Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Queenmaker of Bangladesh


Call Bangladesh the land of the resurrected. Here, a dictator can be overthrown, disgraced and imprisoned, and still make a comeback.

More than two decades after being ousted, Hussain Mohammed Ershad is now being called the “Queenmaker.” Thanks to recent political maneuvering, he is in a prime position to tip the scales between the two main contenders in the general election to be held in January: Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, and Khaleda Zia, former prime minister, leader of the opposition and Ms. Hasina’s longtime foe.

Mr. Ershad came to power in 1983, as the head of a military-backed government. By late 1990, after nearly a decade without free and fair elections, a massive popular uprising — led by the two most powerful opposition parties, the Awami League (Ms. Hasina’s party) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (Ms. Zia’s) — was putting pressure on Mr. Ershad to step down. His government fell after the army withdrew its support. Within weeks, Mr. Ershad was in jail on corruption charges.

More than 20 years later, Mr. Ershad’s influence is on the rise again. Though Ms. Hasina and Ms. Zia once cooperated in the movement to restore democracy, they have become bitter opponents in the intervening years, as power has shifted back and forth between the Awami League and the B.N.P. Now, on the eve of another election, Mr. Ershad is the accidental arbiter in the enduring rivalry between the co-architects of his downfall.

Bangladesh is deeply divided. Ms. Hasina’s record in many areas — development, infrastructure, health care, the trial of war criminals from the 1971 liberation war — boasts important victories, and those go far beyond anything Ms. Zia achieved when she was prime minister, in 1991-1996 and 2001-2006.

But Ms. Hasina’s decision to stand by allegedly corrupt ministers and her consistent repression of her political opponents have damaged her standing. Especially controversial, Ms. Hasina has scrapped the so-called caretaker government that had overseen national elections since Mr. Ershad’s fall. In its place she has appointed a special election-time cabinet formally open to all parties and placed herself at its helm.

Ms. Zia looks even worse. Her last term in office was marred by allegations of corruption (some involving her immediate family), and she reigned over an unprecedented spate of violence by religious extremists, including the Islamic terrorist Bangla Bhai. While in the opposition, Ms. Zia has been obstinately uncooperative. She has boycotted Parliament since losing the election in 2008. Now she is threatening to boycott the January election unless the caretaker framework is reinstated. In the meantime, she has called a series of strikes and demonstrations that have brought the country to a standstill. She has refused to join Ms. Hasina’s interim cabinet.

Mr. Ershad, for his part, has accepted to join the new cabinet. He has also agreed to run in the election, a move that will lend the process the credibility that Ms. Hasina badly wants and Ms. Zia is trying to deny her. And if Ms. Zia does stick to her boycott, the Jatiya Party of Mr. Ershad will likely become the country’s new main opposition party, vastly increasing its current influence.
And so it is that while the two leading ladies of Bangladeshi politics quarrel, Mr. Ershad’s clout is growing. In fact, it is almost tempting to forget the dark spots in his past. Mr. Ershad’s rule is sometimes looked upon as a dictatorship of the benign sort. The 1982 coup that brought him to power was bloodless (conveniently, his predecessor had already been assassinated). And the years of democracy that have followed his downfall have been tainted by so much corruption, cronyism and repression that his regime can seem innocuous by comparison.

But nostalgia underestimates the damage the man did to Bangladesh. Mr. Ershad institutionalized corruption on a large scale, undertaking building projects that enriched him and his cronies. In 1988, his government amended the Constitution, ignoring its foundational secular principles to declare Islam the country’s state religion. The return to politics of this dictator, whose fall was so hard-won, sends a message of impunity.

Democracy in Bangladesh has taken another hit, in other words. Politicians are unaccountable. The electoral process is sketchy. Yes, Bangladeshis have held on to the right to vote, but it is, in effect, the right to vote only for warring factions determined to destroy each other.

A few weeks ago, in a bid to convince her to end the strikes, Ms. Hasina made a telephone call to Ms. Zia. The transcript of the conversation, which was circulated online, reads like a parody.

Ms. Hasina: “We don’t want to quarrel.”

Ms. Zia: “You are quarrelling.”

Ms. Hasina: “You are the only one doing the talking. You are not allowing me to talk.”

Ms. Zia: “Why would I do that? You are asking questions, I am replying.”

