Vol. 5 Num 910 Mon. December 18, 2006  

Between The Lines
An Indian viewpoint

Joi Bangla was the slogan that resounded in the streets of Dhaka and outside this month 35 years ago.Once again the same slogan reverberates all over. Then it was a war cry for liberation from West Pakistan and it exuded optimism and exuberance. This time it is for holding free, fair elections and arouses pessimism and anxiety. Those days one call from Sheikh Mujib-ur Rahman, the father of the nation, made people surrender arms which they carried freely. Today, uncertainty has gripped people and they want to possess arms. Yet they are worried over security as an untoward stream of passion runs through the streets.

The scene is, however, familiar. It is the same old confrontation between the liberation and the anti-liberation forces. It takes different shapes at different times and erupts occasionally without rhyme or reason. Yet the basic characteristics remain the same. The liberation forces are non-communal in their approach. They are anti-fundamentalist and firmly embedded to the land. The anti-liberation forces are parochial, pro-fundamentalist, and still roam in their imagination to the land beyond India.

Bangladesh has not yet been able to reconcile the differences between the two. They are at war against each other all the time in every facet of life. The anti-liberation forces do not regret the formation of Bangladesh, nor do they want any dilution in its sovereignty. But they tend to tilt towards Pakistan and find themselves more at home with the military than the democratic wherewithal. The pro-liberation elements are generally pro-India and strongly oppose even any indirect say of the armed forces in governance.

The armed forces have, however, refused to get involved. Their problem is not only the possible opposition which they might meet, but what they do after stepping in. They have refused several requests to come in. Only recently did they say no to intervene to enforce peace.

Both the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the two main political formations, are determined to get a majority in the house by hook or by crook to be in power. This means a lot in a country where power is an end by itself and where extra-constitutional authority like Begum Khaleda Zia's son Tareq Rahman, come to have his say. That is the reason why thousands of people came on the streets when they found that the electoral roll had 13 million bogus voters. That also explains why there was a vociferous demand for the reconstitution of the Election Commission which the BNP had appointed.

Whatever their purport, the hartals and the bandhs have exhausted people's patience. They increasingly feel apprehensive because of their frequency. To quote an eminent Bangladeshi former judge: "The agitation will result in unnecessary bloodshed and loss of innocent lives and will ultimately pave the way for unconstitutional rule which will bury democracy in Bangladesh for decades."

The scenario becomes more dismal when you find the anti-liberation forces joining hands with religious parties. They are hardly bothered about democracy. They never were. They use the name of Islam to describe themselves a purer side so that they go down well with the gullible voters.

Interest by India could have changed the perspective to some extent. But its ignorance about Bangladesh is appalling. Indian media hardly covers anything with sympathy and understanding. The reporting is like that of the Western press about South Asia, full of preconceived notions. Here is New Delhi, which once helped freedom-loving Bangladeshis to liberate themselves from the distant rule of Islamabad. It is the same New Delhi which seems to think that Bangladesh is a gone case, lost to fundamentalism and ISI machinations. However, it is true that all those elements which are fighting against India, whether the hostile Nagas or the Manipur insurgents, take shelter in Bangladesh. Dhaka denies it but at the back of its mind is the thinking that India is harassed this way.

This may well have prejudiced New Delhi. But it could have played some role behind the scenes because its voice still counts. Moreover, the current challenge is the gravest that Dhaka has faced since independence in December 1971. What New Delhi does not understand is that the confrontation between the liberation and anti-liberation forces has been there from day one. India has itself erred in supporting the anti-liberation elements at one time or another. All are reaping what they have sowed.

The anti-liberation forces were substantially there when the Sheikh was in power. But he was so tall and so popular that even the non-liberators had to get into the clothes of liberators. The Sheikh was conscious of that and he, therefore, merged all political parties into one, not to give space to the anti-liberation elements. He earned the title of dictator. But he did not care. He should have dealt with the anti-liberation forces severely. Since nobody raised voice against the Sheikh, he believed that there was no other voice. The anti-liberators only bade their time. They killed him and gradually penetrated the society in connivance with the military dictators of the day.

They are now emboldened, particularly when the BNP uses them as their foot soldiers. The support of the Jamaat-e-Islami was always there. Being part of the Khaleda government, the party has exploited the position to the hilt to spread fanaticism. Liberal Bangladeshis have been pushed to the background. Extremists are ruling the roost. Yet secular forces are beginning to assert themselves. They are somewhat late and still lack coherence. But they at least know the stakes. If the anti-liberation forces manage to control the government, democracy will receive a severe blow and face a bleak future in Bangladesh.

Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.