Unending struggle in Bangladesh

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The mutual mistrust and ill will that characterises the unending struggle between Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party does not augur well for the young People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Although the AL government led by Shaikh Hasina Wajid has about completed its five year term, with national elections under a mandated (neutral) caretaker regime round the corner, the opposition and ruling parties are ominously accusing each other of violence. An AL’s crowded office in Narayanganj was bombed, with grievous casualties of over 22 dead and over 80 injured – and the cavalcade of BNP leader Begum Khaleda Zia just outside Dhaka was fired upon, though casualties were not caused. Premier Shaikh Hasina, after plainly accusing BNP has also implicated Pakistan at least as the place from where trouble makers can obtain training and lethal explosive material, and the BNP leader lost no time in blaming AL supporters for the attack on her car(s). The country became engulfed in strikes and name calling yet again, with no attention to the losses that strikes cause to Bangladesh economy.

Opposition parties in all democracies try to win power by calling in question the performance of ruling party, point to its shortcomings and project their own programmes and the ability to deliver. Lively but non-violent struggles for power by winning the hearts and minds of the electorate are desirable. But in Bangladesh these two parties object to each other per se despite considerable popular support for each. AL calls BNP anti-democratic, a relic of, and facade for, reactionary military elements — a reference to Gen. Ziaur Rahman, Khaleda’s slain husband — while BNP accuses AL of being subservient to the Indians, being under the influence of Hindu culture, and philosophy, and is even ready to make agreements with India that are less favourable to Bangladesh. BNP is in alliance with Jamaat-i-Islami and several other religious parties. AL takes its secular character and philosophy very seriously and its supporters had organised an impressive South Asian Conference against Communalism and Religious Extremism at the beginning of June last.

In the short run, many see the serious threat of violence spreading during the ongoing election campaign. No one should take it lightly. But perhaps an alert caretaker regime can tackle and minimise its incidence by competent law and order arrangements. But the nature of differences — ideological — makes objective observers apprehensive for the future. The country is already polarised. Thanks to its ideological underpinnings, that are deep and permanent, trend toward violence not only threatens to persist but is likely to go on getting worse. It is a radical polarisation born of two separate perceived identities: one emphasises the Bengalee language, culture and a recognisable etho and sustains its Bengalee nationalism. Awami League champions it. BNP, despite the horrendous events of 1971 — in fact a civil war — and monumental ideological confusions and ambivalence towards West Pakistanis emphasises the Islamic, or at least, the Muslim character of Bangladesh. BNP takes Muslims’ pre-1947 separatist struggle seriously that began mainly with the partition of Bengal (1905) and the birth of Muslim League in Dhaka (1906). Ideologically it perceives links, if not continuity, with the Nineteenth Century popular (Islamic) movements. BNP thus champions a Muslim persona for Bangladesh and has articulated a Bangladeshi (Muslim) nationalism in contradistinction to AL’s Bengalee Nationalism.

This cleavage is deeply rooted. It was a historic dilemma that faced the Bengalee Muslims in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries: both personae could not seamlessly coalesce into one and grow organically into one. And yet there has been the evolution of a common Bengalee language, literature, folk, arts, fables and even traditions. In short the Muslims were significant authors or creators of the Bengalee ethos and culture. But they were also heirs to what history has bequeathed: Islamic identity of the rulers of Bengal before 1757, the social transformation, the British wrought, the resulting penury of the majority, the juxtaposition of Muslim persona with the lowly status as non-owning tenants of mainly Hindu landlords, the rise of the purely Hindu revivalist ideas and the birth of Hindu and Muslim communalisms circa the closing decades of the Nineteenth Century. It is obvious that these communal identities soon clashed, thanks to both the myopia of local leaders and the colonial rulers were alert enough to promptly take advantage of that clash. In a way, Hindu-Muslim problem of historical India had its worst manifestation in Bengal.

BNP ideologues, often outside its ranks, can be said to rely more on this historical legacy and seem to have taken the Pakistan Army’s 1971 crackdown as a sort of huge aberration about which they are basically ambivalent. It would seem that this school views that West Pakistanis were merely wrong in being neglectful in 1971 and that the rake, Gen. Yahya Khan, was a murderous tyrant who just should not have been. Just that. Otherwise Pakistan was OK and its basic ideas — concerning Islamic solidarity and brotherhood – were OK too. AL’s ideologues do not read recent history in this fashion.