Ms. Hasina: “I am not getting a chance to speak.”

Amid that bickering, Ershad doesn’t need to do much talking at all.

Published in The NewYork Times, November 26, 2013

A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 27, 2013, in The International New York Times.

Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dr Amartya Sen: What's happening in Bangladesh?

Self-assured commentators who saw Bangladesh as a “basket case” not many years ago could not have expected that the country would jump out of the basket and start sprinting ahead even as expressions of sympathy and pity were pouring in. This informative Lancet Series on Bangladesh helps to explain what happened—and why. It is important to understand how a country that was extremely poor a few decades ago, and is still very poor, can make such remarkable accomplishments particularly in the field of health, but also in social transformation in general.

The lessons are important for Bangladesh's own future, and for what The Lancet Bangladesh Team describe as the construction of “a second generation of health systems”. But the messages from Bangladesh's experience are also of great relevance for many other countries in the world that suffer from debilitating poverty. It might not be good manners for Bangladesh to start lecturing the world on what to do, so soon after jumping out of the basket to which it had been relegated, but the country's experience has important lessons for other developing countries across the globe.

These lucid and helpful papers discuss the main avenues of change on which Bangladesh has travelled. I will not summarise the findings: this has been nicely done in the introductory paper by Mushtaque Chowdhury and colleagues. Instead I will concentrate on a small number of striking features of the strategy followed by Bangladesh in moving rapidly towards health transition.

One direction of change is the emphasis that the country has placed on reducing gender inequality in some crucially important respects. The impetus for the change was linked in many different ways with the politics of liberation that made the issue of freedom, including the liberation of women, a part of the progressive agenda of what people wanted and were ready to fight for. There are inescapably complex issues to be addressed in order to explain more fully how exactly that happened. It can be argued that there were historical elements in the culture of Bengal, and particularly in the emergence of radical movements in various forms in that province throughout the first half of the 20th century, that leant them to include a serious concern for gender equity. But it was the nature of the struggle for independence of Bangladesh, particularly in focusing on the contrast with West Pakistan, that made it possible to make an effective political translation towards empowering women.

The causation of this move towards gender equity cannot but remain somewhat speculative, but its consequences are clear enough. Schools focused particularly on expanding the education of girls: Bangladesh is one of the few countries in the world where the number of girls in school now exceeds the number of boys. Public services, including school teaching, health care, and family planning, employ a much higher proportion of women workers than is the case in most developing economies, including in Bangladesh's neighbouring countries. Women have also entered the economic workforce in plentiful numbers, led by such industries as garment making that provided easy entry to female labourers, even though the neglect of safety at work has been a huge blot in the record of that industry, a serious deficiency that is only belatedly being addressed, and perhaps not yet strongly enough.

Women have also received special attention from Bangladesh's powerful non-governmental organisations (NGOs)—from large initiatives like BRAC and Grameen Bank to smaller organisations—and the mobilisation of the active agency of women has been a distinctive feature of the vision that has moved Bangladesh forward. And there has been a general determination in post-independence Bangladesh to target the elimination of female disadvantage in different fields of action, including maternal and child survival.

The removal of female disadvantage and the use of female agency have raised Bangladesh's record of achievement even on its own, but it is in fact the case that women's agency has also contributed greatly to the advancement of the lives and freedoms of all—men, women, and children. The unlocking of the power of women's active role in the society and in the economy has been an extremely productive move for Bangladesh and contrasts with what has happened in much of IndiaBangladesh's powerful achievement in making much greater use of women's agency is a remarkable affirmation of the importance of what Mary Wollstonecraft called, in 1792, “the vindication of the rights of woman”. Indeed it turns out that the removal of the social shackles that restrain women has a crucial part to play in the progress of all people—of both sexes and of all ages.

A second striking feature of the Bangladesh story is the general acceptance of a multiplicity of instruments in the public and private sectors for rapid social advancement. Just as state initiatives have been seriously undertaken, NGOs and private enterprises have been forcefully supplementing the efforts of the public sector. As Syed Masud Ahmed and colleagues argue, the use of pluralism has allowed Bangladesh to get off to a quick start bringing the country a little closer to a health transition.

