Bangladesh is not as poor as many sub-Saharan African countries (although less prosperous than India and much less prosperous than most countries of southeast Asia), not recently subject to civil war (in contrast to Sri Lanka and Nepal), and not in possession of nuclear weapons (whereas Pakistan and India are). Despite being the world’s eighth most populous country, more populous than Russia, Japan or Mexico, it is a country that the world ignores – except when disaster strikes. Then, briefly, the international media note the large number of people killed in the cyclone or drowned in the capsized ferry. Late last year a garment factory fire that incinerated more than a hundred workers made headlines; this spring, it was the collapse of the jerry-built eight-storey Rana Plaza, a human-made disaster that killed more than a thousand garment workers.

For anyone who makes the effort to visit and learn about Bangladesh, there is heartache. Five per cent of the world’s poor are within one day’s drive from Dhaka. Dhaka itself is among the world’s ten most populous cities, and was recently ranked by The Economist as the world’s most “unlivable.” Notwithstanding its ranking, nearly 20 million choose to live in Dhaka rather than the villages from which they or their ancestors migrated, and Dhaka has become over the last half century the cultural centre (with Kolkata in the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal) of a major world language and cultural tradition.

Bangladesh demonstrates the best and worst in postcolonial politics and development policy. The best is the role played by very large NGOs (notably BRAC and Grameen Bank) in delivery of health and education services and microfinance. Thanks largely to them, Bangladesh’s population health indicators are second only to Sri Lanka’s among South Asian countries. The worst is the routinely corrupt, ferociously partisan politics that in the minds of many have discredited the value of democracy and given rise, as in Pakistan, to support for the army on the one hand and fundamentalist Islamist organizations on the other.

Politically, things do not change, a commedia dell’arte of similar political troubles played out again and again – rearranged, perhaps, but constant. The Awami League, the party currently in office, is led by Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the country’s first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. While corrupt and administratively incompetent, Sheikh Mujib deserves credit for having led the country to independence in the 1971 “war of liberation,” allowing Bangladeshi to escape the equally corrupt but even more violent politics of Pakistan. He was assassinated in 1975. The Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the other large party, is headed by Khaleda Zia, the widow of another hero of the war of liberation. Her husband, who ran the country after the death of Hasina’s father, was assassinated in 1981. Since 1990 Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia have each given two terms of questionable government to the long-suffering people of Bangladesh. It is not a coincidence that Sohel Rana was able to build the Rana Plaza where and how he did, nor that two engineers of Savar municipality ignored the building’s cracks and declared it safe the day before it collapsed. Rana is a prominent local leader of the youth wing of the governing Awami League.

Talleyrand is reported to have said of the restored Bourbon royal family in the 1820s that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. He would have said the same of the political dynasties that have dominated Bangladeshi politics since 1971. They conduct politics as if in a zero-sum prisoner’s dilemma game. Each consistently attempts to inflict maximum pain on its opponent in the hope of winning it all. When the ensuing social chaos escalates to intolerable levels, either the army steps in or people console themselves that perhaps the parties, by repeating the same mistakes over and over, will finally learn to practise politics differently.

The last time the army intervened was in 2007. It cleaned up a rigged voters’ list and in late 2008 organized a reasonably fair election. Sheikh Hasina won. Now, five years later, the two major parties are again in campaign mode prior to the next election, scheduled for January 2014.

Sheikh Hasina has accused Khaleda Zia of disloyalty to Bangladesh, and invited her to emigrate to Pakistan. In turn, Khaleda Zia accuses Hasina of being an Indian lackey. Speculation has predictably started that the army will have to step in as in 2007. Were the campaign limited to verbal abuse, that would be politics as usual. However, Hasina’s electoral tactics include an unanticipated novelty: an international war crimes tribunal.

In 2009 she created this tribunal to prosecute selected “razakar.” The razakar are Bangladeshi who allied themselves with Pakistan in the 1971 civil war. Some of them participated in the brutal Pakistani army slaughter of Bangladeshi and, for understandable reasons, are despised. The tribunal may be labelled “international,” but it is a creation of domestic law and the choice of suspects to prosecute has been made by government-appointed judges. Conveniently, those chosen for prosecution are virtually all associated with Jamaat, the leading Islamist party, which is in an electoral alliance with the BNP. Jamaat can count on only 5 to 10 per cent of the vote, but that will likely be the vote margin between the BNP and Awami League in 2014.

