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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Spot the difference in Bangladesh


WHILE COUNTING the number of Muslim countries enjoying democracy now, a senior BJP leader on a recent Indian television chat show , failed to count Bangladesh. Barely fifteen days later, the Awami League and its allies won a landslide victory in the recent parliament elections in Bangladesh. In a world torn asunder by religious strife, there has been a tendency to see Pakistan and Bangladesh as two sides of the same coin — failed states steadily undermined by Islamic religious radicalism , that many in Washington and Delhi saw could be held together only by the army and its “moderate Islamic allies.” The election and its aftermath has proved them wrong. The Awami League-led government has fired its first salvo in an attempt to push the Islamic radicals on the defensive — a parliament resolution for trying the “war criminals of 1971” has been unanimously passed. Begum Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was caught in a nutcracker. Voting for the proposal would upset its Islamist allies like the Jamiat-e-Islami, because most of its senior leaders would be facing the trial for collaborating with the Pakistani army in 1971 in its genocidal campaign against freedom-loving Bengalis. Opposing the resolution would undermine their nationalist credentials completely. The BNP lawmakers staged a walkout, opposing the seating arrangement in the parliament , to avoid taking a position on the resolution on the war crimes trial.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has also mooted the formation of a South Asian taskforce on terror, a proposal the Jamiat-e-Islami was quick to oppose. Jamiat chief Motiur Rehman Nizami was of the view that Bangladesh should handle terror with its own forces and not do anything to allow “foreign forces “ (read Indian) into the country. Hasina has made it clear that her government will go on an all-out offensive against “all extremist forces” in the country — meaning the Islamic radicals and perhaps the separatist groups from India’s northeast who were used against her party by the BNP government. But while police and military action is required to curb the underground radicals , something like a “war crimes trial” will help destroy the overground godfathers of Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh — legitimate political parties like Jamiat e Islami who provide the overarching platform for such radical activities.

Secular , anti-fundamentalist groups like the Ekattorer Ghatak o Dalal Nirmul Committee led by the late Jahanara Imam and Shariar Kabir have been strongly campaigning for a war crimes trial since the early 1990s. Many feel Bangladesh may be pushed into civil war if this trial starts, because it will reopen the wounds of 1971. But secular intellectuals and political leaders in Bangladesh argue that a war crimes trial is the only way to permanently demolish the “evil forces of Pakistan-style Islamic radicalism.”

This is what many in Washington and Delhi never understood. Islamic radicalism in Bangladesh cannot be tackled by US Marines or drones — or for that matter by Indian surgical strikes. It has to be fought by homegrown secular forces with the unstinted backing of the international community. They never understood that Bangladesh is not Pakistan. It is a society where, even in the 2001 election that brought Begum and Jamiat to power, the Awami League remained the single largest party in terms of voteshare — 40.8 per cent. To treat Bangladesh and Pakistan as parts of the same coin just because they are Muslim nations is to treat, to use a Bengali idiom, Tagore and a bearded goat as the same because both have beards.

The tragedy of post-1971 Bangladesh is that its people have rarely been able to vote freely. After 21 years of military rule following the assassination of the founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the army and its intelligence continued to manipulate elections. The Awami League managed to beat that jinx in 1996 but despite ensuring food security for the first time in Bangladesh’s recent history, it could not come back to power. In 2001, the BNP-Jamiat unleashed a terror campaign against Hindus and forced most of them to stay away from voting. With full military backing and tacit support from the interim government , the BNP-Jamiat’s violent campaign won the day for the coalition. Unlike their Bengali Communist brothers across the border, the Awami League had failed to build a party machinery to withstand terror and run the elections.

The December 2008 polls were fair and the army was non-partisan for the first time in post-1975 Bangladesh. Analyts argue that the huge induction of young voters also tilted the balance in favour of the Awami League and its version of a secular democracy. Begum Zia and her Islamist allies got barely one-tenth of the parliament seat, their appeal to vote for them to save Islam fell on deaf ears. Bangladesh is the most homogenous nation-state in post-colonial South Asia. Its population is predominantly Muslim, so most Bangladeshis don’t buy the “Islam in danger” thesis.

However , when the Islamic groups killing secular intellectuals and judges, attack Bengali New Year day celebrations or Bengali cultural groups like the Udichi , or they explode 450 bombs in as many locations in a day, most Bangladeshis fear their “Bengali identity”, on the bedrock of which the nation was created, is threatened. The December 2008 mandate is clear — Bangladesh should not be turned into another Pakistan at any cost.

So, with such a huge mandate, the Awami League is now in a position to pursue the war crimes trial and snuff out the embers of Islamic radicalism, despite obvious patronage from Pakistan and the Middle Eastern nations, who provide huge funds to groups like the Jamiat e Islami. India cannot expect Bangladesh to be a restaurant waiter — to take orders and deliver it on a platter. Delhi has to engage Dhaka in constant dialogue to pursue its own economic and security interests and be patient if it wants to achieve them. #

First published in the Indian Express, February 10, 2009

Subir Baumik is BBC’ s eastern India correspondent

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