“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Will the BNP Ever Again be a Major Political Force in Bangladesh?

Ironically, both Sheikh Hasina Wazed and Khaleda Zia fought together to throw out General Ershad, a military dictator, to bring electoral democracy back to Bangladesh. But later, the two turned their arsenal towards each other for the sake of political survival. In the three decades since, the battling begums have alternately occupied the office of prime minister.

Both lay claim to aspects of Bangladesh's founding myth. Hasina is daughter of the 'Father of Bangladesh' Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country's first president. Zia is widow to Ziaur Rahman, who as an army officer under Mujib led a coup that resulted to Mujib's death in 1975.

Ziaur Rahman rose to power before being murdered by his own officers in 1981. Both men grew dictatorial when in power. In Zia's case, he declared Islam as the state religion, while Mujib dreamt for 'Sonar Bangla' or Golden Bengal.

The memory of each is burnished by their respective parties, now run by the two begums: Sheikh Hasina's Awami League and Khaleda Zia's Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Both parties and their allies are accused of abuse of power in Bangladesh. Each did all it could to frustrate the other's government, walking out of parliament and shutting down the economy with hartals and general strikes. The government witnessed coups, large protests and even assassination of its leaders.

Begum Khaleda Zia, chairperson of the BNP

In October 2018 during the general election campaign, Bangladesh witnessed Zia – the first woman in the history of country to become prime minister, in 1991 – being sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment by a Dhaka special court. She is serving jail time for misappropriating funds, which automatically disqualified her from contesting elections under existing Bangladesh law.

Zia last held the post of prime minister in 2001, when an alliance led by the BNP won 214 out of 300 seats in the national assembly. That election was reportedly the most violent in the republic's history, with reports of attacks on minorities, particularly the Hindu minority, that only increased following the victory of the BNP-led alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami.

The first constitution of Bangladesh, adopted on 4 November 1972, accepted nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism as principles of state. But soon after, its politics and government policies turned majoritarian. Through the Eighth Amendment to the constitution enacted on 7 June 1988, Islam was declared to be the state religion, with the provision that other religions may be practised in peace and harmony. This not only transformed the political identity of the state but also created internal conflicts. 


Bangladeshis by religion / AOB Bangladesh

Since then the countries religious minorities (largely Hindus) have faced increasing discrimination and violence, as reported by many scholars and world bodies. In Bangladesh Hinduism is the second largest religion after Islam, and currently Hindus form 8.96% of the population. In politics, they have usually voted in large numbers for the Awami League and the communist parties, believing these are the only parties which still respect the principles of state (nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism) adopted in 1972.

There are also 17 Hindu members elected to the 11th Parliament of Bangladesh in 2018, all of them from the Awami League, and in future there is a possibility of electing some minority Hindu women in the 50 seats reserved for women. The alternatives are centrist pro-Islamist parties such as the BNP and the Jatiya Party, which seeks to institutionalise its interpretation of Islamic law through the Bangladesh constitution. The BNP and the Jatiya Party both incorporate Muslim identity into their version of Bangladeshi nationalism and are in alliance with the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, an offshoot of the Pakistan-based Jamaat.


Begum Sheikh Hasina Wazed, prime minister of Bangladesh and president of the Awami League  

The Awami League and Sheikh Hasina have been at the centre of Bangladeshi politics against all odds, particularly the sharp rise in Islamist terrorism since she staged a comeback with a landslide victory in 2009. In 2014 Khaleda Zia boycotted the election after Hasina rejected her demand for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the election. Since then, many experts believe, Hasina has been leading an authoritarian government.  

 According to reports, many BNP leaders privately say they made a mistake in boycotting the 2014 elections while publicly describing their decision as correct, even though they failed to make their movement against government a success. Hasina has accused her opponent of supporting terrorism and launching killing sprees across Bangladesh given her closeness with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami.  