This is not to deny that the mixture of instruments that characterise Bangladesh's path of development will demand critical examination over time, since substantial overall advancement can coexist with persistent inefficiency and inequalities in the sharing of the benefits of health transition. These evaluative issues remain open to scrutiny and critical examination, but what has to be immediately—and firmly—recognised is that Bangladesh has been, in its own way, going ahead rapidly, rather than remaining paralysed by the slowness that is often entailed by the pursuit of “purity” in more ideologically oriented initiatives which favour either exclusive reliance on private enterprise or exclusive use of state-based programmes. The pragmatism that Bangladesh came to accept through a complex political and social process has yielded noticeable success, which has impressed—and to a considerable extent surprised—the world.

A third feature, closely related to the second, is the intelligent use of community-based approaches in the delivery of health services and medical care. As Shams El Arifeen and his coauthors outline, the mobilisation of community-based participation has many advantages, not only for the fostering of social cooperation, but also for extending the reach of the health initiatives and their impact. The innovations in health-service delivery from which Bangladeshis have benefited have been possible partly because of these participatory features in the process of social change. The importance of innovations is also discussed in the context of equity in the paper by Alayne Adams and colleagues.

A fourth feature, which demands particular attention in Bangladesh, is the country's improved ability to face natural disasters, such as storms, cyclones, floods, and droughts. These natural calamities have acted as a persistent drag on the country's progress. As the contributions by the Richard Cash and colleagues highlight, the deep vulnerability of the disaster-prone country to unruly forces of nature, which needed to be subdued, has indeed been, to a considerable extent, reduced. The elimination of these problems would, however, demand much more security-oriented progress in future years, especially if the threats for climate change become stronger.

I have pointed to a few of the special features in Bangladesh's progress towards a health transition, and many other features have been explored in this valuable Lancet Series. One very important aspect of this compendium of investigations is the continued focus on a call to action that nicely supplements the appreciation of what has been accomplished. Bangladesh has still a long way to go. This Lancet Series shows how Bangladesh has firmly placed itself on the way to that long journey (and has made an excellent beginning), but also points to further problems that have to be tackled as the journey proceeds. The key to Bangladesh's laudable success has been the avoidance of the twin dangers of inertia and smugness. The future will demand more from these virtues.

I declare that I have no conflicts of interest.

First published in The Lancet journal, 21 November 2013

Prof Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate and professor of economics, Harvard University, Littauer Center, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

Monday, November 11, 2013

Bangladesh-India: Treaty of Hope


On October 7, 2013, Bangladesh's Cabinet ratified the Extradition Treaty with India. Disclosing this, Bangladesh Cabinet Secretary Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan stated that the Cabinet meeting was chaired by Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, and that the treaty would now require the approval of the Parliament in order to come into effect, following the exchange of documents after legal procedures by both countries. The Indian Cabinet had already ratified the treaty. On October 23, 2013, the instruments of ratifications were exchanged, and the Treaty came into effect. The Extradition Treaty had been inked on January 29, 2013.

Some of the significant aspects of the treaty include:
Article 5: Nothing in this Treaty shall preclude the extradition by the Requested State of its nationals either in respect of a territorial offence or in respect of an extra-territorial offence.

Article 11(1): In case of urgency, one Contracting State may request the other Contracting State to provisionally arrest the person sought. Such request shall be made in writing and transmitted to the Central Authority of the Requested State through diplomatic channels.

Article 17(1): When a request for extradition is granted, the Requested State shall, upon request and so far as its law allows, hand over to the Requesting State articles (including sums of money) which may serve as proof or evidence of the offence.

Article 18: Each Contracting State shall, to the extent permitted by its law, afford the other the widest measure of mutual assistance in criminal matters in connection with the offence for which extradition has been requested.

However, according to Article 6, persons accused of political crimes [offence of a political character] would not come under the purview of the Treaty. Further, offenders accused of small crimes, with a maximum penalty of imprisonment for less than one year, are also outside the scope of the Treaty. Article 8 states that the signing countries also reserve the right to refuse extradition.

Apart from its specific provisions, the Treaty well enhance the already-much-improved Indo-Bangladesh security ties. India hopes that the Treaty will facilitate the extradition of Anup Chetia alias Golap Barua, 'general secretary' of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and other criminals taking shelter in Bangladesh. Chetia has been in a Bangladesh jail since his arrest in 1997. A Bangladesh court jailed Chetia for seven years for illegal entry. Although his sentence has expired, he is still in Bangladesh custody. Chetia sought political asylum in Bangladesh thrice, in 2005, 2008 and in 2011, after being arrested from Dhaka's Mohammadpur area in 1997.

