Dhaka in disarray

It is the same old sequence of hartals, the same old exhibition of hooliganism and the same old relentless oppression by the state. Indeed, much of this sense of similarity has characterised the story ofBangladeshsince it won independence in 1971. You may begin or end the story from whichever point you want to.

I have been seeing this pattern since the emergence of the country’s two main political parties, the Awami League and the  Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

What the whole thing boils down to is the rivalry between the two Begums, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who heads the Awami League, and former Prime Minister Khalida Zia, chief of the BNP. Both leaders have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Time has not seen any lessening of the enmity that exists between the two, and unfortunately it is the people ofBangladeshwho have borne the brunt of it.

When a new ruler comes to power, there is some respite for a year or so because people want to give him or her a chance to better their lot. This is the plank on which the party wins elections. The defeated party leader, meanwhile, licks his wounds, waiting all the while to strike back at his opponents, and the vanquished party nurses its hatred to such an extent that its members do not even take the oath.

Once the people’s disillusionment inevitably begins to set in – and the party that is not in power is working all the time to ensure that such a mood will prevail – all hell breaks loose. There is mayhem and civil disorder, with supporters and opponents fighting one another in the streets. The flag of defiance waves aloft at all times and the party out of power boycotts parliament, going out of its way to register that it has nothing to do with the rulers. The same scenario is repeated when the other party comes to power, except there is a new set of rulers and, of course, a new set of victims. All slogans about the betterment of people are forgotten and the mania of power takes over. The authoritarianism of one leader is no better than the behaviour of the other.

Surprisingly, a country that is now 41 years old has not developed any democratic traditions, nor have the law courts and bureaucrats inculcated the courage to stay independent. It is a spoils system of sorts; even the top judiciary tilts to suit the way the wind blows.

Therefore, it is not surprising that we are now seeing a repeat of what Khalida Zia’s government did before Sheikh Hasina took over. We are witnessing the shut-down of bazaars and businesses every third day. What is disconcerting is that brutalities increase with every change of government, partly to avenge the suffering each one endured when it was in opposition, and partly to see whether the use of excessive force will deter the critics, if not the opponents.

The problem is this: what can the ordinary people ofBangladesh, who want normalcy to earn a livelihood and send their children to school, do? They are sick of both Begums and their fiefdoms called parties. Increasingly, the people are seeking solace in religion but, to their horror, it too has become polluted by politics.

Alarm bells are now ringing inNew Delhi, which supports Sheikh Hasina and which finds that anti-India and fundamentalist forces are gaining ground inBangladesh. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went toDhakalast September, he could have played a conciliatory role between the two parties. ButNew Delhihas been too close to the Awami League from the days of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the liberator ofBangladesh. What is more, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seems to have misunderstoodIndia. Her problem is that those who are not with her are against her, and this holds good even in domestic politics. No doubt New Delhi has been generous with her and Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has written off $200 million from the loan given to Dhaka, as well as announcing a credit of $1 billion.

With the BNP joining hands with 16 small parties to call for constant hartas, there is little scope for the wheels of the nation’s industry to move. The BNP is particularly angry because its leader, M Illias Ali, has been missing for several days and the party sees the hand of the ruling Awami League in his disappearance, which has caught the imagination of the people. EvenUSSecretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her anguish, while visitingDhaka, that there was no trace of him.

Military intervention has also been ruled out, because it already tried – and failed – to cleanse politics when it extended for a year its period of supervision of the administration before the elections. It found the Begums too adamant and the people too embedded in noisy, popular and undisciplined politics. Their attention could have been diverted for some time at least ifIndiahad reached an agreement regarding sharing water from theTeestaRiverwith the much-parched lands ofBangladesh. But here even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has found himself helpless because the whimsicalWest Bengalchief minister Mamata Banerjee says no.

The problem that facesIndiais what it should do or can do. The BNP is no alternative to the Awami League, with the fundamentalists and anti-Indian forces in the lead.

We must hope that the recent judgment by the war crimes tribunal ofBangladeshmay help to stem the tide of fundamentalism because it has indicted Ghulam Azam, founder of Jamaat-E-Islami, on charges of incitement, conspiracy and murder.

Kuldip Nayar