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HVK Archives: Walking on eggshells - Early warning signs in Bangladesh

Walking on eggshells - Early warning signs in Bangladesh - The Indian Express

Chanchal Sarkar ()
30 October 1997

Title: Walking on eggshells - Early warning signs in Bangladesh
Author: Chanchal Sarkar
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: October 30, 1997

As a mild winter descends slowly on Bangladesh the opposition, specifically
the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) which ran the last administration,
braces itself to wreck some very crucial government decisions. A new Army
Chief of Staff must be named in a matter of weeks or the present Chief s
term extended. At long last, a pact with the rebel Chakma hill people has
been drafted and will probably be signed sometime in November. Bangladesh
is hosting a 'summit' on business and trade, also in November, in which the
invited participants will be Pakistan and India. Bus travel between
Bangladesh and India will most likely begin and signal the beginning of
road transit, though Indian Railway wagons are already rolling through

If the BNP is to hit Sheikh Hasina's Awami League government for a six, as
it is desperate to do, it must strongly fight all the four likely
developments and strain every nerve to destabilise the government. Hence
its call for cyclic and continuous bandhs and the shrill harping on
"selling the country to a foreign power", "giving away Bangladeshi land to
alien tribespeople", "withdrawing the Army from the Chittagong Hill Tracts
(CHT), leaving the area open to penetration and terrorism, not to speak of
encouraging invasion by a "huge neighbour", maybe a boycott of Parliament
and so on.

The present Army Chief was appointed after his predecessor blotted his
copybook and was sacked. Though almost everyone I spoke with feels that the
Army is not intent on taking over the country and that neither the
international community nor, much more importantly, the people of
Bangladesh would like such a takeover, the Army remains a volatile and
uncohesive force. Besides the known hostility between the mukti jodhdhas
(Freedom Fighters) and the repatriates (from Pakistan) there are other
groups as well. President Ershad ladled a lot of perks onto the rank and
file and so he and his party find quite strong support among the other
ranks. The BNP was Zia-ur-Rahman's creation and Khaleda Zia is more or less
a 'cantonment daughter' and she too has a chunk of Army support. In any
event, most of the senior officials in the Army trace their descent to the
Pakistan Army. For all these reasons, the appointment of a Chief is both
tricky and sensitive.

President Zia was for swamping tribespeople like the Chakmas of the CHT
with migrants from places in lower Bangladesh like Noakhali. He also
favoured what one could call a military solution, not a political one. In
the military occupation of the last few years, the social fabric of the
Chakmas has been shattered and they have been driven to rebellion and
despair. Zia's torch has been taken up by Khaleda Zia, who says she is
alarmed and angry at the accord hammered out between the Chakma rebels and
the Awami League government to end a long and bloody conflict. Khaleda's
view is that India abets the rebels and that thinning the Army presence in
the CHT would be suicidal for Bangladesh.

As for transit rights, the BNP is solidly against concessions of any kind
to India. Even the only working arrangement so far, the one on sharing
water, is criticised strongly by the BNP as having, among other drawbacks,
no guarantees or procedures for arbitration and is labelled as symptomatic
of the Awami League's subservience to India. Incidentally, some last-minute
glitches have held up the signing of the road transport agreement. The last
event on the calendar, the business summit, might give Sheikh Hasina's
government a high profile in the subcontinent. That would, of course, be
extremely distasteful to the BNP. It is a delicate summit which comes at a
time when domestic investment is low, foreign investment much less than
expected and exports sluggish.

Apart from the forthcoming events listed, one more development which
Khaleda Zia's party must confront is the trial of Sheikh Mujib's alleged
assassins, which has begun and is reported at length in the Press every
day. With its many witnesses and with some of the accused skulking abroad,
the trial. might take two years or more. What emerges from the evidence
might prove extraordinarily damaging to the reputation of General
Zia-ur-Rahman, not to speak of several other officers and civilians, some
even from the Awami League. The BNP will, of course, do everything it can
to stop the trial if it captures power before the end of this Parliament's
term. Failing that, it must somehow sanitise the evidence.

Against this wrecking strategy of the BNP, the Awami League has to walk on
eggshells. At the last election, it had almost 34 per cent of votes and is
therefore a strong electoral rival for power. The label of 'India-lover' is
one that the Awami League wears like a hair-shirt and is at pains to shrug
off. So the present Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujib's daughter, will
definitely not implement his four principles of Bangladesh state policy -
nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism.

For Bangladesh's Hindu minority of some 13 million, the most wounding blow
is the Enemy Property Order 11 of 1965, passed by a hostile Pakistani
government during the Indo-Pak war. Under it, the government took over for
leasing the land and property of Hindus who migrated or escaped from
Bangladesh. Despite liberation and several changes of rule, this draconian
law still survives under a softer name: the Vested Property Act. I
understood that the Awami League government had stopped notifying any new
property under the Act even though the early notifications stood. However,
the foremost authority in Bangladesh on the Act, Abul Barkat, told me that
notifications are still taking place and that very recently Sheikh Hasina
declined to sign a progressive order on the law put up to her. So much for
the minorities in today's Bangladesh.

The BNP middle class is often described as strongly Islamist. In public
meetings the BNP used the Islamic card to the hilt. During the last
election campaign Begum Zia was reported to have said at a public meeting
that a vote for the Awami League meant that conchshell blowing and
ululation (a sound Hindu women make with their tongues on auspicious
occasions) would be heard in the mosques. I wanted to check with Chief
Election Commissioner Abu Hena if this did not amount to a serious
electoral misdemeanour. I rang him. Unfortunately he was out, and I had a
plane to catch.

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