In addition to Chetia, National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) leader Thulunga alias Tensu Narzery and many other insurgents from India's insurgency-wracked north-east have been hiding in Bangladesh, and are now under imminent threat of deportation.

Bangladesh on the other hand, wants India's help in arresting and extraditing Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's killers. The suspects, Captain (Retired) Abdul Mazed and Risalder (Retired) Moslehuddin, are believed to be hiding in India. The treaty will also clear the way to bring back criminals like Subrata Bain and Sazzad Hossain to Bangladesh from India. Bain and Hossain are currently lodged in Delhi's high-security Tihar Jail. Bain was charged with carrying Fake Indian Currency Note (FICN), illegal arms and for illegal immigration into India. Hossain is wanted in cases of murder in Bangladesh. The Awami League government of Bangladesh contends that Bain and Hossain were involved in attacks that targeted its top leadership. Bain is an accused in the August 21, 2004, grenade attack on a rally of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka.

Further, with an over 4,000 kilometre porous border between the two countries, mainly along India's insurgency-plagued north-eastern States, and reports suggesting that both Indian and trans-border terrorists are taking advantage of security gaps in the Indian State of West Bengal, the treaty will be crucial for both countries to take effective action against serious offenders for a wide variety of crimes, including terrorism, smuggling, human trafficking, organised crime, and white-collar crime. The treaty has also extended the scope of mutual cooperation on security and border related issues. It can be hoped, moreover, that it will help the enforcement agencies on both sides to secure their common goals of protecting their respective citizens and eliminating cross-border safe havens for criminals.

In addition, India has also operationalised the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty in Criminal Matters with Bangladesh. The Legal Assistance Treaty assume importance in combating transnational organized crimes, trans-border terrorism, and other serious offences such as human and drug trafficking, money laundering, counterfeit currency, smuggling of arms and explosives, etc. Keeping in mind the regional challenges of terrorist funding and the recent Rohingya problem, such cooperation will create strong instruments of 'official hindrance' to anti-governmental formations and non-state actors with radical political agendas.

The India-Bangladesh relationship has been on a sustained upswing since Sheikh Hasina came to power in January 2009. With remarkable transformations in the domestic scenario, Dhaka sought to repair relations with Delhi, and to stamp out the anti-Indian sentiment in Bangladesh.

These gains, of course, remain tenuous. Recent developments, including the political turmoil in Bangladesh, and evidence that the US has revaluated its position on the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) - Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) combine, with an assessment in its favour, suggest that the outcome of the General Elections due before January 24, 2014, are deeply uncertain. A restoration to power of the BNP-Jamaat combine in Dhaka would lead to the inevitable resurgence of Islamist extremist radicalization and the anti-India sentiment in Bangladesh, and the rapid erosion of the gains of the past years in India-Bangladesh relations. Significantly, the Extradition Treaty has several loopholes, particularly including the clause that allows the signatory states to refuse extradition, which would allow an uncooperative Government to subvert the letter and spirit of the agreement. As with much else, South Asia remains a region of extreme uncertainty.

First appeared on South Asia IntelligenceReview, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 19, November 11, 2013

Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

The haunted Hindus of Santhia

Saleem Samad in Santhia, Pabna

As she loiters past damaged houses in Sahaparha village, 5-year old ‘Orgho’ fumes over her smashed water mug, plastic chair and, most loudly, about the damaged television in her house.

She blames the Nov 2 mayhem on Kali Puja day on 'dustu chelera’ (naughty boys).

Her mother is cautious, as she recollects how she hid in a smelly toilet for three hours to escape an armed mob of fanatic Muslims.

A part of her house was smashed to smithereens.

The State Minister for Home Shamsul Hoque Tuku had gathered at Karamjat madrasa ground to thwart Opposition protests, barely 10 kilometres from Bongram bazaar at Santhia.

That was just before the Muslim mob, fuming over a reported Facebook posting denigrating Prophet Muhammad, went on an orgy of violence in Santhia.

