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A Season of Political Protests in Bangladesh

Anand Kumar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 12, 2015

    The New Year in Bangladesh has begun on a note of political protests by the opposition political parties. In this, the lead has been taken by the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and by the Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, which was derecognised sometime back by the Election Commission for not recognizing the legislative power of parliament. Interestingly, these parties are protesting in favour of the restoration of a democratic and legitimate government; they do not consider the January 5, 2014 elections which saw the Awami League’s uncontested return to power as legitimate.

    In Bangladesh, the month of December is very important. It was on 16 December 1971 that the country had achieved liberation from the occupational forces of Pakistan. This month reminds people about the atrocities they faced under Pakistani rule and the genocide committed by the Pakistani forces. It also refreshes their memory about the violation of about 300,000 Bangladeshi women by the Pakistani soldiers. These women were subsequently called Biranganas and now the demand is also being raised for giving them the status of freedom fighters.

    Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, was the major collaborating force of the Pakistanis in the erstwhile East Pakistan. Unfortunately, their leadership had escaped punishment in the aftermath of the liberation of Bangladesh. The present Awami League-led government is trying to undo this historical mistake by prosecuting these war criminals. The two international war crimes tribunals prosecuting war criminals have already awarded punishment to the top eight leaders of the Jamaat for their role during the liberation war. Abdul Quader Mollah has already been hanged. Others are awaiting a similar fate.

    By punishing the war criminals and by taking similar other steps, the Awami League has tried to revive the spirit of the liberation war. It has acknowledged the role played by Indian soldiers in the country’s liberation and is also honouring people who supported the cause of Bangladesh. The government’s effort to revive the spirit of the liberation war has enabled the young generation to become aware of the sacrifices made by their forebears. This sacrifice of the Bangladeshi people is remembered in the month of December and several programmes are organized to celebrate liberation. In this situation it is impossible for parties like the BNP and the Jamaat to incite people against a pro-liberation force like the Awami League.

    It is therefore not surprising that the BNP and Jamaat lay low during December but planned a series of protests beginning January. They claim that the 2014 election was not legitimate and that the government lacks legitimacy. Here, it is, however, important to note that it was actually the BNP which had decided to boycott the elections. It demanded that elections be held under a neutral caretaker government, a system that it had earlier abused when in power. This abuse of the system had created a situation wherein both Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia were put behind bars by the army-supported caretaker government of that time. And it was to avoid a recurrence of that kind of a situation and to strengthen the democratic system that the Awami League had abolished the caretaker government system through suitable constitutional amendments.

    The BNP had done remarkably well in some of the elections held prior to the general election of January 5, 2014 under this new system. But for unknown reasons it did not trust the Awami League to hold parliamentary elections in a free and fair manner. For its part, the Awami League was adamant about not reverting to the old system which had not only failed but actually put democracy in abeyance.

    The Jamaat has its own reason to participate in the ongoing political protests. It wants to save its leaders who have been convicted of war crimes and the only way to achieve that is by changing the government. The Jamaat’s hope is that if elections could be forced at this point in time and if that brings the BNP-led alliance to power, then the war crimes verdicts against its own leaders could be overturned. Further, a BNP-led government would also give the Jamaat greater political space and practice its kind of politics even if that may not necessarily be in the interest of democracy itself.

    With the Awami League government completing a year in office after the January 2014 election, the desperation of the BNP is increasing. It is because of its desperation that the BNP has launched its ongoing protest programme. In a democracy, the opposition parties have a right to launch protest programmes, but in this endeavour the alliance of the BNP with Jamaat raises serious questions about its real intentions. The progressive people of Bangladesh are not sure what kind of democracy the BNP wants to restore in alliance with the Jamaat, a party that does not believe in democracy. Be that as it may, it would be advisable for the Awami League to deal with the opposition protests with caution so that it does not come to be seen as some kind of an autocratic government.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India