Feature Img
The National Emblem of Bangladesh
The National Emblem of Bangladesh

Bangladesh has come a long way over the last four and half decades from the maliciously coined phrase, labelled by Henry Kissinger as the ‘basket case of the world,’ to self-sufficiency in food (and even as a net exporter of food) and the healthy gross domestic product (GDP) resulting in significant foreign currency surplus. All this had been achieved under the nose of the most inhospitable political environment and pervasive national corruption. The political and economic pundits may scratch their heads to explain these two seemingly irreconcilable facts – good economic achievement despite corruption and political schism.

Now the political schism has reached such a crescendo that the nation is utterly rudderless and just staring at an abyss. All the previous economic achievements, improvements in food production, and healthy balance of payments are in their throes due to political masters pandering to their individual egos. The two opposing political parties – the incumbent government of the Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) versus the coalition of 20-parties led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – have locked their horns intensely and intend to fight to the last. How and why did this seemingly implausible situation arise and where will it end? These are the persistent questions voiced all over the country.

But before attempting to answer these questions, one has to look back at the root of this conflict – the conflict that lies at the very heart that led to the creation of Bangladesh. The conflict had been resolved temporarily by the creation of this country, but the underlying cause remained unanswered. Bangladesh came into being out of the aspirations of the people to have Bengali language and culture, not the alien culture and language of West Pakistan or of the Middle East; democratic rights and freedom of expression, not the autocratic dictum of the Pakistani dictators. Alongside these cultural and democratic demands, there were demands for religious freedom, particularly when Pakistanis overtly viewed Bengalis as religiously deviant and needed to be trained in Islamic culture. For the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, religion was sacrosanct and overrode everything else and that attitude was totally unacceptable to Bengalis. The two political parties upholding these two irreconcilable positions undoubtedly face the conflict situation and that is now being reflected on a national scale.

Bangladesh came into being as the embodiment of aspirations of the people delineated above. At the beginning of the liberation struggle, religious element was considered to be the enemy of peoples’ aspiration – as religion was imposed on the people by the Pakistani aggressors. But by the quirk of historical development, the same religion has come to dominate the political landscape of the country now.

Bangladesh’s original Constitution adopted on 4th November, 1972 enshrined four fundamental principles: nationalism, democracy, socialism, and secularism. However, these four pillars of the Constitution had been persistently tampered with at various times by dictators and democratically elected leaders alike. These attempts to make the Constitution amenable to one’s political predicament eroded the dignity and respect for the Constitution. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, tried to do away one of the fundamental planks of the Constitution – democracy – by ditching the multi-party system in favour of a single party (BKSAL) system in 1975. So soon after the creation of the nation when the founding ideology was still very fresh in the hearts and minds of the people, it was too much to bear for some headstrong freedom fighters and they took law onto their hands and assassinated the father of the nation. ‘Democracy’ did survive, but the Constitution itself had suffered grievous bodily harm.

After the turmoil of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975, when General Ziaur Rahman took over the reins of the country through a military coup, he started tampering with the constitution. He amended Article 38, which prohibited religious politics and banned religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islam to get into the political sphere, thus allowing religion into politics. He removed the word ‘secularism’ from the constitution and incorporated the term ‘to place full faith in Almighty Allah.’ He also inserted a new clause in Article 25(2) under the heading ‘Islamic Solidarity’ which allowed fraternity with Muslim countries. With all this groundwork, he laid the foundation for his political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in 1978. It is no wonder that his party became the magnet for Islamists and affiliated parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamaatul Mujahideen of Bangladesh (JMB) and so forth. This was the beginning of Islamisation of Bangladeshi politics.

After the brutal assassination of Ziaur Rahman in 1981, General Ershad eventually took over the power in a bloodless coup d’état in 1982 and he carried forward Islamisation further with enthusiasm. He made ‘Islam as the State religion’ by the 8th amendment of the Constitution in June 1988. This marked the total abrogation of ‘secularism’ from the constitution. With the financial help from of Saudi Arabia (to propagate Wahhabism), madrasas proliferated all over the country and more than 250,000 mosques were set up. Although democracy was somewhat restored when Ershad was removed following the 1990 election, the Constitution could not be reverted back to its original version.

Bangladesh Parliament.
Bangladesh Parliament in session.

