Dialogue  October-December, 2008 , Volume 10 No. 2

Politics in A State of Emergency


Bibhu Ranjan Sarker*



For a country expecting a general election in four months’ time, Bangladesh is surprisingly quiet. The reasons are not too difficult to find, either. The country is under a state of emergency and the Election Commission (EC) is yet to announce the polls’ schedule. But the Chief Adviser, Bangladesh’s equivalent to a prime minister during the interim, caretaker administration, has already said that parliamentary elections will be held in the third week of December 2008. But the political parties do not seem to be satisfied with it, rather they seem to harbor doubts about the government’s intentions. Much of the skepticism emanates from the fact that the local government polls in October precede the general elections. Already polls have been held in nine municipalities and four city corporations, while election to the Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) is also expected in early October. In the 13 local bodies where elections were held on 4th August, this year, nominees from the Awami League-led 14-Parties’ Alliance won all but one of the mayoral seats.

    Bangladesh has a unique, some say strange, way of organizing national elections. The government resigns after its five-year tenure ends and hands over the reigns of governance to a caretaker government, who are then expected to hold national elections within 90 days after assuming of power. The system was originally devised to pass over power from an usurper to a duly elected government in 1990 but by this time has become a permanent feature of the political landscape.

     Initially there was little controversy about the new system and on the contrary hailed as great political innovation. But gradually it lost its

shine. By 2006 it became a proxy government of the immediate past



government. The president, who is a titular head in Bangladesh like most other parliamentary democracies who follow the Westminster model, offered to take over executive powers, as well. This led to further chaos and yet another caretaker government was installed on 12th January 2007. On the night before, the president, then also the Chief Adviser resigned from his executive position and declared a state of emergency. The next day a former governor of the central bank, Bangladesh Bank, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed was appointed chief of the caretaker administration. The new government was hailed by the Awami League and its allies but the immediate past elected government led by the Bangladesh nationalist Party, better known by its English acronym BNP, and its allies, were apprehensive. Soon after, on the 1st of February 2007, Fakhruddin spelled out his vision: the interim administration will run the country for two years and bring about fundamental ‘reforms’ in the polity, principally by eliminating corruption. The drive against corrupt politicians was to be the top priority. An independent anti-corruption commission (ACC) was formed and top politicians and businessmen with political links or affiliations were put behind bars. A full list of the accused would read like a ‘who’s who’ in Bangladesh. It included, among others, the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. Later, after 11 months of captivity, Sheikh Hasina, president of Awami League, was released on parole on 11th June 2008. She left for the United States, the next day, where her children live. The same offer was made to Mrs. Zia but she bargained for a lot more, including the release of her notorious son, Tareque Rahman. During the Four Parties’ Alliance government Tareque had been catapulted to the position of senior joint secretary general of the largest constituent in the Alliance — the BNP. He established base in a building called ‘Hawa Bhaban’ in the posh neighborhood of Gulshan. The Bhaban functioned as a parallel government, ‘a state within a state’ during the entire five-year period of the Four Parties’ Alliance government (2001-2006). He is believed to have siphoned off crores of Taka as he had a finger in every pie. Besides, his rude and abrasive behavior also shocked and alienated many. He was the ‘enfant terrible’ during his mother’s second stint as premier. With the current incumbents trying to forge an exit strategy, a kind of rapprochement with the political parties has become necessary. As the current dispensation had come to power overthrowing what many regarded as basically an extension of the Four-Parties’ government, the administration has no choice but to strike a deal with BNP’s adversaries: the Awami League and its allies. But then the details have to be fleshed out. It is a tight rope walk and everybody is treading cautiously: nobody wants to rock the boat, too much.

     Meanwhile, the Armed Forces, which helped establish the current

government on 1/11 (2007), as it is called here, still remains supportive of the administration. But there are fears, too. During the Four-Parties’ rule they had ‘over-politicized’ all sections of society including the Armed Forces. En masse terminations and promotions were the order of the day. And the number of such decisions were four, which means a senior assistant secretary became a full secretary within four years! A similar situation prevailed in the Armed Forces, too. Anybody suspected of not being loyal to the administration was immediately sacked. The current incumbents are trying to rectify the past misdeeds but so far large scale promotions and terminations have not been done. The caution is understandable: the government lacks adequate political clout. To add to its worries, people are holding the government to its promises. Fakhruddin in his maiden public speech had said that he will ensure integrity in public life and make Bangladesh a Knowledge-based nation. But after one-and-a-half year the administration is nowhere near its goal. Perhaps two years is not enough to achieve it but then the time frame was also set by them. Besides, and more importantly, the anti-graft campaign has not created any economic boom, which was expected. Rather, the economic activity rate has gone down.