Zia has been prime minister thrice, although her second term lasted only a few weeks before her resignation was forced in March 1996 by general strikes supported by the opposition. She was sentenced in February 2018 in connection with the embezzlement of 21 million taka ($250,000) in foreign donations meant for the Zia Orphanage Trust, named after her late husband Ziaur Rahman. Last October her sentence was doubled to ten years. Her eldest son Tarique Rahman, acting chairman of the BNP, was also sentenced to ten years in connection with the case.  

According to Article 66 of the Bangladesh Constitution, anyone convicted for a criminal offence involving "moral turpitude" and sentenced to imprisonment for two or more years, cannot contest elections for a period of five years after their release. Zia's sentencing thus threatens to bring an end to the two-party system prevailing for more than three decades in Bangladesh.  

When the court declared her last sentence, an upset but confident Zia told her relatives and party supporters, "I will be back, there is no need to cry." Her heir Tarique was found guilty of having a hand in a 2004 grenade attack on an Awami League political rally that killed at least 20 people and injured 300, including former opposition leader Hasina who narrowly escaped with her life. Rahman has been living in exile in the UK since 2008 and was sentenced in absentia to life in prison.  

The BNP has stated that the judgment was politically motivated. Both Zia and Rahman were also found guilty of taking bribes from the Canadian corporation Niko Resources Ltd. in 2001 when the BNP-led alliance was in power. While carrying out drilling activities in the Chattak gas field Niko caused a huge blowout on 7 January 2005, destroying not just the gas field but also the surrounding environment. As Niko was trying to contain this blowout, it set off another explosion on June 24 of the same year. Damages caused by Niko to Bangladesh have since been estimated to be over $1bn and the accidents forced thousands to evacuate their homes. 

The rivalry between the two powerful Begums of Bangladesh, both of whom have their share of support, dates back decades. Each has accused the other of crimes on multiple occasions and each has spent much time under house arrest when the other was in power. After the 2014 polls when the BNP's demand for a re-election was declined by Hasina's office, the BNP-led alliance organised a mass protest and nationwide road blockade, which left 30 dead and hundreds injured. Police arrested more than 7,000 people during this period. Sheikh Hasina blamed Zia for the violence, accusing the opposition of disturbing law and order in the country.  

The BNP is in its weakest political form at the moment. Many senior leaders of the party are facing criminal charges for their actions during the violent protests in 2015. A party that has won four national and two presidential elections since its formation in 1978, has not been in power since 2006. 

Can it regain its power as a major political force in the country? In the last election it won just five seats, a disappointing result for the party. The BNP no longer has the popular support it enjoyed during the 2001 election. The primary reason is thought to be the protests of 2014-15 which were organised by the BNP's major ally the Jamaat. 

The Jamaat-e-Islami, founded in 1941 by Abbas Ali Khan, was banned by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman following its opposition to the Bangladesh liberation movement in 1971. A new Jamaat-e-Islami of Bangladesh was formed in 1975 after Ziaur Rahman lifted the ban. The Jamaat joined hands with the BNP in the 1980s, and Khaleda Zia's decision to make this alliance left many confused about what she and her party truly stood for. This resulted in a public turn against the main opposition party. 

Moreover a resolution has been introduced in the United States House of Representatives against the Jamaat-e-Islami, which was involved in war crimes during Bangladesh's Liberation War. The resolution identified Jamaat as a patroniser of terrorist and "jihadi" activities in the region for quite some time now. 

Hasina began prosecuting war crimes committed during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War in 2010, after crushing her opponent in the 2008 election, under an International Crimes Tribunal of Bangladesh set up in 2009 by Awami-League led government. The Jamaat-e-Islami stands accused of war crimes and violence. Many of its senior leaders have been charged and sentenced to jail. Recently, the Bangladesh government hanged Jamaat-e-Islami leader Motiur Rahman Nizami, 73, for crimes committed during the war of independence. 

From 2015 onwards the country has been witnessing a sudden upsurge of Islamist activity, leading to terror attacks in public places that targeted individuals and particularly media personalities. During protests that year many buses were burned, bombs set off and mass destruction caused to public life and property. 

The Jamaat-e-Islami does not in principle recognise people as the source of all powers, nor does it accept the undisputed power of people's representatives to make laws. 