Sahaparha was one of the worst affected because the Facebook posting was blamed on Rajib Saha, a resident of the village.

The conspirators deliberately chose Saturday, a weekly haat-bazaar day.

On the day hundreds of photocopies of an alleged Facebook posting were distributed, indicating that Rajib Saha had insulted the Prophet.

The distribution left Muslims of all parties inflamed.

What followed was hours of violence in which atleast 40 Hindu homes were ravaged.

The young women are yet to return to villages, as fear grips the Hindus in the area.

They are worried because those suspected of perpetrating the mayhem have not been arrested.

Worse, the Hindus now suspect that many who made up the violent mob enjoy protection of senior Awami League politicians including local MP and State Minister for Home Shamsul Hoque Tuku.

This is what has shocked them most -- how could those attacking them enjoy Awami League protection!

Tuku has also been blamed for letting the police on Awami League dissidents close to senior leader Prof Abu Sayeed, one time close confidante of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

But what about the alleged Facebook posting!

Like many similar so-called Facebook postings that inflamed Muslims and led to anti-minority violence elsewhere in the country like Ramu, this one allegedly by Rajib Saha also appeared a complete fake.

Journalists in Pabna argued that the photocopy of the Facebook ostensibly posted by Rajib was 'photoshopped' from a fake account “Innocent Rajib”.

Much like the alleged Facebook posting at Ramu in Cox's Bazar in September last year, in which hundreds of Buddhist homes were vandalised and scores of pagodas desecrated.

The miscreants in both Ramu and Santhia seem to have lost no time to loot valuables and cash in the second wave of violence following the initial fury.

Superintendent of Police (SP) of Pabna Mirajuddin Ahmed promised that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.

But he was quick to add that the attackers had not been identified. Except for those who spoke to Rajib's father Babul Saha in the morning.

Have the conspirators been arrested? ‘No,’ said Babul Saha who filed the case with police.

Ataikula Police Station OC Rezaul Karim claims they have arrested several of the suspects. Three cases have been lodged including one by police for obstruction to perform duty.

Police officials told visiting civil society groups, rights activists and journalists that those named by Babul Saha have been arrested.

But Saha said he had only heard of the arrests and was not able to confirm them.

Deputy Commissioner of Pabna Ashraf Uddin explained it was a 'police matter' and progressing “very well”.

But he said the civil administration had nothing much to do, except for initiating a confidence-building process after the violence.

The victims of Bonogram, Sahaparha and Goshparha have rejected the district administration’s offer of relief of 30 sacks of rice (each weighing 28 kg).

Rajib's uncle Kartick Saha says they need protection, not rice which they can afford to buy.

Like the Buddhists in Ramu, the Hindus in Santhia want the government to compensate them for the damaged temples to facilitate reconstruction.

A RAB platoon and two platoons of armed police have been deployed in Santhia. Police presence, says the SP, will deter a repeat of Nov 2.

He added a permanent police camp will be established there.

Local journalists say minister Tuku received news of violence in 10 minutes. But he did not do enough to protect the Hindus.

A small police contingent arrived within 30 minutes after desperate phone calls from Babul Saha.

But the larger force of police and RAB came only after three hours of intense violence, the elders complain.

Most Hindu elders do not remember when they had faced violence like they did on Nov 2.

Some recollect violence during 1971 by marauding Pakistan army and their local collaborators.

As most Hindus here had fled to India for safety, they did not have any direct experience of violence -- not until Nov 2.

Like other planned attacks on religious minorities elsewhere in Bangladesh, the perpetrators targeted the house of worship to break the morale of the minorities.

It is a pattern that has often been repeated -- at Taindong (Khagrhachharhi), Ramu and Ukhia (Cox’s Bazar), Sathkira, Begumganj, Gaibanda, Lalmonirhat and other places.

But the biggest worry -- leaders of all political parties belonging to the majority community, despite their political differences, seem to take the same line of connivance or indifference when minorities are attacked.

First published in BDNEWS24.COM, 11 Nov 2013

Saleem Samad, 
is an Ashoka Fellow for journalism, an award winning investigative reporter, is a freelance contributor to

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Jihadi clouds over Bangladesh


A clash of civilizations is unfolding in Muslim Bangladesh, where the forces of radical jihadi Islamism are trying to topple a liberal democracy, and no one in the West seems interested.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her ruling Awami League have accomplished something of which no other Muslim leader in any Islamic country could dream.

