Beneath the chaotic events that have convulsed the country in recent months is the unmistakeable undertow of election year politics

Bangladesh’s War Crimes Tribunal (WCT), set up to try Bengalis who committed war crimes along with the Pakistan Army during the 1971 war, has reopened unhealed wounds. Though everyone more or less agrees that the perpetrators must be brought to book, the desire of the two major political parties to use the tribunal to further their own political ends has created unexpected consequences.

The Bangladeshi people are struggling to choose between two “quarrelling Begums” who head parties that have between them ruled the country for the past two decades, each successive government worse than the one it replaced. For both these parties, sustaining an ideological division among people is critical for diverting attention from other issues such as corruption.

For the Awami League, keeping up the division between pro- and anti-liberation forces is critical for sustaining its political grip. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), meanwhile, claims to be the one that will “save Islam” and rides the tide of nationalist sentiment. Barring this superficial debate, the two parties are practically two sides of the same coin.

The Awami League government under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which started off well, had begun to look vulnerable from its fourth year in office. The World Bank-Padma Bridge fiasco, the share market collapse, and bank loan scandals have all rocked the government. In the midst of this came the rumour that the government was making a secret pact with the Jamaat to wean them away from their electoral alliance with the BNP. When Jamaat member Kader Molla, convicted in one of the most notorious cases before the WCT, was given a life sentence instead of the death penalty, the suspicions of a back door deal grew.

Outrage over the verdict led urban youth to gather in Shahbag square in Dhaka, demanding nothing less than the hanging of convicted war criminals. The movement had all the elements of an anti-establishment revolution. In the first few days water bottles were hurled at government ministers who tried to get on the central podium. But the Awami League displayed great political acumen in eventually appropriating the Shahbag movement. Influential members of the intellectual elite worked to channel Shahbag’s message in ways that the government’s own narrative was not disrupted. Thus was a potential revolution hijacked by the ruling party.

In traditional Bangla style, when the Awami League appropriated Shahbag, the BNP took on the role of delegitimising it. Mahmudur Rahman, editor of the daily Amar Desh, took over the role of portraying the Shahbag Movement as an “anti Islamic” movement. The opportunity came with the discovery that a murdered member of the Shahbag movement was an “atheist blogger” writing as “Thaba Baba.”

Rahman was successful in getting religious scholars all worked up by reprinting Thaba Baba’s blogs, which had sentences and words directly insulting the Prophet and his family. These articles were photocopied and distributed in villages. People across the country were agitated that the Prophet had been insulted, and a counter-Shahbag movement brewed.

More unrest

Bangladesh was poised for a showdown and the occasion was provided by the next verdict at the tribunal, against Delowar Hossain Sayedee. Though Sayedee is a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami, he has a huge personal following as a cleric who regularly criss-crosses the country to address mass congregations. After the death sentence was given to Sayedee, countrywide protests erupted, which led to the burning of government offices, the killing of policemen, and firing by the police that took many lives. But it was difficult to discern what had set it off — his popularity, the anger over the defamation of the Prophet, or the Jamaat taking advantage of the situation to create anarchy.

The subsequent turn of events included the arrest of Mahmudur Rahman, and the closure of his paper, the arrest of a few bloggers to appease the Islamists, and the rise of a new Islamist movement under the banner of Hefazat-e-Islam.

It is a generally held belief that due to their association with the 1971 war crimes and its perpetrators, Islamists would never gain grassroot popularity. The Jamaat-e-Islami especially would always have to depend on either the BNP or the Awami League for survival. But the Hefajat-e-Islam, which consists of the students of the Kawmi Madrasa, do not have the “anti liberation force” stigma attached to them. They are also known to have ideological differences with the Jamaat-e-Islami. For its protest against the Shahbag movement — during which it also presented an Islamist wishlist — the group was able to gather huge numbers of supporters. However, there are analysts who claim that the Hefajat is just a front for the Jamaat. There was a midnight crackdown by the police and paramilitary forces on the Hefazat’s protest. Two television channels were shut down by removing their transmission machinery. Interestingly, on the same night, the government also demolished the podium of the Shahbag protesters.

Insecurity

The volatile environment has given rise to all kinds of rumours about a “third force” — that could be the military, or a select civil society group preferred by India, or Pakistan, or even Dr. Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank, backed by America. But in reality, it is the strong undertow of election year politics that lies beneath these chaotic events — especially the wrangling between the Awami League and BNP over the appointment of a neutral caretaker government to oversee the elections that should be held at the end of 2013.

Despite runaway capitalism and a feudal democracy, the people of Bangladesh have worked hard to maintain a GDP growth rate of over six per cent even during a global recession. But, in these uncertain times, imports have seen a drop of 25 per cent, and orders in the key export sector of garments are dwindling after the collapse of the Savar building that killed more than 1,000 workers.

No one in Bangladesh is sure how things will unfold from now on. All that the people have is a deep sense of insecurity and the fear of the unknown.

(Zia Hassan is a blogger and publishes in AlalODulal.org)

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