Sunday, February 06, 2005

BANGLADESH: Drifting towards extremism

+ It might have been expected that the restoration of democratic rule would have revived the forsaken secularism of Mujibur Rahman. But two factors stymied any movement in that direction. One is that Zia-ur Rahman's widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, saw in such a reversal of policies a betrayal of her husband's legacy. And the second is the intense rivalry between her and the opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who is Mujibur Rahman's daughter.Although the two had collaborated in ousting Gen. H.M. Ershad, the bonhomie did not last beyond the fall of the military dictator. But that's not all. +

Bangladesh: drifting towards extremism

If Bangladesh is today acquiring the reputation of being a haven of Islamic fundamentalists, the reason lies in its tortuous history rather than in any innate extremist tendencies.

In fact, like the somewhat more relaxed and less puritanical Muslim countries of Southeast Asia like Malaysia and Indonesia, Bangladesh too is temperamentally different from the rigid and orthodox desert sheikhdoms and emirates of the Middle East and North Africa. That much is evident from the far greater freedom in dress and conduct women have traditionally enjoyed in Bangladesh. It is not surprising, therefore, that both the leading political figures in the country - the prime minister and the leader of the opposition - are women.

A quirk of history, however, may have made Bangladesh move closer to conservatism than it might have. Although the so-called liberation movement against Pakistan was led by civilians - starting from the Bengali language agitation of 1952 against the imposition of Urdu and culminating in the attainment of independence in 1971 - it was the army, under the country's second president, Zia-ur Rahman, which played a crucial role in the final struggle.

Ever since then, the army has harboured the desire to play a political role although it initially stepped aside to let the hugely popular Awami League leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, lead the government. However, it was Mujibur Rahman's fatal mistake of turning Bangladesh into a one-party state that prepared the ground for all its subsequent travails, beginning with his assassination.

Once a country without any tradition of democracy takes the authoritarian path, the rest - periodic army rule (as in Pakistan) and the rise of religious bigotry - follows. The reason is that the military rulers, unsure of the unruly (in their eyes) masses, prefer to depend on the zealotry of the mullahs to keep the restive population in check. Pakistan's Zia-ul-Huq followed this line, and so did Zia-ur Rahman, who dispensed with the secular trappings of the constitution.

It might have been expected that the restoration of democratic rule would have revived the forsaken secularism of Mujibur Rahman. But two factors stymied any movement in that direction. One is that Zia-ur Rahman's widow, Begum Khaleda Zia, saw in such a reversal of policies a betrayal of her husband's legacy. And the second is the intense rivalry between her and the opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who is Mujibur Rahman's daughter.

Although the two had collaborated in ousting Gen. H.M. Ershad, the bonhomie did not last beyond the fall of the military dictator. But that's not all. What the prolonged struggle against army rule had done was to breed an atmosphere of lawlessness, in which the political parties could indulge in reckless violence against their opponents. These habits have persisted, with the result that the two rival parties - Begum Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Sheikh Hasina's Awami League - regard themselves not as political adversaries but deadly enemies.

A third complicating factor is the BNP's dependence on fundamentalist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami for survival. It might not have mattered if this was merely an alliance of political convenience. But the two are also united in their aversion towards India. The BNP's antipathy towards the country's larger neighbour is born out of the historical link between India and the Awami League, dating back to the freedom struggle of 1971. Since the BNP is opposed to the Awami League, it is opposed to India as well and likes to use the Awami League's supposedly close ties with India to denigrate it before the voters as being subservient and unmindful of the country's interests.

A side effect of the BNP's stance against India is the harassment and worse of the country's minorities, especially Hindus, many of whom had to flee to India to escape the rampaging BNP supporters after the party's election victory in 2001. Since then, the Hindus and Christians have been under pressure as never before. And now conditions have worsened with the appearance of other fundamentalist groups linked to Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Some of these outfits, such as the Jagrata Muslim Janata of a new firebrand leader with the quaint name of Bangla Bhai are open admirers of Osama bin Laden and make no secret of their intention to introduce Taliban-style governance in Bangladesh. For India, an additional worry is the asylum given in Bangladesh to fugitives such as the top leaders of anti-India separatist organisations like the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA).

The problem with this scenario for India is that Bangladesh refuses to acknowledge that anything is out of the ordinary in the country. It maintains that the law and order situation is under control and that the fundamentalists are operating within the legal framework. Besides, it denies the presence of any Indian separatists in Bangladesh and even asserts that there is no illegal migration into India, an unending one-way traffic about which India is deeply concerned. The result of these denials is that New Delhi and Dhaka virtually conduct a dialogue of the deaf when the leaders and officials of the two countries meet.

India's apprehension is that, like Pakistan before 9/11, Bangladesh may become an epicentre of terrorism, which is bound to attract America's attention and even intervention at some point of time. The fallout of such action will be that India might also be singed