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Bangladesh: Khaleda, Hasina and Caretaker Government

Monday 14 May 2007, by Amitava Mukherjee


There are now uncomfortable signals from the eastern border of our country. The caretaker government of Bangladesh, which had started well by apprehending a large number of criminals, many of them being political bigwigs, suddenly seems to have lost direction. Its diktat to the former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia to go to exile and asking Hasina Wajed not to return to Bangladesh are ill-conceived moves, certain to raise eyebrows about the actual character of the government. Ultimately the government ended up in withdrawing the order prohibiting Hasina’s return to Bangladesh.

Apart from this the caretaker government’s record has so far been creditable in spite of the fact that it is backed by the Army whose personnel, in turn, widely subscribe to the ideology of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Interestingly, not many political figures of Bangladesh are harping on the character of the Army’s composition as neither the Awami League nor the BNP are free from the slur of fundamentalist Islam. Hasina Wajed compromised with fundamentalist Islamic ideas long back when she adopted certain manners like putting a veil over her head in her daily chores. Recently she had entered into an understanding with a radical Islamic bloc which would have given legal approval to issuing of fatwas by Islamic clerics if the Awami League came to power.

The caretaker government’s stand holding Khaleda Zia responsible for rampant corruption and radical Islamisation of Bangladesh cannot be faulted as the ongoing arrests, particularly those of Tareq Rahman and Salauddin Qader Chowdhury, prove that there were many skeletons in the BNP cupboard. For Khaleda and the BNP, radical Islamisation of the Bangladeshi polity was a necessity and the principal electoral bedrock. In doing so Khaleda created a dangerous situation in South Asia and pushed a large part of it to the path of conflagration.

Fakhruddin Ahmed, the head of the caretaker government, has had a secular education and World Bank background. So far he has tried to challenge the steadily increasing force of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh. The prompt punishment meted out to the top leaders of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen, Bangladesh prove this, a long awaited executive responsibility which Khaleda Zia tried to shirk. But equally vital is the necessity to bring to book the killers of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. So far Fakhruddin and other members of his administration are silent about it. This, coupled with the Army’s backing of his government, raise certain uncomfortable questions.

It is now an open secret that Iajuddin Ahmed, the head of the previous caretaker government, had to resign under pressure from Moin Ahmed, the Bangladesh Army Chief. It is rumoured that Iajuddin had got instructions from Tareq Rahman, Khaleda Zia’s son, to remove Moin Ahmed and instal Rezzaqul Haider Chowdhury, the head of the Director General of Forces Intelligence, in his place. But the Army acted fast and Iajuddin had to resign.

Meanwhile Mohammed Yunus, the Nobel Prize winner, added fuel to the controversy by castigating all the political parties of Bangladesh and hinting that he might enter politics. The crackdown on corrupt political, administrative and business personalities, a praiseworthy endeavour, continued. However, the Jamaat-e-Islami was left untouched to a large extent. Is it because of the fact that the Jamaat has solid roots in the Army? But the caretaker government made a mistake as they tried to strike a balance between Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wajed so far as the government’s actions against corruption are concerned.

IS any international power pulling strings behind all the actions of the Fakhruddin Ahmed Government? The administration’s attitude towards Hasina Wajed suggests this possibility. There can be no denying the fact that Bangladesh is one of the most corrupt countries in the world and the growth and spread of radical Islam there has an umbilical relationship with this corruption machinery. It must also be admitted that the Fakhruddin Ahmed administration has taken certain steps to sever this connection. But continuation of Emergency for a prolonged period might create restive conditions. The duty of the administration now is to foster the growth and strengthening of a civil society, the best weapon to fight fundamentalism.

The government’s attempted deal with Khaleda Zia has failed. Khaleda does not want to quit Bangladesh leaving her two sons behind. But it would have been an embarrassment for the administration had Khaleda been allowed to leave the country. The Islamic Chhatra Shibir, the violent students’ wing of the Jamaat, spread its tentacles in every nook and corner of Bangladesh during her tenure. It was during her regime that Dhaka witnessed weapon-brandishing clerics raising the slogan: “Bangla Hobe Afghanistan, Amra Habo Taliban. (Bangladesh will soon become another Afghanistan, we will also become Taliban cadres).” Abu Hena, a former BNP MP, had accused a section of his own party of collusion with Islamic fundamentalists. He had also charged Khaleda Zia, the then Prime Minister, with having a soft attitude towards the Islamic militants. For this open accusation Abu Hena was ultimately expelled from the BNP.

On top of everything, Khaleda Zia must answer to the people of Bangladesh why she had made Salauddin Qader Chowdhury, a liberation war criminal, her adviser on parliamentary affairs? His name still evokes horror and hatred in large parts of the Chittagong district for the inhuman torture and killings he had perpetrated on the liberation war heroes in cahoot with the Pakistani Army. Soon after the liberation of Bangladesh Salauddin and his father, late Fazlul Qader Chowdhury, had tried to flee to Pakistan only to be caught red-handed. Released under the general amnesty declared by Mujibur Rahman, Salauddin, after lying low for some time, joined the Ershad Government and later on shifted his loyalty to the BNP. In Chittagong he had a private army named the Aziz Bahini. Salauddin has often used it in ethnic cleansing operations.

The Bangladeshi polity has been so communa-lised in recent times that very few political parties are now free of religious overtones. Fakhruddin Ahmed’s main task is to undo many constitutional and political aberrations introduced during the regimes of Ziaur Rahman and Ershad. Those will be the first meaningful steps against corruption and fundamentalism. His intentions are laudable. The road for him lies not in the splitting of political parties but in fundamental changes in the body politic of Bangladesh.

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