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Posts Tagged ‘Sheikh Hasina

Hasina’s government introduced religious education in state schools, edited out literature that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and recognised Qawmi Madrasa degrees


Dhaka’s historic Suhrawardy Park was quite the set of a spectacle last month. The smiling Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, sat comfortably on the dais, her neatly pinned golden pallu covering half her head. The man seated beside her had his entire head and face covered with a white scarf. Maulana Shah Ahmad Shafi is the leader of the radical Islamist group, Hefajote Islam, and talking to women or even looking at them is against Hefajote’s code of conduct. In a first, though, he was sharing stage with a woman. What is more, he even bestowed on her an honorific — Qawmi Janani or mother of the qaum (in this case, the Islamic collective as well as the nation).

Qawmi Madrasas are Islamic seminaries. There are around 14,000 of them in Bangladesh and their teachings are considered orthodox, nudging the country’s youth towards a radical path. Hasina had announced last year that the Dawra-e-Hadith, the highest qaumi degree, will now be recognised as a postgraduation degree in Islamic Studies and Arabic. That day in November, the chairman of the Qawmi Madrasah Education Board said: “You are the ‘Mother of Qawmi’. If you were not there… people who are the Jamaat, pro-Moududis would not let it happen.”

In the run-up to the December 30 general elections, Bangladesh has witnessed an ideological flip-flop of sorts. The secular ruling party, Awami League, has been cosying up to the Islamists, while the main Opposition led by Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has joined hands with the secular alliance, Jatiya Oikya Front.

“Indeed, this election has thrown up big surprises. The two big parties have made a major shift in their political ideologies,” says Jatiya Oikya Front head Kamal Hossain, who is a freedom fighter and former Awami League leader. He asserts it is the Awami League’s changing political ideology that has forced secular parties to form an alliance against Hasina. Hossain adds, “If she were committed to the secular, liberal and socialist ethos of Bangladesh, and not pandering to the Islamists, we would have had no need to form this front.”

Indeed, Hasina’s proximity to the Islamists has increased during her last two terms as prime minister. In 2011, the Bangladeshi Parliament passed a bill seeking retention of Islam as the state religion, as well as the phrase “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” in the Constitution, both legacies of the military regime of 1988. In 2017, Hasina’s government introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and, most recently, recognised the Qawmi Madrasa degrees.

Hasina also gave in to the demand of the Hefajote Islam to remove the Statue of Justice outside the Supreme Court building — a blindfolded woman dressed in a sari — on the grounds that it was idolatry and, therefore, un-Islamic. And when Islamist forces threatened and killed atheist bloggers, she said nothing. “The muted reactions to the blogger killings in 2015 and warnings to bloggers to restrain themselves instead of protecting them, indicate how her government tries to appease radical Islamists,” says Bangladeshi journalist and blogger Supriti Dhar.

Typically, it was the BNP that courted the Islamists. To be more specific, the Islamist religious and political party, Jamaat-e-Islami. In 1991, Jamaat had bagged 18 seats and emerged as a power player. It had extended support to the BNP to form government. In the 1996 elections, it nominated 300 candidates but won only three seats. But in 2001 it once again bagged 17 seats.

So how would one explain the BNP’s current altered stance? Former Election Commissioner, Brigadier M. Sakhawat Hossain, puts it all down to poll strategy. Says Maruf Mallick, political analyst and visiting research fellow at the University of Bonn, Germany, “The BNP was never interested in an alliance with the secularists… It was compelled to do so because party chief Khaleda Zia is in jail and there is a leadership crisis.”

Mallick asserts that the Awami League too has used religion in election campaigns before this. During the 1996 elections, the Awami League used a part of the Islamic Kalma, La Ilaha Illallah and rhymed it with Noukar Malik Tui Allah (Allah is the owner of boat) for its election slogan. (The boat is the election symbol of the Awami League.) In that campaign, a portrait of Hasina wearing a headscarf and holding a tasbih — a string of holy beads — was widely used in posters. According to Brigadier Hossain, the Awami League started to woo the anti-Jamaat Islamist groups in right earnest from 2001.

Political scientist Ali Riaz points out that the Awami League is indulging Hefajote Islam because it wants to bring the Islamist forces into its fold and deprive the Opposition of their support. Also, the party doesn’t want to look un-Islamic in a bid to be secular. “Hasina wants to bank on these Islamists who have the capacity to mobilise people especially Qawmi Madrasa students and teachers in large numbers,” says Riaz, who is also distinguished professor of Political Science at the United States’ Illinois State University.

