Bangladesh polls : grapes of conquest, democracy and dissent

Shekhar Dutta

The year 2018 quietly slipped into posterity, leaving the embattled Indian politics in a state of deepening suspense and our closest neighbour, Bangladesh in a stunned silence marked by agony and ecstasy. A comfortable victory for prime minister Sheikh Hasina led 'Maha Gatbandhan' was the outgoing year's parting gift  but the scale of conquest may be aptly termed as tyranny of numbers . As for statistical data, ruling Awami League secured 255 out of 300 elective seats , leaving only 33 to be picked up by alliance partners, 'Jatiya Party' and smaller formations. The opposition grouping led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) with the grandiose nomenclatura 'Jatiya Aikya Front' and others  managed to scrape through with only 11 seats as election  to the lone remaining seat had to be countermanded following death of a recognized party candidate days before the December 30 elections.

Saddled with the tyranny of numbers, the reelected prime minister Sheikh Hasina has wisely put restrictions on any show of triumphalism on  the part of her party workers and leaders  while the opposition expectedly continue to bemoan the alleged 'illegitimacy' of the elections. True , the BNP and its allies including fundamentalists had lost their moorings in the wake of the boycott of elections in 2014, even after a series of victories in the civic body elections but dissent never leaves a democratic polity . Despite the highly appreciable performance of Sheikh Hasina led Awami League government on multiple fronts including the GDP growth , export boom in the textile sector, education et al, dissent and opposition grew  simultaneously as part of anti-incumbency and it was only the lack of a credible leadership , prison term for Begum Khaleda Zia and general demoralization in ranks  that had created a road-block for the opposition.

What however remains an eternal truth is that temporary eclipse of individuals and institutions does not mean complete wiping out of dissent which will now be almost inevitably concentrated in the victorious citadel. One of the prime reasons why the socialist block comprising erstwhile Soviet Russia and East European countries had collapsed like a house of cards in the late eighties and early nineties was the implosion of dissent and protest within the all-encompassing ruling communist parties in the absence of legitimate opposition forces outside. Many such instances abound across countries in the world down the annals of history. Bangladesh's volatile masses, perceptively described by Henry Kissinger during the liberation struggle as 'notoriously difficult to rule' will certainly give the new dispensation breathing time to settle down but then the turn of events will depend on performance of the new government. As a seasoned political leader who made her way up through a process of dour political struggle Sheikh Hasina  can be trusted to hold her forte as well as the confidence of the electorate. 

Apart from the challenge of numbers, the new government is likely to confront fresh protests against the 15th amendment of the constitution which abolished the system of care-taker government (CTG) for conducting the nationwide elections to the 'Jatiya Samsad'. This had been in vogue between 1996-2008 but the Awami League government had the requisite numbers to ensure safe passage of the amendment which was also cleared by the judiciary in 2011. A major point of concern is that the contentious 15th amendment had also restored the hallowed ideals of secularism and freedom of religion-a concession to the minorities-and constitutional recognition to 'Bangabandhu' as 'Father of the Nation'. Any belated confrontation  over this mixed baggage is likely to plunge the country into fresh turmoil at a time when the entire opposition has been near totally decimated in electoral terms.

As it is, the constitution of Bangladesh , adopted on November 4 1972 and in force since December 16 1972, has  passed through a process of evolution . The ideal of ‘secularism’ was enshrined in the preamble to the constitution but , paradoxically, the preamble was preceded by the traditional Islamic prayer 'Bismillah-Ar-Rahaman-Ar-Rahim' flaunting the founding principle. By the 4th amendment of the constitution on January 25 1975, eight months ahead of his tragic assassination with family,'Bangabandhu' had converted the parliamentary system of governance into a presidential one. It took sixteen more years and a succession of autocratic military rule to restore the parliamentary system by the 12th amendment on August 8 1991. But the original character of Bangladesh as a modern state had been reverted by military dictator President H.M.Ershad through the expedient 8th amendment in 1988 that had  upheld 'Islam' as the state religion , striking a blow to the non-Muslim minorities. Needless to say, this was an exercise in redundancy as Muslims of various sects and sub-sects form 92% of Bangladesh's population and the constitutional amendment was designed only to give them a traction and usher in an era of majoritarian politics which still persists.

Even though the 15th amendment restored secularism and freedom of religion as governing principles ,nothing has changed at the ground level , with a plethora of fundamentalist outfits including the infamous 'Hephazate Islami' pulverising   Bangladesh's political landscape. To worsen matters, the blaspheme law as enshrined in Section 295 (A) of Bangladesh Penal Code (BPC) has dealt a body blow to the hallowed concepts of free speech and thoughts and many young bloggers and commentators have fallen a prey to the blaspheme law. Two years ago a Hindu school teacher was forced to sit up and down many times with hands on ear-lobes for alleged utterances against the Islamic holy book and the prophet . There was countrywide protest, of course, and many intellectuals , educationists and progressive writers and authors protested this by repeating the act themselves. It is unlikely that Sheikh Hasina in her new avatar will be able to do away with the medieval blaspheme law because that will set the clock of her majoritarian politics back, besides antagonizing the considerable section of fundamentalists and fanatics. Significantly, as part of a tactic to win over fundamentalist sections, Hasina herself had given the green signal to banishment of all the writings of Hindu Bengali poets and authors including Rabindra Nath Tagore from the school curriculum of Bangladesh at all levels early last year. This is absolutely unlikely to be reversed in the foreseeable future. 

Having already established herself as a living legend in South-Asian politics, the daughter of 'Bangabandhu' can at least take a compassionate view of the indigenous tribal people and their well-being in the Chittagong hill-tracts as well as in other places. The restoration of abolished quota for jobs in favour of the tribal minorities is an essential first step towards making Bangladesh a truly welfare state. While the job quota may not be as vital for the freedom fighter families and their descendants, this remains a safety-belt for the very survival of ethnic minorities , physically challenged and people of backward districts. In the Chittagong hill-tracts the ten ethnic minorities formed 97.5% of the population at the time of partition of India but now they are steeply down to possibly less than 50% because of forced resettlement of plainland Muslims with incentives by successive governments of Ziaur Rahaman and H.M.Ershad only to subvert the legitimacy of this unfortunate peoples demand for autonomy for preservation of their culture, identity and distinctive way of life. In the overall demographic context of Bangladesh the ethnic tribals now constitute a minuscule minority and they need state protection and special treatment for survival. As for the national minorities or Hindus who are now down to less than 8% from 35% during partition, all that is needed is a level playing field, justice and fair play in governance. It looks apparently a tall order for Sheikh Hasina and her reelected government but, given her courage and determination, she can at least make a beginning.   

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