KHALEDA Zia with Jamaat-i-Islami chiefs Motiur Rahman Nizami and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi in 2010.—The Daily Star
KHALEDA Zia with Jamaat-i-Islami chiefs Motiur Rahman Nizami and Delwar Hossain Sayeedi in 2010.—The Daily Star

A DECADE ago, when she was in power, Khaleda Zia tried but could not forge national unity to fight militancy. Almost all parties boycotted the talks because of her party Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s strong ties with Jamaat-i-Islami, a party accused of patronising militancy. Her latest move to forge national unity to rid Bangladesh from militancy faces the same fate, as little has changed and there is fresh pressure on her to sever ties with JI, an anti-independence force.

Can Khaleda make a difference this time? After the countrywide unprecedented bomb blasts by the militant outfit Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh on Aug 17, 2005, then premier Khaleda had offered a ‘national dialogue’ to find ways to stop bomb terrorism. She had invited 27 political parties and 15 professional bodies to the dialogue that began on Dec 12 amid boycotts by the opposition alliance.

Then main opposition, the Awami League-led 14 party, boycotted the dialogue protesting the presence of JI’s leaders in Khaleda’s cabinet. On the first day of the dialogue, Krishak Shramik Janata League asked Khaleda to expel two JI’s leaders, Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed — who were recently executed for committing war crimes — from the cabinet on charges of patronising militancy in the country.

The then ruling BNP had also faced tremendous internal pressure when a number of senior BNP leaders categorically alleged that JI was the main force behind militancy.

As Khaleda declined to take any step against JI, the much-hyped anti-militancy talks fizzled out with only three political parties and five professional bodies joining. Thus, the goal of creating national unity was not realised.

After the unprecedented attack on a Gulshan café on July 1 that killed 20 hostages, the BNP chief urged for national unity to fight militancy. Her party has planned to hold a national convention on militancy, inviting leaders of all political parties and representatives of professional bodies. But again JI appeared as a stumbling block to her move. A number of senior ministers and ruling Awami League leaders have categorically rejected her call, stating that neither the government nor the AL will hold any talks with BNP. In its defence, AL leaders stressed that BNP will have to sever its ties with JI that opposed the country’s independence war and allegedly patronised different militant outfits.

Long partnership with JI

AL’s stance may be viewed by some as merely a political strategy. But when some pro-BNP professionals and intellectuals on Thursday night at a meeting with Khaleda advised her to sever ties with JI, the issue should have been given more importance. A number of leaders of the BNP, on condition of anonymity, told media that many eminent personalities and leaders of political parties will not join BNP’s convention if JI leaders were present.

Yet, Khaleda remains nonchalant. She is still unwilling to sever her party’s ties with JI. Considering the historical background, it is not so easy for her to cut the ties with a party with whom they have had a long, solid partnership. This goes back to General Zia, whose ascendancy to power as a military strongman after the bloody changeover of Aug 15, 1975, was the beginning of a ‘bright future’ for the anti-independence forces.

As Gen Zia gradually consolidated his power and transformed himself into a political leader, he introduced his own style of politics, which appeared as a blessing for anti-independence forces and religion-based political parties. Gen Zia amended the constitution through martial law proclamations in 1977, lifting a constitutional ban on religion-based politics. This opened the door for anti-independence political parties, including JI, to resume activities in independent Bangladesh. JI and some other parties had been constitutionally banned after the country’s independence for their role against the country’s independence war in 1971.

The BNP led by Khaleda forged an unofficial compromise with the anti-independence force JI in some constituencies in the parliamentary election in 1991 to defeat AL. Following the pact, the BNP extended support to some JI-backed candidates, while it returned the favour to BNP in the same way.

After Khaleda-led BNP won the 1991 elections, it appointed Abdur Rahman Biswas, known as a ‘peace committee’ member during the freedom struggle, as the speaker of the parliament. Within six months, he was elected president of Bangladesh on BNP’s nomination in October 1991. In doing so, Khaleda followed the footsteps of her late husband Zia who had made Biswas a minister of his cabinet in 1979.

Khaleda, however, took it to the next level. During Gen Zia’s regime, anti-independence politicians were given important positions in the government only after they had joined the BNP. Her BNP formed an electoral alliance with JI before the 2001 parliamentary elections. She shared power with JI directly after winning the polls, by inducting JI’s Ameer Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mohammad Mojaheed into her cabinet, giving them important portfolios. Together they waged unprecedented violent street agitations in several phases against the AL-led government since 2013 and in early 2015, but their agitations failed.

Khaleda faced tremendous pressure in the past to cut ties with JI. But she never conceded to the pressure. Now, the crucial question is: will the ‘uncompromising’ leader change her mind for the sake of national unity in the wake of these terror attacks?

The answer most likely will be no, as she still strongly favours her party’s ties with JI even after so many developments in the political arena in the last six years since the beginning of the trial of war criminals in 2010. What are the lessons of the politics of the last six years for the BNP leader to learn?

Whatever may be the weakness of the war crimes trial people have extended their support to the trial even if nearly 40 years late. For its role in 1971, the JI has been dubbed as a terrorist organisation in several judgements delivered by the International Criminal Tribunal of Bangladesh. Its registration as a parliamentary party with the Election Commission was scrapped by the High Court in 2013 as JI’s objectives stipulated in its charter run counter to the country’s constitution. It means JI is now disqualified to contest the parliamentary election.

Yet, how does Khaleda, chief of one of the major political parties in Bangladesh, still favour keeping her party’s ties with JI when many of her party’s leaders blame the party’s present sorry state for maintaining ties with the anti-independence force?

Khaleda, whose role in the anti-Ershad movement was laudable must now rethink her politics. Her strong role in anti-autocracy struggle was lauded by people who honoured her by voting BNP to power in the parliamentary elections held in 1991. She was re-elected prime minister in 2001. The records show she should rely on people to lead her party, instead of JI, to lead her BNP to the power again.

Considering the ground political reality, therefore, the BNP chief should reassess her current political strategy and come up with a new brand of politics as she promised in her party’s national council a few months ago.

—The Daily Star / Bangladesh

Published in Dawn, July 20th, 2016