliberate narrowing of our political space and a clear hint that the old ideas which had caused so much of misery for this nation and for the subcontinent — remember the so-called two-nation theory of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League — was back in another, more subtle form. ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ was effectively a rejection of 1971, of the goals of the War of Liberation, and a repudiation of history as it was fashioned by the nation, under the guidance of the Awami League, between the mid-1960s and early 1970s. The history of this country between August 1975 and June 1996 remains a dark phase in our collective political consciousness. That darkness was ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’. There was no place in it for Bangabandhu, for the Mujibnagar government, for Bengali cultural heritage. But it served as an open door for the local enemies of the country — we speak of the collaborators of the Pakistan occupation army — to insinuate their way back, per courtesy of the party Begum Zia continues to lead, into national politics.
The chairperson of the BNP has now spoken of her party’s objective of building an inclusive society embracing all sections of the population on the basis of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’. And there we go again. It really does not seem to matter to the Begum that we as a people are Bengalis, that 1952 was a movement for the assertion of the Bengali language, that we waged war against Pakistan as Bengali nationalists, that Tagore and Nazrul and Jibanananda and Madhushudhan and Shaukat Osman and Syed Shamsul Huq were Bengalis, that our music and poetry have been Bengali. In the Ayub Khan era in pre-1971 Pakistan, much effort was expended, through regime sponsorship, to promote a shallow idea known as Pakistani nationalism. Much has been the same with ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’. Both these ersatz nationalisms have been crude assaults on Bengali cultural heritage.
The bottom line should now be obvious. The division which has been eroding national unity since Khondokar Abdul Hamid first made a reference to ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ in early 1976, clearly on behalf of Ziaur Rahman, promises to remain a policy plank with the BNP as it moves ahead with its Vision 2030 programme. An inclusive society as projected by the party is thus a misnomer. Which brings us to the next thought: the goal of the BNP to build a liberal democratic society in which the rights of minorities will be protected. Political liberalism is necessarily founded on secular principles. The BNP’s policies, in government as well as outside, have consistently militated against liberalism. In effect, they have been a process of regression for a country which started out as a model secular State in 1971, the regression epitomized by all those disturbing images of collaborator rehabilitation under Zia and the rise of rabid 1971 pro-Pakistanis to ministerial berths under his spouse.
Begum Zia has spoken of a need for a balance to be brought about in the powers of the Prime Minister and Parliament, which is fine. She has mulled the idea of an upper house for Parliament, which certainly can be given serious consideration across the national political spectrum. She has promised to have the provision for referenda restored in the Constitution, which too is an idea one cannot properly disagree with. Her call for general elections to be preceded by a dissolution of an outgoing Parliament is perfectly in order, in line with political convention in societies operating on the Westminster pattern of government. The BNP’s plan for the public accounts committee and public undertakings committee of Parliament to be in the hands of the opposition is to be commended.
And yet there are some critical areas where Begum Zia and her party need to state unequivocally that they will not repeat the mistakes of the past. On foreign policy, the former prime minister has made it known that Bangladesh will not be a source of destabilization for neighbouring states. Yet the party’s past record quite dampens our enthusiasm on this score, for there is the sad tale of Bangladesh, in the BNP-Jamaat years, serving as a base for Indian extremists in their operations against the north-eastern region of India. Begum Zia warms our souls when she informs us that no foreign nation will be permitted to meddle in our internal affairs or cause problems within our country. But all those suspicions of how Pakistani intelligence services may have operated in Bangladesh on the watch of the BNP and its alliance partners have lingered.
The BNP chairperson has made a strong case against terrorism and for a need to deal with militancy with firmness. That pledge would have been seen to have more substance had Begum Zia and her party acknowledged their failure to check the violence which overtook the country in August 2004 and August 2005 and to express their contrition over their inability or unwillingness to bring the perpetrators of the crimes to trial.
The BNP’s vision for 2030 is laudable, up to a point. It has its sights on the future, which is only natural for a party that has wielded power in the past and wishes to go back there. But its thoughts on the times ahead would have had more credibility had its leader explained to the nation why in the times that have been, under her and under her husband, the notorious Indemnity Ordinance was inserted into the Constitution, why the assassins of Bangabandhu and the four national leaders were never tried and were instead sent off as diplomats abroad, why the Jamaat-e-Islami enjoyed the freedom that was to leave a nation in a state of trauma, why regime-inspired communal politics cast a long shadow on the country.
Vision 2030 is an appreciable attempt by Begum Khaleda Zia and her party to return to political activism. But if they truly mean to be a unifying force for the country, truly intend to create a liberal democratic society, they will need to do much more, will need to cover many long distances — through careful introspection and policy re-formulations and necessary reinvention — before they can reach that defining milepost.