The BNP is under pressure to cut ties with the Jamaat. BNP alliance partner Kamal Hussain, head of the Jatiya Oikya, has voiced concern about entering an alliance with the BNP while it is involved with the Jamaat-e-Islami. Hussain was law minister of Bangladesh under Awami League leader Mujibur, but broke ties with the AL and formed an alliance with the BNP and other political parties to launch the Jatiya Oikya. 

Khaleda Zia, apart being accused of money laundering, has faced criticism from organisations such as UK-based Human Rights Watch. The Rapid Action Battalion or RAB, an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladesh Police established in 2004, has been criticised by Human Rights Watch for several instances of torture and brutality. Khaleda Zia's 2001-2006 government has also been accused of repressing Hindus and political opponents.

That government's human rights record was reportedly poor. Police corruption and police crimes remained unpunished. According to the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Center for Trauma, there were 1,296 victims of torture and 115 deaths due to torture by security forces during the year 2003 alone. Journalists were victimised by gangs and even by police. They became afraid of exposing criminal activity. Shawkat Milton, a correspondent of the daily Janakantha in the southern city of Barisal, fled home to hide himself from police in March 2003 after learning that a warrant had been issued for his arrest in Dhaka. Reports claimed that Milton had raised questions about the methods used by Mujibur Rahman Sarwar, a BNP parliamentary leader, in his election campaign.

The other major accusation Khaleda faced during her term in office pertained to human trafficking. It was alleged that under her watch Bangladeshi children and women were trafficked mainly to India and Pakistan for the purpose of prostitution and labour.

Under Sheikh Hasina Bangladesh has been practising secularism. The minority Hindus have been supporting the Awami League. Hasina also announced the reservation of 50 seats for women in the Jatiyo Shangsad or parliament, and promised to sanction positions for women in public and private sector jobs. Over the years, women's groups have mobilised themselves and made sure their voices are heard on various issues, beginning with violence against women, gender equality in securing economic opportunities and participation, equal representation in politics, reproductive rights, family law reforms, and gender mainstreaming in public policies.

Hasina is also credited internationally with helping Bangladesh achieve key UN anti-poverty goals and in her term poverty has declined remarkably. Bangladesh is currently sheltering more than 1.1 million Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

 However, Human Rights Watch has always been critical of Bangladesh, whether Zia is at the helm or Hasina. 

Bangladesh's standard of living has improved faster under Hasina than her predecessor Zia, yet Hasina has been accused by international bodies of attacking freedom of speech to the extent of torturing bloggers. The classic example of this is the incarceration of award-winning photographer Shahidul Alam, arrested for exposing Bangladesh's election issues, corruption and bribery in an interview with Al-Jazeera. Social media have been used as a platform for campaigning by political parties yet the free use of social media is not permitted to ordinary internet users. Prior to the last elections, the authorities shut down several news sites and blogs.


Bangladesh GDP Growth Rate
Bangladesh annnual GDP growth rate

The Bangladesh Nationalist Party's elected members finally took oath to join the Bangladesh Parliament on April 30, after months of absence because they were protesting their leader's imprisonment and what they alleged was an unfree, unfair election. They have joined Parliament because under existing Bangladesh law, MPs-elect must take oath within three days of publication of the Gazette. If anyone fails to take oath within 90 days of the first session of Parliament, their seats will fall vacant.

BNP lawmakers are wrestling to find a way to release their leaders from jail. Khaleda Zia's health is reported to be poor, and she has complained of losing feeling in her hands and one leg. BNP leaders are afraid that the government is pushing Zia towards a tragic situation by torturing her physically and mentally.

The BNP's manifesto document 'Vision 2030' released in May 2017 suggested decentralising political power by transforming the Bangladesh parliament into a bicameral one, in order to balance the executive power of the prime minister.

Zia herself was quoted as saying, "In the last two years, people realised that the absolute executive power of the prime minister had changed our government to an autocracy in the guise of democracy."

She may not be wrong. Many experts believe Zia has been consigned to the sidelines, to simply live out her life inert.


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