Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Stuck at Zero

We are celebrating our 33rd birthday, a birth that came at a very high cost but one that was inevitable. The founders of our nation were not just the politicians who captured the whole limelight of glory, but the millions of Muktijodhas --- men and women, some known, many unrecognised, who spontaneously gave their lives for a dream. The dream was quite simple, the aspirations quite reasonable. It was to build a nation free from the racism, bigotry, exploitation and hunger meted out by the existing power. A country where one would be free to speak one's language, to get equal opportunities to work, where basic needs of food, shelter and clothing would be met. After thirty-three years we still stand proud to be Bangladeshis but have we come any closer to the original dream called Bangladesh?

 When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, after nine months of brutal war with the Pakistani army, a society based on democratic principles and social justice was promised. In fact, during our liberation war, Bangladesh became a by-word for people's resolve to fight injustice all over the world. The country's independence coincided with the liberation of several colonies across the continent. But the situation has turned sour within years. Democracy has remained in the paper; while a few have been enjoying an economic boom, most of the citizens still live far below the poverty line; economic injustice coupled with lawlessness and corruption have put the country on the brink of a total chaos. Thirty-three years after our glorious independence we try to find the answer to a fateful question; where are we at now?

Democracy was under the guillotine by our founding fathers at early infancy. Within three years of independence Bangladesh Awami League (AL), which led the country towards independence, made Bangladesh a one-party state. Every political and administrative power was personally vested in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib and his party, armed with absolute majority in the parliament, amended the constitution for the fourth time. It was bombastically called Mujib's second revolution, but in effect it gagged any dissident voice, if there remained any at all.

Dissident voices were silenced. Political killings and repression on opposition had isolated the party, which all through its existence had fought for people's political freedom and economic emancipation.

"Bangladesh would never have been brought to such straits in so short a period had it not been for the unbelievable sycophancy, which filled the Gonobhaban and Bangabhaban like the clouds of intoxicating vapours in an opium den. Sycophancy is on a par with mal-administration, corruption and smuggling as the prime cause for the decline of Mujib and Bangladesh," Anthony Mascarenhas, who broke the news of our liberation war to British daily the Sunday Times, writes in his book Bangladesh A Legacy of Blood.

Mujib's economic policy and brutal squashing of the opposition members led to a looming disaster; and then the worst happened. On August 15, 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed, along with 13 members of his family, by a bunch of ambitious mid-ranking army officers led by Major Faruque and Major Dalim. Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed, Mujib's long time ally and one of his ministers, declared himself president after the mayhem. September 26 that year Mushtaque and cronies promulgated the infamous Indemnity Ordinance, indemnifying the killers. The indemnity, later on, encouraged several successful and unsuccessful coup attempts in the army.

President Ziaur Rahman's five and half years in helm, according to Mascarenhas, was plagued by 20 mutinies, attempted coups and assassination attempts; in fact Zia got killed in the 21st attempt. "It is ironical that the troops who literally carried Zia to power on their shoulders during the Sepoy Mutiny in November 1974, would later try so many times to kill him," writes Mascarhenas.

Meanwhile in November 1976 as a CMLA, Zia used a frail and inept president Sayem to call off the elections that the government had so solemnly promised the nation. Then Zia unceremoniously stripped the president of authority and grabbed power for himself.

Zia then called on presidential elections in 1978, expertly tailored to effect his transformation from the military President to the military president in mufti. Zia promulgated the Proclamations (Amendment) Order in 1977, immediately after he got rid of Sayem. He replaced Secularism from the preamble of the Constitution with "Absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful"; Socialism was dropped, and "economic and social justice" replaced it. The cosmetic surgery was meant to woo the voters most of whom were practising Muslims.

No one disputes that Zia was incorruptible as far as money and wealth were concerned. He didn't own a house in Dhaka, as did almost everyone in the higher echelons of government. It has been recorded that on one occasion he took an advance against his salary to buy furniture and paid it back in instalments. He didn't gamble nor have any of the social vices. But he turned a blind eye towards the corruption of those around him.

Zia opened the economy to some extent; though he wasn't able to check the rising inflation and unemployment, his economic policy had somewhat gained popularity among the masses. Billions of Takas were spent into the General's much-hyped "Canal Digging Programme"; there is no real count of this wasted effort because the money was requisitioned from different ministries and government organisations.

Meanwhile the 21st attempt to kill the General was brewing in Chittagong. Zia went to the port city to settle a local feud in the ruling party on May 29, 1981. In the early dawn the following day Zia was killed at the Circuit House, where he had been staying overnight, by an ambitious bunch of army-men led by Gen. Abul-ala Manjur.

Only chaos followed; actually the then army-chief Gen. HM Ershad became the sole beneficiary of the disorder. Within days after Zia's killing, Ershad removed an inept and feeble Sattar--who succeeded Zia-- and declared himself the president. Only deep darkness followed.

Ershad was one the most corrupt dictators any Third World country has ever produced in modern history. To remain in power he institutionalised corruption. When Ershad was ousted in a mass upsurge in December 6, 1990, there was nothing left in the government exchequer for the salaries of the civil servants.