There have been rumours that some members of Hefajote Islam wanted to contest elections but it didn’t happen because of a conflict between two factions of the group. Hefajote’s secretary-general Junaid Babunagri tells The Telegraph, “We are an apolitical organisation. We have no role to play in the elections.”

An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka.
An Awami League supporter carries a photograph of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during an election rally in Dhaka. (AP)

No matter what the official line, there can be no denying that Hefajote has benefited from having a sympathetic ruling party. To begin with, the government stopped pursuing cases against Qawmi Madrasa leaders — many of them had been accused of organising religious clashes, giving hate speeches against bloggers, threatening bloggers and molesting minors. Liberal thinkers, political opponents and human rights activists were targeted instead. Lawyer Sara Hossain stresses how even after a landslide victory in 2009 and initial pledges of zero tolerance for rights violations, the government didn’t live up to the principles of the Constitution. There were several cases of abuse of human rights; Hasina also resorted to regressive laws such as the Digital Security Act to attack free speech. Says Sara, “The government tried to segregate the country into two parts — people who are for the government and those against it. People who are against Hasina were labelled enemies of the state.” According to her, even now, the official narrative is — if you don’t support the Awami League, you don’t love your country and you are anti-Liberation.”

It must be understood that in Bangladesh, politics is always being played on the basis of who supported the Liberation movement of 1971 and who didn’t. Jamaat being an anti-Liberation force was always kept at an arm’s length by Hasina.

Jamaat had won two out of the 300 parliamentary seats in the 2008 elections. But its registration as a political party was cancelled in 2013. This time, some Jamaat members are fighting on the BNP symbol — the paddy sheaf — but by and large the BNP seems to be distancing itself from Islamists.

Nagorik Oikya is part of the 20-party alliance that includes the BNP. Says convener Mahmudur Rahman Manna, “In the past years, the BNP has been banking on its alliance with Jamaat to bring its Islamist supporters to the polls, but in doing so, it ignored the votes of non-Islamist constituents. This time, it was its strategy to join hands with our secular front to gain maximum advantage because nobody can ignore that there is an anti-incumbency factor against the Awami League and the next big political party is the BNP.”

“If you are talking about the BNP-Jamaat alliance, you are holding the wrong end of the stick,” says BNP leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. “There is a strong anti-Awami League sentiment among the people and we are only giving them a democratic alternative,” he tells The Telegraph over phone.

Both the Jamaat and Hefajote are problematic for Bangladesh, according to political scientist Riaz. “Hefajote Islam is more fanatic than Jamaat, even though there is no denial of the latter’s role in heinous war crimes,” he says. Then adds, “Jamaat is an opportunist Islamist party. It wants a political fight by staying within the secular democracy, unlike Hefajote, which is a regressive party and does not believe in the Constitution.”

Senior Awami League leader Amir Hossain Amu, says, “Hefajote Islam had no role to play in the Liberation War unlike Jamaat, which is internationally known for its role in war crimes.” He asks, “Also, one party [BNP] practiced communal politics for more than 21 years while in power, why don’t you talk about that?” He emphasises that none of the Islamic parties are part of “our grand alliance”. An Islamic Democratic Alliance, however, has been formed to support the Awami League .

No matter how Amu would like to explain away his party’s affiliations, it is evident that, on the one hand, Hasina waged a war against home-grown terror outfits, while on the other, she curried favour with the radicals. “One doesn’t need to organise terrorist attacks if one can radicalise society and Hefajote is doing it by interfering in policy-making,” says Manna of Nagorik Oikya.

Many local observers believe that Hasina’s survival tactics pose a threat to Bangladesh’s secular values and to freedom of religion and belief. Says journalist Dhar, “There is no space left for critical comments about religion. It is the radical Islamists who are shaping public discourse.”

Dhar and many others are afraid the country will be made to pay for this.

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Bangladesh is on a roll; its progress looks unstoppable. Last month, it launched its first ever commercial satellite, Bangabandhu-1, from the Kennedy Space Centre in the United States of America. In March, it successfully met the criteria of the United Nations Committee for Development Policy to graduate from a ‘least developed country’ to a ‘developing country’. By 2041, it will become a ‘developed’ country, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed has promised.

Now, let us do a reality check. To be called ‘developing’, Bangladesh needs to keep this pace of development for the next six years. The UN will give this status finally in 2024, once satisfied. That is not all. Last year, in a report, the Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization revealed that the number of malnourished people in Bangladesh has increased by 7,00,000 over the last 10 years. The report also stated that, as of 2017, at least 2.5 crore people in Bangladesh are malnourished – among the highest in the world.

The strength of any country’s economy can be fathomed by the performance of its banking sector. Here, too, the picture is not promising enough. The amount of non-performing and default loans are on the rise and both State-owned and private banks in Bangladesh are facing a capital deficit. A section of private banks, which mostly got licences with the help of political lobbying, have been accused of money laundering.