The 15th amendment to the Constitution in 2011 under Sheikh Hasina’s last term did make extensive changes to the Constitution. That amendment did try to restore the Constitution to its original state, but the Islamicised politics became so entrenched in the national politics that it became an impossible task. The word ‘secularism’ became almost a dirty word and synonymous to anti-Islamic vocabulary. Secularism as one of the fundamental principles was reinserted, but Islam as the State religion was kept and the phrase ‘Bismillah-er-rahman-ar-rahim’ was retained above the Preamble. Thus the Constitution became a hodgepodge of political and religious interplay. But the most important element that was carried out under this amendment was the removal of the Caretaker system introduced in the 13th amendment. The present political loggerhead derives from this point.

While this constitutional amendment was underway, the tug-of-war between the Islamists, led by BNP/Jamaat coalition and the secularists, led by the BAL ensued. The secularists were branded as anti-Islamic, pro-Indians et cetera by the BNP/Jamaat group; whereas the BNP/Jamaat was castigated as die-hard Islamists supporting al Qaeda/Taliban. There are other elements to the present political conflict. The most important one is the mutual distrust of these two parties – each claiming the other to be thoroughly corrupt and incapable of conducting a free and fair election. On top of that, the two leaders have their visceral antipathy, which does not help in resolving conflicts.

The national election of 2014, after months of agitation and grotesque violence, was shunned by the BNP on grounds that BAL would rig the election, as the election was going to be conducted under the incumbent government. The Awami League pointed out that it was the constitution requirement, but was prepared to concede an interim administration comprising all main parties that would oversee the election. The proposal was also rejected by Khaleda Zia on the same ground of perceived rigging. The EU, USA, and even the UN offered to send observers to supervise and oversee the conduct of the election, but that did not satisfy Khaleda Zia. The election was, however, held on 5th January 2014, despite violent opposition by the BNP/Jamaat coalition. Needless to say, overwhelming majority of the elected MPs was from the BAL party.

Whereas in the previous administration the BNP was the official opposition party enjoying the status and privileges admissible within parliamentary democracy, in the new administration BNP has no MPs in parliament and consequently has no active role in parliamentary democracy. Absence of any BNP MP in parliament must have made BNP a lame duck party. Seeing no other way, Khaleda Zia started agitating and demanding that the present government resigns henceforth and declares a snap election date.

When Khaleda Zia gives her action programme for blockades (leading to vehicle destruction, train derailments, burnings et cetera) in the name of ‘establishing democracy,’ what democracy is she talking about? Can barbarism and vandalism establish democracy? Is she not totally delusional? Since 5th January more than 60 innocent people were killed, hundreds suffered burns, and more than five hundred vehicles destroyed. The 20-party alliance, led by the BNP, proudly proclaims that “the alliance on behalf of the people has continued their glorious, valiant and heroic struggle against mindless and brutal BKSAL fascists!” The death and destruction of common people are probably collateral damage in their jargon of ‘glorious struggle’ and everything goes in their stride to gain power.

Demanding an election by sheer force of vandalism is extremely reprehensible. There must be a legal process for conducting the election. If a political party feels aggrieved, it must appeal to the public and mobilise their support. Blockades, strikes, and intimidation of the people are definitely not democratic process, and to say that these are all done in the name of democracy is an egregious falsification.

Nonetheless, a situation of vicious stalemate has arisen where BNP/Jamaat is adamantly pursuing its violent programme and the present government is sticking to its high moral ground where no discussion can take place until violence is renounced. Some sort of half-way compromise by both the protagonists can be carried out – BNP can withdraw its programme of hartal/blockade with a notice period of two days and the government can give some assurance within those two days that discussion would take place regarding future election process.

This election process may require the public mandate: do people approve of an independent caretaker government to oversee the election process or not? This approval process may take the form of a Referendum. This Referendum may be conducted within a year or two. But the present government must run its course and prepare the ground for any constitutional change that may be required following this discussion.

Dr A. Rahman is a Nuclear Safety Specialist with over 32 years of experience in the British civil and military nuclear establishments.

A. Rahmanis an author and columnist.

16 Responses to “Which way now?”

  1. Akteruzzaman Chowdhury

    Dr. Rahman in one comment you have agreed that Political Islam and Islamic Terrorism are two sides of the same coin. The US and UK govt dont think so yet. The govt of France and Denmark think both are bad. The Ideals of both (PI) and (IT) are to establish “Sharia” and “Caliphate”. Then the question arises, why should the AL govt sit with the BNP/Jamat.

