Sri Lanka-type agitation threat looms over Bangladesh victory month

Subir Bhaumik

December in Bangladesh is usually a month of celebrations, as the country recalls the surrender of Pakistan’s army on December 16, 1971, leading to the emergence of an independent nation .

The Bijoy Dibosh (Victory Day) celebrations are preceded by nationwide celebrations of key battles in different parts of the country that locals fondly like to recall. These battles led to the final encirclement of Dhaka by the Indian Army and the Bangali Mukti Bahini (Freedom Force) and forced the surrender of 93,000 Pakistani soldiers and officers.

It was easily one of the biggest surrenders of military personnel in recent history. By surrendering to the Indian Army, Pakistan’s Eastern army commander Lt Gen AAK Niazi ensured the safe passage of his surviving troops back to what was then West Pakistan. Most of them would not have survived if they had fallen into the hands of the vengeance-seeking Bengali freedom fighters.

But ahead of this December, the mood of celebrations has been punctured by one of confrontation. The main Opposition, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has said it will announce on December 10 a comprehensive plan for nationwide agitation to bring down the Awami League government.

“People’s power” threat

The Awami League, which spearheaded the Bengali freedom struggle in what was then East Pakistan, has been in power since it won a clear majority in the December 2008 Parliament polls. All parties accepted that poll as fair and inclusive, and the results were seen as an expression of popular angst with the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami coalition for its politics of violence and fairly overt patronage of Islamist radical groups. However, the two subsequent national elections have been controversial.

The BNP-Jamaat coalition boycotted the 2013-14 polls after failing to topple the Awami League government by violent street agitations, leaving the road clear for the Awami League. The BNP contested the polls five years later, but withdrew at the last moment, alleging widespread electoral fraud.

Since then, the BNP has derided the Awami League government as an “illegal government” and said it will be brought down by “people’s power” (violent street agitations to paralyse government functioning).

With the parliament polls barely a year away, the BNP has now chosen December to announce its “do-or-die” Sri Lanka-type mass agitation to topple the Awami League government. The BNP leaders, strongly backed by Islamist parties like the pro-Pakistan Jamaat, are trying to capitalise on popular angst over rising food and energy prices, a sharp dip in electricity generation due to a global rise in energy prices, and burgeoning corruption within the government and ruling party.

Economy in the doldrums

The Ukraine war has thrown Bangladesh’s economy out of gear and forced the Awami League government to seek support from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to shore up the country’s foreign exchange reserves. It is now barely enough to meet imports for three months.

 

The failure to curb rising bank defaults and money-laundering because of an unholy nexus between crony businesspersons and corrupt political leaders in the past four years has adversely impacted the economy. It was steadily growing in the first two terms of the Awami League government, so much so that Bangladesh’s per-capita income crossed India’s and the country was seen as one of the rising Asian tigers boasting an amazing turnaround story.

The Awami League government now faces a stiff political challenge from the Islamist Opposition, boosted by public angst over issues such as price rise. The US sanctions against seven senior officials of security organisations may have an adverse impact on the morale of law-enforcing agencies.

Though Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has warned of “tough measures to crush” any Opposition attempt to create mayhem, she may find it difficult to use law-enforcing agencies to do that because of the fear of more sanctions. There is constant pressure on the government to come clean on “enforced disappearances” and large-scale arrests of Opposition activists.

India in a bind

The US and European countries, the Islamic nations, and now Japan are pushing Hasina to hold free and inclusive elections. But how does she do it if the Islamist Opposition is determined not to join the polls? The Japanese ambassador to Dhaka recently went to the extent of warning against a repeat of the last parliament polls when “ballot boxes were allegedly stuffed by policemen the day before the polls.” Since Japan is one of the top sources of development assistance for Bangladesh, Hasina cannot overlook the Japanese pitch for fair and inclusive polls.

All this leaves India in a bind. Hasina has obliged India on its security and connectivity concerns, demolishing Northeast Indian separatist rebel bases in Bangladesh and allowing trade and transit between the Northeast and the Indian mainland. Even luxury river cruises between Varanasi and Dibrugarh in Assam through Bangladesh are on the cards. Dhaka is fuming over what it feels is lack of Indian payback, with no progress in the proposed agreement over the sharing of Teesta river waters.

Any large-scale violence and political destabilisation in Bangladesh over the impending political confrontation threaten the security and economy of India’s fragile eastern borderlands, what with Myanmar degenerating into civil war after the 2021 military coup. Any possibility of regime change in Dhaka worries Delhi, which fears losing out on gains made in the past 14 years.

The Islamist Opposition has blamed India for keeping the Awami League in power by means fair and foul, and Delhi fears many complications in bilateral relations if the government changes, especially through a bitter and violent confrontation rather than a fair and inclusive election. But it must come to terms with the Awami League’s growing lack of popularity, compounded by increasing factional feuds at the grassroots.

(Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC correspondent and author)