These appear to be dicey moments for Pakistan’s military supremo General Pervez Musharraf who in this instance took umbrage at what Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed had to say about the khaki claddies chucking elected political leaders from state power as it has often happened in Pakistan and Bangladesh. He read in the Bangladesh prime minister’s speech at the UN Summit an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of Pakistan. Musharraf cancelled a meeting with Hasina at the last moment in a huff, and a stream of bad feelings have flown between the two since then. But it is almost certain that Pakistan’s chief executive had read the Bangla prime minister’s rhetoric wrong.
Fact is, Hasina gives a hoot about the who or the how of running Pakistan. She is intensely focussed on the trial of her family’s killers—her family was wiped off on 15 August 1975—who were almost to a man, all military men who incidentally had fought Pakistan in the Bangla liberation war of 1971. After she came to power, much of her energy has been devoted to make sure they hang. The magistracy has tried them all—in presence or in absence—and passed the expected death sentence. The verdict is now being heard at the Supreme Court for confirmation.
But the trial has been prolonged, and has taken much of Hasina’s ruling period. She is deeply troubled by the fact that despite all the efforts and inspite of personally leading the charge from her prime minister’s chair, the legal system has defied her attempt to finish off the task she had set as her highest personal and political priority. Pakistan doesn’t at all figure in that scheme of things. Military coup plotters and their friends do.
To ensure that her family’s role in the country’s history is well-remembered, Hasina has named everything from bridges to stadia to roads, parks, hospitals, etc after her parents and other members of the family since she came to power. This is where the military comes in.
Her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had led the nationalist movement which birthed Bangladesh, was killed with his entire family and numerous other relatives in Bangladesh’s first military coup. Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana were abroad at that time, and were thus spared. So she understandably has little love for that military which takes over civil power. She doesn’t trust them fully either, and even had a retired general cum close relative reactivated and put in charge of the army, no doubt hoping that blood ties would overcome other loyalties.
At the time of his death, Mujib was the president of the country and leader of an ill-fated one-party political system. After the coups and counter-coups that followed, a military government led by Gen. Ziaur Rahman was finally installed. Though Zia was not part of the killing, many Awami League (AL) members believe that he either conspired from the shadows or at least knew what was on, but didn’t stop the moves. Less partisans say that he refused to either participate or get involved in any way with the coup. In fact, one group of the plotters had gaoled him briefly before he manoeuvered himself to power in November 1976 after a series of abortive and non-abortive take overs.
Gen. Zia reintroduced the multi-party government—a popular demand—and to keep the still-formidable AL at bay, did encourage any and all anti-AL groups including pro-Pakistan forces, to stage comebacks as also getting those back from Saudi Arabia, where many had camped after Bangla independence. They did emerge, physically and politically, in the post-Mujib era, surfacing either in Zia’s own party called Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) or other constructs. Even the Maoists gave up insurgency, and promptly vanished from the political scene. But some still bat for the BNP now.
Partisan loyalties do live on. One such person is Jehangir Mohammed Adel, once a leader of Muslim League, who is now being tried for sedition for hoisting a Pakistani flag atop his Dhaka residence on 14 August, the Pakistan Day. But this is an extreme case, as in general, anti-Pakistan feelings are never high. Musharraf may have changed that a bit now.
The other hate figure in Hasina’s life is of course Khaleda Zia, present leader of BNP and ex-prime minister of Bangladesh, now doing her best to oust Hasina from power using the hartal strategy. Khaleda is Gen. Zia’s widow, and was a political novice till she took over the party in 1981. This was after Zia was killed by his fellow officers, all veterans of the 1971 war, in a botched coup attempt. The coup members were mostly hanged by then military chief Gen. Ershad who was later accused of being part of that coup.
The BNP was also dislodged from power in the early 1980s by Gen. Ershad in another military coup months after it had won the presidential election defeating the AL candidate. The BNP then took to the streets for the next decade, spending almost a decade leading street agitations and arguing that a military government which overthrows an elected civilian government should also be overthrown by any means including mass upsurge. Khaleda was considered an uncompromising foe of Ershad, while Hasina was a trifle softer.
