Saturday, February 28, 2009

Trouble in Bangladesh

Bangladesh, the second largest Muslim country in the world, became an independent entity in December 1971, following a Civil War in which India actively supported the East. Leader of the Independence Movement, Sheikh Mujibur Rehman became the first Prime Minister of the country.
In January 1975, parliamentary government was replaced by a presidential form of Government. Sheikh Mujib became the first President, assuming absolute power. In February 1975, Bangladesh became a one-party State.
In August 1975, the country witnessed a coup in which Sheikh Mujib and his family were assassinated. Chief of Army Staff, Major. Gen. Ziaur Rahman took over the power. In June 1978, the first direct presidential elections were held in which Gen. Zia emerged victorious, who formed a Council of Advisers. It was followed by a parliamentary election in February 1979, resulting in a victory for President Ziaur Rahman’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). BNP secured 207 out of the 300 directly elected seats in the Jatiya Sansad.
Political instability recurred, however, when Gen. Ziaur was assassinated in May 1981 during an attempted military coup. The then Vice-President, Justice Abdus Sattar took over as acting President but was faced with strikes and demonstrations over the execution of several officers who had been involved in the coup.
In March 1982, there was a bloodless military coup, by which Lt. Gen. Ershad became Chief Martial Law Administrator. President Sattar was deposed. The Constitution was suspended and Parliament ceased to function. Assanuddin Chowdhury was sworn-in as a civilian President. Although the economic policies of the Government attained some success and gained a measure of popular support for Ershad, the all party alliance of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD)—gained momentum.
In January 1986, a National Executive Committee was formed and the National Party launched, composed a group of Government supporters. Gen. Ershad was re-elected President in October 1986. The National Party won the general elections of March 1988.
Gen. Ershad was deposed and arrested after a popular uprising in December 1990. Shahabuddin Ahmed took over as acting President. In the general elections, held in February 1991, BNP led by Begum Khaleda Zia secured 140 seats. Begum Zia was sworn-in Prime Minister. In the general elections held in June 1996, Awami League won 146 seats and Sheikh Hasina Wajed daughter of the late Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, became the Prime Minister. Jatiya Party quit the Government in March 1998. A coalition Government headed by Sheikh Hasina Wajed was voted into power in a second set of elections.
In October 2001, BNP won the parliamentary elections and Khaleda Zia returned to power. In October 2006, President Iaju­ddin Ahmed named himself head of a non-party caretaker Government to conduct the next general elections. Since January 2007, the country has been running into rough weather.
In December 2008, the army-backed emergency rule in Bangladesh ended with a landslide victory for Awami League alliance led by former Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed in the parliamentary elections. She was sworn in as the Prime Minister of the country.
Present Trouble
The short-lived but deadly insurrection by the rank and file of the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) marked a critical test for the two-month-old Government that is still in the process of consolidating civilian control after two years of Army-backed emergency rule. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina handled the situation with calibrated firmness. The fact that what started as a takeover of the BDR’s Dhaka headquarters spread to 15 border districts, despite an offer of general a mnesty by the Prime Minister, did reflect deep-rooted grievances among the guards. These relate to issues of pay and treatment by the Army commanders, and a change in the command and control structure.

The military junta, backed by some vested business interests and bureaucrats in power for nearly two years, was turning the administration upside down. Many businessmen had shifted to Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai.
Earlier, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party under Khalida Zia had added to the disaster through corruption and mismanagement. Sheikh Hasina brings some sense to the politics and governance and is widely seen as a secular democrat leader.
The present economic and political challenges needed a team she has constructed. Her good relationship with India, a large powerful neighbour, is to the advantage of Bangladesh.
India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee signed two important trade pacts in Dhaka recently. Much more than this is the Awami Party’s commitment to a secular and democratic Bangladesh and has people’s welfare at its heart.
A serious economic slide is visible with its most earning sectors — service sector, garment exports, tourism and manufacturing — that add up to billions of dollars and employ millions of people.
One of the world’s poorest and most densely populated countries, Bangladesh devotes its land mainly to rice and jute cultivation. Although wheat production has increased in recent years a good thing is that the country is largely self-sufficient in rice production. Yet 15 per cent of the population is at serious nutritional risk. The agricultural economy depends heavily on an erratic monsoon cycle, with periodic flooding and drought.
Infrastructure to support transportation, communications, and power supply is poorly developed. Bangladesh has limited reserves of coal and oil, and its industrial base is weak. The country’s main gifts include its human resource base, rich agricultural land, relatively abundant water and substantial reserves of natural gas. Under-employment remains a serious problem, and a growing concern for Bangladesh’s agricultural sector will be its ability to absorb additional manpower.
Notice to Government
Recently, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addressed the men and officers of the BDR at its headquarters in Dhaka, she could not have imagined that her Government would face a major challenge from the ranks of the paramilitary force the very next day. She has, after all, come back to power with a thumping majority after the December 2008 elections.
But the BDR men who mutinied in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country sent out a message that she should not consider her government safe from those opposed to her policies. That there is resentment in the BDR ranks over an unattractive salary structure and perks is a different matter. Had it been just a matter related to the pay scales, which are, no doubt, lower than those in the Bangladesh Army, it could be sorted out through peaceful means.
Those who revolted against the State, leading to the death of over 50 persons, mostly senior army officers posted at key positions in the BDR, must have done this at the instance of their benefactors, who are no longer in power. The BDR’s ranks are full of those owing allegiance to Begum Khaleda Zia’s BNP and its key religio-political ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami.
Bangladesh is far from being a hardline Islamic State but its so-called secular leaders have done their best to give secularism a bad name.One of Sheikh Hasina’s principal tasks in the current phase is to put down Islamist guerrilla groups. Her administration also needs to dismantle certain support systems that by all accounts continue to remain entrenched in the country for terror outfits that resort to depredations in India.
For its part, New Delhi needs to ensure that its borders with Bangladesh are secure and that there is no laxity in controlling access along the 4,100-km boundary, only a part of which is fenced. What impact the BDR rebellion will have on the delicately poised civilian government depends on whether, and how swiftly, Sheikh Hasina’s administration is able to redress the genuine grievances of the rank-and-file forces — without upsetting the powerful military leadership — and assert its overall authority.
India has a big stake in the goings-on. It wants a stable and friendly neighbour. Bangladesh has harboured many insurgent groups from the Northeast and sheltered many fugitives from India. But the acid test is the willingness of Bangla­desh to firmly curb the activities of the terrorist outfits operating against India.

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