February 24, 2020
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Rites Of Freedom

The Bangladesh polls are a litmus test for the country's maturity

Rites Of Freedom
October 1 will be Bangladesh's day of reckoning of sorts. For, not only will the day witness the nation renew its mandate, it will also probably mark the peak of a violent election campaign which has already killed scores, and maimed and injured hundreds.

Fanning this fear is the widespread perception that neither the Awami League of former prime minister Sheikh Hasina nor the four-party alliance led by Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (bnp) will accept defeat. Says leading economist Wahiduddin Mahmud: "That's where the biggest problem lies and I'm deeply concerned about what's going to happen after the election."

Such concerns aren't unusual. Allegations of rigging were levelled in the last two elections (1991 and 1996). But such claims were dismissed because of the impartial conduct of the caretaker administrations.

This can't be said of the current caretaker government (ctg) of former chief justice Latifur Rahman, who has been embroiled in controversies because of the way he effected the transfer of several government officials. The Awami League even accused the ctg of "acting brazenly to award victory to the bnp". Independent observers, however, say the administration had to be recast because the Awami League resorted to unprecedented appointments (of its own people) in key positions just before it handed over power to the ctg on July 15, ostensibly aimed at ensuring its victory in the election.

That, however, hasn't helped the ctg come clean. Its decisions too are suspect. For instance, the appointment of Shah Mohammad Farid as the principal secretary provoked strong reactions from the Awami League because his brother Shah Mohammad Faruk is a bnp candidate. Farid was subsequently shifted, but the fact that his appointment bypassed Syed Rezaul Hayat, considered most deserving for the post, made many wonder whether Rahman was deliberately sidelining pro-liberation forces. Hayat is a valiant and respected freedom fighter.

Similarly, Harun Habib, another freedom fighter, was removed from the government-run news agency Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha. What irked the Awami League even more was that Monarchal Anam succeeded Habib. Anam has been accused of supporting the Pakistani forces during the liberation war. Not only did the League brand Rahman pro-bnp, it also accused him of attempting to rehabilitate the anti-liberation forces. This charge gained credence at the abrupt removal of Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury—a freedom fighter and in no way connected to the electoral process—from the UN early September.

The controversy over the ctg's role indicates that the schism between the pro- and anti-liberation forces hasn't been bridged even three decades after the country's independence. "This is a sad reflection on our rotten politics," says Moazzem Hossain, editor of the Financial Express. "We should have laid that to rest a long time ago. Unfortunately, politicians still find it expedient to whip up public sentiment."

The Awami League, seen to have indulged in boundless corruption, doesn't have much to offer other than stoking their anxieties about anti-liberation forces coming to power. Although the bnp's founder, Gen Ziaur Rahman, did finally support the freedom struggle, it has been branded anti-liberation largely because of its decision to rehabilitate the Islamic parties post-Mujib. For instance, the Jamaat-e-Islami, which openly supported the Pakistani army in 1971, is an important electoral ally of the bnp.

But what's surprising is that the bnp in this election has desisted from its familiar strategy of attacking the Awami League as an Indian stooge. Begum Zia, in fact, even said that she was in favour of forging closer people-to-people ties between the two countries through more bus and train services.

Says Mahmud: "I think the bnp has realised that the anti-India slogan won't sell any more. Besides, they've to do business with India if they come to power." The Ganga Water Treaty, solving the insurgency problem in the Chittagong hill tracts and better trade relations and communication links between the two countries have largely diminished the earlier fears of India becoming a hegemon. "I believe this is a positive development," says Manilal Tripathi, the Indian high commissioner in Dhaka. "This is a sign of maturity in the growing relations between the two friendly neighbours."

Bangladesh's own maturity, though, will be severely tested once the election results are announced.

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