Although AL was born in Muslim League’s womb and all its original leaders were Muslim Leaguers who had struggled to bring Pakistan into being; but they quickly revised their opinions after studying Pakistan’s sociology, power structure and demographical unsustainability. They saw the West Pakistani ethos, sustained by a definite economic and political structure, to be incompatible with the ethos of Bengal, even East Bengal. They soon despaired of Pakistan ever becoming a free, democratic and plural polity. A bureaucratic-military coterie had cornered power as far back as 1953, if not 1951. It was a Punjabi-determined group that was determined to preserve the feudal social order. This coterie could do that because the authentic leadership of West Pakistani wing of Muslim League — all big landlords — had united in panic behind this group. West Pakistani deputies’ sole purpose was to prevent the Bengalees from forming a government-dominated by themselves, thanks to their overall majority. For which reason they obstructed constitution making so that free elections may not be held. For the Bengali part of the same Muslim League, it was too hard a fact to believe. They took most of 1950s to assimilate it. But Ayub Khan’s Martial Law (1958) and his long innings convinced them that they have no place in Pakistan except as an exploited colony. So they were forced to look at, and go back to, their Bengalee roots. Hence their allegiance to Bengalee Nationalism.

There is a question to be answered here. Why was West Pakistani landlord leadership of Muslim League so much against their Bengalee colleagues? There was no such reservation during the Pakistan Movement (1937 to 1947). There is no real explanation for the significant change after 1947 except what is this writer’s hypothesis. It runs thus: Muslim League’s eastern wing, immediately after creating a new government for the new East Bengal province, went about the business of implementing land reforms they had promised. What came naturally to them was total abolition of absentee landlordism and they did so without compensation. The state and the actual tiller of the land came to deal directly with each other without an intermediary. The West Pakistani landlords were aghast at this Bolshevik-seeming approach. So in a state of shock and panic they decided to move heaven and earth to prevent these “irresponsible” Bengalees from coming to power. So they sought the help from the bureaucracy — that comes natural to landlords in West Pakistan to preserve their authority over their own tenants — which in its turn had to take the aid of Army. Later Army Generals subordinated everybody in Pakistan — the situation has lasted to this day. Maybe a sociologist would say when the West Pakistani aristocrats came in direct touch for making a constitution and running the federal government the ethnic differences made them ‘us’ and ‘they’. West Pakistani landlords seeking aid from a largely Punjabi bureaucracy and Army manifested the salience of ethnicity.

The AL view is based on its experience of reality that Pakistan was. It could not and did not excuse the murder and mayhem that Pakistan army inaugurated early in 1971 with a Christ-like observation: ‘Lord forgive them. They know not what they are doing’. West Pakistanis had through, hard action, rejected the Bengalee Muslims, turning their backs on concepts like Islamic solidarity and brotherhood, not to say democratic values. Bengalee Muslims then had no option but to fall back on the only other hard reality there was: Bengalee language, literature, folk tales and traditions; in short the Bengalee ethos.

But not all East Bengalees were Awami Leaguers. For many, Muslim League’s original Muslim communalism, based virtually on anti-Hindu sentiment, remained the preferred political allegiance. The Hindus for him — Bengalee Hindu, that is — was a nearer and more cognisable reality. Relationship with him was adversarial. That strand seems to be symbolised by BNP today. Extremism is a common streak in Bengal. Thus the clash between BNP and AL is not the same thing as British Labour’s and Conservatives’s daily cut and thrust. In Britain, there is not much disagreement over what the British persona and ethos are and what sort of country the UK should become. Here the clash is of basic nature, what should be the cultural description of Bangladeshi? Is he or is he not a Bengalee nationalist? Or is somehow his being a Muslim make him distinct from other speakers of a common Bengalee language?

It is important to emphasise that if the people in Bangladesh are not careful, the escalation of this ceaseless struggle between BNP and AL — sustained as it is by conflicting ideologies of Bengalee Nationalism and the

so-called Bangladeshi Nationalism — can escalate into a bloody civil war. Both sides can suffer horribly, especially if the Army gets involved. It had better be resolved through rational arguments based on democracy’s norm of tolerance of all dissent and a happy acceptance of all pluralism and coexistence of differing ideas, associations, beliefs and religions. There is no likelihood of a merger or synthesis between these two nationalisms. But in a democracy they both can and should coexist. At any rate, both sides have to account for their own implicit contradictions: as for Bengalee Nationalism, based as it is on common language, culture, traditions of Bengal, why should all Bengalees not live in one state? How can two Bengalee states be justified? Bangladeshi Nationalism has to account first for the failure of the Islamic solidarity in Pakistan and secondly what guarantee there can be that it will not recreate other local antagonisms in Bangladesh as it is not all inclusive? Why not mend ruptures by accepting democratic values and institutions in the true spirit? 

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