How non-violent student protests in Bangladesh took political colours and threaten to spread to India too

There is enough political ammunition for the BNP to churn the agitations into a major roadblock for the Awami League and its friends in New Delhi.

 |  8-minute read |   06-08-2018
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Protest politics has always been at the forefront of what is now called Bangladesh ever since Bangla consciousness occupied the political space. In what was East Bengal then, later East Pakistan, saw a flurry of activities since pre-1947, including protests in Calcutta (now Kolkata), mostly spearheaded by the Muslim League and its affiliates when Bangla leaders like HS Suhrawardy and AK Fazlul Haq dominated the political domain.

Barely five years after the creation of Pakistan, its eastern arm, organised the Language Movement in 1952 in Dacca (now Dhaka), leading to indiscriminate firing by Pakistani authorities that killed many who upheld the "Bangla cause" and opposed the imposition of Urdu in East Pakistan. This violent attempt to quell the agitators also saw the steady emergence of Bangla nationalism, which was later responsible for attaining freedom, and Bangladesh becoming a reality, rejecting the two-nation theory propounded by Mohammed Ali Jinnah.

The Bangla spirit of agitation still resonates and was amply demonstrated on July 29, when two young students were crushed by speeding vehicles in Dhaka leading to mass protests, albeit peaceful, by youths.

While thousands of students and adults have been out on Dhaka's roads stopping traffic and intercepting over the last one week, US ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat’s vehicle was “attacked” in Dhaka by a “group of armed adult men” on August 4.

The envoy and her staff members were unharmed, but the diplomatic fraternity is reeling under the fear of insecurity with the law and order situation deteriorating even as incidents of clashes and intervention by the student group, Jubo League or Chhatra League (affiliated to the ruling Awami League) have been reported.

students-stop-vehicl_080618023220.jpgStudents stop a vehicle to check driver's licence in Dhaka. (Credit: AP photo)

It is widely perceived that the US ambassador, not happy with the Hasina-led government, has been contacting human rights groups for a pro-active role which is seen by the Awami League supporters as a subtle move to dislodge Hasina by indirectly supporting the agitators. The US' weakness for BNP leader Khaleda Zia and her party is an "accepted view" in Dhaka.

Pro-Awami League activists reckon that the US ambassador, when attacked, was returning home after meeting Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of Shujan, a civil society group.

Many Bangladesh watchers are of the view that the attempt was a mark of protest questioning the role of the US ambassador — what was the envoy doing with an office-bearer of a civil society so late at night?

The US ambassador enjoys heavy official security and is generally trailed by intelligence officials. How could the National Security Intelligence (NSI) miss such attempt to target an ambassador? Moreover, meetings with human rights and civil society leaders are normally held at neutral locations, away from the glare of intelligence and security radar. Why did the envoy decide to go all the way to Mohammadpur to meet the activist knowing full well that the city has been struck with sporadic incidents of violence?

Fortunately, the US ambassador was unhurt but the US-Bangladesh ties will take a hit, even if temporarily. Diplomatic efforts must be made on priority to repair the damage before it goes out of control.  

In view of this development and upcoming elections, Bangladesh should move with abundant caution ensuring security of the diplomats, especially US envoys, to avoid being attacked by the Opposition party alleging government’s failure to maintain law and order.

The prevailing scene in general is bad and the government needs to act fast or else it will have to pay a heavy price.

Also, the ongoing political and social developments seem to be stirring the youth and the general populace to take to the streets and intensify their protests. Social media is agog with appeals to the youth to continue their agitation against traffic mismanagement. The government seems to be really at a loss to deal with this new wave of protests. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself seems rattled and is often seen in a huddle with her close advisors to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is struggling to find space in the mainstream politics with its leader Khaleda Zia still in custody on corruption charges, is clearly in a mood to exploit the current situation keeping in view the electoral challenges.

BNP leaders, in the meantime, have started pledging support to the agitating students describing the development as a mass movement. Senior leader Moudud Ahmed, while addressing a conclave in Dhaka on August 3, lambasted the ruling Awami League (AL) for its failure to contain the ongoing student uprising.

dhaka_080618023349.jpgStudents block a road as they take part in a protest over recent traffic accidents that killed a boy and a girl, in Dhaka. (Credit: Reuters photo)

Clearly, the protests have been politicised to score brownie points. The BNP seems to have bounced back, or in the process of doing so, before formally jumping into the election fray. Several important members of the party leadership have started warming up to India and to the BJP senior leadership, signalling to elicit support in some measure. Political activities are as hectic in Bangladesh as among a segment of India’s ruling dispensation.

Also, in a proposed major shift in the party’s poll strategy, many BNP activists are now calling for severing ties with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) as any proximity with the fanatic outfit will irk India for JeI's consistent anti-India and pro-Pakistan stance. If this divorce fructifies, India may not be forthrightly dismissive of the BNP overtures.

Having said this, the developments arising out of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam has given enough food for thought and ammunition to the BNP and to Hasina’s detractors. The BNP, in likelihood, will raise these issues showing Awami League in poor light for its alleged surrender to the Indian diktat in rendering 4,00,000 people stateless, labelling all of them as Bangladeshis. India, though, has been doing the balancing act rather deftly.

Meanwhile, fresh reports indicate that there is a tacit understanding between the Indian home minister and his Bangladesh counterpart that these 40 million people will not be deported to Bangladesh.  Such acts of diplomacy and understanding must continue to pre-empt any Bangladesh angst against India which could add to other issues between the two neighbouring nations, including Teesta water-sharing. Any inadvertent misstep may lead to Bangladesh slipping out of India’s ambit of friendship and possibly falling into hostile quarters.

In the meantime, Bangladesh politicians continue to flock to India cutting across party lines and this trend is likely to be maintained until the completion of elections. After the successive visits of the BNP and Awami League teams, a senior ally of the ruling party from the Left block was here till a day ago, meeting a wide range of people and parties. Such political visitors not only meet the MEA officials, but also interact rather elaborately with various Delhi-based think-tanks ostensibly trying to prove their credibility. Yet, their principal focus is to woo the ruling BJP.

Coming back to the ongoing agitational politics and continued protests, in Indian geo-political interests, it would appear advisable for the Awami League not to give any breathing space to its rival BNP, which has several issues already lined up to capitalise on agitational activities. They include: stepping up of protest rallies demanding release of Khaleda Zia, withdrawal of cases against her, pressurising India for fair sharing of Teesta waters, review of the NRC process impeding any move to deport Bangladeshis from India.

There are enough political ammunition for the BNP to churn the protests into a major roadblock for Awami League. To add to Hasina's woes, the Bangladeshi media also seems upbeat over the student protests.

Hasina, therefore, must tread with caution in dealing with all the emerging issues. At this point in time, the police and other administrative authorities of the establishment seem to be moving gingerly as Hasina’s directives to them is to handle the agitations with care. Hasina should alert the intelligence arms, both the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI) and National Security and Intelligence (NSI), to identify all actionable signs. Government orders must not go unheeded to keep things well under control.

Also read: Why Bangladesh needs to ask India about the fate of 4 million people not on NRC draft list

 

Writer

Shantanu Mukharji Shantanu Mukharji @shantanu2818

The author is a retired IPS officer who has held key positions in the Government of India handling sensitive security issues within and outside India.

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