In the ensuing 1991 parliamentary elections, Khaleda was a surprise winner as most expected Hasina and her established party machine to sweep to power. But even when they were fighting Ershad, they never stopped slugging each other. It is generally held that Ershad survived a decade not because he was doing wonders, but because he successfully played off Khaleda and Hasina against each other. The mutual hatred of the two leaders are legendary, and both have accused each other of the worst, including funding bump-off attempts.
Hasina sees Khaleda as leading a party spawned by the military, and therefore deserving no political space in Bangladesh. Many AL leaders also feel that they, more than others, have the legitimacy to rule Bangladesh, not least because the country fought the 1971 war under Hasina’s father Rahman and his party Awami League.
Conversely, the BNP sees the AL as an intolerant party that set up the scary one-party rule and is therefore anti-democratic, hence unfit to govern Bangladesh. Khaleda presents her party as an anti-Indian platform. India is certainly less popular than Pakistan in Bangladesh because of many reasons including problems arising out of the Ganga water sharing that devastated Bangladesh, regular border skirmishes, migrant issues, unbalanced trade flow and India’s big-neighbour kind of stances.
The BNP was in fact pushed out of power by the AL through prolonged street agitations which ran from 1994 to 1995. In the ensuing elections of 1996, the AL won consigning the BNP to the opposition. The BNP has tried, and is still trying to arouse the streets, but that hasn’t worked, partly because the public dislikes military rulers like Ershad much more. The BNP has allied itself with Gen. Ershad’s Jatiyo party—once an arch enemy—and the Islamic fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami to form an alliance which if it fails to oust Hasina, will fight the polls jointly.
The byzantine political configurations result from the mutual hatred that both ladies generate. This is what drives Bangla politics. Hasina’s reference to military takeovers in her UN speech had little, if nothing to do with Pakistan. Musharraf’s was an overreaction from a disappointed man who saw India hit it off with the US, while his own campaign there was in the doldrums. It probably had nothing to do with Hasina’s speech.
The Washington Post has done a story on the topic and mentions that, compared to the royal treatment that Atal Behari Vajpayee enjoyed, Musharraf was practically ignored by the US administration. Given the present US tilt towards India, he was seriously piqued and was probably angered that his legitimacy was further trashed by Hasina whose country doesn’t even have a nuclear arrow, not to speak of sophisticated missiles. While the Bangladesh leader was grinding her axe at the international fora against her arch enemy, she had no inkling that it was making waves in the entire SAARC. Her ambitions may have been met.
The subsequent statements by the Bangladesh Foreign Ministry also makes the content of her speech clear. The spokesperson has said that it was a principled statement and not directed against any person or country. In fact, Hasina loves her acceptability at the SAARC level, and has never taken the 1971 issue to any international level to avoid a showdown with Pakistan.
Meanwhile, India is obviously cheering the whole episode as Pakistan hasn’t gained any brownie points from the issue. Some Pakistani political analysts have said that the CEO has managed to get into a fight with a key South Asia ally. Bangladesh has an active relationship with India and shares a common boundary as well as many unresolved issues. The migrants issue is a serious sore point for both. In Bangla politics, India matters, while Pakistan exists only as part of a dreadful past and as a counterpoise to India. Pakistan has more friends than enemies in Bangladesh, and at least some activists, which is why anti-Indian groups can operate from there. But the present episode will make Pakistan’s activities based in Bangladesh—if any—more difficult.
But Hasina also may thank the Pakistan leader for providing an issue just as election time draws near. She can call on political nostalgia and genocidal memories to whip up voter sentiments against the BNP, which is imaged as Pakistan-friendly. She has already called for a formal apology from Pakistan for what happened in 1971, and this time it will be a potent issue, at least for the time being. One more to add to her basket of the past which helps her deal with the present.
It will be difficult for the BNP now. The anti-Indian card will no longer be as big an ace as it was before. The BNP will have to respond with something concrete on the issue, and that can hardly be a defence of military take-overs. But if she criticises Pakistan, she will be seen as second fiddling Hasina, which will also go against her party. It is a political catch-22 that she might wish she wasn’t caught in.
Hasina was given support by India after her father’s assassination in 1976. She remains grateful. Now, she will have cause to be grateful to Pakistan for what could have been an avoidable reaction. It is all in the SAARC spirit.