Bangladesh is dangerously veering towards becoming a den of Islamic radicalisation that would have grave implications for regional and global security. And the West led by the United States seems to be backing Islamists making the situation even more precarious.
After a decade of peace and stability, Bangladesh has witnessed a surge in violent protests by radical Islamists over the last few weeks. As the country heads to the elections, there appears increased chances of political violence given the conduct of political opposition in the country, which is led by Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI). With explicit division in the country visions of the parties across the main political divide, the poll outcome is likely going to demonstrate the prospective trajectory Bangladesh will take.
One of the key political issues raked up by the BNP and its alliance partner Jamaat is the establishment of a caretaker government for the forthcoming elections. They have termed it as a prerequisite for ensuring free and fair elections. Additionally, the opposition parties have accused the prime minister of stifling the democratic atmosphere of the country and denying a level playing field to all the parties by using state agencies as vindictive tools against them. Interestingly, the key here is not these issues but the manner in which they are being raked up. There is a clear attempt to plunge the country into a recurring cycle of violence, thereby undoing the hard-won peace. This cycle of violence was an inherent part of Bangladesh’s politics till a few years ago and now it seems history might be repeating itself.
Bangladesh abolished the caretaker government system through the 15th constitutional amendment in 2011, and subsequent elections in 2014 were conducted under the new arrangement. The BNP, facing challenges since losing power in 2008, with its president Khaleda Zia serving corruption related incarceration, attributes its electoral setbacks to the absence of the caretaker system. Hence it has given a call for a return to the previous electoral mechanism.
Meanwhile, the high frequency and intensity of violent political demonstrations by the BNP and Jamaat demanding the resignation of Sheikh Hasina and establishment of a caretaker government, have pushed Bangladesh into a volatile situation. Notably on 28 October, 2023, the protest demonstrations turned violent. The public infrastructure came under attack. Dozens of vehicles, including police vans and ambulances were set on fire; the residences of Chief Justice and ‘Judges’ Quarters’ were attacked. Even the media wasn’t spared as several journalists were assaulted.
The killing of a police officer by the opposition mob, who was beaten and bludgeoned to death indicates the depravity of the anti-government parties in Bangladesh. Interestingly, despite the opposition’s claims of the government stifling its political space, the police permission for peaceful protests was granted. However, the opposition failed to reciprocate and has decided to take the country down a violent path. With the BNP asking its supporters to block streets, Bangladesh is on the edge now.
The BNP and its allies repeated its protest programme. It called for a country wide shut down for 8-9 November 2023, during which dozens of arson attacks, targeting public infrastructure, particularly the public transport, were reported by the local media. This points to the grim reality that Bangladesh stands on the brink of anarchy thereby breaking an extended period of peace and stability in the country. This has raised concerns amongst the international rights watchdogs also. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) has issued a statement calling on “all political actors to make clear that such violence is unacceptable and to avoid any statements or actions that could constitute incitement to violence.”
This brings us to revisit the question why the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami are relying on recurrent violence for achieving political ends. It would help to go back a few years and look at BNP rule before its tenure ended in 2006. BNP’s tenure between 2001 and 2006 witnessed an unprecedented surge in Islamist violence. BNP had patronised many Islamist organisations and individuals turning Bangladesh into a safe sanctuary for extremist factions including those associated with global terror outfits such as Al Qaeda.
The most vicious yet near synchronised Islamist violence happened on 17 August, 2005, during which militants carried out blasts “in 63 out of 64 administrative districts to press for a replacement of the secular legal system with Islamic sharia courts.” This demonstrates how the nurturing of elements from the Islamist ecosystem by BNP under Khaleda Zia had pushed the country to the point of almost no return.
Second, at the end of its tenure, BNP unconstitutionally extended the retirement age of the incumbent chief justice to render him ineligible to be appointed as the head of the caretaker government. As a constitutional requirement of that time, the last retired chief justice would head the interim administration to deliver free and fair elections. BNP’s unconstitutional act was to ensure its favoured Chief Justice (Retd) KM Hasan would head the election administration. Inevitably, as the political opposition, then led by Awami League of Sheikh Hasina, objected to this biased selection, the BNP government failed to bring the political parties in consensus, thereby initiating an extended political uncertainty.
It took nearly two years for the country to emerge from this political crisis after Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League won a landslide majority in the 2008 general elections. Two years of political uncertainty and political wrangling eventually pushed the government to introduce 15th constitutional amendment in 2011 to end the practice of interim set up for elections and this was perfectly in line with similar arrangements in all major democracies across the world.
The Jamaat-e-Islami party, with its historical complicity in oppressing Bangla people during the Liberation War with Pakistan, has overtly relied on violent political demonstrations as its favoured political tool to pressurise the governments to tend to its demands. Because of its use of violence as a tool Jamaat was deregistered as a political party through a supreme judgement in 2013. The party remained out of political contention for next two general elections but it did field several proxies.
In 2023, the Western governments led by the United States have been pressuring the Bangladesh government to allow the return of Jamaat to the political arena. Ironically Jamaat has clearly shown through violent political demonstrations in recent months that violence continues to be its main political weapon and it has no qualms in using it against its opponents. It is clear that the West is committing the same blunder by siding with Islamists in Bangladesh as it did in Pakistan and Afghanistan.