     For much of its 36 years of independence, either the Sheikhs or the Zias have ruled the country. The 70s were theirs’ and so was the ’90s and it went on till 2006. The only difference is in gender. While the men of the two families dominated in the earlier period, the women of the families ruled the latter period. The ’80s were an exception when General Hussain Muhammad Ershad ruled the country and the two scions groomed themselves up through street agitation.

     To understand the political ascendancy of the two women one has to go back in time. During the Liberation War of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of Sheikh Hasina, led the nation-in-absentia. He had won the first general elections of Pakistan in 1970, but the Pakistan Army and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, whose party had won a majority of seats in parliament, from West Pakistan refused to hand over power to a Bengali. The political stalemate was broken by a military crackdown on 25th March 1971. The Bengalis reacted by launching a successful guerrilla war with the assistance of India, and prevailed upon the Pakistan Army in a short period of time (less than 9 months).On the night of the crackdown, Mujib was arrested and whisked away to a prison in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) in what was then West Pakistan. The Pakistan government charged him with treason but before the trial could be completed  Dhaka, the capital of then East Pakistan, had ‘fallen’. Following the defeat, Pakistan had a new government headed by Z. A. Bhutto, which decided to release the Sheikh.

    Returning to his motherland, Mujib, on the 10th of January 1972,  stepped down as president of the republic and became prime minister on 12th January 1972. By end 1972, the constitution was passed in parliament and Mujib called for an early election on 7th March 1973. By that time, opposition to Mujib’s rule had begun and was gaining momentum. A new political party- Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) had been formed, mostly with student cadres of Mujib’s party, the Awami League. In the ’73 elections, violence was rampant and opposition workers could not even stay in many of the polling booths. But Mujib was happy. But it did not last long. In the autumn of 1974 things spun out of control as guerrilla squads roamed the country side and took over many police stations. A member of parliament (MP) was gunned down while attending a Eid congregation, in western Bangladesh. To add to the woes of the country a famine broke out and the government was slow in responding to the crisis. On December 25, 1974 to forestall the anti-government snowball from gaining further frost Mujib declared a state of emergency. A month later, on 25th January 1975, parliament passed the infamous fourth amendment to the constitution, which was essentially a legal prop for a one-party- state that had increasingly caught the imagination of many, including the prime minister. Through the fourth amendment the prime minister’s office was weakened and an executive presidency came into being. Mujib, once again changed gears, and became president-for-life. A few months later, on 15th August 1975 Mujib and his entire family, were wiped out in a coup de tat. The new government that came into being was headed by Khandaker Mushtaque Ahmed,a long-time colleague of Mujib and the water and commerce minister in Mujib’s cabinet.

       A couple of months later on 3rd November 1975, the Chief of General Staff (CGS) of the Bangladesh Army, Khaled Musharraf, staged a short-lived counter coup. A few days later on 7th November (1975) soldiers mutinied and killed Khaled and his close associates.

     From the rubble emerged Zia. He adopted everything that was not Mujib’s. Over the next few years he consolidated his position and launched his own political party—the BNP that adopted religion (Islam) and thinly veiled communalism, as its ideology.

     Zia died on 31st May, 1981 following another mutiny in the Army in the port-city of Chittagong. The insurgents failed to capture state power, this time, but succeeded in killing Zia. His lackluster vice-president, Justice Abdus Sattar, stepped into Zia’s shoes. But, that too, did not last very long.

     In March 1982 the Chief of Army Staff H.M. Ershad seized power in a bloodless coup. Playing on the mutual hatred of BNP and Awami League, he went on to rule the country for about nine years before the two major parties, BNP and Awami League, turned the table on him and Ershad had to quit.

     As the difference between the BNP and Awami League was almost unbridgeable a new concept of government, the caretaker system, came into being. The first elections under the new system was held on February 28, 1991, which the BNP won, courtesy, complacence of Awami League. The Awami League, headed by the Sheikh’s daughter, Hasina, felt that their rightful victory was ‘snatched,’ while BNP was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