These facts, of course, do not figure in Wajed’s speeches when she flaunts the development card at rallies, ahead of the parliamentary polls in December. She even attributes the development to the ‘people’ of Bangladesh, whom she calls her main ‘strength’. What she has failed to understand is that, besides development, the ‘people’ want democracy in the country. The bitter truth is democracy has been deeply compromised during her rule or, at least, the international markers indicate so. In the Transformation Index released in March, the Germany-based Bertelsmann Stiftung criticized Bangladesh for not meeting minimum standards of democracy.

Enforced disappearances, torture and forced detention of political opponents, former diplomats, rights activists and journalists are the new norm in Bangladesh. Last year, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called upon Bangladesh to act immediately to halt the increasing numbers of enforced disappearances in the country. Random arrests to maintain ‘law and order’ are common. Last month, at least 124 suspected drug peddlers were killed in reported gunfights with law enforcement agencies over a fortnight. The US ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Stephens Bloom Bernicat, called on the Awami League-led government to bring the kingpins behind drug peddling to justice without killing. She said that “in a democracy, everyone has the right to due process of law”.

Earlier this year, university students demanding quota reforms in government jobs also faced detention and arrest. In Parliament, the agriculture minister, Matia Chowdhury, even labelled the protesters as the children of war criminals. In February, the Asian Legal Resource Centre, a Hong Kong-based rights organization, noted that custodial “torture has been institutionalised in Bangladesh”.

Curiously, Wajed, who has been called ‘Mother of Humanity’ by the Western press for giving shelter to lakhs of persecuted Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, shies away from answering questions on human rights violations under her rule. A journalist was stopped from asking questions on these issues at a press meet during her visit to London in April. But she answered gladly questions on Bangladesh’s ‘progress and prospects’. The message was clear. Her priority is development, democracy can come later.

Like 2014, this time again, Wajed and her party, the Awami League, want to win unopposed. Such is the desperation to come back to power that the party general secretary, Obaidul Quader, recently went ahead to say, “Victory in the upcoming general elections for Awami League is merely a formality.”

Interestingly, foreign diplomats in Dhaka have taken note of the desperation; they have been repeatedly urging the Awami League government to conduct free and fair elections. They have also asked the election commission to take measures to avoid the boycotts and violence that marred the 2014 elections. Unfortunately, the independence of the commission has been questioned too, and there are reasons for it. During the presidential elections in February, the law minister, Anisul Huq, announced the poll date two days before the EC could formally do it. Soon after, the election commissioner, K.M. Nurul Huda, had to admit the commission is working to regain the trust of the people.

December shall clearly be a testing time for the election commission. But the people of Bangladesh are in a fix too. They do not know if their vote can restore democracy or if they shall have to make do with Wajed’s idea of development for the third time in a row.

 It appeared in The Telegraph, June 27, 2018

Former Bangladesh Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia fears India is distancing itself from its neighbour by supporting the government of Awami League leader Sheikh Hasina. In an exclusive email interview, the Opposition leader, however, stresses that her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) believes in working closely with New Delhi. Would the BNP’s ties with India be affected if Narendra Modi came to power? “It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country,” she replies. Extracts from the interview:

Q: Why did you boycott parliamentary polls in January 2014?A:Our decision not to participate in the election was a principled one. It arose in response to the Awami League’s calculated move to annul the 13th Amendment, in May 2011, to the Constitution which provided for a neutral, non-party caretaker government to oversee general elections and replace it with the 15th Amendment one month later, which provided for elections to be held under a political government while members of Parliament were still in place.The BNP along with the overwhelming majority of the people of Bangladesh opposed the Constitution’s 15th Amendment because of their firm belief that is was susceptible to widespread electoral manipulation. Suffice it to say that our stance was fully vindicated by the people of Bangladesh, who outright rejected the fraudulent election of January 5, 2014… More than half the total parliamentary seats was declared by the Election Commission to have been won “uncontested”, including those of the Speaker and the leader of the Opposition. Election for the remaining seats was a conspicuous sham with an abysmally low voter turnout, around 5 per cent according to reliable estimates.Q:But after boycotting the parliamentary elections, why is the BNP participating in the upazila council elections?

A:The reasons are simple. First, our demand for elections under a non-party caretaker government is for the parliamentary elections, not for elections to the local bodies. Second, elections to local bodies are non-party though the individuals concerned seek a measure of support from political parties. Third, because local body elections are smaller in dimension, scrutiny is easier. Importantly, local elections are not game changing.

Q: What’s your next challenge? Are you in favour of a dialogue with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina?