  2. Mo Chaudhury

    Dear Dr. Rahman,

    Please do not let readers’ opinions discourage you from writing on. The shere inability to respectfully disagree, that is the lack of respect for different opinions (however disagreeable), is the principal cultural calamity that underlies the very sad and regrettable circumstances in BD.

    Regards. -MC

  3. C.R. Martin

    I believe the question that the author raises is answered in his own essay. However, a couple of points bear noting; in the first instance, the criminal murderers, the so-called ‘majors,’ who brutally assassinated Bangabandhu and his family members, were not “strong-headed” as much as they were sociopaths a with grossly inflated sense of their own importance. Those curs were used by internal and external foreign forces who had opposed the Liberation War and resented role of Bangabandhu is delivering East Bengal to freedom from Pakistani colonialism and genocide.
    And secondly, speaking of the military despot Zia, he did not take power after the “turmoil” of the assassination of Bangabandhu, rather Zia exploited the situation. A situation which he himself had allowed to unfold due to his treacherous non-intervention when those mangy ‘major’ curs approached him in the early days of August to join their cabal. This is verified by the self-confessed killers of Bangabandhu themselves that when approached Zia had kept his own counsel; yet as a senior general of the army he was obliged not only to report it to his superiors, and namely his civilian superior, but also to arrest those mangy majors for their talk of treason. Zia himself would be done in by a coup, but in all probability in the process of terminating Zia (who had also executed numerous genuine freedom-fighter military officers during his rule) the coup instigators placed the blame on genuine freedom-fighter military officers again.
    Now, as to the problem and the solution, you rightly assessed that we are Bengalis; and the criminal British Empire which perpetuated the partition of Bengal in 1947 along with Nehru, communal forces in Bengal and Jinnah, exacerbated the crime by attaching East Bengal with the artificial creation of Pakistan, an abnormal construct of a ‘nation-state’ separated by seven hundred miles or so and having no linguistic or cultural ties whatsoever. And the Pakistani generals, trained as ruthless killers by their British masters, did what they were taught best; genocide against Bengalis in 1971. This is not to say that the enemies of East Bengal (Bangladesh) internal and external have given up trying to destroy or discredit it. Think about what we have achieved; a muslim-majority country with a democratic system of governance which had placed its cultural and linguistic heritage before religious convictions (which you stated yourself). There are not many countries fitting that classification today in the world, not in 1971 and not today! Zia’s widow and the so-called ‘B.N.P’ organization are on the other side of the divide; that is on the side of those trying to destroy this progressive, secular nation-state that we created. The solution is clear, either Zia’s widow must desist from aligning herself with the anti-Liberation and anti-Bangladesh forces or find herself out in the cold permanently as far as politics in this country are concerned.

    • C.R. Martin

      ‘Those curs were used by internal and external foreign forces who had opposed the Liberation War and resented the role of Bangabandhu in delivering East Bengal from Pakistani colonialism and genocide.’

  4. Riaz Osmani

    A very thorough and balanced article including Bangladesh’s history before and after birth, and how that history bears on today’s confrontation. BNP is no longer an opposition party in Parliament entirely out of their own choice. Pointing this out does not necessarily make some one an AL supporter.

  5. Sayeed Ahmed

    Shallow analysis, not supported by facts. The writer puts the blame on the BNP/Jamaat without understanding the root causes of this upheaval.

    • Bhaskar

      What are those facts? Also please elaborate on root causes of this upheaval

  6. Rumana

    Mr. rahman:

    You don’t need to lay it all out for the Bangladeshis by sitting in London at the comfort your relatively safe house somewhere in the ethnic enclave or may be you live in a white neighbourhood. It is shamelessly clear that you are an AL supporter. My question is why would bdnews24.com published such a biased article? You can bash BNP/Jammat all you want but the fact remains that in a democratic system opposition parties should be able to voice their opinions minus the violence. One thing I know for sure that bideshe boshe boshe boro boro kotha likhle…you start to get on people’s nerves. So tone it down because no one is paying attention. Even Civil society’s homra/chomra’s failed to get two words in…so why would they care what the columnists have to say? You are a science guy…so why not write what is happening in the science world of nuclear physics? The same rhetoric about BD political scene is sounding like a broken record and it is very tedious at this point. So enlighten us with a science related article and it will be a welcome change. Trust me. :)))

    • Bhaskar

      Rumana suggested something like “Science guys should talk of science only. Politicians should talk of politics and Ulema should talk of Islam.” Hi Rumana come out of the box. You took a vague way to criticise Dr Rahman at personal level without contesting any point of his write up.

