The Battle of the Begums

Bangladesh has been in the throes of political turbulence from November 2006 onwards when the term of office of Begum Khaleda Zia came to an end and as per the Constitution, a Caretaker Government was to assume office to supervise the next General Elections which have to be held within ninety days. The first dispute arose when the previous Chief Justice of Bangladesh who as per law was to head the Caretaker Government declined to do so on grounds of ill health. The offer then should have gone to the Chief Justice who held office prior to the one who declined. But the President of Bangladesh himself assumed the office of Head of the Caretaker Government which was severely criticized by the Opposition parties alliance led by Begum Sheikh Hasina. Thereafter political disputes arose over the constitution of the Election Commission and that polls were going to be held on the basis of incomplete electoral rolls. Massive political demonstrations organized by the Opposition parties paralyzed normal life in Dhaka and elsewhere in Bangladesh. At the time of this writing the political disputes do not seem to have been fully resolved.

Bangladesh has become noted for 'The Battle of the Begums' and the political space and leadership of Bangladesh is hotly contested by the two Begums, namely, Begum Khaleda Zia who heads the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and is the outgoing Prime Minister, and Begum Sheikh Hasina Wajid who heads the main Opposition party, the Awami League (AL). Both the Begums are implacable political foes and their irreconcilable political differences add bitterness to the political divide in Bangladesh. Their differences are both political and personal.

Begum Khaleda Zia came into power as Prime Minister in October 2001 after displacing Begum Sheikh Hasina as Prime Minister with a landslide victory of capturing a two-thirds majority in Parliament in coalition with Islamist parties like the Jammat-e-Islami and the Islamic Okiye Jote. The presence of Islamist parties in Government seems to have led to the criticism against Begum Zia that during her tenure Bangladesh seems to have witnessed rising Islamic extremism, terrorism and use of Bangladesh territory as safe havens for Islamic terrorist organizations from Pakistan to launch terrorist activities against India. Her tenure coincided with the displacement of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda from Afghanistan by the Americans.

There are reports that Al Qaeda fugitives arrived in Bangladesh via Pakistan for sanctuaries. Consequently, violence and political assassinations by Islamist outfits became widespread and also calls by such groups for Talibanisation of Bangladesh. It was only in the last year or so that Begum Zia ordered some strict action against such groups under strong international pressure especially from the United States.

Begum Sheikh Hasina was in power as Prime Minister of Bangladesh from 1996 to 2001. She managed to sign an agreement with India on the contentious Farraka Barrage water sharing issue. While she undertook some reforms in the education and social fields, her Government in later years came to be associated with notorious corrupt elements of her party. This seems to have cost her heavily in the 2001 elections when she was displaced by Begum Zia with a two thirds majority. Sheikh Hasina's party could secure only 62 seats in 2001 against her winning 148 seats in 1996.

A comparison between the two Begums would now be in order. Begum Sheikh Hasina Wajid is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman who was the founding father of Bangladesh and who was assassinated along with his wife and three children in a military coup in 1975. Sheikh Hasina and a younger sister escaped assassination as they were away on a visit to Germany. She was in exile in India for nearly six years and returned to Bangladesh in 1981 and assumed the leadership of the Awami League and entered active politics.

Begum Khaleda Zia is the widow of the late General Ziaur Rehman who himself was a liberation hero having declared Bangladesh's independence on radio while still serving with the Pakistan Army. He became Bangladesh Army Chief of Army Staff and later founded the BNP political party on whose ticket he became the President. He too was killed in a military coup in 1981. She was not politically active during her husband's lifetime and took over the reins of the BNP only after her husband's assassination.

So in terms of credentials in relation to Bangladesh's liberation from Pakistani yoke both the Begums have an impeccable record of their loved ones having fought for it.

Both the Begums suffered grievous personal losses as in the case of Begum Hasina her entire family was wiped out and in the case of Begum Zia her husband was wiped out. In both cases the deaths of their loved ones was for political reasons. It also requires to be noted, that both the Begums launched political struggles and fought to topple General Ershad's military regime and bring back democracy to Bangladesh.

However their personal differences arose from the actions of Begum Zia's husband having revoked the sentences of Begum Hasina's father's killers while as President of Bangladesh. The divide between them also gets linked to the domestic rivalry within Bangladesh between those who struggled politically for long against Pakistan and suffered incarceration and those who joined the battle of liberation while being uniformed men when liberation took off as an armed struggle.

Begum Hasina's years in exile in India after her father's assassination is used as a political weapon by her opponents to label her as a pro-Indian and her political policies as being soft towards India. Conversely, Begum Zia is shown up politically as a leader who can stand up to India. It would not be far wrong to perceive a Pakistani hand in this political game as the Pakistanis and the Pakistan Army in particular have never forgiven Begum Hasina's father, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman for breaking up Pakistan.

The forthcoming elections in Bangladesh are likely to once again being marked by acid bitterness and rancor between the two Begums. Both are patriotic Bangladeshis and both have suffered grievous personal losses due to political reasons. If only both could overcome their bitterness and contribute to the uplift of their masses Bangladesh would benefit immensely.   


More by :  Dr. Subhash Kapila

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