One doesn’t get more frustrated than when a war goes on without any clear ending. The situation in Bangladesh has bogged everything down just like the ancient wars. The situation is increasingly beginning to resemble the fabled Kurukshetra war of the legendary Kauravas and Pandavas, mentioned in the Mahabharata of ancient India. Since I really don’t understand what is going on very well, I will commit to an exercise where I pose questions to myself and answer them as best as I can.
What ignited the conflict?
The Awami League (AL) – Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) conflict never stopped since its birth. It was always there. Once Sheikh Mujib and the other leaders were killed and Zia took charge, the battle had begun. The conflict may have dipped a bit in the Ershad era, when both parties went to battle against him; but even then, they were always each other’s most bitter enemy. The 1990 switch-over from Ershad was not actually of political development, but had transitioned from being disorganised to being a more structured enmity. Both parties knew that the battle had been reduced to only two sides. So the latest trigger which did away with the Caretaker Government – the 15th amendment, was significant but not the sole factor. There will be many more happy amendments in the future that will continue to stoke fires of hate between the two parties.
Was the 15th amendment necessary?
Is any amendment necessary? Was it a constitutional, governance, or political crisis that drove the AL to do it? I don’t know which factor informed the changers, but many had said that this amendment would cause problems. Sadly it has. I am not sure how we can get out of this peacefully and legally. But what we know is that the political factors are very important. In 2001, the sitting AL government was unseated by the JI-BNP combine, so taking to the polls against the combo was risky for AL. This was followed by the 2007 fiasco.
BNP created the 2007 mess when they tried to manipulate the system knowing that victory was elusive. So AL took to the streets and challenged BNP with violence that ultimately brought in the army in an unusual arrangement. Fortunately for AL, they gained from the mess and won the election. Many claim that the military helped the tilt but as I have no such evidence, I shall refrain from remarking. What we know is that the incumbency factor was hurting the government in 2013. The local and municipality elections showed that BNP was quite popular and this was backed up by electoral and opinion polls, indicating AL was not very popular. Naturally, AL’s last hope was the silliness of BNP, a political party without much political intelligence. However, they trapped themselves into a corner through the 15th amendment whereby the BNP would boycott elections, creating a crisis for themselves and others.
Why do you say that?
Today’s crisis was created by the BNP decision to boycott the election. Of course the election should never have been boycotted. It forced BNP into a corner and drove them to settle on agitations as a means to not only force out the AL, but also as a way to survive as a party. This violence could well have been avoided had BNP been able to see how the electoral boycott would not serve them. They believed that citizens would take to the streets or that the military would intervene. It was a terrible mistake, and the price has been paid by all. BNP is in a slump and has no way out save for indulging in this mad violence. BNP has not moved beyond the 2014 stage. They don’t understand that there is no one to take them to power and that they cannot go to power on their own.
Even leaders within the BNP wanted to go to elections, but Khaleda Zia was influenced by her son to decide otherwise. It is odd how BNP talks of democracy when they not only ignored the party interest, but their supporters as well, who would have benefitted from the party being in parliament in any capacity. What is it today, other than a group reportedly dependent on the Jamaat for its political street survival?
So the AL is blame-free?
No, AL has been smarter than BNP, but they remain equally cynical particularly in passing the 15th amendment. They must have known what BNP would do, so instead of risking a contest, they excluded the BNP entirely. By excluding the BNP, AL have taken what they think is a calculated risk. They knew there was going to be violence and also knew that they could handle it. So AL went ahead. As you can see AL have been significantly successful for a year through arrests, harassment, police action et cetera. They know the capacity of the BNP. What the AL didn’t care about was the impact of their non-consensual decision on such a matter as the form of electoral governance in Bangladesh. I can’t say either party cares too much about what is happening to the ordinary people.
So why don’t either party care?
Well, the business of political parties is to do politics. This means an arrangement run by the interest of the people, governed by the constitution, guarded by the courts, and led by the political parties. But history doesn’t show we have developed such a tradition. We are much better at power transfer through confrontation, agitation, murder, and violence than any by other means. Our glorious moments are of street insurrections, not constitutional and legal achievements. Power through law is not part of this tradition. So basically politics has not developed, and as a result there is no confidence in political institutions so parties do not trust each other. In a culture where this is the situation, the caretaker system is a solution until maturity arrives. Its early death without consultation and lack of the general environment of rule of law means this enactment was an act of political violence. It initiated certain actions that are extremely destructive caused by the BNP and its allies.
So what is the final word?
I have no idea. But no matter what the ending, this is not the last phase. This is not the end of bad news, unfortunately.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher. He has worked for the Dhaka Courier, the Daily Star, and BBC among many others. He has also worked as a Human Rights specialist with the UN and other agencies. Afsan was the Oak Fellow on International Human Rights of the Colby College in the USA in 2008.