May Issue 2007

By | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 17 years ago

Until the middle of April, with rumours rife that former prime minister Khaleda Zia was willing to go into exile while her chief rival, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, was stranded abroad, it seemed as if the military-backed interim administration in Bangladesh was willing to follow in the footsteps of General Pervez Musharraf. He sent Nawaz Sharif into exile and has thus far not exactly encouraged Benazir Bhutto to return to Pakistan, although there have lately been indications that the latter situation may not last long.

In Bangladesh, however, the “minus-two formula,” as it has come to be known, proved to be a non-starter. Just days after Sheikh Hasina was prevented from boarding a Dhaka-bound flight in London, the authorities announced the ban on her return had been lifted; it was simultaneously made clear that Khaleda Zia was no longer under pressure to take up residence in Saudi Arabia.

Precisely what prompted the change of heart wasn’t immediately clear. The reversal could be indicative of divisions among the interim rulers and the military hierarchy, and it may have had something to do with the fear of a popular backlash — although many Bangladeshis evidently viewed the prospect of deliverance from the feuding leaders of the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with a degree of equanimity, following 15 years during which the two women made a mockery of democracy. Or perhaps someone simply had the sense to recognise that whatever the nation’s future path, its legitimacy and stability would be compromised by completely excluding the leaders of the two largest parties from the process.

bangladesh-2-may07Echoing to some extent the general reaction in Pakistan following Sharif’s ouster in 1999, quite a few Bangladeshis heaved a sigh of relief at the start of this year when the elections scheduled for January 22 were indefinitely postponed and Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former head of the central bank, took over as chief adviser with the support of the army. They were less convinced, perhaps, by military chief Lieutenant-General Moeen U. Ahmed’s verdict. “We do not,” he said, “want to go back to an elective democracy where corruption becomes all pervasive, governance suffers in terms of insecurity and violation of rights, and where political criminalisation threatens the very survival and integrity of the state.”

That should sound familiar to Pakistani ears, because similar dirges have periodically been intoned here. And it all depends on how one reads it. Corruption, insecurity, rights violations and political criminalisation are indeed persistent curses in Bangladesh as in Pakistan, but “elective democracy” ought not to be construed as the culprit. Had that been the case, then perhaps its absence in both countries for prolonged periods would have helped to eradicate corruption and criminality and ushered in security and respect for human rights. Critiques of the manner in which democracy has routinely been abused are essential, provided they are not employed as the basis for justifying military rule — which, as the experience of Pakistan and Bangladesh amply illustrates, is invariably a bigger disaster.

The parallels between the two countries are in some respects uncanny, and it does not require spectacular powers of deduction that this phenomenon may have something to do with their shared history, which involved roughly a dozen years each of civilian rule and military dictatorship, but no phase of representative democracy. And although Rahul Gandhi last month claimed credit, on behalf of his family, for the break-up of Pakistan, it was in fact the politics and economics of the united nation that proved unequal to the task of sustaining the bond between its two wings. The tyranny of distance obviously played a role, but that was secondary to entrenched prejudices, mainly on the western side (initially manifested post-Partition in the language question, broached with extreme cultural insensitivity by the proponents of Urdu as a national glue), and uneven development.

Rahul’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was undoubtedly instrumental in achieving the final result, and one doesn’t have to be a cynic to recognise that her motivations weren’t exclusively humanitarian. There can be little question, however, that the Indian intervention served to curtail a bloodbath by the Pakistan army that had already acquired monstrous proportions. That “selective genocide,” as a Dhaka-based US diplomat termed it at the time, involved the loss of an estimated one million lives, possibly a great deal more. The crackdown had begun with massacres at Dhaka University. As a parting gift, in a final spurt of malice ahead of its surrender the Pakistan army went out of its way to target those deemed to be members of intelligentsia — teachers, lawyers, doctors and so on. The idea, presumably, was to deny the new nation that was by then inevitable a healthy start in life.

If so, it worked, albeit in combination with other factors, not least the common interest that the established Awami League leadership and New Delhi had in blunting the influence of the radical forces that had inevitably been strengthened by the war of liberation. The League, which had swept the 1970 elections in what was then East Pakistan on a nationalist platform, had never been a particularly progressive organisation, and after 1971, elements in its leadership were attracted by the prospect of a monopoly of power. The Congress government in New Delhi, meanwhile, was obviously delighted by the electoral benefits that flowed from its confrontation with Pakistan, but had little interest in allowing the cross-fertilisation of radical currents in East and West Bengal: the latter terrain was already dominated by the Communist parties, while in neighbouring Bihar the status quo was under threat from the Naxalite movement.

This explains, in part, why the birth pangs of Bangladesh, incorporating as they did a violent break with the past, did not exactly culminate in a social revolution. Administrative skills weren’t the League hierarchy’s forte, and the emergence of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s autocratic tendencies coincided with a growth in corruption and nepotism. On top of all that, Bangladesh inherited an army that, notwithstanding its role in the liberation struggle, was schooled in the same mentality as Pakistan’s generals.

