As in 1971, India should support democracy in Bangladesh: senior Bangladesh National Party leader

India should extend unambiguous support to the democratic aspirations of the people of Bangladesh, a top leader of the Opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) said here on Wednesday. 

In an exclusive interview with The Hindu, Iqbal Hasan Mahmud, a member of the BNP’s standing committee, the party’s highest decision-making body, reiterated his party’s decision to boycott the upcoming election in Bangladesh if it was held without a neutral caretaker government, and accused his country’s government agencies of being behind the violence that rocked Dhaka on October 28, and prompted a crackdown against the Opposition by the Awami League government

“India should support the people of Bangladesh in the same way that it supported us in 1971. Today, the people of Bangladesh are living without their right to a transparent election. As a citizen of my country, I hope India will not stay silent in the face of erosion of democracy in Bangladesh,” Mr. Mahmud said, adding, “So far, we have not seen any comment from India which can prompt Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to have a free and fair election.”

The BNP standing committee member, who was in India for a brief tour and visited the shrine in Ajmer Sharif, painted a grim picture of the democratic scenario in Bangladesh. Mr. Mahmud said he was one of the few standing committee members of his party who had so far remained out of jail, though he too had been sentenced in a corruption case, which had forced him to live in exile over the past six months.

Mr. Mahmud, who served as the Power and Agriculture Minister in the previous BNP government in 2001-06, welcomed the demand for free and fair elections in his country from the U.S. government, and urged India to do the same. “U.S. has spoken in support of free and fair poll. We have welcomed that and we hope, as the largest democracy of the world, India too would speak in support of democracy in Bangladesh,” Mr. Mahmud said.

The BNP had called for a “maha rally” on October 28 in Dhaka but the political gathering turned into a pitched battle with law enforcement officials, leading to the death of one policeman. Ms. Hasina’s government launched a countrywide move to nab leaders of the Opposition, which led to the arrest of the BNP’s general secretary Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, standing committee member Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury, and several others. Mr. Mahmud said that the senior leaders of the BNP were over 70 years of age and had several health issues. They required urgent medical support that was being denied to them by the Awami League government, he said. “Most of the leaders jailed are above 70 and are in frail health. There is no place left in our jails. Our party workers are hiding in paddy and jute fields. Such is the situation in Bangladesh,” Mr. Mahmud said before leaving India on Wednesday.

The October 28 protest was attributed to the BNP’s consistent demand for holding the upcoming election under a caretaker government, which Ms. Hasina has so far rejected. In the meantime, there were also indications that there could be an interim government. Mr. Mahmud argued an interim government would not work if it was led by Ms. Hasina. “PM Hasina came to power in 1996 by demanding a caretaker government. At that time, our leader Begum Khaleda Zia was the PM, but she allowed the caretaker government to conduct election because of her faith in democratic spirit. Having secured passage to power through caretaker government, PM Hasina is denying the same to the political parties of Bangladesh,” he said.

Mr. Mahmud argued that the BNP is a secular political party that opposed the use of “political Islam”, and indicated the Hasina government was going soft on Islamists. “BNP is a liberal democratic party. At one point, we had an alliance with the Jamaat just the way political coalitions take place in democracies like India. That is now in the past. The question is for PM Hasina. She should answer why she didn’t ban the Jamaat,” Mr. Mahmud said.

He also accused the Awami League government of being corrupt. “They used the energy sector as a tool for profit, and as a result there is widespread disruption in the supply of coal, and people are suffering from load shedding,” Mr. Mahmud said.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is the current political situation in Bangladesh?

A country that jails its Opposition leaders cannot be in a good condition. After the BNP rally of October 28, several leaders who are in their 70s and are in a fragile health have been arrested. They are being forced to sleep on the floor of jail cells. Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Amir Khosru Mahmud Chowdhury, Mirza Abbas, Vice Chairman barrister Shajahan Omar Bir Uttam, and former Air Force chief Air Marshal Altaf Hosain Chowdhury have all been arrested.

The accusation against the BNP is that they instigated violence.

Our intention was to unite people and launch our new programmes. But the government agencies disrupted our meeting and created violence. There are videos in social media to show that agencies were indulging in violence, which was blamed . They have arrested, young and old. Our workers are hiding in paddy and jute fields. We are worried about the health condition of the jailed leaders as they are senior citizens who have several health issues.

The Awami League has accused the Opposition of being anti-Liberation War and that your party has ties with Islamist.

We all fought for the country’s Independence. I am a freedom fighter like the founder of BNP Ziaur Rahman. It was Major Zia who had announced the Independence of Bangladesh over radio in 1971. Sheikh Mujib had created the BaKSHAL front and established single party system in Bangladesh. After his unfortunate assassination, the single party rule ended. It was then that Ziaur Rahman re-established multi-party system. Awami League has no monopoly on democracy. They have been spreading lies about us for years. We had an electoral alliance with the Jamaat. Political coalitions are created in election time in democracies. In India too there have been many coalitions even between the BJP and the Left parties at one point. BNP is a liberal democratic party and we do not believe in political Islam. That coalition with Jamaat is now a matter of the past. The question is for PM Hasina. She should answer why she didn’t ban Jamaat in the years that she has been in power.

Will BNP participate in election if Sheikh Hasina calls for polls without a caretaker government?

We cannot go for election under her. The previous two elections of 2014 and 2018 were a sham. If she is so confident of victory then why is she not handing over power to a caretaker government? It is she who demanded caretaker government in 1996 and at that time our PM Begum Khaleda Zia agreed to that demand as she behaved in the true democratic spirit. She lost the election and Sheikh Hasina became PM for the first time. It was alright for us as we respected people’s will.

If not a caretaker government, will BNP agree to an interim government? 

An interim government under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership is not acceptable to us. She will not allow a free and fair election. Remember, please, that the people of Bangladesh were denied political rights during the past two elections. If one more election is conducted in this manner, there will be no democracy left in my country.

You came to India at a time when Bangladesh is headed towards election. Have you met political leaders during your stay here?

I have family connections with India as my grandfather’s grave is in Kolkata and we have to visit annually to pay our respect at the grave. I belong to one of the oldest political families of Bangladesh that goes back to the British era. This time, I came to visit Ajmer Sharif and did not hold any political meetings but I acknowledge the support that India has always provided me, which has facilitated this visit.

India has said that a caretaker government is not part of the Bangladeshi polity as the Constitution of Bangladesh doesn’t have the relevant provision.

Constitution is not a religious text. It can be amended just in the way Khaleda Zia as Prime Minister had amended it in 1996 and brought the provision of the caretaker government. Now, the public wants a caretaker government and therefore, a similar amendment can be done for the sake of ensuring people’s voting rights. India should support the people of Bangladesh in the same way that it supported us in 1971. Today, the people of Bangladesh are living without their right to a transparent election. As a citizen of my country, I hope India will not stay silent in the face of erosion of democracy in Bangladesh. So far, we have not seen any comment from India which can prompt PM Hasina to have a free and fair election.

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