By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th Mar 13
It is hardly surprising that Begum Khaleda Zia, the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), cancelled her scheduled Monday meeting with visiting Indian president Pranab Mukherjee. The reason she offered the Indian foreign ministry --- viz. the two-day hartal called by her alliance partner, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) to protest the death sentence handed down to top JeI leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, for war crimes in 1971 --- was true enough. Except that Khaleda Zia’s real motivation was not the difficulty of moving around in a hartal, as she claimed, but the need to publicly indicate that, while Sheikh Hasina and her Awaami League had sold out to India, the BNP (and the JeI) remain true Bangladeshi patriots.
Khaleda Zia has an unenviable balancing act to perform. On the one hand, there is an outpouring of public sentiment against the JeI, which stands discredited amongst large sections of the Bangladeshi people because of its role in supporting the Pakistan Army in the commission of war crimes in 1971. From March to December 1971, when a genocidal Pakistan Army killed three million Bangladeshi fighters, activists, students and academics and raped 2,00,000 women (Bangladeshi figures), so-called Razakars of the JeI --- who identified more with the Pakistani wing of the Jamaat than with their own Bengali identity --- played a major role in supporting the Pakistan Army’s brutal crackdown. Few in Bangladesh buy the JeI story that it committed no atrocities.
Lakhs of common Bangladeshis, mobilized through various means including social media, have converged on Shahbagh Projonmo Chottor, a Dhaka locality that many tout now as Bangladesh’s Tahrir Square. While their immediate demand is that the guilty of 1971 must be punished suitably (and many want the death sentence) the crowds also want that the JeI be banned along with its student wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir (ICS). These crowds are driven by a surging nationalism that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has unleashed and tapped into, and which Khaleda Zia finds herself on the wrong side of.
Begum Zia, however, is driven both by ideology and by electoral arithmetic. Her late husband, General Zia-ur-Rehman, who seized power in a military coup and was president of Bangladesh from 1977 till his assassination in 1981, introduced an Islamic character into the constitution of the country. The BNP, which Khaleda Zia has led since his death, is the inheritor of that conservatism. Besides this link, the BNP’s relationship with the JeI is also driven by the latter’s political standing. With about 8-9% of the popular vote in Bangladesh, the JeI remains the most influential of the Islamist parties, particularly in the Chittagong region.
Initially, the BNP believed that it had to support the broad political consensus that war crimes trials were essential. But later, the BNP came out in support of its alliance partner, the JeI, with the argument that the process has not been legally valid and transparent.
Most BNP supporters realize the political pitfalls in this position, which is at sharp variance with the popular consensus in favour of war crimes trials. And they realize that they have been comprehensively outmaneuvered by Sheikh Hasina, who has made a daringly successful play for the political soul of Bangladesh, which she realizes rests on the foundation of Bengali ethnicity and Bangladeshi nationalism, at least as much as it does on Islam.
On June 30, 2011, Sheikh Hasina enacted the Constitution (15th Amendment) Bill, which provides for secularism and freedom of religion. The 15th Amendment is a move back towards the original Constitution of 1972, even while compromising on some of the Islamization that President Zia-ur-Rahman inserted via the Fifth Amendment. Even as Sheikh Mujibur Rehman has now been given prominence in the constitution, Islam has been retained as the state religion and 'Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim' remains in the preamble.
Khaleda Zia and the BNP realize that time is running out, with Bangladesh due for general elections at the end of this year or early next year. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League is on a strong wicket, riding the popular nationalistic mood and presiding over an economy that is growing at 6%. The 15th Amendment also eliminates any BNP hopes that a friendly “caretaker government” might rig the elections in her favour. The 15th Amendment abolishes the practice of caretaker governments, which had been in vogue since 1996. Sheikh Hasina insists that Bangladesh’s Election Commission is competent to ensure an impartial vote.
All this is good news since Sheikh Hasina has initiated a serious attempt to mend fences between Dhaka and Delhi, cracking down on insurgent sanctuaries, signing a border settlement, and opening up trade and transport links with India. But the weak link in the chain that binds the two neighbours remains New Delhi’s historically poor relations with Khaleda Zia and the BNP. South Block has been making efforts to befriend the BNP chief and to dispel the impression of leaning towards the Awami League in Bangladesh. Khaleda Zia made a successful visit to New Delhi last October, which she termed a “new beginning”.
With developments in Bangladesh largely going India’s way, it would be counter-productive to make an issue of Khaleda Zia’s discourtesy to President Pranab Mukherjee. It will be difficult for the BNP to reverse Sheikh Hasina’s bold new initiatives, since a nationalistic new generation in Bangladesh is clearly throwing out the old baggage of negativism. Bangladesh’s business community, which is keen to expand economic links, has been buoyed by India’s decision in December to prune down the negative list to just 25 items. New Delhi must move quickly to enact the constitutional amendment that will be necessary to operationalize the historic border settlement that Sheikh Hasina and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have signed. And, with Trinamool Congress leader Mukul Roy having been permitted to travel to Dhaka with the president, perhaps West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee might even agree to sign the settlement on the Teesta River waters that Dhaka so badly wants.