Thus it was that Mujib’s tenure at the helm ended in a military-sponsored bloodbath almost two years before his old sparring partner, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was overthrown. And thus it was that Bangladesh comfortably pipped Pakistan to the post in the race to ensconce a military dictator called General Zia. Violent deaths ultimately awaited both of them, and although Zia-ul-Haq emerged as a winner in the longevity stakes, Ziaur Rahman, who was assassinated in 1981, has left behind a more tangible political legacy in the shape of the BNP, led by his widow, who has served two terms as prime minister.

Bangladesh’s experience differs from that of Pakistan in that its Zia era was followed with barely any breathing space by another phase of military rule, and in many ways it is Hossain Mohammed Ershad who offers closer parallels with Zia-ul-Haq, not least because he went out of his way to emulate the Pakistani tyrant. He cavorted with Islamic fundamentalists, formally ending Bangladesh’s status as a secular state, and even opted for a referendum along the lines dictated by Zia in Pakistan. Unlike the latter, however, Ershad was felled by a popular uprising and subsequently served a long stretch in prison.

That struggle for a democratic alternative was about the last instance of cooperation between Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, and the BNP’s Khaleda Zia, who triumphed in the first phase of their tussle by becoming the second woman — after Benazir Bhutto — to be elected prime minister of a Muslim state. Thereafter the two of them were at each other’s throats: if Sheikh Hasina was a singularly negative opposition leader, Khaleda Zia returned the compliment during the Awami League’s turn at the helm, and the impasse — involving hartals and a more or less constant boycott of parliamentary proceedings by the opposition — persisted after the BNP had regained the upper hand. The latest crisis was fuelled in large part by the League’s refusal to accept the caretaker set-up bequeathed by the outgoing Khaleda Zia administration because it was deemed to be partial to the BNP, and it was Sheikh Hasina’s threatened boycott of the January 22 elections that accounted in large part for the less democratic alternative that is currently in place.

It remains to be seen whether the new dispensation will prompt a further bout of opportunistic collaboration between Bangladesh’s leading ladies, along the not particularly convincing lines demonstrated by Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. But even if one of them should go out of her way to court the army and the other powers-that-be, the strategy wouldn’t be at odds with the Pakistani experience. Khaleda Zia and at least one of her sons have been confronted with corruption charges, while Sheikh Hasina faces a murder rap, but in neither case should the legal complications necessarily be viewed as an insurmountable obstacle to a central political role in the future.

There is, meanwhile, a certain amount of irony in the fact that the alliance headed by the League includes Ershad’s Jatiyo Party and the Islamist Zaker Party, while the BNP’s allies include the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote. The irony is compounded by the fact that to a substantial extent the rivalry between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia is based on conflicting claims to pre-eminence in the liberation struggle, with the latter insisting that her husband played a more crucial role in the creation of Bangladesh than Sheikh Mujib — a pretence complicated by the BNP’s alliance with elements that violently opposed the idea of separation from Pakistan. But then, it’s worth remembering that in an earlier incarnation, the Jamaat-i-Islami of Maulana Maudoodi also opposed the creation of Pakistan, yet was able to insinuate itself into the nation’s body politic and eventually pose, when the opportunity arose courtesy of General Zia, as the guardian of the nation’s ideology — a thoroughly bastardised version, inevitably, of what the thoroughly secular Mohammed Ali Jinnah had in mind.

bangladesh-4-may07Bangladesh’s distress on account of fundamentalism might not be as profound as Pakistan’s, not least on account of a more widespread Sufi tradition and a less narrow-minded culture, mindful of its Hindu heritage and proudly willing, by and large, to acknowledge the literary pre-eminence of Rabindranath Tagore alongside that of Kazi Nazrul Islam. Yet in the past decade or so, Islamist terror has reared its ugly head, not least as a consequence of the BNP’s soft-pedalling to fringe groups, such as the Jagrata Muslim Janata and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, and there is a risk that the present vacuum could create a fertile environment for confessional militancy, not least in view of the prevailing international conditions.

After winning the Nobel Peace Prize last year, the Grameen Bank’s founder, Mohammad Yunus, has been toying with the idea of a political career. He undoubtedly deserves credit (not necessarily of the micro variety) for his role in empowering rural women (needless to say he didn’t have Khaleda Zia or Sheikh Hasina in mind) within the capitalist context, but many of his admirers were appalled by the prospect of their hero dipping his hands in the murky waters of party politics. It was rumoured earlier this year that the army may be interested in ensconcing him as an interim chief executive, but, if so, either it changed its mind, or Yunus expressed an unwillingness to play ball.

Where Bangladesh will go next remains an open question, much as it does in the case of Pakistan. In both cases, the venality of the established parties has, time and again, enabled the army to claim a dominant political role. The consequences of every such experiment have thus far proved uniformly disastrous. Yet in neither country have the leading players been willing to heed the lessons of the past. In the case of Bangladesh, the tragedy is compounded by the fact that, despite a historical opportunity for a decisive break with the past, it appears to have opted for a parallel continuity.

Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.