Any light at the end of the tunnel for Bangladesh’s Political Unrest?

by Rehman Sobhan

Sporadic and indiscriminate acts of violence costing innocent lives serve to neither intimidate the government nor bring the opposition closer to realising its political objectives


The mounting death toll and horrific burn injuries suffered by the victims of incendiary attacks during the recent oborodhs and hartals called by the BNP-led alliance have rightfully aroused concern and anger not just from within ruling party circles but around the country.

The great majority of the victims have been innocent non-combatants, compelled by their circumstances to use public transport. Women and children have been particularly affected because they are likely to be the last to be able to escape from a burning vehicle. Any strategy of political resistance which largely targets vulnerable civilians with no stake in the prevailing political confrontation is inhumane, immoral and politically counterproductive.

Such a strategy has stimulated public antagonism towards a party which might have invited some public sympathy because, thus far, they have been at the receiving end of government oppression. A political party which depends on actions which leave the various agents of their oppression largely unaffected and targets vulnerable non-combatants reflects a degree of political mindlessness as well as a measure of organisational weakness.

Within the prevailing circumstances of violence and threatened instability there is little point in playing the blame game. In our deeply divided political society there is no shortage of people on either side to put the worst possible construction on the actions and motives of their political adversaries.

From their rhetoric and some of their actions, it appears that the ruling party aspires to both politically and even physically crush the opposition rather than provide them any political space to function as an opposition. Such a view is shared by not just its political allies, but its intellectual fellow travellers who sound even more muscular than the politicians in their uncompromising demand for a more forcible response.

In contrast, the opposition demonstrates little prospect of being able to confront, let alone overthrow, its adversary. This sense of impotence has pushed the opposition into encouraging sporadic and indiscriminate acts of violence which is costing innocent lives but serves to neither intimidate the government nor bring the opposition closer to realising its political objectives.

It is not clear what the BNP hopes to gain from this exercise beyond creating conditions where extra-democratic forces, as on the occasion of 1/11, would feel pressurised to intervene. Since such an enterprise proved unfruitful in the build up to the January 2014 election it is not clear why this would yield a more positive result today.

Within such an unpromising environment can anyone hope to offer any constructive suggestions which can expect to be given any attention by the principal players on either side?

Such possibilities did once exist even in 1995/96 when a similar confrontation over the issue of holding free and fair elections aroused national concern. During 1995, as a member of the now-forgotten Group of 5, I was privileged to participate in a move initiated by a broad coalition of civil society organizations including the FBCCI and MCCI to mediate a political arrangement between the two leaders.

Four of the original G-5, Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed, Chief Justice Kamaluddin Hussain, Ambassador Fakhruddin Ahmed, and senior journalist Faiz Ahmed, have departed this world. I am the only survivor of that frustrated endeavour.

What progress was realised by the G-5 owed to the fact that both leaders were then not averse to some form of compromise. In contrast to contemporary experience, the G-5 was courteously received by the then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia as well as the leader of the opposition, Sheikh Hasina sitting with her party high command, who both gave us a series of patient and protracted hearings.

Our endeavours came close to success, but fell short on a single issue. Begum Khaleda Zia insisted that the head of the caretaker administration, made up of elected representatives from both parties, must be headed by a MP other than herself but from the BNP, which was the majority party.

Sheikh Hasina was adamant in her demand that the head should be a non-partisan person who could be specially elected to parliament for this purpose. Khaleda Zia claimed that her position was grounded in the need to uphold the constitution while Sheikh Hasina argued that the constitution could and should be amended to provide for elections supervised by a non-partisan caretaker government. Today, the two leaders appear to have exchanged seats and their arguments.

Attempts from civil society groups to emulate the efforts of the G-5 have been severely constrained by the awareness that the space between the protagonists has widened into a nearly unbridgeable chasm. The most recent endeavour by some eminent citizens to encourage a dialogue between the two leaders appears to have been rejected out of hand by the ruling party.

Instead, the citizen’s initiative which represents a commendable act of courage within the prevailing toxic environment, has so far provoked the vilest abuse not just from the more lumpen elements of the ruling alliance but even from some more mature members of the government who proclaim that there is no scope for a dialogue between “good” and “evil.”

Perhaps they are forgetful of Bangabandhu’s dialogue with Yahya in March 1971 or between Yasser Arafat and the Israeli prime minister or between Kissinger and Lee Duc Tho during the Vietnam War, or more recently between the US and the Afghan Taliban, convened secretly in the UAE.

Options for the BNP

In the light of the rising civilian death toll and escalating costs to the economy what can be done to arrest this downward spiral into the vortex of a deeper crisis? Let us explore the options available to the two protagonists.

For the last nine years, the BNP has been at the receiving end of state oppression. Under such a dispensation the political spaces available to the BNP have narrowed to a point where it cannot hold a public meeting in the capital city of Bangladesh, the freedom of movement of its leader is periodically constricted, and its senior leaders are regularly exposed to incarceration.

