By S. M. Hali
Violent clashes, low turnout and boycott marred the latest general elections in Bangladesh in which 18 persons lost their lives on Election Day. The opposition had demanded that the ruling party Awami League (AL) step down prior to the elections to forestall the chances of vote-rigging but the rulers rejected their demand. AL bagged 232 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, 153 of them uncontested owing to the opposition’s boycott. The US, EU and other neutral countries have asked Sheikh Hasina to engage the opposition in dialogue and hold fresh elections; the current results lack credibility because more than 50% of the seats were unopposed while the rest had only token opposition.
Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan in 1971 after a bloody revolt aided by arch enemy India. Sheikh Mujib, the founder of Bangladesh and India’s agent provocateur did not live long after Independence since his gross mismanagement provoked his own military to rebel and assassinate him and other family members. His eldest daughter Sheikh Hasina Wajid survived since she was abroad, returning in 1981 to lead the AL. Hasina was elected Prime Minister in 1996 but her rule was marred by corruption and mismanagement for which she suffered incarceration. In 2008, she was reelected but this time around again her governance was found wanting and to make matters worse, she was playing footsie to India which was pursuing its own agenda.
Bangladesh had established a robust garment industry and started earning valuable foreign exchange by exporting its products in western markets. The parting of the two wings of Pakistan had been stained with blood and anguish but time healed the wounds and the two nations came closer. Pakistani investors, hampered by an incessant energy shortage, terror attacks and political violence in their home country, set shop in Bangladesh and helped its economy flourish. The investor-friendly policies of Bangladesh, cheaper skilled labour and, crucially, tax-free access to 37 countries, including the European Union, Canada and Australia were attractive incentives for investment. According to a recent survey, more than ten thousand Pakistanis have invested 2 billion Dollars in Bangladesh in the textile, leather and garments sector alone.
Unfortunately, Sheikh Hasina Wajid’s bad governance and corrupt practices of her party had disillusioned Bangladeshis and as elections 2014 loomed ahead, she was desperate to win a third term in office. She sought advice from her Indian mentors, who strongly recommended their time tested formula of Pakistan bashing and targeting Muslims. Bangladesh is itself a Muslim country so it could not target its own majority population but found a suitable scapegoat in the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), which was blamed for having sided with Pakistan in the 1971 liberation struggle. The party was declared illegal and banned from contesting elections by the Bangladesh High Court; while its top leaders are being tried for crimes during the war and four of them have been sentenced to death for murder, mass murder, rape and religious persecution in Bangladesh’s controversial International Crimes Tribunal, which is not endorsed by the UN and has been criticized by human rights groups. Sheikh Hasina Wajid killed two birds with one stone. She removed a major impediment, the JI from opposing it in the elections while it persecuted its leaders for their Pakistan connection thus irking Pakistan. On December 12, 2013, Abdul Quader Molla, the Assistant Secretary General of JI was hanged after a controversial trial, which was criticized by the EU, Australia, Turkey and the UN. Expectedly, the Pakistani Parliament took notice of the judicial murder maligning Pakistan and passed a Resolution condemning the act. AL activists took to the streets, burning effigies of Pakistani leaders and raised anti-Pakistan slogans. Rioting occurred and amidst the chaos and mayhem of the boycott by the opposition, AL got re-elected and Sheikh Hasina Wajid has been sworn in as Prime Minister again.
How the AL handles its crisis is its internal matter but the wedge being drawn between the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh is a matter of serious concern.
India stood to gain with the secession of East Pakistan but it tried to extract its pound of flesh when after the 1971 War, it removed machinery from Bangladeshi mills to compensate for its war expenses. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman paid with his life for leaning towards India. Subsequent Bangladeshi governments let matters to rest and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis soon rediscovered their lost amity and without acrimony or bitterness the two drew closer, much to the chagrin of India. In fact the classic example of the Pakistan-Bangladesh harmony was visible during the Asia Cup cricket match between Pakistan and India at the Dhaka cricket ground, where the entire stadium was cheering the Pakistan team. India avenged itself by first making Sheikh Hasina Wajid demand an apology from Pakistan for its alleged war crimes against the Bengalis in 1971. Sheikh Hasina also instituted a special award titled ‘Bangladesh Liberation War Honour’ and conferred it upon 338 foreign nationals and organizations, mostly from India, felicitating them for supporting the nation’s liberation war against Pakistan. Ironically 13 Pakistanis were also posthumously included in that list and when their family members were invited to Bangladesh to receive the award on behalf of the awardees, they were coaxed to urge the government of Pakistan to seek an apology from the Bengalis. It is a matter of record that numerous Bengali and neutral researchers have concluded that some Pakistan Army personnel committed atrocities but not to the extent being alleged. On the contrary, Bengali insurgents massacred thousands of non Bengali settlers and Pakistani military and government personnel with their families while serving in erstwhile East Pakistan.
With the persecution of Pakistanis in Bangladesh, the investors are facing a state of uncertainty and insecurity. They cannot bear the setback in their investment and may be forced to cut their losses and head towards more amenable locations. Sheikh Hasina, through her myopic policies is destroying the relationship between the two nations and hurting Bangladesh in the bargain.