A:The next big challenge, indeed, the paramount objective of the BNP and its future political programme, is to realise the aspirations of the people of Bangladesh to exercise their right to vote and to freely choose their own representatives. How long can Sheikh Hasina continue to ignore such a deeply rooted public demand and still claim to speak for democracy? She must respond to the people’s demand or take refuge in mounting autocracy.

Q: It seems unlikely that Sheikh Hasina will go for a re-poll before her five-year term ends. Have you lost your chance of ruling Bangladesh?

A:The BNP has consistently and positively responded to all domestic and international calls for dialogue in the face of continuous stalling and intransigence by the Awami League. BNP, like the people of Bangladesh, believes it is imperative to hold meaningful dialogues between the major political parties for free, fair, credible and inclusive elections.

I may point out that neither my party nor I believe in “ruling” Bangladesh. We believe in serving our country and people.

Q: In India many believe that you are not a “friend”. Why is your image so anti-India?

A:Our party and I personally believe in maintaining friendly relations with all countries, especially with our neighbours. We also believe that such relations should be based on the universally recognised principles of mutual benefit and respect.

As our closest neighbour, our relation with India is of added significance and relevance. I had reiterated this to the political leadership of India at every level during my visit to New Delhi in November 2012 at the invitation of the Indian government, when I was warmly received. My impression is that my assurances of friendship and mutually beneficial co-operation were deeply appreciated.

Q: Yet the UPA government has supported Sheikh Hasina…

A:India, which has a long and proud history of democracy, should stand on the side of the people of Bangladesh, as it did during our glorious war of liberation in 1971. By extending support to a government that is in office through a fraudulent election and one which has seen the disenfranchisement of the public… India may distance itself from the people of Bangladesh.

Q: How do you see India-Bangladesh ties if BJP’s Narendra Modi comes to power?

A:Relations between Bangladesh and India should not be contingent on an individual or any particular political party. It should be based on the need to address the interests of the people of the two countries and be responsive to their perceptions of each other. It is for the people of India to decide whom they choose to govern their country. We believe in working closely with the elected government for furthering our relations.

Q: The Hasina government alleges that your government has been harbouring Indian militants from the Northeast.

A:Sheikh Hasina’s remarks are baseless, false and clearly motivated. During my meeting with the Indian leadership in 2012, I had assured them that the territory of Bangladesh shall never be allowed to be used by anyone against the interests of India or for anything that could threaten India’s security. Bangladesh has never been nor will it ever be a safe haven for militants.

Q: But the Awami League party holds that the BNP and its key ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami party, are friends of al Qaida, which has threatened to wage an intifada in Bangladesh.

A:No terrorist threat should be taken lightly, nor should these be used for narrow political gains. The blame game is self-defeating. Global terrorism has to be taken seriously and there should be concerted efforts and preparedness to combat this threat. Terrorism or militancy can have no place in our pluralist societies.

The BNP has been consistent in condemning and acting resolutely against terrorism in any form and manifestation. This is evident from the manner in which the BNP government in the past has acted against terrorists. Between 2005 and 2006, the BNP government arrested 1,177 terrorists and extremists.

During the time of the Awami League government between 1996 and 2001 Bangladesh witnessed the presence of new terrorist groups and attacks on cultural events.

There are differences between the political philosophies of the BNP and the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami. Our relation with the Jamaat is an electoral alliance. There is, however, a history of political alliances between the Jamaat and other major political parties. The Awami League, for example, maintained very close alliance with the Jamaat going back to the 1980s and 1990s. It was also the Awami League that signed a memorandum of understanding with the fundamentalist party, Bangladesh Khelafate Majlish, in 2006. That MoU was aimed at legalising religious fatwa.

Q: There is a popular movement for punishing war criminals. How true is the general perception that those undergoing life sentences will be released and rehabilitated by the BNP if it comes to power?

A:We believe that anyone who has committed crimes against humanity should be held accountable and brought before the realm of law. The BNP will try all those who have committed crimes against humanity in Bangladesh through a process that is transparent and one that meets international standards.

Q: Recently, a “telephonic” conversation between you and Sheikh Hasina went viral. Didn’t it highlight the ego clash between Bangladesh’s two top leaders?

A:The telephone conversation was a privileged communication between the leaders of the country’s top political parties. It should have been treated as such. The act of making it public by the government was inappropriate, motivated as well as a breach of trust.

Q: What will the BNP focus on now?

A:Let me end by saying that for Bangladesh democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance are vital if we are to avoid chaos and political instability. A democratic, peaceful and a politically stable Bangladesh is not just in our interest — it is also in the interest of our region.



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