Forty years of Bangladesh dream lost and gained

Looking for succour: With a growing population looking for more opportunities at home, it is high time the political establishment in Bangladesh steers clear of internal dissent.

The fight for an independent Bangladesh started exactly forty years ago — on March 26, 1971 — when Pakistan’s military rulers unleashed their vicious army on innocent Bengalis and started a genocide unprecedented in the post-colonial world. The Bengalis wanted autonomy, a share of power  and an end to the exploitation of their resources in Pakistan.

The Awami League was no party of revolution and had no organisational structure to foment armed rebellion. But when it was denied power even after winning 170 seats out of 300 in the Pakistan National Assembly, its great leader “Bangabandhu” Sheikh Mujibur Rehman took the podium at the historic Ramna Maidan in Dhaka on March 7, 1971 and declared independence. The subsequent genocide unleashed by the Pakistanis that left 2.5 million Bengalis dead and half a million Bengali women raped in eight months forced the Bengalis to started the armed campaign for independence with Indian help. The rest is history. The birth of Bangladesh marked the end of one of the few successful separatist campaigns in recent times. The 1972 constitution of Bangladesh buried the ghost of the two-nation theory that had created Pakistan, but within three years the process of undoing the Pakistani legacy was undone by a military coup that led to the assasination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman. After that, two successive military regimes brought about major changes to the country’s polity that led some to say that Bangladesh’s was an “unfinished revolution”. But the efforts to Islamise the polity and politics of Bangladesh failed to suppress the spirit of 1971.

Crack down on radicals

So when the military-dominated caretaker government, under global pressure, organised a relatively free and fair election in December 2008, the Awami League swept to power with a landslide victory, the alliance led by it winning 235 of the 300 seats in the Jatiyo Sangsad (National parliament). The new government cracked down hard on Islamic radicals, banned the works of Jamiat founder Maulana Moudidi, initiated the 1971 war crimes trial that put most Jamiat and many BNP leaders on the dock for the killings and atrocities of 1971 and pushed out all rebel groups from Northeast India who had found sanctuary in Bangladesh during the military regimes. Sheikh Hasina, backed by the secular judiciary, has initiated a process to bring back the 1972 constitution in letter and spirit. The task will not be easy and Hasina lives in the perpetual fear of an assassination but she is taking all the risks to restore the ‘spirit of 1971’.

The restoration of democracy and secularism in a dominant Muslim country must not be lost on India and the West. Though, sadly, that is often the case. And Delhi and Washington must realise that Hasina and her party is intensely nationalist and Bengali in its bearings and though it will deliver for friends, it will never succumb to pressure. Now while Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is alleged to have reshuffled his cabinet in 2006 under US pressure – replacing Mani Shankar Aiyar with Murli Deora as petroleum minister – Sheikh Hasina has refused to buckle under it on the issue of reinstating micro-finance guru Mohammed Yunus. American sources say US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton may call off a possible visit to Dhaka and Hasina may not get to meet President Barack Obama during her Washington visit later in April to attend the World Islamic Forum.
Media reports about Hilary Clinton admonishing Sheikh Hasina in rather threatening language suggests that the Bangladesh prime minister is under huge pressure and by all indications she has not yet buckled under it. For those aware about how the US conducts its foreign policy, neither the WikiLeaks disclosure about the 2006 Indian cabinet reshuffle nor media reports about Hilary Clinton's threats to Sheikh Hasina comes as a surprise.

Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work in rural micro-credit, has faced much criticism from the Bangladesh government and in sections of the country’s media since the broadcast of a Norwegian documentary in December 2010. The documentary claimed that Yunus had “quietly tapped” the Grameen Bank for $48 million of Norwegian aid money. Hasina reportedly called Yunus a “blood sucker” and set up a wide-ranging inquiry into the activities of the Grameen bank. On March 2, the Bangladesh Bank issued an order saying that Yunus, 70 years old, must step down as managing director of Grameen Bank, because the bank had failed to get its approval for reappointing him, as required by law that formally set up the bank. Yunus challenged the central bank’s authority and questioned why authorities had acted only now, 12 years after the appointment. The Supreme Court will deliver a verdict on the appeal soon, but the US wants Yunus to be reinstated before the court rules. The great advocates of the rule of law have no problem undermining the judicial system in Bangladesh when it suits them.

Corrupt politics

Recently, speaking via video to a microfinance conference in Washington, Yunus claimed the government was attempting to take control of the bank for political reasons. That  is debatable because the Bangladesh government says it is only implementing a high court order. But there is no doubt that Hasina and the Awami League are on the offensive against Yunus because he tried to set up a political party in 2007 after winning the Nobel Prize. Yunus said he was doing that to clean up Bangladesh's notoriously corrupt politics, but Hasina alleged that the Nobel laureate was actually a “political front” for the country’s powerful military establishment and was being set up by the US. Going by the interventionist US role to protect Yunus in his position as Grameen Bank supremo, Hasina may have had good reasons to feel the way she did.

Western intellectuals and the press and many in the Obama administration see the Yunus-Hasina spat as personal. That’s not the case. Hasina once told me that she was under no pressure to repay a loan to Yunus, so why should she be personally upset with him. The rivalry is intensely political, because Hasina sees Yunus as someone the US and other vested interests may foist on her government at some point. And the US is only aggravating it by trying to pressurise Hasina to reinstate Yunus. Hasina believes the US played a major role in the 1975 military coup that killed her father Sheikh Mujib and most members of her close-knit family, including her brother Russel. Like most of her countrymen, she loathes the US for its support to the blood thirsty Pakistani military regime in 1971. The US does not seem to learn. It continues to obstruct the 1971 war crimes trial (as alleged by leading anti-fundamentalist campaigner Shahriyar Kabir recently) even as it pursues similar war crimes trials across the world. The suspicion about US motives runs deep in Bangladesh.

Hilary Clinton has only touched a raw nerve by intervening on Yunus’ behalf. The micro-finance guru may have legions of supporters in his own country and the West but he will only do his own cause great harm by getting the Clintons and the Obamas to fight his battle. Bangladesh is a Muslim country, but it is also a Bengali country, poor but proud of its anti-colonial legacies. It is also difficult to see how the US can promote its “war against terror” by fuelling a spat between two iconic figures in an impoverished Muslim country when one could provide the symbol and the other could provide the substance for a national political culture based on liberalism and socio-economic justice.

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