BANGLADESH’S moment of truth has arrived: should it strive for political stability, unity and national reconciliation or pursue a policy of vendetta?
Capital and other forms of punishment awarded by the controversial International Crimes Tribunal in Dhaka over the last year have led to a serious backlash by the opposition Jamaat-i-Islami and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), many of whose activists have been charged with mass killings in the military operation of March-December 1971.
The controversy deepened when Abdul Quader Mollah, assistant secretary general of the Jamaat, who earlier this year was awarded life imprisonment by the tribunal, was sentenced to death by the Bangladesh Supreme Court in September and executed this month.
If his execution was welcomed by the ruling Awami League, others termed the judgement as politically motivated and devoid of the basic principles of justice. The question remains: why did the Awami League government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed decide to raise the issue of war crimes at this stage when Bangladesh requires political harmony, not further polarisation?
It is not only the war crimes tribunal which has become a source of the political divide in Bangladesh. Another matter negatively impacting the political environment is the violent agitation of the BNP-led 18-party alliance that is demanding a neutral caretaker set-up to hold national elections due in January 2014. It wants Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign before the elections.
The large-scale violence unleashed on the repeated calls for strike by the alliance has not only paralysed civic life but also caused severe economic losses. Bangladesh’s vast majority is fed up with the continuous political squabbling between the Awami League and BNP as it is the common citizen that is suffering as a result of the unabated strikes and agitation.
The Guardian recently quoted Ahsan Mansur, director of the Dhaka-based Policy Research Institute, as saying that “a compromise looks unlikely. … The Awami League thinks that if there is a fair election it will be out of power. The BNP think that if there isn’t a fair election, they will be out of power. … The longer the hostilities continue, the more bloody and bitter the aftermath”.
Large-scale corruption, nepotism and bad governance on the part of subsequent regimes have further augmented a sense of pessimism regarding the future of Bangladesh.
In a society where ill-gotten wealth has created a new class of super rich people, and where politicians, whether they belong to the Awami League or BNP, are least committed to dealing with issues of poverty, particularly the plight of millions of garment factory workers, one cannot expect any positive change soon.
It is true that Bangladesh, since its emergence as an independent state in 1971 has done well in some social-sector areas like population control, microcredit particularly for rural women, famine control and self-sufficiency in food.
But this is in contrast to the picture of a country, which has a history of struggling for democracy, political pluralism and religious tolerance, being plunged into chaos and disorder because of its leadership.
It is a pity that Bangladesh’s rulers have failed to look ahead and much is left to do to provide good governance and eradicate poverty, corruption and nepotism. Past and present regimes have either sought legitimacy from the events of 1971 or focused on party, personal or group interests.
At this time, when the world has come together to praise a man who, despite his sufferings put the past behind him and looked forward with the goal of reconciliation, one is reminded even more starkly of the flaws in the Bangladeshi leadership.
Nelson Mandela brought together a country divided by racial discrimination. He proved to be a statesman and not an agitator when he was elected South Africa’s president. His policy of burying bitterness and moving forward prevented further bloodshed. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped to integrate a deeply divided South Africa.
Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, who suffered enormously at the hands of West Pakistan, and whose party (Awami League) spearheaded the struggle for democracy and social justice in the then East Pakistan, could have become the Nelson Mandela of Bangladesh. But his lack of statesmanship led to bloody violence after the fall of Dhaka.
Ironically, Mujib and most of his family members were killed in a military coup. His daughter, Sheikh Hasina, who twice became prime minister, instead of dealing with national issues has only reinforced the politics of vendetta against those she held responsible for the massacre of the Bengali population in then East Pakistan.
Bangladesh could have been better off had its leadership acted to urge reconciliation instead of revenge. The latest events in Bangladesh will only deepen political polarisation in that country.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the University of Karachi.