Democracy under attack in Bangladesh

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Democracy under attack in Bangladesh

Saturday, 09 September 2023 | Hiranmay Karlekar

Democracy under attack in Bangladesh

There were sustained, murderous attacks on not only Awami League leaders and activists but on all secular and democratic public figures

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has whipped up a frenzy in some quarters with its claim that the Awami League government has paralysed the Opposition and is set to rig the country’s forthcoming parliamentary elections. One needs to examine its own record when it was in power from 2001 to 2006 in coalition with Bangladesh Jama’at-e-Islami (Jama’at), known as Jama’at-e-Islami Bangladesh prior to its banning on August 1, 2013, by Bangladesh’s High Court on the ground that its ideology conflicted with the secular nature of the country’s Constitution. Bangladesh’s Supreme Court had rejected the party’s appeal on August 5.

The party had aided the Pakistani army’s atrocities during the 1971 liberation war. Given space constraints, I would restrict my focus on the efforts by the coalition government, under the prime ministership of Begum Khaleda Zia, to “paralyse” the Opposition during their stint in power. There were sustained, murderous attacks on not only Awami League leaders and activists but on all secular and democratic public figures and intellectuals. Muhammad Yunus of Rajshahi University, a distinguished scholar, was killed on December 24, 2004. According to a report in The Daily Star (March 20, 2005), the investigation virtually stalled after the police found that one of the accused was an activist of the Islami Chhatra Shibir, Jama’at’s students’ front organization.

The highly respected writer, critic and scholar, Professor Humayun Azad of Dhaka University was near-fatally attacked with choppers on February 27, 2004, in Dhaka.  He survived and travelled to Munich on a PEN fellowship on August 9, 2004. He died there on August 12 following a heart attack. An editorial in The Daily Star (February 29, 2004) stated that political intolerance was the driving force behind the attack, and added that the “victim must have exposed himself to the fury of obscurantism and fundamentalism through his write-ups.” Before his murder, Azad was viciously attacked by fundamentalist Islamists in Bangladesh for his latest book. Begum Khaleda Zia, however, blamed the Awami League for the attack at a public meeting in Savar in the outskirts of Dhaka on February 29. Significantly, while not questioning any of the fundamentalists who had lashed out against Azad, the police arrested an Awami League student leader. A grenade attack on a Awami League rally at Baidyer Bazar in Habiganj in Sylhet district killed one of Bangladesh’s most respected public figures, diplomat-turned-scholar and finance minister in Sheikh Hasina’s first government (1996-2001), SAMS Kibria, along with four others, on January 27, 2005. All the ten arrested were linked to the BNP, one of them being a local leader. The slain former minister’s widow, Asma Kibria, said that the nation needed to know the names of those who ordered the killing. The absence of a free hand prevented the investigations from reaching the level at which it could name them. She demanded an investigation by the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Ahsanullah Master, an Awami League MP and president of the party’s labour front organisation, Shramik League, was murdered on May 7, 2004.  The most shocking attack, which caused international furore, was, however, the grenade blast on an Awami League rally in Dhaka’s Bangabandhu Avenue on August 21, 2004. The aim was to cripple the Awami league by murdering Sheikh Hasina and the entire top leadership of the party which was present on the occasion. Sheikh Hasina survived with injuries whose effects she feels even now. At least 24 persons were killed and around 300 persons injured. Among those killed was Ivy Rehman, president of Bangladesh Mahila Awami League and wife of Zillur Rehman, then the party’s general secretary and subsequently Bangladesh’s president. Those injured included frontline Awami League leaders Abdul Razzak, Amir Hussain Amu, Suranjit Sengupta, Kazi Zafrullah, Mohammad Nasim, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, Sahara Khatun and Dhaka city mayor, Mohammad Hanif.

After many vicissitudes, investigations led to trial and Judge Shahed Nuruddin of Speedy Trial Tribunal-1 pronounced his verdict on October 10, 2018. The judgement, which is under appeal, stated that terrorist organisation Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Bangladesh perpetrated the outrage in collaboration with some senior officials of Bangladesh’s Home Ministry, police, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the National Security Intelligence, and the Prime Minister’s Office. The judge sentenced 19 persons, including former state Minister for Home Lutfuzzaman Babar, to death and 19 others, including BNP acting chairman Tarique Rahman, to life imprisonment. 

The grenade attack was a part of a wider campaign. According to a report in The Daily Star (April 3, 2004), Sheikh Hasina said at two public rallies on April 2 that 26,000 workers were killed across Bangladesh since the BNP-Jama’at government came into power. She said, that “to hang on to power”, the government was trying to “strangle the Opposition by killing our leaders and workers.” One can argue that the figure she sighted is very high and exaggerated. But the violence unleashed even on academics and civil society activists during the BNP-Jama’at regime and the attempt to eliminate the Awami League as a political party through the grenade attack on April 21, 2004, lends her words an undeniable ring of plausibility.

(The author is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer. The views expressed are personal)

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