Sunday, March 29, 2015

Thoughts on the 44th Year of Bangladesh's Declaration of Independence - Can Bangladesh’s politicians learn to walk their talk?

On March 26 the Bangladeshi community in Philadelphia celebrated the Independence Day to commemorate the country's declaration of independence from Pakistan in the late hours of 25 March 1971 by the "Father of the Nation" Bongobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman before he was arrested by Pakistani forces.

It has been more than 43 years that Bangladesh has emerged as an independent state after a nine-month long bloody civil war (more popularly called the War of Liberation) when Pakistan military forces surrendered on December 16, 1971 to joint Bangladesh-Indian forces. Pakistan was dismembered and its eastern wing – East Pakistan – became Bangladesh and it soon became a member of the United Nations.

The country has a rich cultural and historical past, the product of the repeated influx of varied peoples, bringing with them the Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, Mongol-Mughal, Arab, Persian, Turkic, and European cultures. While the contact with Muslim traders began in the 7th century Islam started playing a crucial role in the region's history and politics since the 13th century with conquest of the territories by Ikhtiyar ad-Din Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji. In the 16th century, Bengal (today’s Bangladesh) was absorbed into the Mughal Empire. The territory was ultimately lost to the East India Company beginning in 1757 C.E. when the Nawab of Bengal lost in the Battle of Plassey. In 1859, the British Crown replaced the East India Company, extending British dominion from Bengal in the east to the Indus River in the west. 

The British colonial rule ended in 1947 when a Muslim-majority Pakistan with two wings – East Pakistan and West Pakistan – was established on August 14. Dismayed at disparity between the two wings, the Awami League, an East Pakistan based opposition political party, campaigned hard for regional autonomy since the early 1950s. Under its charismatic leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Awami League (AL) succeeded in uniting the East Pakistanis behind its Six-Point program in the national election of 1970. The military government of General Yahya Khan, however, refused to hand-over political power to the Awami League, and committed what can arguably be called genocide in 1971. 

No official records exist as to the tolls of the war. As is often the case, the history of Bangladesh came to be written by the victors and not the losers. And there were too many who lost – for being on the wrong side of history. They included the Urdu-speaking minority Muslims who had settled from outside when British India was partitioned. The losers included pro-Pakistan sympathizers – both activists and pacifists – many of whom were Bengali-speaking Muslims. 

Since gaining her independence, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in many sectors. But the country has been very unstable politically since its founder Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib was assassinated in August 15, 1975. Subsequently, four major leaders who had led the provisional government in exile during the Liberation War were also murdered by the same culprits that had killed Sheikh Mujib. The other important polarizing figure Ziaur Rahman - a freedom fighter who had subsequently become president of the country, and founded the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – also met a similar fate. He was killed in 1981 by members of the Army.

The country was ruled by a military-backed government until democratic elections were held in 1991. The BNP and AL have alternately held power since then, with the exception of a military-backed, emergency caretaker regime that suspended parliamentary elections planned for January 2007 in an effort to reform the political system and root out corruption. That government returned the country to fully democratic rule in December 2008 with the election of the AL

Since winning the election in 2008, AL has abandoned the so-called care-taker system of government during election times calling it unconstitutional or against prevalent practices in democratic countries around the globe. As expected in a highly polarized political atmosphere, the opposition parties have not accepted this new ruling, and refused to participate in the national election held last year. Not surprisingly, therefore, more than half of the MPs belonging to the AL-alliance got elected without any serious contender. The opposition alliance led by BNP has called the government of Sheikh Hasina illegitimate demanding fresh election. The Hasina government has also charged some of the political heavyweights from the opposition alliance, esp. the Jama’at, for their alleged involvement during the War of Liberation as collaborators for the Pakistan military regime or for committing war crimes. Many in the opposition see the war crimes tribunal as a farce and facade to eliminate opposition parties like the Jama’at and the BNP, and have protested violently, terrorizing the general population. They not only see the Hasina government as a puppet of India but also as being opposed to Islamic values.

Bangladeshi nation appears highly polarized or divided. The opposition parties have tried to paralyze the country via a series of hartals/bandh, often accompanied with mindless violence, disrupting the communication system within the country. Few hundred civilians have died in recent months as a result of political unrest since November of 2013. In spite of such off-and-on disturbances, the economy of Bangladesh has grown at an average of about six percent over the last two decades. The sole credit for the economic miracle goes to a new breed of Bangladeshi entrepreneurs and hardworking workers who refuse to be broken down by irresponsible acts of the political parties and their leaders.

Is Bangladesh doomed for failure? As Bangladesh steps into the 44th year of her declaration of independence, her people need to assess her health objectively and come up with prudent goals to make her a viable nation for the 21st century.

There is little doubt that the system of government in Bangladesh remains an illiberal democracy where opposition parties have very little voice for a participative and inclusive democracy. Only when a party is forced out of power, it complains about the lack of democracy and rights of opposition in the country. However, once in power, the same party suffers from - what I suppose is - selective amnesia and exemplifies a winner-take-it-all attitude which is anti-thesis of democracy. The ruling party or alliance forgets that for a sound democracy it requires a healthy dose of compromise much more than the itch to ruling through majoritarian views.

Simply put, the current political system in Bangladesh is unsustainable and needs an overhaul starting with bringing in democracy at the party level, which is missing for the major political parties whose leaders sadly have not learned how to walk their talk. But that is what they ought to do if they truly love Bangladesh and are sincere. It is never too late for anyone to learn. As Bangladesh entered her 44th year independence, it is high time that her political leaders take that first step. But will they?




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