by Subir Bhaumik *
Bangladesh’s Islamist opposition appears to be on the warpath after a three-day nationwide blockade (31 October – 2 November) following the violence that erupted during their protest rally in Dhaka on Saturday. Their one-point demand: that the ruling Awami League Government step down immediately and pave the way for a neutral caretaker administration to hold the parliamentary elections due in January 2024.
At least six people, including one policeman, have been killed so far and nearly 500 injured, in clashes between police and Awami League supporters on one hand and the Opposition activists on the other since the Saturday clashes. Terrorised citizens have been forced indoors and trade and businesses have been substantially affected by the violence. As opposition protesters continued to burn down public transport and attack police stations to enforce their three-day countrywide blockade aimed at paralysing the administration to force Hasina to step down and pave the way for a neutral caretaker to conduct the polls, the Prime Minister told a press conference “there was no question of a dialogue over the conduct of polls.”
Envoys of several Countries like US, Canada, Australia, Japan, South Korea on Monday called on “all stakeholders to exercise restraint” so that clashes like the ones on Saturday are not repeated. This is seen as a veiled warning to the Awami League so that its supporters don’t hit the streets in large numbers to fight the Opposition.
“My government will not stay silent if the violence continues. All troublemakers will be picked up and punished,” warned Hasina, often called the “Iron Lady” after she fought back Opposition violence before the last two elections and returned to power. “I withhold a dialogue with the Opposition once Biden and Trump hold a dialogue,” said Hasina, in a direct attack on what Awami League leaders described as “increasing US interference in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs.” But let me make it clear, the caretaker system has been ended by the parliament because of its misuse during 2006-08, and there is no way we will bring it back. If polls can be held under ruling dispensations in all democracies like US and India, the same can happen in Bangladesh.”
“If Awami League remains in power, the Country will have a one-party State in substance with a democratic facade. So this is not just about ousting Awami League from power but about saving Bangladesh‘s fledgling democracy,” said senior BNP leader Mirza Abbas.
Countered Awami League’s central committee member Tarana Halim said: “The BNP-JAMAAT are the antithesis of democracy. I was stabbed and nearly killed like so many of our leaders when they came to power in 2001. They tried to liquidate our entire central leadership including Sheikh Hasina in 2004. They believe in Pakistani-style militarism of eliminating opponents.”
For the Awami League, it is a battle for existence, as it is for the Islamist Opposition. “If the Awami League loses the Parliament polls in January, there will be a bloodbath like during 2001-06 BNP-JAMAAT rule. Thousands of party leaders and activists will have to flee the Country, surely from their own areas of activity. If the Opposition loses, it will surely be the end of BNP as a party,” says Sukharanjan Dasgupta, author of books on Bangladesh.
Dasgupta says the Awami League, traditionally a powerful party on the streets due to its long years in Opposition agitprop role, is now organisationally weaker because of nearly 15 years in power, during which corruption has become endemic and the connection to the grassroots seriously compromised.
The weakness of the Awami League grassroots organisation owes to the large-scale corruption over issuing nominations for Parliament seats that started from the 2018 polls when hundreds of tickets in the 300-member Jatiya Sangsad were given out to those who could pay fat bribes to powerbrokers but had no grassroots presence or track record in party organisations. The most powerful of these powerbrokers is from Hasina’s immediate family who is strongly backed by a powerful adviser seeming to double up as foreign and home minister.
“Those who could pay millions were not the traditional Bengali middle class leadership dominating the Awami League but nouveau riche first-generation traders or corrupt retired bureaucrats. These elements can never win a fair poll, so they resorted to unfair means to win,” says Sukharanjan Dasgupta.
The party’s dependence on police, bureaucrats and criminals stems from its systematic sidelining of its popular traditional middle-class leadership who were increasingly targeted by the moneybags-turned-lawmakers.
“So the Awamis have come to increasingly rely on support of police and security forces to win the street battles. That is why on Saturday the Opposition went for the police,” says former Indian intelligence bureau official Benu Ghosh, who has closely followed Bangladesh for three decades.
Constable Pervez was brutally hacked to death by BNP-JAMAAT supporters at Dhaka’s Dainik Bangla intersection when he got isolated from his colleagues. At least 40 policemen were injured during the mayhem.