    • Bhaskar

      Hi Rumana Jammat,
      Open up your pathological mind for the murder of Avijit.

  7. Khan

    Suppose just suppose instead of Hasina there is a Punjabi leader doing the same mess Hasina has done. What would have been the situation in BD.

  8. Abdul Quddus

    Dr. Rahman very succinctly explained the root of conflicts between the two parties. However, the solution he suggested seems to be too simplistic. In my view the government should adopt two-pronged approach. Those who are responsible for hurling petrol bombs and cocktails and killing innocent people in the name of restoring democratic rights must be identified and tried through proper legal procedures. In this regard the law enforcement agencies must act responsibly without resorting to extra-judicial measures. Secondly, the government should arrange a convention of experts on constitutional issues in order to develop a framework for conducting election procedures. Opinions on the proposed framework should then be sought from the political parties, trade unions, professional bodies, civil societies and non-government organisations and a final draft should be framed on that basis. If necessary, further amendments in the constitution can be made to resolve this issue once and for all.

  9. Bhaskar

    I find ‘Islam’ as THE root cause all problems in BD. Anybody with little knowledge of Islamic practices in BD & West Bengal will tell that unlike Pakistan such practices were hugely influenced by local language and culture over the past centuries in Bengal. Clubbing of East Pakistan with West Pakistan in the name of Islam during 1947 brought that basic difference between the two wings of Pakistan in forefront. But twenty five years of Pakistan-hood had made changes in the mind set of a big proportion of East Pakistani Muslims in favour of pure Arabic Islam. The equally big proportion of secular minded Bangladeshis is not ready to accept the slavery of Arabic culture in the name of Islam. These divergent forces have put BD in a ‘perpetual identity crisis’. The geopolitical situation of BD is also not in favour of Islamisation of BD. Why Islamists of BD do not understand the simple fact that Pakistan is not a peaceful and prosperous country with 98% of its Muslim population and Islam being the State religion.

    • Akteruzzaman Chowdhury

      You have got the history correct, but international politics is changing every day and you are not updated. In most of the Islamic countries “political Islam (PI)” and ‘Islamic terrorism (IT)” is disliked. In all Arab countries, they are fighting against (PI) in the form of “Muslim brotherhood” and against (IT) in the forms of Alqaeda and ISIS. In Pakistan you have lot of (IT) in the form of Taliban, but very little Political Islam. In Bangladesh we have (PI) in the form of Jamat. Nowadays only Turkey has got political Islam in power and they do support Jamat (officially). Iran has got Shia Islam in power but they don’t like politics and terrorism of the sunnis.

      As suggested above the present govt of Awami League may give a new election and lose power. We will have ministers from Jamat Islami and we will become the second country in the world with political Islam. All the countries in the world, including Islamic countries, will look at us suspiciously. It will be a mistake if we see politics in the context of 2001.

      • Bhaskar

        The terms ‘Political Islam’ and ‘Islamic Terrorism’ are nothing new. Is ‘Sharia’ in vogue in Turkey? Does Jamat ask for imposition of ‘Sharia’ in BD? You got the difference between Turkey & BD under BNP/Jamat. If you include the violent outbursts of Jamat under ‘Political Islam’, then it is your way of looking at the issue. ‘Political Islam’ and ‘Islamic Terrorism’ are two sides of the same coin called ‘Islam’. The faces change as per the need and local situation. Islam has been a power game since beginning. BD is entangled between this power game and secular democracy.

      • Dr A Rahman

        Well said, Bhaskar – the ‘Political Islam’ and ‘Islamic Terrorism’ are two sides of the same coin called ‘Islam’. I couldn’t have put it better.
        The opinion I tried to convey here is that the present conflict is deeply rooted, to a large extent, on the divergence and antagonism between the Islamists (BNP/Jamaat) pretending to portray religious virtues and the secularists (BAL) upholding the Bengali culture and language. Though both the parties are undeniably guilty of blatant corruption, cronyism, mismanagement, vandalism and what not; but these are the two ideological streams that differentiate them thoroughly. In addition to this aspect, there is the personal and political animosity between the dynastic leaders. In this nihilistic power game of the two protagonists, the general public and the nation are being sacrificed far too easily.

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