We will never know exactly why Hasina established the tribunal. Her father feared that prosecution of razakar risked a dangerous polarization of the new country. Four decades later, maybe she thought that justice should be rendered even if long delayed. Maybe, even in 2009, she saw the tactical benefit of posing as the champion of a secular Bangladesh and embarrassing the BNP and Jamaat for harbouring old men who, in their youth, committed wartime atrocities.

The tactic has not worked as intended. Instead of rallying the majority behind the Awami League, the tribunal has aggravated the deep division in many Muslim countries between those (largely urban, more prosperous and more literate) who favour secular modern institutions and view political corruption as an unavoidable cost of progress and those (largely rural, poorer and less literate) who believe that the only solution to the rampant corruption and random brutality of the Bangladeshi state is creation of a moral Islamic order.

In February 2013, the tribunal found Abdul Kadr Mullah, a Jamaat leader, guilty as a young student leader of complicity in serious crimes and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Unexpectedly, the sentence catalyzed a “Bengal spring” – an equivalent of Tahrir Square in Cairo two years earlier. The media described it as a revival of the “Spirit of 1971.” Rather than accept Kadr’s sentence as justice too long delayed, tens of thousands, primarily young people mobilized by social media, gathered in Shahbag Square in central Dhaka and insisted that life imprisonment was not enough. “Hang the razakar” echoed throughout Dhaka from Shahbag Square and rallies held elsewhere in the city.

The Shahbag protesters maintained a nightly vigil and after several days Hasina decided to oblige – only to discover that, given the terms of the legislation establishing the tribunal, she could not. The law allowed appeal of a verdict but not a sentence. The law was quickly amended and applied retroactively. For good measure, the amended law enables a ban on organizations that support the razakar, a provision targeting Jamaat.

The battle has been joined.

The “Shahbag bloggers” have issued thousands of emails damning Jamaat for its pro-Pakistan sympathies and the links of its aging leaders with war crimes in 1971. Jamaat has damned Hasina for suppressing the free expression of Islam in politics and the Shahbag bloggers for blaspheming Muhammad and the Qur’an. Since the announcement of the verdict in Kadr’s trial, Jamaat has called repeated “hartals” – strikes intended to stop all commercial activity in the cities. Enforcement of Jamaat-called hartals falls to Chhatra Shibir, the well funded Jamaat youth wing. During hartals buses and other vehicles have been burned, violent demonstrations organized, highways blocked. The police have reacted aggressively. Jamaat has accused Hasina of using the police to enforce a secular one-party state. The death toll has mounted on all sides.

The Islamist movement in Bangladesh has money (some of it from wealthy donors in the Gulf states buying piety in poor countries), strong organizations and little restraint when it comes to using brute force and targeted killings. The Hindu, Buddhist and Christian minorities have suffered a series of house burnings, personal attacks, destruction of temples and the inevitable land-grabbing.

At time of writing (in April), the most recent major event has been the “long march” organized by an Islamic organization linked to Jamaat. Hundreds of thousands of the faithful marched on Dhaka from all corners of the country. Their demand is new legislation to prosecute those who blaspheme. The chant of the faithful was “God is great – hang the atheist bloggers.” Hasina has now dampened her rhetoric on behalf of a secular Bangladesh and arrested four bloggers on suspicion of blasphemy, but has refused to alter the existing law’s penalties. Other bloggers have shut down their sites. Does a bigger rally for hanging bloggers than one for hanging Jamaat leaders mean an Islamic revolution is imminent? Probably not.

Though Bangladeshi political culture places great faith in the 20th-century tradition of mass protests including hartals, the tactic that Gandhi invented in battling the British, the meaning of such events has passed into ritual. For four decades, all parties in Bangladesh have relied on violent street demonstrations and hartals. The parliament plays a marginal role. On the one hand, the youthful composition of the crowds in Shahbag and their determination not to be suborned by any political party symbolize a refreshing rejection of politics as usual. On the other hand, their demand, death for those who fought with the Pakistani army, merely repeats the politics of violent confrontation.

Human rights organizations, one might expect, would object to retroactive changes in the law to please the street as a poor way to create a secular society respectful of the rule of law. There admittedly do exist careful bloggers questioning both the Awami League and Jamaat. But it requires personal courage that borders on the suicidal for those inside the country to take on Hasina and the Islamists simultaneously.1

What of the international media? With the honourable exception of The Economist, no major international newspaper or magazine has undertaken serious reporting and analysis of the tribunal and its unintended consequences.

What of the tribunal judges themselves? They clearly have limited independence. This appears to be a tribunal that can issue only one verdict, guilty, and one sentence, death.