    Hasina promised no respite to the newly elected government and continued to oppose the government, tooth and nail. To increase political clout Hasina roped in the Jatiya Party and Jamaat-I-Islam in a loose alliance and launched an anti-government agitation that ultimately led to institutionalization of the caretaker system.When Awami League won the elections in 1996 the BNP did the same thing as its predecessor. It called hartals, boycotted parliament and with the support of the two other parliamentary parties, Jatiya Party and Jamaat, formed the Four Parties’ Alliance. The new Alliance was not a loose networking but a genuine coalition. But when the leader of the second largest party in the Alliance, Jatiya Party’s H.M. Ershad was thrown into prison, he opted out of the anti-government Alliance. Together with the remnants of the Jatiya Party, the Four Parties’ won the elections of 2001. As soon as the new coalition won the elections, its cadres swooped on the minority Hindu population, as they were largely considered pro-Awami League. The mayhem lasted for quite some time but the administration had to give it up after the country was put on the list of potential “terrorist states” by the United States in January 2003. After one-term in the Opposition benches, Khaleda planned to root out her principal adversary, Awami League during her second term, as premier. ‘Awami League will not go to power in the next 40 years' Mrs Zia, then 60, announced publicly. And this was not mere rhetoric: she meant business.

      After the attack on the Hindus, came attacks on journalists, academics

and young leaders of the AL. And that was not the end of the road. Many more were to follow. Militant Muslim fundamentalists were patronized by the government to organize an insurgency in the country to establish Hudood (Shariah Law) law. Many top leaders of the BNP that included ministers and MPs openly backed the militancy, while others tried to cover it up. A number of AL leaders including former finance minister, Shah AMS Kibria, MP and Ahsanullah Master, MP were assassinated. Grenades were also thrown at a rally on 21st August 2004, where Sheikh Hasina was speaking. As the leader of the opposition fled the scene, police opened tear gas and some people opened fire. At least 23 people were killed and over 200 injured, in the attack. Foreigners were not spared, either. Anwar Chowdhury, the Bangladesh-born British High Commissioner to Bangladesh also came under (grenade) attack.

       As elections approached all eyes were on Ershad. His was the third largest party in parliament, commanding almost 8% of the popular vote and was increasingly considered as the ‘swing’ factor in Bangladesh politics. There were political compulsions for Ershad, too. He could ill-afford to join a losing coalition. If he joined the BNP-led coalition electoral victory was not ensured. But if he joined the AL-led coalition it was. Therefore, he took the least risky move by joining the AL-led 14-Parties’ Alliance and form the ‘mahajote’ or Grand Alliance. But BNP would have nothing of the sort and almost as soon as he announced his decision, he was promptly disqualified from the upcoming elections. In response, the Jatiya Party and then the entire AL-led coalition boycotted the polls, which were scheduled for 22nd January 2007.

    In terms of economic policy both AL and BNP follow the laissez-faire model, although in the immediate post-independent period the AL followed a socialist one. But the real difference is in political heritage and history. AL was born in 1949 with Moulana Abdul Khan Bhashani as its president and Hossain Shaheed Suhrawardy as its most prominent leader. Before forming the AL, Bhashani was the president of Assam Muslim League and the leader of the opposition in the Assam Legislative Assembly, while Hossain Shaheed Suhrawardy was the prime minister of undivided Bengal. But after Partition, they soon fell out with Jinnah. M. A. Jinnah preferred Khwaza Nazimuddin, the Nawab of Dhaka, as the leader of the Bengali Muslims. Another alienated prominent leader, who had moved the “Lahore Resolution" in 1940 for the creation of Pakistan, Sher-e-Bangla A K Fazlul Huq had fallen out with the central Muslim League leaders much earlier (in the 30s) and formed his own party, Krishak Praja ( Peasants’-Tenants’)

Party. These leaders backed all anti-government protests after 1947 which included the food riots of 1951 and the Language Movement of 1952. In 1954 when elections were held for the provincial assembly, the AL formed a coalition with Huq’s party and Maulana Atahar Ali’s Nizam-i-Islami.

