The December election will decide whether Bangladesh can protect its socio-economic advance, democratically
From the outside, Bangladesh appears a country where democratic stability has ushered economic progress and shed the ‘basket case’ tag carried since its birth in 1971. Bangladesh no longer makes news for mass deaths from famines, cyclones and floods, and is ahead of neighbors India and Pakistan on human development, including life expectancy, maternal and child mortality, rural poverty and food security.
The eighth largest country in the world by population, Bangladesh is shedding the least developing country (LDC) label and is within striking distance of middle-income status. While grassroots development, the ready-made garment industry and the phenomenon of mega-non-governmental organizations deserve credit, so does the stewardship of Sheikh Hasina and her two consecutive five-year terms as Prime Minister since January 2009.
She is applauded by the world for providing refuge to the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar pogroms, by the West for serving as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, and by India for the dismantling of camps of Northeast militants.
The run-up to the general elections announced for December 23 is an opportunity to observe Bangladesh from the inside, and the view is unsettling. The Prime Minister has moved progressively from autocracy to authoritarianism, and fears are rife in Dhaka of oncoming political calamity. With Ms. Hasina and her Awami League party expected to return to power assisted by well-oiled poll rigging, the only recourse thereafter for want of political paths of dissent would be self-igniting agitations.
Dhaka today is a city of guarded whispers. Given the brittle polity created by manifest intolerance, Ms. Hasina seems to have calculated that she simply cannot afford to lose at the polls. The daughter of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman rides a tiger, fearful of dismounting for what she has wrought.
Criticism of the Hasina regime is equated with treason against the state. The legislature, judiciary and bureaucracy have become rubber stamps even as the Prime Minister suffocates the polity, with U.S.-returned son and adviser Sajeeb Wazed Joy by her side. The party machine has become her personal fief and the attempt at dynastic continuity is palpable, as seen in the ubiquitous billboards portraying father, daughter and grandson.
The harsh measures taken by the Hasina regime against journalists reflect the political whip being applied across the societal spectrum. Media houses submit meekly to self-censorship in the face of vengeful reaction even to timid criticism, and Parliament just passed a restrictive Digital Security Act in September despite well-articulated concerns about free expression.
In order to crush civil society, Ms. Hasina set out to make examples of well-known media personalities. Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star newspaper, was slapped with dozens of spurious charges of sedition and defamation. Today marks photographer and cultural activist Shahidul Alam’s hundredth day behind bars, for having had the impertinence to live-stream the attacks by Awami League goons on young protesters on the streets.
The international outcry on Mr. Alam’s imprisonment has failed to move the Prime Minister, who is ever-more belligerent. Terrified of her wrath, consecutive court benches shamefully refuse to consider his bail petition.
The Indian presence
Observers in Dhaka say Ms. Hasina’s family tragedy helps explain her political persona, motivations and geopolitical leanings. Her intense survival instinct can be traced back to the assassination of her father in 1975, together with her mother, brothers and other family members.
Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister, offered refuge to the two surviving sisters (Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana), which is said to account for Ms. Hasina’s decidedly New Delhi tilt. Today, Bangladesh is regarded as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s one foreign policy success in South Asia, and New Delhi has pursued Ms. Hasina for its own ends — the closure of Northeast militant camps, entry into the sizeable Bangladesh market, and access to the Northeast through Bangladesh (even as India surrounds Bangladesh with a barbed wire fence).
Dhaka’s opinion-makers grumble that Bangladesh has got little in return besides assurances, while government officials are tight-lipped about the quid pro quo, particularly on water sharing. For a densely populated lower riparian country which would be devastated by any further upstream flow diversion on the Ganga/Padma — salinity, desertification, loss of livelihood and migration — Bangladesh watches fearfully the ‘river linking project’ so favoured by the Bharatiya Janata Party.
While India has snubbed Bangladesh by abstaining on a December 2017 UN Human Rights Council resolution on the Rohingya co-sponsored by Dhaka, Ms. Hasina has been resoundingly silent on the anti-Bangladeshi tirade of the BJP following the release in July this year of the draft of Assam’s National Register of Citizens.
For two decades, Bangladesh politics was marked by the relentless feuding of Ms. Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia, chair of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). But Ms. Zia has been outwitted by the sure-footed Ms. Hasina, especially after the BNP decided to boycott the general elections of 2014. Today, Bangladesh is essentially a one-party polity under the Awami League.
Ms. Zia, a two-time Prime Minister, is in prison, with her jail term for graft having just been increased to 10 years. She is in failing health, the lone inmate at the old Dhaka Central Jail, the other prisoners having been moved to a new facility outside city limits.
That the BNP has not been able to build a movement for the release of its leader indicates an opposition in disarray, but also the regime’s hounding of BNP cadre countrywide, through outright violence and filing of false court cases. Despite assurances from the Prime Minister of a level field for election campaigning, BNP cadre are swelling the number of inmates in jails countrywide.
The absence of effective political opposition has helped transform Bangladesh into a country with a deathly record of enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Fake encounters have been institutionalised by the paramilitary Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), while the Prime Minister has activated military intelligence in a manner not seen even under martial law, according to observers.
As people run for cover, the Awami League holds itself out as the sole custodian of the legacy of the Liberation War and of Sheikh Mujib, with all disagreeable forces and individuals variously tagged as ‘Jamaati’, ‘razakar’ collaborators, Westernised elite, ‘Tagorites’, Pakistani intelligence, and even Mossad operatives. Meanwhile, everyone else talks of Indian intelligence infiltrating the layers of Dhaka society.
Ms. Hasina is projected internationally as a fighter against Islamic fundamentalism, but has quietly accommodated the Hefazat-e-Islam, a conservative pressure group of clerics. The regime is busy excising secular content from textbooks, and has made madrasa degrees at par with university degrees for government jobs.
With the political opposition weakened, the people’s release is through outbursts that tend to snowball. This happened with the Shahbag movement which sought to rekindle the spirit of Liberation, an agitation against excessive quotas (56%) in public sector employment, and this summer’s uprising of youngsters demanding road safety.
Ms. Hasina deftly rode out these agitations, but in the absence of a democratic release through free and fair elections, a spontaneous combustion in the future may go outside her capacity to manage, engulfing all Bangladesh.
A faint hint of compromise appeared in the first week of November, when Ms. Hasina readily agreed to a meeting request from the Jatiya Oikya Front, an alliance formed on October 13 which includes the BNP and four other parties. Kamal Hossain, elder statesman and framer of the 1972 Constitution, leads the Front.
The Front’s seven-point demand included a neutral government to run elections and release of all political prisoners including Ms. Zia. The Prime Minister has turned a deaf ear to the demands, and instead elections were announced for December 23, denying the opposition alliance time to organise.
The intolerance and crony capitalism exhibited by the Hasina regime today colours the entire state structure of Bangladesh and jeopardises its journey towards middle-income country status. The very person who has worked to usher socio-economic advance seems ready to sacrifice it all. Ms. Hasina must try to get off the tiger, and others must help her do so.
Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is the founding editor of the magazine, ‘Himal Southasian’
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