By Dr. Sanjay Bhardwaj
Bangladesh is facing elections during late 2013. With recent developments in Dhaka, it appears the process has already started, with multiple issues and expressions on the streets.
Bangladesh: A Short Political Introduction
Bangladesh has the distinction of having undergone two national movements in a short span of 25 years – first in 1947, which created Pakistan; and the second in 1971, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh.
Having been mutilated twice has impacted the national identities in a peculiar way. Perhaps it is the confusing situation of the old being dead and the new not yet being born, and, in the interregnum, the national space has been occupied by muffled constructions of secularism, socialism, democracy, and Bengali nationalism initially; only to be replaced later by military dictatorships coupled with a strident Islamic hegemony. This intriguing sojourn has seen heroes made and replaced, symbols and myths created and torn apart, Constitution written and re-written – all in the quest to imagine a nation on fluid foundations that hide the deep-rooted contradictions. This finds reflections in the forms of slogans, election manifestos and political activities, and developments in contemporary Bangladesh.
Even in the ninth parliamentary elections manifestos (2008), the Awami League promised that the use of religion and communalism in politics would be banned. Courtesy and tolerance would be inculcated in the political culture of the country. In fact, these secular strains of political thought and action were inculcated in the thought process of the political outfits of the country since the freedom struggle of Bangladesh.
On the other side, the proponents of Islamic identity (the forces of 1947), the BNP’s alliance partner Jamaat-e-Islam, has talked in their election manifestos that it would initiate enactment of ‘blasphemy law’ to prevent anti-religious publicities or criticism of religion in books, newspapers or electronic media, and punish those responsible, if the BNP–led four party alliance were voted to power. Most importantly, the Jamaat emphasized on giving military training to citizens aged between 20 and 30 gradually under the supervision of defence forces. However, the Jamaat did not clarify what was its intention behind such training, but made many people worried as Islamist organisations have generally given this kind of training to create militancy. Therefore, there was a much more apparent strain of jingoism and extremism running among the body-politique of Bangladesh. However the people of Bangladesh, in the last elections, have sidestepped this undercurrent of saturation of Islamisation by voting the Awami League alliance into power.
Politico-Constitutional Remedies: Three Verdicts
In the recent years, the significant pillars – the people, Judiciary, and present ruling political alliance have given strong verdicts to safeguard the Liberal-Secular and democratic ethos of the country. First, the results of the ninth parliamentary elections have rejected the Jamaat brand of Islamic revivalism in the country. The young generation became instrumental in the left leaning secularists’ alliance’s landslide victory. Second, the Judiciary directed the government to re-instate the original Constitution (1972) of the country. In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court (2010) demolished the Fifth Amendment, 1979, of the Constitution. The Court observed that the Parliament does not possess any authority to suspend the Constitution and proclaim martial law; and hence, it cannot legitimise actions of martial law regimes. The judgment paved the way for restoring the original four fundamental principles of the Constitution, including secularism. Third, following this endorsement in favour of ‘the spirit of 1971’, the present government of Bangladesh has passed the 15th constitutional amendment to bring back the original Constitution. The Parliament passed a significant constitutional amendment bill to re-instated fundamental pillars of the original Constitution. Islam as the state religion, and the Arabic phrase “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” has also been retained in the Constitution.
The amendment also took a bold step against the military takeover of state power, and suspension or cancellation of any provision of the Constitution by such elements. It made a provision for strict punishment for such moves terming them as “sedition”. The Constitution now also acknowledges the country’s Independence War hero, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, as the Father of the Nation. It also imposed a ban on amending the Constitution’s preamble, fundamental principles, and some other specific provisions.
Although the government requested the opposition to send their representatives in the committee, the main opposition party BNP, and its alliance partners Jamaat-e-Islami, rejected this offer and did not join the consultation. When the bill was placed in Parliament, the opposition boycotted the session. Consequently, the bill was endorsed by 291-1 votes in the House. However, the amendments also create a variety of apprehensions in the secular-minded citizens and minorities. Their common belief is that if the non-secular provisions, including the retention of status of Islam as official religion and the right to religion-based politics are not removed, fundamentalist elements would become more desperate to turn the country into a sectarian state. The Islamist forces also protested against the amendments for different reasons.
Big Brawl Ahead
Bangladesh has been heavily influenced by the confrontational politics between the two major political parties. Conducting free and fair elections is a pre-requisite for democracy. Since the restoration of democracy, it has remained a major challenge before Bangladesh. The distrust on the ruling party to organise meaningful elections has led to sustained agitations by the opposition parties and civil society organisations.
Consequently, the Sixth Jatiya Sangsad, overwhelmingly dominated by the BNP, adopted the thirteenth constitutional amendment of a neutral Caretaker Government (CTG) in 1996. By this constitutional provision, it was assumed that in future, the elections would be held peacefully, in all fairness and impartially. In fact, politically, the idea of the CTG was successfully applied in the 1991 elections as well. Under the new constitutional provision of the CTG, parliamentary elections were held successfully in June 1996 and in 2001. However, its role as an independent and impartial institution has always been questioned.
Prior to the handing over of power to the GTC for the 2006 elections, the then Khaleda Zia government had tried to make several changes in the administrative structure and constitutional provisions, which were conducive to her political interests. This process of its formation and functioning plunged the country into a series of political and constitutional crises, to the extent that the opposition had taken to the streets in their strong demonstrations against this. The confrontation led to the formation of the CTG, headed by Fakhruddin Ahmed, and was strongly backed by the army. Sidelining constitutional norms, the country was ruled for two years (2006-08) by this interim government. The CTG successfully conducted elections in 2008 as well.
The debate on the issue of the CTG has taken a new dimension with the recent verdict of the Supreme Court in May 2011, which declared the provision of caretaker government “illegal” and “beyond the power” of the Constitution. However, it has also provided that the next two polls “might be” held under the provision to avoid chaos. Following this judicial verdict, the present government has adopted the fifteenth constitutional amendment repealing the provision of the caretaker government. This move has triggered a variety of reactions and responses from all political factions. The BNP-led opposition has widely protested by condemning the government’s act and going on Hartals and demonstrations. The opposition leader, Khaleda Zia, has already announced that her party will boycott elections if it holds by the AL-led government, fearing that the incumbent will misuse the power in its favour. The clouds of unconstitutional regimes will knock yet again, if customary measures are not adopted by the ruling alliance. However, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insists that the cancellation of the CTG was necessary after the Supreme Court struck down the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution as illegal. Thus, it seems that the confrontational political culture would continue, owing to the recent constitutional controversy.
Finally, it is also clear that the next parliamentary election would be a landmark for the domestic political culture of the country. The emergence of an independent judiciary as a guardian of the Constitution has made a great proposition for the nation. However, the present ruling alliance has to adopt an accommodative political culture, which is acceptable to the opposition political forces. If the opposition has been taken in confidence, the country will consolidate its democratic values. If not, it will certainly provide a hotbed for the undemocratic and intolerant forces to take over power. If the phase of confrontational politics persists, secular-democratic forces will be defeated at home and many projects at the foreign policy level will also come under strain, especially with India. In the recent past, India and Bangladesh have taken over many developmental initiatives for regional integration and cooperation, which requires a constructive approach on both sides. Thus, it will be helpful to maintain a cogent domestic and regional environment, by consolidating a democratic and vibrant civil society. This will also be the best anti-dote for the secular-democratic credentials of Bangladesh.
Dr. Sanjay Bhardwaj
Associate Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
E-mail: [email protected]