Saturday, July 2, 2016

Bangladesh after Gulshan attacks: From the frying pan and into the fire

Photo credit: Weed activist
More than two years ago, at the time of the lopsided general elections in Bangladesh, Victor Martin, a Spanish journalist, had taken a brief email interview with me. It was like this:

Is this a real democratic process if the opposition is not going to play in 154 seats?
Theoretically, and what they say ‘constitutionally', yes. But practically no, as the things stand today.
This election had low participation. For you, which is the reason? Is the (non) security or is because the people just can vote one party and they don’t want to do it? What do you think?
Both reasons are partially valid. But I think the people are increasingly losing faith towards both the political parties as well as the system itself. The major motive of voters in any election is that the votes they cast will bring about some tangible positive changes in their lives. When they see the whole political practice as a farce played to ensure the personal gains and to feed the ego of the leaders (the PM Hasina and Opposition Leader Zia in this case) there is no genuine motivation for going to caste the votes. Also, unlike the committed voters of the ruling Awami League, a large section of so called ‘swing voters’ were never ready to take the risk of getting injured or even death for merely casting votes in an election of questionable legitimacy. I think this was one of the reasons behind the low voter turn out.
In this elections, the question is not who is going to win; the question is what’s going to happen tomorrow? Is the violence growing up? The country is now polarized, is this situation going to a worse way? What can we expect?
Going by the events so far, situation is all set to worsen over days to weeks. The stakes are high for both the sides and a stalemate is likely to prevail thereby draining the economy and further alienating the common people. Apparently, the AL once overestimated the mandate it got during the last polls and has behaved with overconfidence. That seems all set to backfire now. Its capacity to control the developments after this election will be limited. For the opposition, this is do or die situation: there is no recourse left except paralyzing the country if they are to exert their influence in any way in the new situation. A quagmire is thus a given for the short term future. If past is any guide, the army may have to be called to control the situation. Far less likely is the situation in which the AL successfully handles the election fallout to retain power for long enough.

Excerpt from this was carried in a report by Martin in Spanish newspaper El Mundo. 

Looking back, it seems I had the foreboding about the things to come but my calculations have proved to be upside down.

My main concern then was that, the AL might not be able to hold the power long enough resulting into instability and turmoil. Seems the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. The party has stuck to the seat of power so hard that its lust for power at any cost has turned out to be the problem in itself.

AL's vengeful assault on the opposition (accompanied, as usual, by hounding of the media) has now severely jeopardized democracy there and the sense of suffocation created thereby has been exploited by the extremists.

In response, the govt is doing the exact opposite of what it should have been doing: it is trying to further dismantle the opposition in the pretext of brutal extremist attacks. Its priority now seems to be power and more power, for longer and longer.

The latest hostage crisis, that ended bloodily after 12 hours, seems to be the most audacious so far by the extremists. The government will now be 'justifiably' more aggressive but for a country as populous and society as troubled as Bangladesh, there is a limit as to how effectively force can tackle such problems. 

If Bangladesh govt wants to bring back the country into track of progress, AL needs to wake up from its power-induced delirium, end its crusade against the opposition and show the respect for human rights. This is, by no means, the instant remedy for the problems that may stretch well into the future but that should start the healing process of a badly wounded society.

It is painful to see Bangladesh, once a contrast to Pakistan trapped in religious extremism and fanaticism, increasingly veering towards that path. 

Hope the Bangladeshi leadership will wake up before it is too late. The Gulshan attacks are the clearest alarms so far for them. 


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