“The Opposition plan is to demoralise the police and security forces by targeted street violence and then terrorise common people by random attacks on public transport and commuters. And then if police retaliate, they have their American Godfathers to sanction their senior officials,” alleges Awami League’s Tarana Halim, a former actress-playwright and lawyer who has been a Minister before.
Halim says her Government faces a two-pronged attack – a US-driven Western regime change operation “à la Ukraine 2013-14” and a violent pro-Pakistan Opposition agitation to oust the Government through planned violence behind the facade of a democratic agitation.
The US issued sanctions against 7 senior security officials including former police chief Benazir Ahmed in Dec 2021 and even kept Bangladesh out of its Democracy Summits. “Since then, the US has threatened sanctions and issued visa restrictions on officials and politicians to rattle the Hasina regime,” says Benu Ghosh.
Ghosh says the BNP-JAMAAT coalition has employed politically well-connected lobbyists in US to make their rush to regain power look like a battle to save democracy. “This is one area the Awamis have lost in the battle of narratives,” he told this writer. “We are the Country’s most popular party with strong grass-root connections and a glorious history of leading the fight for independence against Pakistan and then the fight for democracy against two successive military rulers,” said Tarana Halim in an interview. “We don’t need western Godfathers to promote our cause because we are a proud Bengali nation with an anti-imperialist history and no colony of any Big power, US or China.”
In fact, in a bizarre development, one Zahidul Arefi turned up at the BNP party headquarters and addressed the media in presence of senior party leaders, claiming he was an “adviser” of US President Joe Biden. On Sunday, he was arrested at Dhaka airport while trying to leave the country. “Can any responsible party allow such silly stuff?”, asked Ms Halim.
But BNP’s Abbas, who was taken into custody on Sunday with other senior party leaders for “instigating violence”, insists that Prime Minister Hasina has ordered a crackdown after Saturday’s agitation to create a climate of fear which is aimed at “setting the stage for yet another rigged election.”
“Hasina cannot win a fair election. If polls are held under a neutral caretaker, the Awami League won’t win even ten per cent of the seats, the anti-incumbency is so strong because corruption is rampant and people are badly affected by the phenomenal rise in prices of essential commodities,” Abbas told media-persons on Saturday. “That is why she wants to use the uniformed forces to bring her back to power.”
BNP leaders are pointing to 365 new police vacancies created just before the elections. “These new recruits will all be from the Awami Youth League ranks who will be ruthless on Opposition,” alleged BNP’s Goyeshwar Roy. But hardcore secular politicians who oppose the Islamists also blame the Awami League for “promoting soft Islam” and other devious backroom parleys with radical groups like Hifazat-e-Islam. “This is not only a departure from the party’s secular traditions but has actually helped the Islamist radicals acquire political legitimacy,” said a senior Left politician whose party is an ally of the Awami League. “In the last few years, hardcore Islamists and rich business cronies have surrounded Hasina and made it into a coterie. That has led to Islamisation of the polity on one hand and rampant corruption on the other,” the Left leader said.
That has not made Big neighbour India happy and Delhi has piled pressure for a purge of Islamist-trader lobby and pitch for taking back the Awami League leadership to its traditional Bengali middle class roots — not with much success. Now with the US and its Western allies gunning for Hasina over democracy and human rights issues and China strictly staying away from domestic Bangladesh politics, the ‘Iron Lady’ may finally have to heed the “advice” from Delhi or risk its indifference. Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen actually let the cat out of the bag when he admitted to “requesting Delhi to help the Awami League stay in power” following a trip to the Indian capital.
India and US, though strategic allies and committed to contain an aggressive China, have traditionally differed sharply on Bangladesh. “Much of Bangladesh’s political future depends on how the India-US equation in South Asia shapes up,” says Sukharanjan Dasgupta. That this increasingly violent political conflict comes at a time when the country’s economy has nosedived due to rampant corruption promoted by some crony capitalists close to the Prime Minister and when its foreign exchange reserves are in the precarious zone, should send alarm bells ringing.
For India, a stable, peaceful and economically growing Bangladesh is a must for its Eastern and North Eastern states. The Hasina government suited its strategic and economic interests but if it is undermined by internal weakness like corruption and external pressure from the West, Delhi has cause to worry. And it cannot clearly afford its most reliable ally in South Asia to drift towards China.
On the cover photo, Traffic jam in Mirpur road of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh © Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock.com; In the text, Subir Bhaumik
* Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author on South Asian conflicts