Such an environment severely limits the political opportunities of the opposition and remains contradictory both to the letter and spirit of democracy. The ostensible investment of magical power on the law enforcement agencies which enables them to make inconvenient opposition figures disappear if not from life then at least from public view, does little to establish that we live within the rule of law.

Within such a hostile political universe, the opposition have somehow managed to keep afloat. When given the opportunity to participate in a competitive electoral process they have managed to win a plurality of votes in some of the important municipalities of the country.

This awareness of their political capabilities, demonstrated within adverse conditions, should have encouraged the BNP to plan their political strategies with greater pragmatism. Sensibly their goal should have been to engage the ruling alliance in electoral contestation at all levels wherever they could.

Such contestations would have enabled them to reach out to people across the country as well as engage the attention of the international community whereby they could demonstrate their political strength and project their message.

Every opportunity offered to the opposition prior to the January election, including the offer of key portfolios within an election-time administration, headed by the prime minister, should have been seized.

There is no guarantee that the BNP would have emerged victorious in a national level election held under such a dispensation. However, given BNP’s own organisational limitations in frustrating the January elections, it would have been a risk worth taking.

Failure to avail of such an opportunity reflects the political misjudgment of the BNP, and particularly its dualistic leadership dispersed between Dhaka and London which has so far been compromising its political fortunes.

These miscalculations of the BNP appear to have been premised on an overestimation of their mobilisational and street fighting capacities while underestimating the willingness and capabilities of the government to face any challenge on the streets.

The latest manifestation of the BNP’s political vacuity, arising out of their dualised leadership, appears have been the fiasco over the attempt by the prime minister to condole with Khaleda Zia over the tragic and untimely passing of her son Arafat. To keep the prime minister of Bangladesh waiting before a locked gate reflected not only cultural insensitivity as well as bad manners, but projected the disarray among the BNP’s senior leadership who dithered behind closed doors while the party was exposed to public ridicule.

The current acts of street violence have persisted over six weeks, and have yielded a growing number of fatalities. However, there is so far little indication that such acts of terrorism can assume a scale which imperils the sustainability of the AL-led regime.

But neither is there any evidence that the law enforcement agencies can fully suppress the dispersed acts of violence and arson which are threatening the lives of innocent people across the country. As a result, pubic fears over the escalation of violence increase by the day as do their desperate cries for peace.

The persistence of the crisis may encourage more dangerous enemies of the state to use this ongoing conflagration to further their own more sinister objectives. Such interventions may not only perpetuate the crisis, but upscale its explosive intensity to a point where extra-democratic forces may feel compelled to step in. Neither our rulers, nor their civilian opposition can be sure where such interventions will end.

In such circumstances, with street violence serving little political purpose, the BNP will be well advised to temporarily suspend their movement as a gesture towards seeking a negotiated solution to the crisis. If the rulers remain unresponsive and the opposition feel compelled to resume their movement they should design more peaceable modes of mobilisation which can invoke the sympathy if not the support of the public.

Options for the AL

It is not clear how far a peace-seeking gesture from the opposition will invite a correspondently conciliatory response from the regime or whether it will merely be perceived as a measure of their fading street challenge. So far, the ruling alliance has projected the belief that they are faced exclusively with a law and order problem where the violence will soon be brought under control and the opposition will be immobilised.

Such a perspective appears to have diverted the regime’s attention from addressing the political origins of the current crisis which date back to the January 5, 2014 election. Over the last year, the regime has gradually distanced itself from their pre-election commitment to the voters that they would organise a more participative mid-term election to compensate for the limitations of the January elections which had to be held under “constitutional” compulsions.

The AL-led forces are fully aware of the flawed character of the mandate provided to the ruling alliance by the election to the 10th Sangshad where, through political overkill, 153 out of 300 seats remained uncontested.

As a result, more than 50% of the members of the 10th Jatiya Sangshad and most of the cabinet now sit in parliament without a single vote having been cast in their favour. If, indeed, we accept the contested figures put out by the Election Commission that 40% of the electorate cast their votes in the remaining 147 constituencies then, in effect, the electoral mandate of the present parliament rests on the votes of only 18% of the electorate in contrast to the 84% of votes cast in the 2008 election for the ninth Sangshad.

Exercising state power for over a year without a politically credible electoral mandate is an unusual experience for the AL, a 65-year-old party which has historically been at the vanguard of all political struggles for democracy, first in Pakistan and since 1971, in Bangladesh.

The attempt to suppress this struggle for democracy culminated in the bloody war of national liberation under the inspirational leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. During these struggles, Bangabandhu and the AL activists were condemned by sundry autocrats as subversives, miscreants, terrorists and traitors.

Ayub Khan threatened to use the language of weapons to suppress the six-point movement. Yahya Khan did use weapons to inflict genocide on the people of Bangladesh. Both Zia and Ershad, even Khaleda Zia when in power, used similar aggressive language and resorted to acts of state oppression against AL mobilisations led by Sheikh Hasina.