She fought a courageous battle against jihadi Islamism by strengthening secular democracy in the country’s constitution and barring religious parties from using Islam as a political tool.

While other leaders in Islamic countries with quasi democracies such as Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey and Indonesia have surrendered to the bullying tactics of the Islamists and bent over backward to accommodate medieval mullahs, Bangladesh’s PM has not blinked, despite threats and strikes that are disrupting the country’s economy.

With a national election looming, the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its religious partners, the jihadis of the Jamaat-e-Islami, have resorted to a dangerous tactic that brings back memories of the 1971 genocide, when the country’s Hindu population was virtually wiped out by Pakistan’s occupation army and its Islamist collaborators.

On Monday, at least 15 people, including six women, were injured when opposition BNP men stormed a Hindu village and vandalized and looted houses.

The villagers complained they came under attack after they refused to participate in a nation-wide strike called against the government.

Traumatized by the violent attack, Hindu women and children of 125 families had to flee the village as opposition goons ransacked about 40 houses and looted valuables, said witnesses.

The Muslim on Hindu attacks in Bangladesh come in the shadow of a war crimes tribunal sentencing two prominent leaders of Bangladesh’s Islamist movements to death for their role in the 1971 genocide committed by the Pakistan Army.

Both convicted Islamists happen to be residents of the U.K. and the U.S. and were found guilty on 11 charges relating to the abduction and killing of 18 pro-independence activists, including academics and journalists, in the final days of the 1971 war.

Stung by these verdicts, the opposition Islamist parties are threatening to bring the country to its knees if Hasina does not resign before the elections in the New Year.

The opposition BNP says, unless Hasina relinquishes power, its supporters will whip up nationwide strikes. It is also threatening to boycott the elections.

Last week, Hasina offered the formation of an all-party government to see through the elections, but the BNP is going ahead with a rally in Dhaka on Friday, with one party leader asking supporters to come “prepared with arms”.

To counter the Islamist threat, the ruling Awami League has also announced plans for a competing rally on the same day, raising the risk of more bloodshed.

So far this year at least 150 people have died in opposition protests and more than 2,000 have been injured during strikes and protests.

If the Awami League of Hasina is either pushed out of office by mass protests or in an election, be prepared to see another Pakistan emerge on India’s eastern flanks, with hard-core allies of the Muslim Brotherhood turning back the clock on one more Islamic country.

The U.S. and the West must keep a watchful eye on the developments inside Bangladesh and help Dhaka fight the jihadi onslaught.


Monday, November 04, 2013

Bangladesh: Clash of Titans


With less than three months left before the General Elections in Bangladesh (the term of the present Parliament expires on January 24, 2014) political tensions in the country are approaching a knife-edge, with mass mobilisation and violence escalating continuously, and the major political formations in the country increasingly polarized. The Opposition parties led by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) have started a movement demanding a non-party Caretaker Government (CG) to oversee the next polls. A three-day countrywide shut down by the BNP between October 27-29, 2013, saw violent clashes between mobs and Police, and at least 10 persons were killed.

Earlier, on October 19, 2013, with the crescendo of street demonstrations and violence soaring, Bangladeshi authorities had banned rallies and street protests in capital Dhaka for an indefinite period. Police and elite anti-crime Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel were deployed around the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre (BICC) and other strategic locations of the city to thwart possible street protests by BNP cadres. On October 20, 2013, the Opposition parties staged demonstrations across the country as part of their protest against the indefinite ban on public gatherings in Dhaka city. At least 20 people were injured in a clash between the activists of ruling Awami League (AL) and opposition BNP at Ku Koramara village in Bagerhat District on that day. Later, on October 25, 2013, seven people were killed in violence that broke out between BNP activists, AL activists and law enforcers in different places across the country. Several hundred people were also injured.

