Bangladesh Polls

A Nation Still Scarred By The 1971 War of Liberation

Parul Chandra Dhaka 27 December 2018

Amid the political jousting currently underway in Bangladesh, days away from the parliamentary polls slated for December 30, the Capital itself wears its usual, drab appearance. For a country headed for general elections, Dhaka wears a strangely indifferent look.

One reason perhaps is the Election Commission’s diktat prohibiting political parties from defacing walls or using posters in any colours other than black and white. But even these are few and far between. It’s Banganbandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who dominates the city, his face peering from Awami League hoardings and posters, even 43 years after the massacre that left him and most of his immediate family members dead.

In the urban jungle that is Dhaka, there’s little to relieve the monotony of endless concrete except for the ubiquitous rickshaws and cage-like bright blue auto rickshaws jostling for space with an ever-growing number of big cars — Mercs, Prados, Jaguars, BMWs and other high-end brands.

Some relief for Dhaka’s much-harried commuters is on the way though as a Metro rail network is under construction in a city notorious for its endless traffic snarls. Earlier this year, Indian company Larsen & Toubro bagged a contract for constructing a metro line for Dhaka Metro.

Dhaka’s diverse traffic itself mirrors the huge income disparities in a country that attained liberation from Pakistan in 1971 with Indian assistance. Indeed, the Muktijuddho (Liberation War) and Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) find frequent mention in the political discourse here, particularly in election season. Indeed, while this war brought Bangladesh liberation, it’s something that continues to drive a deep wedge in the country between the pro and anti-liberation forces.

The anti-India factor, exploited to the hilt by the Opposition parties in past elections, hasn’t figured in the poll discourse so far. The fact that some of the bilateral issues have been satisfactorily addressed and some of Bangladesh’s concerns assuaged has contributed to the absence of an anti-India rhetoric this time around.

The two main parties in the fray — the pro-India Awami League and the pro-Pak Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — are not just bitter political rivals but also find themselves pitted against each other on either side of the pro and anti-liberation divide. While Awami League founder Bangabandhu led the liberation movement, the BNP is aligned with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) which did not favour separation from Pakistan.

“There are layers within layers,” is how a keen observer of the political scene here described the political scene in Bangladesh.

Amid the poll clamour here, there are the stories of families who lost their loved ones to the 1971 “war criminals” — many have been convicted and thereafter executed after a trial before the war crimes tribunals set up during Sheikh Hasina’s decade-long regime.

An eye surgeon who lost her father, also a doctor, in the War of Liberation at the age of just two asks why “war criminals” have been fielded by the BNP. The Awami League to complains that the BNP has fielded war criminals or their relatives as candidates. The BNP maintains it’s being unfairly targeted, its leaders and workers arrested on false charges. The constant refrain among those who do not support the ruling party voice their worries on whether the elections will be “free and fair”.

The Awami League, apart from invoking the spirit of Banganbandhu, is hoping that the development work done by the Sheikh Hasina government and her personal popularity will help it buck the trend of anti-incumbency.

A retired college professor describes her as “bold” for the government’s decision to go ahead with the construction of a bridge on the Padma river on its own after it was denied a loan by the World Bank.

Earlier this year, Bangladesh for the first time managed to meet the eligibility criteria to eventually graduate from the least developed category (LDC) to a developing one in the coming years. But the road ahead will not be an easy one for a country that is the largest among those in the LDC category, both in terms of its population and the size of the economy. Bangladesh will need to continue to work hard to make the final transition to a developing country by 2024.

The Awami League also finds itself being faced with charges of corruption with many of its ministers being accused of reaping the benefits of being in power. “There’s a lot of progress but a lot of corruption too,” remarked a journalist.

While one hears little mention of the incarcerated BNP leader Khaleda Zia in drawing room conversations except to say how she’s been allowed a maid inside the prison, there is frequent mention of her son Tarique Rahman who’s in exile in far away from London. He is unable to return as he too faces a prison term in Bangladesh following his conviction in an assassination attempt against Sheikh Hasina in 2004. But he’s busy running the party, and even its election campaign, by remote control from distant shores.

It has been reported widely in the local press how he selected candidates for the Jatiya Sangsad after interviewing them via Skype. A senior BNP leader, busy attending phone calls in his posh home in an upmarket area of Dhaka, said among the callers was Tarique Rahman as he closely coordinates the campaign from London.

This BNP leader who has clearly rubbed shoulders with world leaders — he has walls covered with photographs with the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, among others — however, conceded that the party is “facing adverse conditions”. “Not only is our main campaigner (Khaleda Zia) in prison but even her son is in exile,” he stated.

He also claimed the government crackdown on BNP workers had seen as many as 7,000 cases against his party workers between mid-September to mid-December. Further, he accused the Sheikh Hasina government of “capturing the institutions of the police and the courts”.

The stakes are high for both the Awami League and the BNP, which has again joined hands with the banned Jamaat-e-Islami by giving its candidates nominations, for what will be the 11th parliamentary elections here.

The Jamaat, known for its cadres and its organisational skills, has the Awami League worried. It also has the liberals here worried as they voice their fears about the “growing religious conservatism” and the “shrinking of secular, progressive space in the country”.

While most here believe that democracy is here to stay–the country has seen intermittent military rule–growing inroads by radical elements remains a cause for concern.

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