Bangladesh's Unfinished Revolution

Bangladesh’s most recent election left many observers scratching their heads. Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League (AL), while popular, won an unprecedented 3rd consecutive term with a landslide victory so massive – 288 out of 299 seats – that it strains credibility. Many observers, including the New York Times Editorial Board, were left wondering: “Why produce nonsensical election results when polls indicated that Mrs. Hasina would likely have won a fair election handily?” Indeed, given Sheikh Hasina’s stellar economic and development record, and the fact that the country’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is in shambles, why risk the trouble of such an improbably skewed result?

To understand the AL’s seemingly illogical and counterproductive behavior during this election cycle, one needs to understand the AL’s turbulent assent to power from their perspective: that almost 50 years after the 1971 Liberation War which first swept the AL into power, the principles and ideals for which the party and the mass of the people fought are still not secured. 

Bangladesh won its independence in 1971 under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Sheikh Hasina’s father. Following a vicious, genocidal war with Pakistan, Sheikh Mujib and the Awami League established the new country on the principles of democracy, secularism, and socialism; and a common national identity based on a syncretic Bengali cultural heritage, rather than Pakistan-style Islamism.

While the self-determination movement had broad popular support in then-East Pakistan, not everyone supported independence. Hundreds of thousands of “Biharis,” Urdu-speaking citizens of what was formerly East Pakistan, were repatriated to Pakistan following the war. Hundreds of thousands more remain in Bangladesh, often referred to as “stranded Pakistanis.” And Islamists, most notably Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), not only opposed independence movement but actively collaborated with Pakistani armed forces, serving as deadly militias who aided in one of the largest genocides of the 20th century.

So in 1975, when Sheikh Mujib was murdered along with almost his entire family, it was perceived not just as a power grab, but as an attempt to reverse Liberation War principles by those who had always opposed them. For many Awami League supporters, this was confirmed when Gen. Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the BNP, took power in a 1977 military coup. Lacking a constituency outside the armed forces, Gen. Rahman turned to the one group that lacked a political voice – the country’s Islamist radicals. As dictator, he ordered secularism erased from the constitution, and revived Jamaat-e-Islami which had been banned due to its well-documented collaboration with Pakistani war crimes.

For the Awami League, the BNP-JI alliance is not just a political challenger, but an unholy union between forces opposed to the very principles on which the country was founded: the JI who manned death squads during the Liberation War and the BNP, whose founder removed key principles from the constitution.

When the AL first returned to power in 1996, it did so within the context of Jamaat’s political rehabilitation, 20 years of creeping Islamization, and after some of those who had fought against it in 1971 found themselves in positions of power.  For years, the Awami League watched the rise of those they saw not only as political adversaries, but an existential threat to the vision of Bangladesh for which so many lives had been sacrificed in 1971. They never recognized the legitimacy of these “anti-liberation forces,” but quietly endured what they viewed as the “facts on the ground” after 20 years out of power.

If there was any hope that a normal electoral politics could evolve between the Awami League and the BNP, those hopes were irreparably shattered after the 2001 elections. The Awami League had stepped down as per the country's laws at the end of its term, and BNP was the beneficiary of elections presided by a neutral "caretaker" government. But the hopes of Awami League and most observers for more trust-building gestures from the winning side were soon dashed as BNP and Jamaat unleashed pogroms on Hindu minorities within days of swearing in.

The final blow to hopes of any peaceful co-existence arrived with the 2004 assassination attempt against Sheikh Hasina and much of the AL senior leadership. On August 21st, as then-opposition leader Sheikh Hasina held a rally in Dhaka, thirteen grenades were lobbed into the crowd from adjoining rooftops, killing dozens and injuring over 200 people. The BNP’s ensuing egregiously obstructionist behavior during the investigation left little doubt in the mind of the AL and its supporters as to who was behind the attack. To them, this was clearly an attempt to “finish the job of 1975” and made it glaringly clear that cohabitation with the “anti-liberation” forces was suicidal.

The AL vs. BNP rivalry has often condescendingly been referred to by the (arguably sexist) shorthand, “Battling Begums,” implying that it is little more than a petty fight between two women with overinflated egos. It is, in fact, a far more serious conflict. It is, for both sides, an existential struggle between two mutually exclusive visions for Bangladesh; the continuation of a fight that started in 1971 and which has never been fully settled. It is why the controversial Digital Security Act passed last year specifically criminalizes “defamatory” speech related to the 1971 Liberation War.

Perhaps more perplexing than the Awami League's apparent desire to politically and legally decimate political rivals, is the AL’s mistrust of much of civil society and the NGO sector, who would seem like natural allies for a center-left party that prides itself on its support for issues like women’s empowerment, poverty reduction, and religious freedom. This too has roots in existential dread. Both offered enthusiastic support for the military-backed interregnum of 2007-08 and its’ “minus two” strategy that sought to rid the country of both AL & BNP. High profile figures such as Kamal Hossein and Mohammad Yunus are on the record respectively supporting the military government, each using it as an opportunity to explore their own political movements. The AL perceived this not only as a personal betrayal (Kamal Hossain had been a trusted aide of Sheikh Mujib and a Minister in Awami League governments), but particularly galling coming from people who have built their public identities on defending democracy and the rule of law. 

After a decade in power, the Awami League saw an opportunity to deliver a mortal blow to its ideological enemies and ensure that its vision of Bangladesh would be secured. Democratic norms could come later. While the threat of authoritarianism has democracy advocates in Bangladesh and elsewhere concerned, addressing the situation requires understanding current events from the AL’s perspective: that the current conflicts have deep and direct roots in the country's much bloodied history. It would not be a stretch to say that issues that were settled through war in 1971 were effectively re-opened through the grizzly coup of 1975. The country is in many senses still reeling in the long division of those foundational conflicts. No one expects democratic norms to prevail in a condition of civil war. For Bangladesh, thankfully, while there is no civil war of arms, the ideological divisions in the political sphere are as keen and irreconcilable as that found in civil war conditions.

Visons of "1971" and "1975" cannot co-exist, or even compete. One has to win out; and parties within the political space must compete on policies within a foundational value-frame that cannot be challenged again and again. The primacy and legitimacy of the vision of "71" is beyond dispute. For democratic norms to thrive, Bangladesh needs an opposition that will be true in its commitment to the founding principles of the country and not repeatedly try to impose a proto-Pakistani idea for the country so many decades after the Liberation War. For its part, of course, the Awami League needs to roll back harsh laws and excessive heavy-handedness against all protesters and dissenters, even those who do not pose a threat to its or the country's existence. By being more tolerant of critics and activists, the Awami League can only gain in reputation and make it more feasible for an opposition aligned with the founding principles of the country to emerge.

K. Anis Ahmed is the publisher of Dhaka Tribune and a co-founder of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. His op-eds and articles have been published in Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Financial Times, Guardian Observer and Newsweek, among other places.