Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Question of Democracy

The Question of Democracy
Source: Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 38

September 9, 2007

While the spectre of instability presently haunts the corridors of power in New Delhi, the two other major countries of South Asia—Pakistan and Bangladesh—are also in the grip of uncertainty-cum-instability.

In Pakistan the Musharraf-Benazir power-sharing deal has not yet fructified; at the other end the supporters of Nawaz Sharif are elated by reports that the former PM is due to reach Islamabad on September 10. But Musharraf has firmly declared that notwithstanding the Supreme Court ruling in favour of Nawaz Sharif he would definitely arrest the PML-N leader if he steps on Pakistani soil. In that eventuality the pro-democracy movement would assume a new dimension in Pakistan and the internal situation of the country would snowball into a real crisis for the military dictator himself. As things stand today, Musharraf is fast running out of options and if the going gets tough he would be left with no alternative but to quit in spite of his backers in Washington.

But lately it is the situation in Bangladesh which has become a matter of serious concern. The military backed interim government has just suppressed with an iron hand a legitimate student protest against the presence of an Army camp at the Dhaka University campus. In the wake of the authorities’ coercive moves the protest eventually took the shape of a fierce movement for democracy which cannot be described as ‘civil war’ as the government officials have sought to claim. The government is also using brute force to throttle the leaderships of the two most influential political parties in Bangladesh polity—the Awami League and BNP. Thus it has now put both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina behind bars. Khaleda’s arrest did not come as a surprise because at the time of Hasina’s detention on July 16 itself it had become transparent that the same fate awaits the BNP leader. This is primarily because Army chief Moeen U. Ahmed’s contempt for the political leadership, the issues of graft and misappropriation of funds being mere alibis to attack these most popular public figures who are now thankfully putting up a united fight for democratic restoration. And who does not know that Bangladesh is currently under de facto military rule? [It is only due to the large number of Bangladeshi soldiers engaged in the UN peace-keeping operations that Dhaka cannot openly proclaim military rule because then the international community would react adversely and the Bangladeshi engagement in those operations will come to an abrupt and depriving the government of precious remittances.]

In this setting there can be no two opinions that democracy is indeed in peril in Bangladesh, a point highlighted by one of our most experienced retired Foreign Service officers in a recent article in this journal. The imposition of Emergency too was an assault on democracy.

This being the scenario it is imperative for all friends of Bangladesh in India to stand by the democratic forces of that country waging a courageous battle against the powers that be in one of the most complex situations the nation has ever faced. Alongside this attack on democracy Bangladesh is also encountering mounting Talibanisation of the society; this too strikes at the root of secular democracy.

The Government of India and the Left parties still backing the ruling UPA Coalition in New Delhi must firmly disapprove the steps taken by the caretaker government against democracy in Bangladesh and unequivocally convey to Dhaka that such steps militate against the cherished values of freedom and progress both countries are wedded to and for which the peoples and armies of the two states have fought shoulder to shoulder and shed their blood in their common struggle for restoration of democratic rights trampled under the jackboots of West Pakistani domination thirtysix years ago.

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