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Tug of war between BNP led opposition & Awami League in Bangladesh by Jai Kumar Verma

Article 008/2023

Bangladesh has always been in a political roller coaster and peace if ever has been short lived. Just when you want to believe all is fine on India’s cross-eastern borders, some development creates not only an upheaval but also attracts eyeball globally. The eastern neighbour is a turbulent one too but as friends India and Bangladesh have had strong handshakes always.

And this time the main opposition party Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) which is the largest Islamist political party in the country, called for a three-day blockade of roads, railways, and waterways. The opposition parties want that Sheikh Hasina the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and her party Bangladesh Awami League popularly known as Awami League (AL) should resign. They claim that free and fair elections will not be held if Sheikh Hasina continues as Prime Minister of the country. Hence Sheikh Hasina should resign, a caretaker government should be installed in the country and general elections to be held under the supervision of caretaker government, is their demand.

The opposition parties led by BNP, plan to organise mass rallies before the 12th national elections to force the ruling party to resign. The elections are scheduled to be held in January 2024. In the massive rally held on 28th October in Dacca, the BNP leaders demanded Hasina’s resignation and handing over of power to a non-partisan caretaker government, which would supervise the forthcoming national elections. BNP supporters allege that 2018 elections were rigged and if the 2024 elections were held under the present government, they would forge the elections again. Sheikh Hasina has taken a stringent view and made it clear that if the demonstrators would disrupt law and order or would resort to violence then they would be dealt strictly. Bangladesh, although a democratic country, has a history of violence during political demonstrations, rallies, and protests. Violence flares up in meetings, demonstrations organised before elections.

BNP has been organising anti-government demonstrations for many months now, to pressurise Sheikh Hasina’s government but as election is nearing the peaceful demonstrations have become violent. The repression by security forces is also expected to enhance. Secretary General of BNP Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir stated that his party would continue demonstrations to pressurise Sheikh Hasina’s government to resign and install the caretaker government. In an interview Alamgir made clear that his party does not trust the government and if elections are held under their command elections would be rigged.

The security agencies took tough action after 28 October rally in which BNP made efforts to disrupt transportation and create violent backlash. Hundreds of BNP leaders, workers, and demonstrators were arrested. According to reports about three civilians and one police officer died and several demonstrators were injured in the violence. About 42 vehicles were smashed during the demonstrations. Alamgir was arrested and after detention of few hours, the magistrate rejected his bail application, and he was sent to jail. The opposition supporters also attacked the residence of Chief Justice of Bangladesh. Police has raided the houses of several opposition leaders and about 1300 persons are under investigation of the security agencies.

Sheikh Hasina made it clear that no caretaker government would be installed, and election would be held under the supervision of her government which is according to the provisions of the constitution. Obaidul Quader the general secretary of Awami League also warned that the party workers of AL would also go on streets and would retaliate the actions of BNP and other opposition parties. He also made it clear that “The answer of violence is not silence. The answer of violence is violence.”

The Bangladesh watchers claim that foreign powers like China, Pakistan and U.S. are also directly and indirectly assisting the opposition parties albeit for different reasons. China wants to reduce India’s influence on Bangladesh as Sheikh Hasina is considered to be close to India. Defence cooperation between Beijing and Dacca has also increased. China has not only exported arms and ammunition but also provided training to Bangladesh military personnel. It has provided tanks, frigates, missile boats, fighter jets etc to the defence forces of Bangladesh. China assisted Bangladesh in installing an anti-ship missile launch pad near Chittagong Port. The economic relations between Beijing and Dacca have also increased, China has given Duty Free access to 97 percent of Bangladeshi products in 2020. Pakistan which considers India as its main enemy wants to dethrone Sheikh Hasina and install BNP as during the regime of Khaleda Zia Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan was using Bangladesh territory for anti-India operations.

On the other hand, U.S. is also trying to enhance its influence on Bangladesh by minimising the impact of China and India. U.S. State Department announced that it is “taking steps to impose visa restrictions on Bangladeshi individuals responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” The rule would be applicable on members of security agencies, leaders, and workers of all political parties. U.S. and human right groups claim that law enforcement authorities are responsible for disappearances of people who criticise government policies as well as leaders and workers of opposition parties. U.S. is also critical of government’s contentious cyber security law.

On 31st October 2023 Peter Haas US Ambassador to Bangladesh met Chief Election Commissioner Kazi Habibul Awal at Dacca. Later Peter Haas stated that US does not care who wins the elections but insists that free and fair election should be held in Bangladesh according to international standards. The US Ambassador also mentioned that all sides should hold a “dialogue” so that free, fair, and peaceful elections are held.

However, on 31st October 2023 Sheikh Hasina, while addressing a press conference in Dacca stated that “Is Mr. Biden holding dialogue with Mr Trump? If Biden sits with Trump for dialogue, then I will hold the dialogue (with opposition),”. She also mentioned that people of Bangladesh “do not want any dialogue with killers.” Sometime back Sheikh Hasina also stated in parliament that U.S. wants to remove her from Prime Ministership. As expected, the opposition parties welcomed the U.S. move.

The opposition parties and western analysts assert that although Bangladesh is an important player in Indo-Pacific and its significance has considerably increased during the present regime, the country is definitely passing through economic recession. The unity among various political parties has become a big threat to Awami League hence the possibility that it may manipulate the election cannot be ruled out.

There appears to be a political deadlock and there could be an opposition boycott of the election unless a caretaker government (CTG) is installed. The provision of CTG was abolished by AL in 2011. Apparently both parties show that they have taken firm stand but backdoor negotiations are going on to end the impasse.

Another line of thought is that BNP which is suffering from internal dissensions and as Khalida Zia is not available for election campaigning, the party cannot create turmoil in the country. Hence Sheikh Hasina cannot be forced to accept the demand of care taker government. Several top U.S. officials have visited Dacca and stressed on free and fair elections. U.S. also put visa restrictions, but it cannot dictate terms to the government, is quite clear from Hasina’s outburst.

India considers both the incumbent head of state and the Awami League an important ally and extends full support to them. India’s Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra visited Bangladesh in February this year and during a courtesy call at the residence of Sheikh Hasina stated that “We have total support to you and your leadership”. Bangladesh Prime Minister’s speechwriter Md. Nazrul Islam also told reporters that the visiting Foreign Secretary said that India would support Bangladesh in its development including political and economic progress. India has a long border with Bangladesh and as it is strategically located hence it becomes important for Indo-Pacific contenders.

On 1st November 2023 both Prime Minister Modi and Sheikh Hasina jointly inaugurated the Agartala-Akhaura project virtually from Delhi and Dacca. Delhi has sorted out several thorny issues with Dacca including border issue, maritime boundary issue etc. Delhi’s help to Dacca will also see that the foreign forces opposed to Sheikh Hasina do not succeed to influence the election. India as a true democratic country always supports free and fair elections not only in India but also in other countries. If BNP with the help of foreign forces tries to disrupt law and order situation in the country, India might extend assistance to Sheikh Hasina, so that law and order is not disturbed which is important for the progress of the country.

Recently pro India President of Maldives Ibrahim Mohamed Solih lost election and Mohamed Muizzu who led “India out” campaign won the elections. Muizzu is pro-China and will take over as President of Maldives next month. Hence India should plan a strategy so that the foreign forces do not succeed in destabilising Sheikh Hasina.

(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and Life member of United Services Institute of India and member of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s and does not reflect the views of CAS)

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