The AL should, thus, have learnt from their own history about the futility of weapons as an instrument for resolving a crisis originating in a political problem.

Today the ruling alliance may take refuge in the legality of their mandate and draw attention to the folly of the BNP leadership in not participating in the January 2014 elections. We have already articulated the futility of the BNP’s decision, but this remains without prejudice to pointing to the effective disenfranchisement of 82% of the electorate in the January 2014 elections which compromised the historic traditions of the AL as the vanguard party of democracy.

The notion that they should ever hold state power without a clearly won electoral mandate remains alien to their history and an insult to the memory of their great leaders along with the untold number of workers who sacrificed their lives for the perpetuation of the democratic process.

At the end of the day challenges to a regime without a freely given mandate from the majority of the electorate cannot be indefinitely suppressed by resort to state power and the periodic incarceration of opposition leaders and workers.

If a regime invests its entire tenure engaged in such repressive rule it will not only change the political character of such a regime but will compel it to perpetuate itself without exposure to the risk of further free and fair elections.

Were the Awami League to place itself on this slippery downhill slope which moves it away from its political inheritance, then democracy itself may stand in peril as regime survival becomes increasingly dependent on the powers of repression of the law enforcement agencies.

Such dependence has traditionally empowered such forces.The very political forces which, throughout our history, challenged the extra-democratic authority of such coercive forces could end up as their hostage.

The end result of such a process could be the return to extra-democratic rule with the principal challenges to such a rule now devolving on other extra-democratic forces with a capacity to both withstand and inflict violence.

It is important for the present regime, headed by Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of the Father of the Nation, to re-establish its democratic mandate not only for the survival of democracy in Bangladesh, but to also create conditions for the realisation of her futuristic vision to transform Bangladesh.

As it stands, her agenda for change, din bodol, is eminently realisable given some of the prevailing objective conditions such as a resilient peasantry, a hard working labouring class, a class of dynamic entrepreneurs, our adventurous overseas migrants and the expanding role of women in the economy.

As a result, the country has already made progress in improving the conditions of life of its people through reduction in levels of poverty and improvements in the areas of human development. In the face of a global slowdown over the last six years the growth rate in our GDP and external earnings has also been encouraging.

The prime minister’s bold decision to bring to justice those who collaborated in the genocide of 1971 has earned her further public acclaim. In such circumstances, she should invest her accumulated political capital and demonstrable leadership qualities more productively in prioritising the implementation of her agenda for change.

This demands a more peaceable, stable and predictable political environmentwhich extracts the nation from the dark tunnel of violence where they are entrapped and once again renews the promise of a future without tension.

Any move to restore predictability to the lives of the people has to move forward through the political process rather than dependence on street violence or the coercive powers of the state. The end result must be a political settlement which recreates a more inclusive political order, underwritten by a fairly acquired democratic mandate for the present regime. How precisely such a political settlement can be realised can only emerge through a negotiating process, premised on an understanding that democratic politics is built on the basis of compromise rather than one side achieving all is goals through deployment of superior force.

A role for civil society?

The above discussion is an exercise in optimism premised on the belief that the two parties recognise that their own best interests may also coincide with the national interest. It is, regrettably, far from clear that the political players engaged in a zero sum game are at all inclined to end this confrontation through a negotiated settlement.

Since the uppermost issue in the public mind is the ongoing street violence, the BNP will need to take the first step forward by suspending its agitation and disowning the arsonists. There is no indication that the BNP leaders are ready to do so as yet since the ruling alliance, egged on by the more aggressive elements in their entourage, appear to believe that they can deliver a knock-out blow to the BNP. The belief that a decisive victory in this unending political conflict is possible, in spite of much evidence to the contrary, leaves the nation entrapped in a tunnel with no light visible at its end.

Within this impasse is there any role for civil society, divided as they are on partisan lines? Those who believe that they are non-partisan are abused for their presumption and charged with the accusation popularised by George W Bush in the wake of 9/11 that “those who are not with me must be against me.” Recent initiatives from civil society may have little future in the absence of any response from the two leaders on the lines offered to the G-5 in 1995. This does not imply that nothing should be done since the proliferating cries from citizens for someone to do something to alleviate their suffering grows louder.

If the Dhaka-based initiatives by civil society are to have any impact these efforts would need to be replicated by similar citizen groups across the country who can publicly voice their anxieties and demands for a settlement. If such initiatives can proliferate they may have a catalytic impact in persuading the political alliances to arrive at a more peaceable agreement. Such a possibility, however, remains speculative.

To have a more sustainable impact on the political scene civil society groups will need more than just a thick skin to withstand abuse. It will also demand an open-ended investment in time and energy as well as exposure to risk. This may prove to be a far more challenging task for the part-time, low key, activists who today constitute Bangladesh’s civil society.

Source: Dhaka Tribune


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