Hollowness of West’s ‘democratic debate’ in Bangladesh Election
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/StoneBuddha Representational image

Hollowness of West’s ‘democratic debate’ in Bangladesh

Bangladesh Live News | @banglalivenews | 02 Jan 2024, 05:16 pm

Bangladesh is heading for the general election in January, with 29 parties in the fray.

All top parties are contesting the election except the ruling Awami League’s archrival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). The latter decided against contesting the election without the provision of the poll-time caretaker government.

The provision was struck down by a seven-member bench of the country’s Supreme Court in May 2011 and was ratified by the Parliament in the 15th Constitutional Amendments in July 2011.

Does that make the Shiekh Hasina government in Bangladesh any less democratic, as some would prefer to believe? Well, it depends on which side of the law you are in and, what is your definition of democracy.

If you think terrorizing people in the name of religion to assume power or retain it, is ‘democracy’ then thumbs up for the critics. But, if you trust the core principles based on which Bangladesh was created and the liberty of the institutions, then the story would be different.

In 2014, BNP boycotted the election demanding the caretaker government and the removal of the ban on its coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami from participating in electoral politics.

In 2013, the Supreme Court asked the Election Commission to delist Jamaat for giving precedence to Sharia Law over the 2011 constitutional amendment that reinstated “secularism” as one of the four fundamental pillars of the nation.

Muslim-majority Bangladesh is the only country in the subcontinent that had adopted “secularism” as a guiding principle, during the adoption of the Constitution in November 1972.

The state denied giving precedence to any religion. Such principles suffered serious damage at the hands of the opportunist military rulers between 1975 and 1990.

“Secularism” was dropped from the preamble of the Constitution and, Islam was adopted as the ‘state religion.’ Army rulers weaponized religion and were behind the rise of both BNP and Jamaat.

BNP was founded by General Ziaur Rahman. His widow Khaleda Zia and son Tarique Rahman now run the party.

File photo/CollectedFile photo/Collected

Jamaat sided with Pakistan during the Liberation War in 1971 and was accused of killing and raping millions. After the Liberation in December 1971, they fled to Pakistan to avoid punishment.

Ziaur Rahman brought them back and created ground for Jamaat to spread religious fanaticism. His successor General H M Ershad pursued such policies to the last detail and ruled the country for seven years between 1983 and 1990.

Notwithstanding the state support, Jamaat’s brand of Islam never gained much traction in Bangladesh which had a rich legacy of Sufism.

The Sufi spiritual leader, Lalan Shah aka Lalan Fakir was revered by both Hindus and Muslims in British India (of which Bangladesh was a part). Lalansongs, filled with philosophy and mysticism, are among the greatest treasures of Bengali culture irrespective of religion.

It was, therefore, natural for Bengali Muslims of Bangladesh to reject Jamaat’s aggressive Islamic thoughts.

As a counter-strategy, Jamaat piggybacked BNP to capture power through the backdoor. For the army-bred BNP, which was short on popularity when compared to the Awami League, it was a marriage of convenience.

BNP and Jamaat became allies after the return of electoral democracy in 1991.

So far BNP-Jamaat coalition won two elections in 1991 and 2001. Both the terms were known for unbridled terror and violence.

Jamaat brought 5-6% votes to the coalition. The control over the administration was used for spreading the terror network which was used in radicalising the society, ensuring support for the BNP and, neutralising secular forces.

Bangladesh-based terrorist organisations - like HuJI-B, and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) - operated at the instruction and financial support of Jamaat.

HuJI-B launched the deadly grenade attack on then Opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina in 2004. They also played a key role in the 2001 bomb blasts.

File photo/CollectedFile photo/Collected

JMB was responsible for bombings in 2005 and, targeted attacks on intellectuals, government officials, judges etc. Additionally, Jamaat tried to export unrest to India.

A consignment of 10 truckloads of arms headed from Bangladesh to Northeast India was intercepted in 2004.

After coming to power in 2008, the Shiekh Hasina-led Awami government started acting against the further radicalisation of the society. The 2011 amendment returned the constitution to its original form except for the religious part.

Islam’s status as a ‘state religion’ was retained as a compromise to the legacy of the army rule. But Jamaat did not fall in line. Their party constitution promised to implement Sharia laws. Supreme Court found that unconstitutional and banned them from electoral politics.

BNP fought the 2018 election without Jamaat and fell flat on its face. They stayed out of the race for 2024 again under the pretext of the caretaker government.

The precedence for the caretaker government came in 1996 through a constitutional amendment, which was declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2011.

More importantly, the provision created an opportunity for the Bangladeshi army to capture power through the backdoor.

The last such caretaker government enjoyed unaccounted power for two long years between 2006 and 2008.

In the end, therefore, it is all about how you look at it. If you remember the emotion behind the civil war, the promise to create a secular, democratic nation which will value the aspirations of the common people; then Prime Minister Hasina is fighting to protect democracy.