Sheikh Hasina and her followers cling to past fears and live in apprehension of the military (the Raj as reflected in Pakistan’s army), while Khaleda Zia and her followers cling to past prejudices and live in suspicion of India (the Hindu face of the British Raj). Neither seems to have accepted that times have changed and new approaches are necessary. In fighting the vaporous ghosts of colonizers past, neither is free. Both are vulnerable: one to disaffected urban youth who may no longer be willing to rehash old battles, and the other to increasingly aggressive “Islamist” youth who are spoiling for a fight.

Four decades after the war of liberation, Bangladeshi political elites have yet to come to grips with the meaning of political independence, the obligation to assume responsibility for their country’s social and political developments. When in opposition, political leaders treat those in power as agents of outside colonizers to be resisted with absolute ferocity. The government of the day is always portrayed as some combination of British imperial authoritarianism and, depending on who is in power, the malign self-interest of either Pakistan or India. Violent protest is justified as continuation of the struggle against concealed colonialism.

This was a view popularized by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who thought individual examples of moral courage had no effect on the outcome. In our own era, however, Nelson Mandela has taught the lesson that freedom starts from within. The physical follows the spiritual and an individual’s moral courage does make a difference, indeed the critical one. Once you are free in your head, you are free.

Meanwhile, until Bangladesh’s leaders understand that responsibility is the price of independence, their country will not see peace.

Glossary of personalities, organizations and Bangla words

Awami League: One of two major political parties in Bangladesh, led by Sheikh Hasina. Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, first prime minister of Bangladesh, who held office from 1971 to 1975. The Awami League under Hasina governed from 1996 to 2001, and has been in power since 2008.

Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islam: The largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh. As a pan-Indian movement pre-1947, it opposed partition of the subcontinent into two countries. In 1971 it opposed division of Pakistan. Many Jamaat leaders supported the Pakistani army during the “war of liberation.”

Bangladesh National Party: The second major political party, led by former prime minister Khaleda Zia. Khaleda Zia is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, a past president of Bangladesh, a general and hero of the “war of liberation” who governed from 1976 to 1981. Led by Khaleda Zia, the BNP governed the country from 1991 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2006.

BRAC: Probably the world’s largest NGO. Its activities include provision throughout Bangladesh of education and health services and microfinance.

Chhatra Shibir: Youth wing of Jamaat. All political parties organize “youth wings” composed of supporters willing to undertake militant political action during demonstrations organized by the parent wing of the relevant political party.

Grameen: A very large NGO that also undertakes social enterprises. Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen, received the Nobel Prize for his work in promotion of microfinance. Grameen undertakes many additional social services and social enterprises.

Hartal: Strike action. Its significance derives from Gandhi’s use of hartals in combating British rule. In contemporary Bangladesh a hartal refers to a strike called by a political party, intended to paralyze all activity in cities – closing factories, shops, and major institutions such as colleges, and shutting down public transit. Youth factions of the party calling a hartal enforce compliance, often by violent means.

International Crimes Tribunal: Special tribunal created by the present government in 2009 to prosecute crimes committed during the “war of liberation” by certain razakar. Most of those being prosecuted are linked to Jamaat. Despite its name, this is a domestic tribunal organized pursuant to Bangladeshi laws.

Khaleda Zia: Leader of the Bangladesh National Party, former prime minister of Bangladesh and widow of Ziaur Rahman, the founder of the BNP who governed the country from 1976 to 1981.

Razakar: Derogatory designation of collaborators with Pakistani army during the “war of liberation.”

Shahbag movement: Social media movement that emerged more or less spontaneously following a judgement of the International Crimes Tribunal in February 2013. The Shahbag supporters called for execution of the razakar facing prosecution.

Sheikh Hasina: Current prime minister of Bangladesh. She is a daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, first prime minister of Bangladesh.

War of liberation: From the end of the British raj in 1947 until 1971, Pakistan consisted of two geographically separated territories, East and West Pakistan. Bangladeshi refer to the civil war of 1971 as the “war of liberation” that freed them from tutelage by West Pakistan.


1  An interesting blog to follow is that of David Berman, a journalist resident in Bangladesh for the last decade. See here

The Shahbag movement called for execution of all volunteers with the Pakistan army (razakar) found guilty by the war crimes tribunal. (The sign held by the effigy states “I am a razakar.”) John Richards photo

Posters denouncing the razakar and the youth wing of Jamaat (Chhatra Sibir). John Richards photo