Bangladesh 'Minus Two' to 'Plus Two'

Political turmoil wracked Bangladesh with the arrest of Sheikh Hasina on charges of extortion followed by grant of bail by the High Court on 30 July and its sustenance by the Supreme Court. Earlier army-led joint forces (sic) had arrested the former prime minister and Awami League president in a pre-dawn raid on her Sudha Sadan residence in Dacca on 16 July. The law adviser to the interim government, Mainul Hosein, said the arrest was a 'legal compulsion'. 'Had she not been arrested, she would have been shown absconding,' Mainul said 13 cases had been filed against Hasina and she had been arrested in a case filed by a 'common citizen'. 'There is no scope to consider the case a political one.' This was followed by formal charges against Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana on 24 July.

It was mentioned in the charge sheet that Sheikh Hasina and Sheikh Rehana were involved in extorting about Tk 3 Crore from Azam Jahangir Chowdhury, managing director of East Coast Private Limited, after the latter was awarded a bid to install a power plant at Siddhirganj in Narayanganj in 2000. The Awami League leadership in the absence of Hasina appointed, Zillur Rahman as the acting President. Zillur launched a political campaign across the country in muted tones due to restrictions urging leaders and activists to unite in the face of crisis. 

Hasina was granted bail by the High Court on 31 July but will remain in custody on similar charges in another charge in the Noor Ali case and the Appellate authority of the Supreme Court has also stayed the High Court order till 14 August. The former prime minister, who has been critical of the interim government in recent times, spoke for more than 40 minutes on the dock. She alleged that the case was a scheme to disqualify her from running in the next general elections and accused the government of hatching a conspiracy against democracy. Sheikh Hasina has been outspoken in accusing intelligence officials of running the country and subverting the political process. 

The arrest followed a spate of protests across the country. BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia on 18 July demanded immediate release of her detained political rival Hasina for the sake of removing the scope for social unrest and political instability. On 21 July Expatriate Bangladeshis, including supporters of both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, in United States, Europe and the Middle East launched vigorous campaigns to mobilize public opinion overseas against the arrest of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and harassment of the other ex-primer and her arch rival Khaleda Zia. Sajib Wazed Joy, son of detained Awami League president Sheikh Hasina contacted US congressmen and people in the State Department asking them to persuade Bangladesh government to free his mother and restore democracy. The BNP has also appointed a famous law firm to lobby the senators and congressmen and US media over the political developments in Bangladesh. Students and teachers of the Dhaka University, Rajshahi University and Islamic University in Kushtia observed a five-hour work abstention on 22 July to register their protest against the harassment of the two former prime ministers. The American Acting Ambassador gave a call for restoration of political activity, which could be seen as an indication to the Caretaker Administration to get its political act together.

The strident stand taken by Sheikh Hasina in the past few weeks had made her arrest inevitable. This was also indicated by the opposition to her within her own party which had stated that she should not annoy the Caretaker Administration. The last few days she had also commented on restrictions on her move. The Caretaker administration's moves appear to be ill advised at present as such arrests will only add to increasing attacks on credibility of the administration. While corruption against all people should be pursued, this cannot be seen as a campaign of witch hunt against top leaders.

The arrest of Sheikh Hasina also placed the process of reforms being undertaken by the two principal parties, Awami League and BNP in a limbo. In the initial stages the reforms which many say had been sponsored by the government were working well as both the AL and BNP announced moves for greater inner party democracy and down grading role of the party presidents. The Caretaker Administration is in all probability attempting to split the BNP and the AL as both parties have prominent dissident groups which some sources indicate have been propped up by intelligence agencies. What ever be the course, both Khaleda and Sheikh Hasina are likely to put up heavy resistance which will see the political battle lines drawn in Bangladesh over the next few months. While leadership of the Jatiya Party was successfully undermined, moves to arrest Sheikh Hasina made the leaders including the dissidents' wary leading to a temporary truce between the two lobbies.

Unless the Caretaker Administration reviews its political strategy, its recent moves may contribute to greater unity between the traditional rivals and strengthen their political base at the grass roots, resulting in 'Minus Two' becoming, 'Plus Two'.


More by :  Col. Rahul K. Bhonsle

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