As Bangladeshi politicians squabble their way to another act in the Battle of the Begums, one can hear echoes of Jogendra Nath Mondal’s historic letter of resignation in published excerpts from Surendra Kumar Sinha’s autobiography, A Broken Dream: Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy. The resemblance goes beyond Pakistan’s first law and labour minister and Bangladesh’s former chief justice both being Hindus. Their testaments indict the state and its high functionaries for lacking in democratic propriety or accountability.
Reflecting their despair, the veteran Kamal Hossain declared at a recent Chittagong election rally: “People are the owners of this state and the government is nothing but a servant of the people. (But) they have taken it for granted that state power is their ancestral property. They are considering themselves as owners of the country. That’s why they are clinging to power. People can make the impossible possible if they are united.” As a young barrister in 1971, Dr Hossain was Bangladesh’s first foreign minister. Falling out later with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, he now leads the Opposition’s Jatiya Oikya Front (JOF), which includes the Bangladesh Nationalist Party led by the imprisoned Begum Khaleda Zia, widow of Zia-ur Rahman, the assassinated former President.
Dr Hossain’s stricture might apply to both the begums, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, as well as posthumously to Mujib himself, whose so-called Second Revolution in February 1975 outlawed all political parties and established the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) as a national political front comprising the Bangladesh Awami League, the Communist Party of Bangladesh, National Awami Party (Mozaffar) and the Jatiyo League. Established by presidential order, this one-party state was dissolved six months later when Mujib, his wife, sons and nephew were murdered on August 15, 1975.
The shortcomings of the Bangladeshi polity do not, however, concern India unless there are cross-border repercussions. Similarly, whether the ruling party is secular or communal in Indian terms is of little concern here if it doesn’t lead to a flood of refugees. Strategic and economic inter-dependence, even more than diplomatic propriety, oblige New Delhi to deal in the same spirit of wholehearted cooperation with whoever is elected in Bangladesh’s 11th general election in late December. India also needs stability in a sensitive region that adjoins both its own Northeast and Myanmar with its Rohingya crisis. Harmonious pre-poll arrangements, peaceful voting and the emergence of a broad-based government committed to growth that enjoys the confidence of a majority of Bangladeshis are the best guarantees of that.
Much seems to hinge on the Opposition’s demand for a non-party caretaker government to preside over the voting, which the constitution’s 15th amendment ruled out, although the Awami League’s Obaidul Quader says the Prime Minister has promised a free, fair and neutral election, the recent three-and-a-half hour meeting between Sheikh Hasina and a 20-member Opposition team led by Dr Hossain failed to break the stalemate.
Begum Zia must rue her decision to boycott the January 2014 election which enabled 153 Awami Leaguers to be elected unopposed to Bangladesh’s Parliament. Already serving a five-year sentence for embezzling funds from an orphanage, the ailing 73-year-old former Prime Minister suffered a major setback when she was handed a seven-year sentence in a second corruption case relating to a charitable trust. The Opposition’s seven-point charter includes her release (together with other political prisoners), an impartial government to hold the election, the Jatiyo Sangsad’s dissolution before the election schedule is announced, the government’s resignation, a ban on electronic voting machines, deployment of the Army with magisterial powers, and the reform of the Election Commission.
Sheikh Hasina is in no mood to yield. Haunted by the brutal killing of almost her entire family, she cannot forget that Begum Zia’s husband was not only the eventual beneficiary of that bloodbath but that he did nothing to punish the murderers. Moreover, his claim to have made the first independence announcement in 1971 seemed to steal her father’s thunder. The Jamaat-e-Islami collaborated with Pakistanis in 1971, supported Mujib’s assassination, and was hand in glove with the BNP.The Jamaat and important BNP office-bearers, including Begum Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, are also accused of a grenade attack on an Awami League rally that Sheikh Hasina was addressing on August 21, 2004. She survived the attack with only partial hearing loss, but 24 people were killed and 500 others left injured. While there is no question of another Baksal, the Jamaat’s de-registration as a political party and punitive action against BNP leaders suggest she might be trying to achieve the same end informally.
Mondal’s passionate 8,000-word 14-page letter of October 8, 1950 to Liaquat Ali Khan (then Prime Minister of Pakistan) emphasised that Hindus — whose horrendous sufferings he described in graphic detail —were not the only sufferers. Lamenting that East Bengal had been reduced to a colony, he added that local Muslims who “wanted bread … have by the mysterious working of the Islamic State and the Shariat got stone instead from the arid deserts of Sind and the Punjab”. Sinha, Bangladesh’s first Hindu chief justice, clashed with Sheikh Hasina over a high court verdict nullifying the 16th constitutional amendment allowing Parliament to impeach judges. When the ruling party appealed to the Supreme Court, an appellate division bench headed by Sinha unanimously rejected the appeal upholding the high court’s decision. He was sent on leave, and resigned from the United States, claiming to have done so “in the face of intimidation and threats to my family and friends by the country’s military intelligence agency”, which he accused of “exerting pressure on the judges for delivery of a judgment in favour of the government”.
All these grievances, old and new, are echoed in Bangladesh’s election rhetoric as the daughter and widow of slain leaders prepare for yet another round of yesterday’s battle.