AFTER arrival at Dhaka, it does not take you long to realize that here is one country which has lost its ethos. There is not a speck of revolution which had stirred the people in East Pakistan to wage the liberation struggle against the distant West Pakistan. Still worse is the authoritative Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has become. One, her opponent Khalida Zia has gone down in the estimate of the people. Two, Hasina has made peace with the military, which had once overthrown the government of her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father Bangladesh.
Hasina has increased the salaries of those in the armed forces. More than that she has made them realize that they evoke respect and authority if they remain professional and stay away from politics. Indeed, the army is now professional and considered a force to reckon with. When Mujib or, for that matter, East Pakistan won a majority in the National Assembly Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, then a real force in West Pakistan, who was also the foreign minister, could not tolerate the Sheikh to be the Prime Minister. If at all, the responsibility of losing East Pakistan is to be put, it is on Bhutto’s shoulder. He preferred to let the East Pakistan go to any dilution in his pursuit for absolute power.
Hasina’s real opposition comes from the Jamaat-e-Islami which still plays a religious card. The Jamaat is not making any headway because it is seen as the sympathizers of Pakistan. Till today, the Jamaat has not condemned even indirectly the atrocities committed against the Bengalis. I thought that the execution of even the aged Jamaat leaders, who had sided with Rawalpindi, would have created some revulsion. But, to my surprise, I found the people happy that the collaborators were being executed for the crimes they had committed.
The left which was a force at one time is no more in the picture. It has lost its appeal as well as the cadre. Careerism attracts the youth and the businessmen influence politics because they bribe every tier of the government. This pattern prevails all over Bangladesh. Still the silver lining is that people love the democratic system and express their faith in it through protests and agitations. Not long ago, the people’s unhappiness would pour on to the streets in the shape of processions, which would hamper the normal business. It dawned on the people, even though belatedly, that by closing shops in bazaars and factories they were only harming themselves. They also realized that destroying the environment for producing garments, which is the only source of revenue and foreign exchange, is not going to help improve their economy.
What is striking is the wealth that is accumulated in a few hands. They not only dictate day-to-day business but also politics. Many industrialists finance political parties and individuals to make the National Assembly so that they would have their influence on the policies and programmes formulated by the government. The media in Bangladesh is free only in name as is the pattern in third world countries. Editors have freedom to the extent that their owners want them to wield and the press is very cautious in reporting matters relating to the armed forces. Somehow, it has come to be recognized that criticizing the military tantamount to harming the country’s interests. This is blatant even in the democratic India, but the armed forces have the last word is accepted in Bangladesh.
I asked many about the direction towards which Bangladesh was going ideologically, economically or socially. One academician who is closely associated with politicians told me that Bangladesh had lost is way and he did not know which direction it was heading. Sheikh Hasina’s main strength is New Delhi which has put all eggs in her basket. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) says it openly that Hasina has even damaged India’s image because of her authoritarian rule. She brooks no criticism and sees that her critics are harmed so that they realize she and India have become synonymous.
It does not look that Bangladesh would ever have free and fair elections. But if they were to be held, the foregone conclusion is that Sheikh Hasina would not be defeated. Begum Khalida Zia too has not made herself popular by aligning with Jamaat. In fact, it has been an albatross around neck which she has not been able to shake off. However, one thing is sure that she would not this time boycott elections whenever they are held. The BNP has realized that even a few of their members in the National Assembly would have brought Hasina’s acts of omission and commission before the public. The vested interests in the country have had it never as good as it is today because people are disillusioned with both Hsaina and Khalid. The two Begums are the inevitable fate of Bangladesh, however unpopular they may be with the people.
—The writer is a veteran Indian journalist, syndicated columnist, human rights activist and author.