Thursday, August 2, 2007

Take care, Mr Caretaker

Source: Hardnews, August 2007

Between corrupt dynastic democracy and a caretaker regime eating from the hands of the army, twice-born Bangladesh is trapped in a delicate crossroad of nationhood

Pranay Sharma, Delhi

For a generation that re-defined 'nationhood' twice in the last six decades, contemporary history is bound to play an important role. For those in Bangladesh who have lived through the experiences of both 1947 and 1971, it could also become a highly contentious and contested subject. It gets even tougher when a post-independence generation gets involved in the debate. But few subjects are as controversial and politically emotive as the one that tries to define the role Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Zia-ur-Rahman played in Bangladesh's freedom struggle.

Mujibur Rahman, the first prime minister of Bangladesh, was assassinated with most of his family members in 1975 by a group of middle-ranking officials of the Bangladesh army. Six years later, another group of army officials gunned down Zia when he was the country's president.

Sheikh Hasina was out of the country at the time of Mujib's assassination. She returned home soon after to inherit the mantle of her father's party, the Awami League. Zia's widow, Begum Khaleda, took the reins of her husband's political outfit, the Bangladesh National Party, after his death. Both have since remained the supreme leaders of their respective parties.

For many years Hasina and Khaleda have been fighting over the place of honour that Sheikh Mujib and Zia deserve in the pantheon of Bangladesh's freedom struggle. The Awami League leader and her supporters place Mujib much above Zia in the pecking order of the freedom fighters in Bangladesh. Though this view is widely accepted by a large number of people in India and other parts of the world, Khaleda and the BNP have always contested it.

Mujib has always been referred to as 'Banga Bandhu' or 'friend of Bengal' and enjoyed a status akin to the 'Father of the Nation'. Khaleda and her BNP supporters have failed to get an equally honorific title for Zia. The closest they have come to was in identifying him as the 'proclaimer' of independent Bangladesh even before the new nation was formally born. But the BNP has made up for it by giving Zia the primary position in Bangladesh's history. Every time Khaleda has come to power, she has changed school textbooks to ensure Zia continues to enjoy the primary position in the country's freedom struggle.

Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League have diligently altered the text by placing Mujib much above Zia and all the others, when they have come to power in Dhaka. To spite the BNP, Hasina and her followers have maintained that it was not Zia, but a regional leader, who, on Mujib's order, had proclaimed the birth of Bangladesh.

It is an irony that the army-backed caretaker government is today trying to bring about a change in the school textbooks to give both Mujib and Zia their rightful place in Bangladesh's history. According to the latest official version, Mujib would be read in school texts as 'Father of the Nation' and Zia as the one who proclaimed the birth of Bangladesh.

While the caretaker government is making serious efforts to bring an end to one of Bangladesh's most contentious chapters, Khaleda Zia has raised quite a few eyebrows in Dhaka by criticising the recent arrest of Sheikh Hasina. The Awami League leader, who had been needling the army with her provocative statements since her return to Bangladesh in May from the UK, was arrested some days back on corruption charges. Khaleda faces similar charges but till recently she maintained a low profile. However, two days after Hasina's arrest she broke her silence by criticising the caretaker government for its decision to put her political rival behind bars. The two leaders have not spoken to each other for years. But now they may have found a common cause since both are being pressurised by the caretaker government to leave the country.

While Khaleda's criticism of Hasina's arrest is being seen as an attempt to smoke the peace pipe with her political rival, doubts are being raised whether the caretaker government can also arrest her. Unlike the Awami League, which has a negligible section of sympathisers in the Bangladesh army, the BNP has always been regarded as a 'party of the cantonment'. Despite the new set-up in Bangladesh, there is no hard evidence to suggest any dramatic erosion in the BNP's support base in the army.

Can the army-backed caretaker government afford to open another front? If it does so by arresting Khaleda, it will definitely establish the credibility of the caretaker government and evoke admiration for its even-handedness. But are the new rulers in Dhaka prepared to deal with a scenario if the Awami League and BNP supporters jointly launch a countrywide agitation? Moreover, pressure can then mount on the government to also take action against the Jamaat-e-Islami leaders. Can the regime in Dhaka continue with its drive of 'cleaning up' the Bangladeshi system by opening so many fronts?

Perhaps this is a scenario that Khaleda has in mind. If she is arrested, the BNP leadership can threaten to start a joint agitation with the Awami League. The two women leaders have done so in the early 1990s to get General HM Ershad out of power. Political exigency might force them to do so yet again.

The caretaker government announced its intentions to hold elections before it decided to arrest Hasina. It can be a signal for Khaleda to keep her counsel and wait for an opportunity when she and her party could bounce back in the Bangladeshi political scene. It can also be a ploy to keep the two major political parties from coming together against the new rulers. But will Khaleda and her BNP supporters fall for it?

In the past six months the caretaker government has been urging both Khaleda and Hasina to make their respective parties more transparent and democratic. The signal was clearly to ensure the two leaders move away from a 'dynastic' rule and allow new leaders to come up and take charge of the leadership. This was vehemently opposed by both Khaleda and Hasina. Some suggest that this was one of the reasons why the initial deal that the caretaker government struck with the Awami League leader fell through. Both women are aware of the attempt of the caretaker government to drive a wedge between them and other senior leaders in their parties. This has made both Khaleda and Hasina nervous and they are now thinking of lashing out at the caretaker government and their main backer— army generals.

If the new rulers in Dhaka take a decision to arrest Khaleda, they can do so only after assessing the mood of the second rung of leadership within the BNP. Serious attempts had been made by the current regime and the army generals to talk to the second rung of leaders within the BNP and the Awami League on a possible scenario where neither of the two women would be there to lead their respective parties. There are leaders in both the parties who have been smarting under the attempt by Khaleda and Hasina to promote their own sons to take control of the leadership when they are out of the picture. Many of them have been sitting on the fence all these years. But what will they do now?

Will they rally behind their leaders if they ask them to take to the streets? Or will they take this opportunity to take control of their respective parties and steer them through a course that has so far remained un-charted in Bangladesh's political history?

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