Friday, March 04, 2005

A Marriage of Convenience

The government woke up from a long slumber last week. In the wake of widespread local and international criticisms, it banned Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and Jama'atul Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), and arrested four leaders of the banned groups.

What took the government so long? With the shadows of its two fundamentalist allies pulling strings from behind, how capable is the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to rein in these militant outfits?

The BNP's reliance on religion as a political tool to gain popular support dates back to its birth. Born in the cantonment by a military ruler, the party gave shelter to a wide array of politicians. In fact Gen Ziaur Rahman's BNP was a classic example of unity of the opposites. From frustrated Maoists to dormant fundamentalists, the party had a place for practically each and everyone who sought its shelter.

That stance was hardly changed when the party surprised everyone by winning the 1991 general elections. As far as the paradigm of votes was concerned, 1991's general elections had shown that it would never go to power alone without the help of the religious elements of the society.

The Awami League, BNP's archrival, which was deemed to win the elections, soon followed the BNP's path. The party had always boasted on its secular credentials; but at the first party conference immediately after the defeat, the AL dropped socialism from its party manifesto; and Sheikh Hasina, the party leader started to wear a head-scarf, apparently to become more Islamic than her BNP counterpart.

To shrug off the centre-left brand that the party had been wearing since its formation around 50 years ago, the party made an alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JI). In a move that irked most of its secular supporters, the AL even launched simultaneous programmes with the JI, who only a year ago had been a political pariah.

The AL eventually dumped Jamaat, and the party, which won 18 seats in the previous elections, did not fare well-- with every party fighting its own war, the JI only bagged two seats. That disaster taught the JI a harsh lesson: Without the help of BNP, the party would not be able to proceed further.

The BNP, on the other hand, which failed to get even the expected number of seats, had learnt something that is no less jarring for its polity. The BNP can lose JI's friendship only at its peril; thus a life-long marriage of convenience was born. In the general elections that followed the AL tasted the most humiliating defeat in its political history in the hands of the BNP-JI led Four-Party Alliance.

Immediately after coming back to power, riding on an electoral landslide, the Alliance blamed the opposition for the bomb blasts that had rocked the country during the AL's five-year term in office. In fact from the very first such blast, because of its sheer political insecurity, the BNP have been blaming the AL for hatching a conspiracy to tarnish the country's image in the eyes of the donors.

It remained conspicuously silent when newspaper reports suggested that a section of BNP members had been giving shelter to Bangla Bhai, the so-called operations commander of the recently banned JMJB. The party broke the silence at times only to deny the existence of the group.

Arrests, meanwhile, went on. Local police made some significant breakthroughs and the arrestees, who confessed carrying out a number of terrorist acts, were granted bail.

In the wake of a barrage of international criticisms, the prime minister ordered Bangla Bhai's arrest a few months ago. But the police have so far failed to nab the notorious criminal, who allegedly in connivance with some local BNP leaders, has established a reign of terror in northern districts of the country.

That double standard got a jolt last week when the government was excluded from a conference on "Good governance" jointly organised by the European Union, the World Bank and the US State Department. While the exclusion came as a slap in the face for the Alliance, M Saifur Rahman, the finance minister, cried innocence.

"If there is a meeting on Bangladesh's development process, this should be held in Bangladesh. We are a sovereign country," he told journalists a day before the conference begun.

Ironically the government started to clamp down on the JMJB and JIB from the day the Washington meet began. Four leaders of JMJB, JIB and Ahale Hadith Bangladesh (AHM) were arrested on February 24 in a pre-dawn raid across the country. Both the JMJB and JIB were banned; and the press note that followed blamed the groups for carrying out some of the blasts that took place in the country in the last 10 years.

The Finance Minister's claptrap, meanwhile, has remained as vigorous as ever. Even the day his government slapped a ban on the JMJB and JIB, Saifur termed the newspaper reports on Bangla Bhai and cronies as "foul propaganda".

Immediately after the February 23 arrest, reports on these extremist groups started to flood the front pages of different local dailies. Eleven more activists of the banned outfits were arrested in Dinajpur and the police seized bomb-making materials, printers, acid, electric wires and batteries.

The BNP's two religious partners in the alliance have reacted sharply to the clamp down. Of them, Fazlul Haque Amini, leader of Islami Oikko Jote (IOJ), a small constituent in the Alliance, said, "There is a conspiracy going on to prevent Islamic revolution in the name of taming Islamic militancy".

Maulana Abdur Rob Yousufi, general secretary of a faction of the IOJ) goes further. Asked to give his reaction about the banning, Yousufi told the BBC's Bangla service, "There is no Islamic militant organisation in the country."

The JI has remained dead-against the idea of a crackdown. "The government has launched the crackdown in the line with the US. The main opposition has also provoked the donor agencies to take anti-Bangladesh and anti-Islamic stance," JI MP Mufti Abdus Sattar Akon told the Daily Star.

Chances are high that the BNP's new-found zeal will die down when the attention of local and international media shifts to a different issue. Many observers have termed it as eyewash while the others want to wait and see if the BNP will walk down a path it has never taken before. If the party does change its attitude towards the issue of religious extremism, it will mark a major shift in the BNP's one-and-half decade old history. With the next general elections getting closer, only time will tell if the BNP is capable of taking a U-turn.