     The Jukta Front (United Front) won the elections hands down. But elections were held only on a provincial level creating unstable governments at the center. When the AL formed a minority government in 1956 with Suhrawardy as prime minister, it announced a general election for January 1959. Pre-empting the rise of politicians through the elections, the Pakistan Army staged a coup de tat in October 1958, and through the infamous EBDO (East Bengal Defense Ordinance) barred most politicians from engaging in politics again. A few years later, in 1962, Suhrawardy died under mysterious circumstances in a Beirut hotel. The other prominent leader, Fazlul Huq, died soon after, from old-age complications. Meanwhile, the communist infiltrators in the AL had broken away and formed the National Awami Party (NAP) with Maulana Bhashani as its head. After the death of H.S. Suhrawardy, Sheikh Mujib quickly emerged as the main leader of AL. But Mujib changed the party strategy: whereas Suhrawardy followed a path of compromise with anybody and everybody Mujib, took a confrontational approach. His logic was simple: accommodation and appeasement with the Pakistanis do not work and ‘my leader’ (Suhrawardy)’s experience proves it. I will not follow the beaten track. Soon after the 1965 Indo-Pak War there was a sense of insecurity among the Bengalis of East Pakistan, Mujib exploited it fully and pronounced a 6-point autonomy plan that included a para-military force for East Pakistan and relocation of the Pakistan Navy headquarters to Chittagong — Bangladesh’s biggest port. Naturally, the Pakistanis would have nothing to do with it and accused Mujib of treason. He was put behind bars and very soon after he became the principal accused in the so-called ‘Agartala Conspiracy Case,’ Before the hearings could be completed Pakistan’s military ruler General Ayub Khan was overthrown in a mass movement. Mujib was released and the case was dropped.

     When General Yahya Khan took over from Ayub on 25th March 1969, Yahya promised elections in two years’ time. Mujib agreed but insisted on a one-man-one-vote which gave him a chance to gain an absolute majority in parliament. Mujib’s strategy worked and he emerged with an absolute majority (167 seats out of 300) in the Pakistan National Assembly. Yahya Khan, speaking on behalf of the establishment had tried to persuade Mujib to agree to a parity (50:50) system as envisaged in the 1956 constitution (which was abrogatd by Ayub in 1958). But Mujib refused and threatened a boycott of the polls if his demand was not met. Yahya climbed down, expecting that Mujib and his party would emerge as the single largest party unable to form a government without the support of others. But their calculations went wrong. Demographic changes (Before 1970 people were not allowed to vote if they were less than 21 but that was changed to 18) ensured an absolute majority for Mujib.

      In the country that he had created, Sheikh Mujib left a mixed legacy of patriotism, idealism, secularism and also of agitation, political intolerance and conflict. As the father of revolutions, Simon Boliver once said that revolutions devour its children. He should be knowing as he led five Latin American countries to freedom from Spanish rule. In Bangladesh, almost all the major political and military leaders of the 1971 Liberation War were killed in the ‘free’ country. People who had opposed the Liberation War have dominated the country’s politics for most of its existence. One of the first things that Zia did after seizing power was to allow communalism into politics. To make things worse, he included these elements into his Nationalist Front, the precursor of the BNP. Zia’s politics was a cocktail of communalism and liberal democracy. The latter because of the ‘second revolution’ that Mujib had started in 1975. As for Zia, he remoulded the Muslim League to make it relevant with the times. As a freedom fighter, he provided the perfect camoufalage to those who had opposed the creation of Bangladesh, rather ruthlessly. Like the rest of the sub-continent politics in this country revolves around secularism versus communalism. The AL claims to be secular, albeit increasingly in an apologetic manner and tries to rope in as many Islamists as it can within its fold, while BNP proudly but in an undertone parades as a genuine anti-Indian (read anti-Hindu) party. This kind of populist politics has paid the BNP handsomely, as its 16 years of rule very well prove. On the other hand, the current AL increasingly looks like the AL of yester years with Suhrawardy as its head.

   The appeasement policy followed by the Awami League vis-a-vis religious fundamentalism has shocked its core secular constituency that also includes the minorities. On its part, the AL says that they have no option in a Muslim-majority country.

     A number of factors are working for the rise of fundamentalism in the country. The fall of Communism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, globally, has led many to believe that the only genuine anti-Western force left, is Islam. The popularity of the ideology can be gauged by the proliferation of madrashas (religious schools). Almost 40% of schools in the country are madrashas and they cater to the needs of the poor and orphaned, who are then susceptible to religious propaganda. During Bangladesh’s Liberation War many of the collaborators of the Pakistan Army were from these institutions. Secular charity has so far lagged behind the religious ones and this has created a permanent base for communal politics. No government, including that of Awami League, dared touch them despite many allegations against them.

      Politics in this country has revolved around charismatic personalities and families and ideology has taken a back seat. Therefore there has been little investment in democratic institutions. The country has created many leaders but very few statesmen. On the contrary, whatever little was there fell victim to the personal whims and caprices of the Numero Unos. This has created a political vacuum that resulted in the extra-constitutional change of 11th January 2007. But the changemakers are also caught in a Catch 22 situation. If they try to make too many fundamental changes they will need a lot more time than currently allocated. Besides, they will be perceived, as yet another set of power-mongers. On the other hand, if they leave after two years much of the work will remain incomplete. For the time being it seems they will opt for the latter.



Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati