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The State of Democracy and Political Freedom in Bangladesh

Edit Date:8/17/2010 12:00:00 AM



Shimul Chaudhury
13 August 2010

The Bangladesh Awami League (BAL) currently in power in the country has a murky, mixed past. Though the party is generally given the credit of leading the liberation war of 1971, its democratic credentials are quite unimpressive and dubious to say the least. While BAL leaders, intellectuals and activists revel in the political credit scoring on 1971 upheavals, they cannot deny the fact that the first BAL regime signaled a darkest period for democracy in Bangladesh. On 16 June 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s government imposed a one-party rule in the country in the name of BAKSAL and shut all newspapers except for those under government control. That was the worst time for freedom of expression as well as for journalists of the country many of whom lost their jobs because of the closure of their newspapers. I am not a great fan of President Ziaur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), but we must admit that it was him who later on nullified those black laws and re-established press freedom in the country. Unfortunately, mainly because of the preponderance of the adulation of a ‘national father’, this great step of President Ziaur Rahman is now largely forgotten; so is shrouded in obscurity the fact that he was a great hero of the 1971 liberation war.

In the 1980s during Ershad’s rule Bangladesh witnessed another gloomy chapter of political repression though the regime was not as hard on the press as was the first Awami regime. In the early 1990s Bangladeshi people celebrated a new beginning of democracy in the country by electing the BNP to power. All hoped that 1975 and the 1980s would not be repeated in Bangladesh. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League and Ershad’s Jatiya Party apparently seemed to have relinquished their undemocratic propensities. However, their marriage in 2008 general election proved all of us wrong.

Soon after Awami League and its allies came to power in early 2009, its student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League took no time to establish domination in educational campuses, as such control of colleges and universities generally ensures them unlawful financial benefits especially though ‘admission business’, ‘tender business’, ‘seat business’ and money extortion. One non-monetary return is sexual advantage over vulnerable young women, as Chhatra League cadres have reportedly established ‘rape houses’ is different parts of the country.

Thousands of students belonging to opposition political groups have had to leave their legitimate accommodation at dormitories of various universities. Many of them even cannot come to attend their classes, and not even exams. When this process of getting rid of rival student groups was over, affiliates of Chhatra League turned on themselves, as fighting and killing seems to be the only way to vent their malice, cruel taunts and a sense of achievement. As a result, many educational institutions have thus far become terror zones; and the students who go to colleges and universities for knowledge have become the ultimate casualties of Chhatra League hostilities.

When Chhatra League thus confirmed absolute domination and lawlessness on campuses with the support or complicity of the police, the parent organization in power started its repression on opposition parties. We may mention a number of undemocratic practices of Awami League in the scope of one article, but no list will be exhaustive of the total picture of political oppression of the last few months in Bangladesh. The jails of Bangladesh are now overcrowded with people of an Islamic party. The regime has not banned religion-based politics yet (apparently at the behest of its foreign patrons), but the ground reality is worse than political proscription. Party offices of that Islamic political party are being ransacked; and its leaders and activists are being detained and tortured in police custody. Police forces are being used to thwart any political gatherings, and indiscriminate arrests from party offices and houses (especially through nocturnal raids) have become the norm now. In many cases, police reportedly carried arms and ammunition during nocturnal raids, accused the detained as possessing illegal arms and then branded them as ‘militants’ and ‘Islamic radicals’. The implicit message from the regime to opposition political groups is that: DO NOT PROTEST!

This reminds us of the BDR carnage where about 60 bright senior army officers were slaughtered with alleged government connivance. Some of the surviving army officers and their colleagues vented their anger, in the presence of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, over government ‘failure’ to save so many precious lives. The result was gradual forced dismissal or forced retirement of those who protested the death of their colleagues and family members. Similarly, on the political front, currently protests over political repression are routinely met with arrests, tortures in police custody and false lawsuits.

All these undemocratic practices in Bangladesh are happening when a ‘gonotontrer manoshkonna’ (democracy incarnate) is its Prime Minister. Awami League’s spin doctors coined this noble term for Sheikh Hasina perhaps when she was an opposition leader in the late 1980s or early 1990s. People of the country (though bewildered because of the democratic credentials of her father) did not question the appropriateness of this appellation for her, as they had not seen her in power yet. This time when Sheikh Hasina is in power, I think, the authors of the term ‘gonotontrer manoshkonna’ have no clue how to define it.

Lastly, I repeat what I said in one of my previous writings: “If the West overlooks Awami League’s undemocratic practices for the fact that the party uses the secularism slogan, and helps demonize Jamaat-e-Islam for its Islamic leanings, that will be catastrophic for the future of the poor nation, Bangladesh, and the people of the country will have to bear the brunt of all consequences.”

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