Bangladesh a country ridden with internal conflicts

Updated: Feb 6 2002, 05:30am hrs
Every time I go to Bangladesh and I go regularly I find the country still in the midst of war. The guns of 1971 have stopped long ago but conflicts and tensions have not. The society remains divided from top to bottom. People of Bangladesh can be categorised into two groups: pro-liberation and anti-liberation. The first claims to represent the forces which fought against Pakistan to create an independent country. It mostly favours Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh. The second group supports Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Her husband, Zia-ur-Rahman, headed free Bangladesh through a coup.

After 30 years of Independence, who did what during the liberation struggle is getting hazier, but not the prejudices. Some impressions about people a few may well be true remain implacable. The worst part is that there is no mood of forgetting and forgiving. The liberation or the anti-liberation label has become such a prized possession that the fakes and failures use it to settle scores politically and, worse, violently. The cleavage, really speaking, is like Indias caste system, with its prejudices and biases. Appointments, transfers and even allocations of funds are made on the basis of who was on which side.

True, the country went through hell in the nine months of operations by the Pakistan army. All tiers of government were used to crush defiance and the local administrative machinery was wrecked. Freedom fighters were the worst sufferers. Not many people sided with Pakistan at that time. That was three decades ago. Now the situation is different: We and They. Some way has to be found to overcome the bitterness that continues to cast a shadow over the nations homogeneity.

The two leaders, Shiekh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, could have integrated the society. But their hatred for each other is so deep that when one of them comes to power, the other stokes the fire of revolt. Hasina denounced the elections when she lost. Her party, Awami League, has started a countrywide agitation to throw out Khaledas government. The latters response is repression. Khaledas Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was agitating till a few months earlier when Hasina was in power.

Bangladesh is a nation which is perpetually tearing itself apart. There are no two opinions that Mujib-ur-Rehman is the Father of the Nation. Why should the Khaleda government not give him that recognition The Sangh parivar has no love for Mahatma Gandhi. Still, the BJP, the parivars member, hails him as the Father of the Nation and extends all the honour due to him. In a way this has helped the BJP hide its Hindutva fangs.

Khaleda has even removed the picture of Mujib from Bangladeshs currency. She wants to amend the Act which prohibits people from pulling down Muijibs picture from public places and government offices. Probably, Khaleda wants to hang the picture of her husband, General Zia, along with Mujibs. Officially this is possible. But how do you put the founder of Bangladesh and an army general on the same pedestal

Bangladesh continues to suffer from non-issues. I try every time to find an answer to my question from the faces in the long queue of people before the immigration authorities at the airport. The scene is reminiscent of what I watched in early 1972. Then passengers were shouting Joi Bangla. They wanted to reach the promised land. They still do. But the queue I see at the airport moves slowly. And the people, mostly young, are taking outward flights. Pride is still writ large on their faces but there are signs of strain and sorrow.

It looks as if the zeal exhibited during the days of struggle against West Pakistan has burnt itself out. As happens in every liberation struggle, a better way of life was expected from the time guns fell silent. That did not come true. Most people still live on the periphery of existence. Liberation has brought them sovereignty, not economic betterment. This was the main reason why they broke away from West Pakistan. Still poor, the nation has come a long way from the time when every farmer had lost either his bullocks, ploughs or seeds after the withdrawal of Pakistani forces. The countryside has repaired itself. It is self-reliant. The 1999 cyclone saw farmers managing the ravages of the calamity though they had skimpy resources. Hardly anyone has gone to the streets of Dhaka, a practice for years to seek help.

Where I see the nation slipping is in its secular ethos. Muslim fundamentalists went berserk in the wake of the victory of Khaleda. So shocked was liberal press opinion that it brought out special editions to highlight the plight of minorities to shame the Muslim majority. In a special issue, titled A Puja Marred, The Star, a leading daily, reported how rape, arson, robbery and forced eviction of Hindu families in some parts of the country, had left the community in shock and fear. Shalier Kabia, author and documentary filmmaker, exposed the naked cruelty against the Hindus. The government imprisoned him for anti-national activities.

When I questioned Khaleda about the incidents, she was defensive. Her explanation was that it had happened mostly at the time when the caretaker government was in power. The other argument she advanced was that it was the doing of the Awami League which expected the Hindus to vote for it but pounced upon them when it found that they had voted for the BNP. You can ask the Hindus, she said. I shall give you their names. When she saw that I looked unconvinced, she said that she had ordered a judicial inquiry.

Incidentally, one of the two Jamaat ministers is in charge of the social welfare ministry, which is supposed to look after the Hindu community as well. Khaleda was equivocal on Bangladeshs relations with India. But there was no anti-India remark from her. She said there were some kinks which would had to be ironed out. She was keen on the Ganga Water Treaty being reviewed. I asked her point-blank to specify the problems between Bangladesh and India. Tension on the border between the police of both countries, was her reply. Reported infiltration of religious fundamentalists into India may aggravate the problem.

The reason why there are long queues at Dhaka airport is the failure of successive governments to provide opportunities. Even the reservoir of gas, which could have been utilised to keep the wheels of industry in the country moving, has remained untouched. The ruling BNP did not allow the sale of gas when it was in the wilderness. Now the Awami League is opposed to it.

My assessment over the years is that both the parties, indeed, both the ladies, have done little to solve most of the countrys problems. All that people could do was to ensure that the military stayed in the barracks. They have restored democracy. But what they have failed to do is to put pressure on the two ladies to change.

What will happen next Much will depend on the groundswell of opinion in our favour, an Awami League leader told me when I asked him about the prospects of an agitation to throw out Khaleda.