14 September 2004

Inside Bangladesh II: Limited room for mullahs, military but not mastans

14 September 2004
The Hindu

Inside Bangladesh-II

Limited room for mullahs, military but not mastans

By Siddharth Varadarajan

Dhaka: If Bangladesh were Pakistan, the irrational enmity between Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and Awami League (AL) leader Sheikh Hasina might well have led to the Army and the Islamist parties — acting singly or in alliance — slowly expanding their influence at the expense of both the ruling BNP and the opposition Awami League.

But while majoritarian and violent impulses have become more manifest in Bangladeshi politics — as witnessed by the recent ban on Ahmadiya literature, the attacks on Hindu minorities soon after the 2001 elections, the tendency of both the BNP and the AL to flirt with political Islam and the growing number of bomb blasts and attacks on liberal and secular targets — electoral support for the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and the Islamic Oikya Jote (IOJ) continues to run at less than 10 per cent of the votes cast.

A definite presence

The Islamists have a definite presence, says political scientist Imtiaz Ahmed, who teaches at Dhaka University, "but there are natural limits to the amount of influence they can wield in Bangladesh."

Instead, the force to watch, he argues, are the mastans, underworld bosses who have penetrated every party and are pushing the envelope as far as criminalisation of politics is concerned.

As for the Army, most analysts argue that the military has been transformed by its role as the single largest provider of United Nations peacekeeping forces. With close to 10,000 men serving various blue-helmet missions around the world — earning dollars, and, of course, plaudits — the Bangladeshi Army is apparently in no mood to even think once again of returning to politics. Scholars also point to structural changes in the Army since the Ershad days which make it difficult for a coup to succeed.

Limited vote share

According to Prof. Ahmed, there are a number of reasons why the Islamist parties are unlikely to extend their influence beyond the current limit. Their alliance with the BNP might have provided respectability to the JeI and the IOJ — the Jamaat is actually in Begum Khaleda's Cabinet — but their own vote share remains limited. In 1996, when the BNP and the JeI fought alone, their respective vote share was 34 per cent and 9 per cent; in 2001, after fighting as allies, the BNP's went up to 41 per cent but the JeI's fell to 4.2 per cent.

Second, Prof. Ahmed argues that the use the BNP and the AL themselves make of Islam also tends to limit the JeI's appeal. When Sheikh Hasina was the Prime Minister, for example, she increased funding for madrassas.

And today, as opposition leader, she is attacking the JeI for allowing the manufacture of liquor — a decision she says JeI leader Motiur Rahman Nizami has taken in his capacity as Industry Minister.

Women's role

Third, says Prof. Ahmed, the enormous role played by women in the electoral process — the voter turnout of women in Bangladesh is the highest in South Asia — acts as a barrier to the growth of the JeI or IOJ. Finally, he argues that the memory of the genocide, of the liberation struggle and language movement, continues to exert a decisive pull on the national psyche. "Bangladesh may once have been East Pakistan but 1971 is far more important to us than 1947," he says.

If the Islamists have a limited electoral future, could they seek to expand their influence through other means? Certainly the needle of suspicion for many of the bomb blasts in which cinema halls and secular festivals like Poila Boishakh have been targeted points in the direction of terrorists with links to shadowy Islamist groups. But then some degree of official collusion also cannot be ruled out, since neither the BNP nor the AL — when it was in power — managed to solve any of these mysterious crimes.

Bomb culture

Asked why the JeI has never been targeted by bomb blasts yet, Jamaat leaders say a number of their student and youth cadres have been assassinated or killed in gun battles with rival groups.

Scholars like Prof. Ahmed also argue that the increasing salience of mastans in politics is contributing to the bomb culture. "The `mastanocracy' is really quite huge, with some dons having hundreds of well-armed and trained `cadres'," he says. "If the popular belief of U.S. involvement in the August 21 attack is the "high" conspiracy theory and Indian and Pakistani/Islamist involvement the "middle", there is also a "low" theory that mastans seeking to avenge the growing number of encounter killings by the Rapid Action Battalion chose to stage the attack as a warning to the entire political class."

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