BNP unexpectedly won the general elections in 1991 that came after the fall of Ershad. The scale of corruption and repression remained markedly low during the BNP's new term in office. The party, however could not able to finish its five year term. Anti incumbency factor ran high during the elections, and with its long-term ideological friend, Jamaat-e-Islami, running the elections alone, the BNP had lost power to Bangladesh Awami League.

Before coming to power, in an address to the nation on the state run national television, The AL chief Sheikh Hasina sought mercy for the sins committed by her party-men during its three and half years rule after independence. But the AL's five-year-term that followed outmatched even its first term in office in misrule and corruption. The party politicised everything; even the committees that ran primary schools were not spared.

Hoodlums belonging to the AL ran the country; state run tenders were given to members of the ruling party flouting rules and regulations. Most of the ministers, after years outside power, saw this as a god-sent opportunity to make a fortune. Rules regarding promotions even in the army, in most of the cases were ignored; thugs belonging to the AL maimed journalists across the country. Several AL MPs became infamous for their blatant terrorism in their constituencies. Joynal Hazari for instance, an AL MP from Feni, soon became a godfather, controlling businesses, terrorising all those who opposed him, especially members of the opposition. Other goons of the cabinet included MP Shamim Osman from Narayanganj, Haji Selim of Dhaka-- all of them established their mafia-dom in their respective constituencies without any kind of obstacle from their leader Sheikh Hasina.

Hasina, in fact, has been the biggest disappointment for even AL supporters. Throughout her term she showed incredible tolerance to her party-men, who virtually unleashed a reign of terror all over the country. She did not ask any of her cabinet members to resign even after knowing about their criminal activities. The student wing of AL the Chhatra League carried on the legacy of their predecessors, the Chhatra Dal, with equal zeal, occupying the university halls, controlling tenders and spreading crime across the country. One group became famous for their serial rape spree in Jahangirnagar University where a Chhatra League (interestingly former Chhatra Dal) leader celebrated his 100th rape on campus. Again Hasina remained silent.

The situation has not changed since the AL was routed in the general elections of 2001. In fact, it has deteriorated further; sheer lawlessness, coupled with cronyism and corruption, has made the country the most uninhabitable place on earth. Incidents of attack on religious minorities have become rampant. Both the BNP and AL have been using religion for their own petty political interests; rising unemployment along with the government's inability to crack down on extremists religious outfits have resulted in several bomb blasts, and the attack on writer Humayun Azad.

Repression of opposition members has reached an all time high in this regime with Chhatra Dal coming into the forefront to brutally clamp down on all opponents with of course the help of the completely politicised law enforcers. In just a few weeks, when the opposition started its 'the government must step down' programme, several violent incidents took place such as the beating up of AL leaders including Saber Hossain Chowdhury and Ahsanullah Master MP, beating up of students protesting attack on Dr Humayun Azad, beating up of journalists during the general strikes, and finally, the latest attack on Dr.Badruddoza Chowdhury, Maj (Rtd) Mannan and their supporters.

Immediately after Major Mannan resigned from the parliament and joined Dr Chowdhury's 'Alternative Platform', thugs under the shelter of the ruling party vandalised different industrial compounds owned by the businessman turned politician.

As the newspaper reports suggest, the attacks were, in fact, backed by the ruling party's high command. Mannan's bank accounts with five financial institutions were seized. State's repression on opposition leaders has never reached this height before.

Dr. Badruddozza's new stance to create a third platform with the support of Dr. Kamal Hossain, has been met with some enthusiasm from the public although many cannot quite believe how a staunch supporter of a party can suddenly become its biggest opponent. But the way the BNP thugs are steamrollering him and his supporters it is uncertain whether the doctor's prescription will prevail.

After much dilly-dallying and to utter dismay of different human rights organisations, the government has recently sent the proposed 14th Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2004 to the parliamentary standing committee on law justice and parliamentary affairs. The bill, which has sought to introduce 45 reserved seats for women, has come as a slap in the face for different rights groups; for they have been demanding a direct election to these reserved seats. The government, meanwhile, remains as indifferent as ever.

All our main political parties, are shamelessly male dominated. Though the BNP is led by a woman, the party has only one female member in its 14-member National Permanent Committee, according to a Democracy Watch report. The AL on the other hand has only 5 female members in its 36-member Presidium and Secretariat; Jamaat-e-Islami has 20 female members in its 200-member Majlish-e-Shura, the report continues.

Thus the story of stagnant politics continues. The overwhelming intolerance for the opposition in the streets has created a stalemate in the parliament where the ruling party continues to play by itself. Meanwhile Sheikh Hasina can only harp on the misrule of Khaleda Zia and how her government must step down. She has nothing really new to offer. Certainly the public's memory is not so short as to forget the mess she and her party had made before. Both parties seem to think that the vote bank's leanings depend on how badly the previous government has failed, which no doubt has worked so far. Whether Dr. Badruddozza and his supporters will create any significant ripple in the inert waters of politics, remains to be seen.

In the name of free market economy the BNP has created a situation where trading has become more profitable than establishing industry. A new class and culture have been created; goons belonging to the BNP and AL, driven by get-rich-quick lifestyle and blessed by both the parties' politics have been running amok. Democracy could not be more threatened.