Activists in candlelit vigil at Dhaka’s Shahbagh to protest attack on publishers allegedly by religious zealots. © bdnews24.com/Md. Asaduzzaman Pramanik
Three coups d’etat, two military regimes, 18 abortive coups, a series of assassinations, 15 amendments to the constitution, changes in the political system — these are some of the images which emerge in any study of the evolution of Bangladesh’s political history since its emergence as a sovereign nation-state in 1971. Obviously, it is not a pretty picture, given the long struggle of Bengalis, both in the pre- and post-1971 periods, for democracy to underpin the state. Bengalis, traditionally known for their attachment to poetry and politics, have somehow stumbled, or been compelled to stumble, in their consistent march towards attaining a government that would embody their desire for self-expression.
And yet it would not be quite proper to suggest that politics in Bangladesh has always been one of thwarted hopes. The very fact that the people of the country, a whopping 160 million (up from the 75 million at the time of the armed struggle against Pakistan in 1971) have refused to be content with the status quo and have therefore endlessly been engaged in a campaign for democracy is a reality which cannot be pushed aside. The struggle for democracy commenced anew in a moment of supreme irony. And the irony was nowhere more manifest than in the move by the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the nation’s founding father, to steer the country away from multi-party democracy to one-party government in early 1975. The preceding three years, characterised as they were by the adoption of a constitution envisaging a parliamentary form of government based on the four core national principles of democracy, secularism, socialism and nationalism, had been a period of severe economic crises and, by extension, grave political instability. A war-ravaged economy, with a seriously damaged infrastructure, coupled with the need to come to terms with the casualties of the war (three million killed by the Pakistan army and tens of thousands of women raped, according to government estimates) was the challenge facing Mujib and his government.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, revered as Bangabandhu — friend of Bengal — by his people, was thus assailed by storms that threatened to upset his plans of turning Bangladesh into a Golden Ben-gal of legend. His dream of transforming the country into the Switzerland of the East, as he repeatedly put it, by early 1975 did not seem a plausible expectation, unless drastic measures were taken to arrest the slide. Those measures came in the form of the single-party system which he and his political associates called a Second Revolution. In the event, The Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) — and that was the change being brought about — was to last a mere few months. In mid-August, the government was overthrown in a violent coup led by junior level officers, serving as well as cashiered, of the country’s fledgling army. Mujib and most of his family members were murdered. In what was surely a bizarre turn of circumstances, Mujib’s long-time colleague and commerce minister Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed took over as the country’s new president. Barely three months later, in November 1975, four senior political leaders who had led the nation’s provisional government in the wartime struggle against Pakistan were assassinated in prison, where they had been lodged after the coup of 15 August 1975.
The tragic events of 1975 were but a precursor to darker, indeed sinister happenings in the country. A new military regime, having turfed out the junior coup makers in November, albeit after a fresh bout of assassinations, quickly made it clear that an indemnity ordinance set in place by the Moshtaq regime and which was aimed at preventing any trial of those who had assassinated Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, would stay in place. It was outrage in the extreme, and was certainly rendered scandalous when a good number of the assassin-majors and colonels were sent off to Bangladesh’s embassies abroad on diplomatic assignments by the military regime of Major General Ziaur Rahman. In effect, the Zia period was the beginning of a long period when Bangladesh’s history appeared to be turning on its head. A clear regression came into Bangladesh’s national politics when, through an exercise of martial law, General Zia had two of the original principles of the state, secularism and socialism, prised out of the constitution by authoritarian fiat and replaced with the concept of what was given out as social justice and, more tellingly, the Islamic belief in Allah. The secular Bengali state was suddenly being pushed into becoming a neo-communal dispensation.
Or one could suggest that a process of Islamisation as opposed to a secular concept of the state went underway in the mid-1970s, to be intensified on the watch of the country’s second military ruler Lt General Hussain Muhammad Ershad. The regime decreed Islam as the religion of the state. But that was not all. Ershad, whose coup in March 1982 sent the civilian government of President Abdus Sattar packing, moved to have the nation’s judiciary broken into separate segments. The judiciary hit back. The High Court remained in one piece. It would take the politicians, notably Sheikh Hasina (daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) and Khaleda Zia (widow of Ziaur Rahman), nine years to push General Ershad from power through a mass upsurge in 1990. General elections designed to take the country back to unfettered democracy were supervised by a caretaker administration led by the chief justice of the Supreme Court in February 1991. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by Khaleda Zia, won the vote and formed the government. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League was pushed into opposition.
For all the return to elected government in 1991, politics in the country has remained stymied by the increasingly widening chasm between the two political parties and especially on account of the frayed personal relations between their two leaders. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina have alternated as prime ministers (Hasina holds the office at present), but that has been no assurance of democracy digging deeper roots in the country. The BNP boycotted the last parliamentary election as a protest against the ruling Awami League’s refusal to agree to the polls being overseen by a neutral administration. For its part, the Awami League, which through the fifteenth amendment to the constitution did away with the provision for a caretaker government to take charge between elections, was dismissive of the BNP’s demand. The election saw as many as 153 lawmakers, of a total of 300 (excluding the reserved seats for women in parliament) elected unopposed, giving critics of the government ample reasons to question the legitimacy of the government. Sheikh Hasina, who had earlier given the country to understand that the January 2014 election was but a fulfillment of constitutional obligations and thereby hinted at a fresh round of voting at some point, now appears determined not to go for a new election before the term of the present parliament draws to an end in 2019.
The government’s political propensities apart, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has effectively taken steps to free the country of the questionable legacy it was put into over the twenty one years between the fall of the government of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the rise of her own administration through the election of June 1996. For one thing, her first government (1996-2001) repealed the indemnity ordinance, paving the way for a trial of the assassins of her father. Five of them were tried and executed. Five others, handed down capital punishment, remain fugitive, with at least a couple of them holed up in the United States and Canada. For another, the Awami League, having committed itself to ensuring a trial of the war criminals of 1971 — right wing political elements who, as part of the extremist Jamaat-e-Islami, collaborated with the Pakistan army in the genocide of Bengalis — initiated the process of justice through putting in place the relevant laws relating to the trials. The government oversaw the setting up of war crimes tribunals, which have so far sent five of the war criminals to death, despite protests from such bodies as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Among those walking the gallows was a senior BNP figure who had served Khaleda Zia as her advisor on parliamentary affairs.
Forty five years after 1971, democratic politics remains a tentative affair. Even so, the popular yearning for good governance, the acknowledgment by the politicians that substantive change is called for, the emphasis on civil liberties and rule of law by citizens and institutions across the board are all a guarantee that Bangladesh is out of the woods. Its economy remains steady; its diplomacy operates on firmer ground; its social fabric remains a work in progress.