Meanwhile, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) had arrested four leaders and cadres of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al Islami Bangladesh (HuJI-B) from Ashulia, an outskirt of Dhaka city, on October 7, 2013, and recovered one foreign-made pistol, 32 bullets, and 1,135 rounds of SMG (Sub-Machine Gun) bullets, five detonators, one kilogram of high-powered explosive and other blasting equipment from their possession. Separately, RAB arrested three leaders of Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), an Islamist extremist outfit, at Rahanpur Bazar under Gomastapur sub-District of Chapainawabganj District on October 8, 2013, and recovered two computer central processing units (CPUs) and monitors, 26 CDs, and books propagating extremism. Indeed, in the wake of a bomb blast at Hefajat-e-Islam (HeI) Nayeb-e-Ameer (Deputy Chief) Mufti Izharul Islam Chowdhury's madrasa (religious seminary) in Chittagong on October 7, 2013, top officials of the Home Ministry and Police disclosed, on October 8, 2013, that banned militant outfits were planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the country.

In an exceptional gesture on October 26, 2013, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had phoned her archrival Khaleda Zia, leader of the BNP, and had a 37-minute conversation inviting the BNP chairperson to the Gono Bhaban (People's House), the official residence of the Prime Minister, to talk about the impending parliamentary elections. Khaleda, however, rejected the invitation, demanding, instead, "If you first agree in principle on holding the next general election under a non-partisan polls-time Government, then we will call off all our agitation including the 60-hour hartal. And we will sit to discuss how to form the polls-time Government."

With the initiative to evolve a consensual solution in tatters, BNP, in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI), its student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS), Hefazat-e-Islam (HeI), and other radical groups, unleashed a wave violence in the streets across the country. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), as many as 194 people, including 102 civilians, 83 JeI-ICS cadres, and nine Security Force (SF) personnel 631 have been killed since the delivery of the first verdict in the War Crimes Trial on January 21, 2013 (Data till November 3, 2013).

Significantly, it appears that the 18-Party opposition alliance, till now headed by the BNP, is progressively being hijacked by the JeI, with its focus shifting to opposition to the War Crimes Trials and obstruction of the execution of its verdicts, rather than any dispute over the impending Parliamentary elections. Indeed, at a rally held by the alliance at the historic Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka, JeI cadres scuffled with BNP activists in their attempts to occupy the stage and the first seats. With ugly clashes between JeI-ICS cadres and BNP activists at the venue, JeI cadres cheered only when their leaders were making speeches. The Daily Star reported that the ICS activists had been ordered by the party high command to rush to the venue and take control of the rally. This was repeated in other places in Bangladesh, where simultaneous 'joint' rallies were being held.

Even as her party was upstaged, Khaleeda Zia intensified her attack against the Sheikh Hasina Government, describing it as 'totally illegitimate' and 'unconstitutional'.

Significantly, in a public opinion survey conducted by The Daily Star and Asia Foundation, with 1,400 respondents across 14 Districts during the second and third weeks of September 2013, the AL-led Government received significant praise from voters on various issues, including agricultural policy and performance, power supply, delivery of public service and law and order. Nevertheless, a majority of 55 per cent of the respondents declared that they would vote for the BNP, with just 28 per cent saying they would vote for AL.

Counter-intuitively, at the same time, public opinion appears to be building up against radicalization and public demonstrations to this effect have been prominent. Thus, after the Opposition of October 28, children of the freedom fighters of 1971, under the banner of Amra Muktijoddhar Shontan (AMS, We Are Children of Freedom Fighters) washed the alter of the a liberation war memorial site at the Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka with their blood, declaring it had been 'desecrated' by Khaleeda Zia, who made a speech demanding the release of convicted war criminals. In a symbolic gesture, AMS leaders donated blood drawn by a doctor, which was then dissolved in water, with which the altar was cleansed. Suhrawardy Udyan in Dhaka is the venue where Sheikh Mujibur Rehman had delivered the historic March 7, 1971 speech. It is also the historic venue where the remnants of the Pakistan Army surrendered to India on December 16, 1971.

Meanwhile, even as polarized political passions intensified, the International Crimes Tribunal-2 (ICT-2), on November 3, 2013, awarded the death penalty to absconding Al-Badr leaders Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman Khan alias Nayeb Ali and Chowdhury Mueenuddin for their involvement in the 1971 War Crimes. All 11 charges leveled against them by the prosecution were proved. The convicts received the death penalty for abduction and killing of nine Dhaka University teachers, six eminent journalists and three physicians in December 1971. Mueen was the 'operations in charge' and Ashraf was the 'chief executor' of Al-Badr and they directly took part in the killing of intellectuals in Dhaka. On June 24, 2013, Ashraf and Mueen were jointly indicted on 11 counts of crimes against humanity for abducting and killing 18 persons. The trial began on July 15. The two accused were tried in absentia. Mueen lives in London and Ashraf in New York.

