The Battle of the Begums Comes to a Head

Bangladesh's 'Battle of The Begums' was analyzed in this column a couple of weeks back and in a preceding Column the political turbulence that prevailed in the run-up to the General Elections which were due in the last week of January 2007. It would be recalled that the President of Bangladesh, Iajuddin Ahmed had assumed the office of Head of the Caretaker Government when the former Chief Justice declined to head the Caretaker Government as required by the Constitution.

Begum Sheikh Hasina thereafter spearheaded massive protests against the above move as the Constitution required that the preceding Chief Justice to the one who declined should have been the next to be offered the office of heading the Caretaker Government and that the President had no constitutional right to assume that office in addition to his duties. The situation was further compounded when a number of Advisers and Election Commissioners resigned in protest against the President's moves. It was charged that he was acting on the behest of the outgoing Prime Minister so as to have in place a compliant Caretaker Government biased in favor of Begum Khaleda Zia. It was also being alleged that the elections due on January 22 were being scheduled without a complete revision of the electoral rolls and that this was being done to favor the political combine of Begum Khaleda Zia.

The spiraling political demonstrations that followed virtually paralyzed the capital city of Dhaka prompting the President to call in the Bangladesh Army to control the situation which was sliding out of control. This move did not ease the political demonstrations against the President as Head of the Caretaker Government.

Increasingly it was becoming evident that political brinkmanship to the extreme was being indulged by both sides and that danger did lurk that if this slide-down was not averted the possibility of some sort of Army Rule in Bangladesh might become inevitable. In view of the worsening political situation the Bangladesh Army asked for Special Powers of arrest and detention during the election schedule so as to control interference or impeding of elections on the scheduled date. These powers were given to them.

Sensing that the Awami League would not resile from its demand of boycotting elections if the President would not step down as Head of the Caretaker Government and that democracy stood endangered both by the political confrontation and the looming widespread political violence that would be generated by political demonstrations and siege of Dhaka by the Awami League, the international community stepped in.

The United Nations and the European Community intimated their decision of suspension of activity of their observers deputed for monitoring the impending Bangladesh Elections. They maintained that the ongoing political crisis in Bangladesh had placed in jeopardy the very legitimacy of the Bangladesh Elections process. It is also reported that the United Nations informed Bangladesh President that if the Bangladesh Army was mobilized for the elections then they would be forced to dispense with the services of Bangladesh Army observers and contingents serving on UN peacekeeping missions. This seems to have had a salutary effect.

On January 11,2007 the Bangladesh President bowing to international and domestic political pressure stepped down from the office of Head of the Caretaker Government, declared a State of Emergency and postponed the elections due for January 22, 2007. Addressing the nation the Bangladesh President announced that he had taken these steps to ' pave the way for an acceptable election to be participated in by all political parties.'

It is also reported from Dhaka that all Presidential Advisers had handed over their resignations and that Supreme Court Justice Mohd. Fazlul Haque took over as acting chief of the Caretaker Government.

All these developments do not mark the end of the crisis as many crucial constitutional issues arising from this unprecedented political crisis remain to be resolved beginning from who assumes the office of Head of the Caretaker Government, the appointment of mutually acceptable Advisers and Election Commissioners and the revision of the electoral rolls. Further, the move back to the barracks of the Bangladesh Army.

While the Awami League claims these developments as its political victory , it may be too premature for it to crow its victory as its political opponents have yet to reveal their next cards. After all they too can play the game of agitating politics in reverse especially when they have the cadres of the Islamist parties at their disposal as their coalition alliance partners.

In the politically turbulent times that lie ahead in Bangladesh till the General Elections are finally held and a regular government assumes office, one can expect that India-bashing would be a favorite pastime of Begum Sheikh Hasina's political opponents. Murmurs emanate from these quarters in Bangladesh that India is behind the political brinkmanship of the Awami League and the present political turbulence.

On the contrary, in India it is being perceived that the ULFA violent killings in Assam last week are somehow linked to the political turbulence in Bangladesh and as their reaction to their perceptions of an Indian role in their troubles.

Political turbulence in Bangladesh can only subside when the 'Battle of the Begums' ends. It would be a pity and a tragic political irony that democracy in Bangladesh trying hard to emerge as a moderate Muslim state may stand sacrificed to what seems as irreversible and implacable political hostility between the two Begums.


More by :  Dr. Subhash Kapila

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