Friday, August 24, 2007

A familiar Tale

Source: The News
Friday, August 24, 2007
Dr Masooda Bano

There is definitely much about Bangladesh, which is different than Pakistan. The landscape, the culture, and even the visible signs of economic development are different. Not only does the smoke filled air on the streets of Dhaka and traffic chaos make Islamabad look like a first world phenomenon, the cycle rickshaws have extremely lean bodied cyclists pull the weight of two adults due to poverty, a reality of South Asia. However, what bears strikingly similarity between the two countries, though of course with some subtle differences, is the political system and the army's influence over it.

Stuck in Chittagong as capital cities of all the six divisions in Bangladesh go under indefinite curfew due to the conflict between the students of the University of Dhaka and the military officials at the army camp on the campus, the Bangladeshi newspapers make interesting reading. What is most fascinating is the similarity in actual discourse and vocabulary that the military (or military backed) governments use in the two countries to justify military intervention. The curfew, which has been imposed mainly to curtail anti-military student demonstration, has been justified on the basis of the 'national interest:" a term so abused in Pakistan by the current government to justify all kind of unconstitutional practices that no one has any sense left as to what national interest really means.

Similarly, the seven-month old caretaker Bangladeshi government put in place by the backing of the military, is argued to be there to "restore democracy, economics emancipation and good governance" -- again promises and claims so similar to those made by military governments in Pakistan. The problems with the politicians are also the same. Both main parties, i.e., Awami League and BNP have lost respect among the public and their leaders are viewed to be very corrupt -- a problem again very similar to Pakistan. The current military back government is currently putting many of them in jail to show its commitment to cleansing the system of corruption but again there is little evidence that the government itself is sincere about cleaning the system.

The puzzle, however, about the Bangladeshi political culture is that unlike Pakistan, or mainly Punjab, here the sense of civic activism is very strong. Hartals and student demonstrations are quite routine matters here as opposed to Pakistan -- though of course Karachi in its volatile periods provides a match. However, still the military has been able to retain an active hold in politics so much so that even here some political analysts argue for formation of a similar structure as the idea of National Security Council in Pakistan where the military is given a recognised role in political governance in Bangladesh.

It is here that international conspiracies come into play as explanations by some analysts. Like Pakistan the public discourse here very openly pinpoints the role of US in supporting the military in politics. What is, however, more interesting is that intellectuals here also openly tell you about the strong links between the Bangladeshi and Pakistani army and some argue that the Bangladeshi intelligence agencies and military takes orders from Pakistani counterparts quite easily. The links established between Zia ul Haq and Zia ur Rehman, both generals who tried to legitimise their rules by Islamisation of the society apparently have left deeper links.

At the same time, what is more interesting is that the issue of Islamic radicalism and religious reform is also as close to heart of the military backed government in Bangladesh as it is for the Musharraf regime. Under the caretaker government, six of the most prominent Islamic militants have been hanged and others are facing trial. At the same time, the general society is seeing more resurgence of Islam and again like in the case of Pakistan it is being linked to the US policies, which by targeting Islam are leading even educated young Muslims to Islamic militancy.

The religious parties, which have traditionally not faired well in elections, have become a more noticeable force in politics since 2000. Jamiat-e-Islami, a party which was banned for some years after 1971 because of its pro-Pakistani position during the Bangladesh liberation war, is by now again well entrenched into the system. Meanwhile, the madressahs here are also under pressure and labelled by some for breeding terrorists but again like Pakistan the evidence on this is thin as even out of the six notorious militants hanged by the current government only one was educated in a madressah.

Of course, there are also many differences despite these apparently stark similarities. For example, despite the military influence on politics, the military seems to be more vocally challenged by the students and civil society groups here than in Pakistan and neither are military corporations or dairy farms as visible on the Bangladeshi highways as in Pakistan where a drive from Islamabad to Lahore alone shows countless military ventures ranging from Fauji fertilisers to military farms and dairies. Also, the madressahs here are not being targeted as explicitly by the government as in Pakistan and they are clearly not that well-endowed here as Pakistani madressahs, some of which today have very impressive infrastructure and internationally renowned scholars. An evidence of higher stature of top Pakistani madressahs is that many students from top Bangladeshi madressahs used to go to Pakistan for higher studies till the current restrictions were imposed but there was no traffic the other way around. Thus, there is much in common still between the two countries despite the 1971 separation. However, due to its bigger role in the 'war on terror' Pakistan surely faces more internal tension and threats to stability than Bangladesh.
The author is undertaking post-doctoral research at Oxford University. Email:

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