Earlier, on October 9, 2013, the ICT-2 had sentenced Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Abdul Alim (83) to 'imprisonment until death'. Alim was the chairman of Joypurhat Municipality during the Liberation War period, and was subsequently a founding member of BNP. He was elected Member of Parliament in 1979, 1996 and 2001. Zia-ur-Rahman made Alim a Cabinet Minister in 1978. Alim was found guilty on nine of the 17 charges brought against him. The four charges on account of which he was sentenced to 'imprisonment until death' included: committing genocide in Karai Kadipur, Chawkpara, Sonapara, Palpara and Munshipara of Jaipurhat District on April 26, 1971; committing genocide at Uttar Hatsahar and Harunja Hat of Khetlal in Jaipurhat District towards the end of May 1971; killing 15 youth at West Amatra in Jaipurhat District on June 14, 1971; and killing three freedom fighters at Khanjanpur Khuthibari in October 1971.

Thus far nine verdicts have been awarded by the International Crimes Tribunals (ICTs) conducting the War Crimes Trials that begin on March 25, 2010. While seven verdicts had been announced earlier, the Abdul Alim verdict is the second against a BNP leader. The first BNP leader to be convicted, on October 1, 2013, was Salauddin Quader Chowdhury.

In another trial on the same day, ICT-1 indicted the vice-president of the Nagarkanda unit (Faridpur District) of BNP, M.A. Zahid Hossain Khokon (70) alias Khokon Razakar on 11 charges, including genocide, torture, abduction and confinement during the Liberation War of 1971. According to the charges leveled against him, Khokon, at that time a local leader of the Razakars (Volunteers), an auxiliary force of the Pakistani Army, in Faridpur District, was involved in at least 13 incidents of war crimes that resulted in the death of more than 50 people, serious injuries to another eight and the rape of two women. Khokon was also proven to be involved in the forced conversion of Hindus, the torching of numerous houses and two temples, and the deportation of seven people. Khokon became the 14th high profile leader in Bangladesh to be indicted for War Crimes. Earlier, 13 leaders, including 11 of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and two of the BNP, had been indicted for War Crimes.

Further, on October 6, 2013, the Jatiya Sangsad (National Parliament) passed the 'Voters' List (Second Amendment) Bill, 2013', with a provision of removing the names of those who were awarded punishment for War Crimes. The amended section of the law stated that the names of those who were awarded punishment under the Bangladesh Collaborators (Special Tribunal) Order 1972 or under the International Crimes Tribunal or mentally retarded person declared by any court or a person not citizen of Bangladesh, would be removed from the voters' list. Law Minister Shafique Ahmed tabled the Voters' List (Second Amendment) Bill, 2013, in Parliament and it was passed by voice vote.

Significantly, on October 8, 2013, accusing the BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia of siding with war criminals, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned that if the BNP came to power again, the country would experience a reign of terror and corruption, declaring, "The BNP resorts to terrorism, looting and corruption when it comes to power, while the AL brings peace and carries out massive development." Further, she added, "I believe that we will be able to complete the trial of those who committed crimes against humanity during the Liberation War in 1971. The BNP cannot save them." While addressing her party's grassroots leaders at her residence in Dhaka city on October 9, 2013, Prime Minister Hasina articulated the apprehension that pro-liberation forces would be wiped out and a dangerous situation would prevail in the country if the "BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami-Hefajat-e-Islam" combine came to power through the next parliamentary election.

Indeed, the achievements of the Sheikh Hasina Government in its counter-terrorism and de-radicalization programmes, as well as on the developmental front, have been extraordinary. Nevertheless, the political uncertainties persist, and her performance does not appear to have been translated into a consolidated electoral advantage. The current mass mobilisation on the War Crimes issue and the arrangements for the coming elections certainly have the potential to undermine the Hasina Government's gains, even as subversive and extremist Islamist formations retain significant potential to stage a dangerous and disruptive revival.

First appeared in SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEWWeekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 12, No. 18, November 4, 2013

S. Binodkumar Singh is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management, India