AS BANGLADESH prepares to host Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and possibly UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi in Dhaka this July or August, it is not all good news at home for the country's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
After decisively addressing India's security and connectivity concerns by cracking down hard on northeast militants and allowing limited trans-shipment of capital goods to India's northeast through her country's territory, Hasina is now seeking major concessions from India on river water sharing, market access for Bangladeshi products, maritime and land boundary delimitation and import of power, besides other lesser issues. The feeling in Dhaka is that it is payback time and the Bangladesh foreign office is hoping for some major agreements during Singh's visit.
Bangladesh plans to unveil a statue of Indira Gandhi, widely seen as the "liberator of Bangladesh", on a major road in Dhaka to be named after her during Singh's visit in a symbolic gesture of gratitude. More important, Hasina's government welcomes huge Indian investments, especially in infrastructure. Foreign minister Dipu Moni has wished that India's economist prime minister will take captains of Indian industry along with him during the visit.
At home, Hasina finds herself caught in a crossfire between friends and foes that could weaken her control. On one hand, her plans to do away with the caretaker arrangement for holding elections has provoked opposition parties, especially the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to hit the streets. After having called a strike on June 5, the BNP now threatens to follow up with more if the Awami League government does not back off from its plans to switch to the Indian system of holding polls under a ruling dispensation. The BNP and other opposition parties - and even some in the ruling coalition - suspect that the Awami League wants to rig the parliamentary elections in 2013 to stay on in power.
This is the first time since its stunning defeat in the December 2008 polls that the BNP is back on the streets with demands for midterm polls to test the government's popularity, insisting that elections be held under a neutral caretaker dispensation under existing laws. The Awami League dismisses its fears as baseless and points to several recent municipal elections and other by-elections in which ruling party candidates lost though the polls were held under the present government. These losses, especially the defeat of sitting Chittagong municipal corporation chairman A K Mohiuddin, do indicate that the Awami League has lost some of the high ground it had gained in December 2008 when its alliance won 235 seats and the BNP ended up with only 30 seats in a 300-member House. And that has spurred the BNP's demand for a midterm poll.
On the other hand, Hasina's decision not to press ahead with the Supreme Court's verdict to restore Bangladesh's secular 1972 Constitution has upset her friends and allies who feel she is backing out, despite a huge mandate, to avoid confrontation with Islamic hardliners. The 1972 Constitution guaranteed equality of status to all religions and banned religious parties but subsequent amendments by two military rulers introduced "Bismillah" in the Preamble and made Islam the state religion besides allowing religious parties like the Jamait-e-Islami - hated for its support to the Pakistani regime - to re-enter the political stage.
A huge meeting was organised recently by the Sector Commanders Forum, an organisation of 1971 liberation fighters. Chaired by two former army chiefs and one air chief, currently the government's planning minister, it brought together 28 secular groups. The support of these groups was key to the Awami League's 2008 poll victory because they had passionately evoked the "spirit of 1971" among old and young alike. They have now resolved to pressure the Awami League government to restore the 1972 Constitution and press ahead with war crime trials to bring pro-Pakistani collaborators, responsible for large-scale murder, arson and rape, to justice. There are indications that Hasina faces a serious challenge from her own party and alliance if she does not move to restore the secular Constitution that her father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman put in place and try the "war criminals" of 1971.
The Bangladesh Left in Hasina's 14-party alliance has cried foul over the retention of Islam as the state religion, with Communist Party secretary Mujahid-ul-Islam Selim alleging that Bangladesh was fast becoming a "half-Pakistan". Some Awami League leaders like former industry minister Tofail Ahmed and planning minister A K Khandkhar have supported the sector commanders' decision to launch protest action if the 1972 Constitution was not restored. "If the BNP can hit the streets, so can we and more effectively," said filmmaker Nasiruddin Yusuf.
Yusuf suggested a strike to push the agenda and was supported by the likes of leading anti-fundamentalist campaigner Shahriar Kabir, who insists that Hasina has no right to betray the "spirit of 1971" for which three million Bengalis died. He says that, without the 1972 Constitution, Bangladesh will become another 'failed state' like Pakistan. Others have even called for a "second liberation war".
So, after just over two years of Awami League rule, Bangladesh appears to have returned to the politics of confrontation, which worries business and citizens alike.
First published in Times of India, India, June 14, 2011
Subir Baumik, PhD is a senior journalist and specializes in conflict and insurgency in Northeast India