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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 32, July 25, 2009

The Poison in Bangladesh Polity

Monday 27 July 2009, by J Sri Raman

Was Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed fed poisoned food while in detention during 2007-08? The question should be a matter of concern not for reasons of her health alone and not only for the country that gave her a landslide election victory at the end of last year.

On June 27, in a television programme that went almost unnoticed outside of Bangladesh, a top leader of Hasina’s Awami League (AL) alleged that Hasina was served poison-laced food for an unspecified period as an under-trial prisoner facing charges of corruption during her earlier term in elected office. She was arrested on July 16, 2007, by an Army-backed regime and released on bail on June 12, 2008.

Speaking to a private TV channel, Deputy Leader of the AL in parliament Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury said Hasina was still not fully free from the effects of slow poisoning. In the prison, added Sajeda, “the leader fell sick after taking the poisoned food and her mouth was swollen. But she never gave in to (pressure from the regime to quit politics and leave the country).”

Within a week, more than indirect support for the allegation came from Hasina’s 61-year-old personal doctor, Syed Modasser Ali, now also the Prime Minister’s Health Affairs Adviser. Stating that he, too, suspected Hasina’s poisoning, he said she was suffering from some allergy causing her hair to fall.

”During those days (of Hasina’s detention), I had several times tried to collect her blood sample for diagnosis, but I was barred from doing so,” Ali told the media. He added that before she was taken to a hospital from the prison, the authorities promised that they would let her personal doctors treat her. “But ... we were not allowed to enter the hospital.”

Following the AL’s sensational allegation, the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) of former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, also detained by the Army-propped regime, has charged that its leader was fed toxin-laden food as well. The public focus, however, has stayed on the fate of slow death which, according to Hasina’s followers, she has fortunately survived. The Prime Minister herself has so far kept silent on the subject.

The allegation puts directly in the dock Maj. Gen. (retired) M. A. Matin and Mainul Hosein, who served as Advisers in charge of Home and Law respectively in the military-backed government. Both of them have denied the charge. They claim that the food served to Hasina was, in fact, tasted first by a woman doctor attached to her and four women security personnel, besides jail officials!

The former Advisers find eloquent Hasina’s own silence—now and during her stay with family members in the US for medical treatment last year. Few, however, would find inexplicable such silence in the face of an Army-supported regime that could, after all, hold a popular leader like Hasina in helpless detention for nearly a year.

Matin and Hosein come up with a more serious question when they ask why it took so long for the AL to make the allegation. The poser, of course, does not prove the charge wrong. But it is not only the officials of the ousted regime who wonder what the AL’s obvious decision to raise the issue, triggering off a truculent debate on it, indicates.

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The snowballing issue may point to aggravation of strains between the Army and the democratic, civilian dispensation as a whole. This should cause concern not only in Bangladesh, where the people have repeatedly rejected either direct or indirect Army rule as a political option, but also in the South Asian region with stakes in the country’s internal peace.

A recent report in Bangladesh weekly Holiday quotes a senior retired Army officer describing the allegation as “a dangerous game that could end up with more bloodshed”. The strains have found other expressions as well in the recent period.

On February 25, 2009, in less than two months of the new government’s takeover, a bloody mutiny by Bangladesh’s border guard unit, the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), broke out in Dhaka. The cause of the revolt, which rocked the country and the elected rulers, is yet to be conclusively established. It did, however, ring the alarm bells for a Bangladesh that was beginning to recover from the trauma of two years of Army-backed rule.

The lingering legacy of 2007-08 found another illustration in June 2009, when a top Bangladesh Army officer reportedly sought political asylum in the US to avoid returning home after his diplomatic assignment was curtailed. Brig. Gen. Chowdhury Fazlul Bari was the Director of the powerful Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI) during the military-backed rule and had played a major role in the arrest of several top politicians and bureaucrats as part of an avowed official crusade against corruption.

The strains may seem to be small cause for worry, in view of Hasina’s popularity and parliamentary majority. But military ambitions have prevailed over the people’s democratic aspirations in the past. A quick rundown of the coups, which dot the less than four decades of post-liberation Bangladesh, shows why concern is warranted.

On August 15, 1975, came the first military coup, culminating in the tragic assassination of the Father of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and his family (daughters Hasina and Sheikh Rehana escaped only because they were in Germany at the time). Two more coups followed on November 3 and 7 of the same eventful year.

Lt. Gen. Ziaur Rahman took over power in 1976. He survived as many as 21 coups during his five-year rule until he was killed in a coup of 1981. Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad rose to power after a bloodless coup in 1982 and stayed at the helm till 1990. Bangladesh witnessed an unsuccessful coup attempt in 199l, but the Army succeeded in becoming the power behind the throne in 2007.

It may take a while for the people of Bangladesh to detoxify the country’s polity entirely and ensure that its democracy endures.

(Courtesy: Truthout)

A freelance journalist and a peace activist in India, J. Sri Raman is the author of Flashpoint (Common Courage Press, USA).

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