Clutches of military juntas left a secularist Bangladesh bleeding


Within a mere four years of achieving independence at the sacrifice of three million lives, Bangladesh’s democracy and secularist principles were brutally undermined by power-hungry military juntas, which maintained their hold for the next fifteen years.

The game initiated by military dictator General Ziaur Rahman to forcefully transform non-sectarian and secular Bangladesh into an Islamic state was further perpetuated by another dictator, Hussain Mohammad Ershad. While General Zia had participated in the liberation war of 1971, General Ershad not only sided with the Pakistani occupation forces during that period but also acted as a trusted ally in various conspiracies against the noble cause of liberation. As courageous Bengalis laid down their lives to free the country, General Ershad fantasized about defeating Bengali “infidels” in favor of the “virtuous” soldiers of Muslim Pakistan. However, after illegally seizing power, he made an unsuccessful attempt to present himself as a pro-liberation force in an interview with Reuters.

The formation of two political parties within the military junta, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jatiya Party, triggered a regrettable polarization within the country. Non-communal citizens of Bangladesh and pro-liberation war forces became the primary victims of this divisive strategy.

The BNP and Jatiya Party, both offspring of the military juntas, pose the greatest challenge to a non-sectarian and democratic Bangladesh. These parties persistently strive to forcefully convert the country into an Islamist state, leading to international suspicion and misperception of Bangladesh as an extremely communal nation akin to Pakistan or Afghanistan.

During the rule of the BNP’s alliance with the war criminal Jamaat-e-Islami from 2001 to 2006, we witnessed the horrors unleashed by extremist groups such as Harkatul Jihad (HuJI), Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), and the anti-Ahmadiyya Khatme Nabuoyat Movement (KNM). On August 21, 2004, a heinous assassination attempt targeting the leader of the opposition, Sheikh Hasina, and other top party leaders was orchestrated, seeking to eradicate non-communal forces from Bangladesh’s political landscape. This Islamist-jihadist nexus plotted to eradicate secularist parties like the Awami League entirely.

We also observed how the BNP-Jamaat alliance openly supported separatist groups in India, providing them with arms, ammunition, and financial resources. Religious minorities in Bangladesh suffered extreme demonization, cruelty, and coordinated persecution.

Today, BNP and its de facto leader, Tarique Rahman, a convicted terrorist, continue their efforts to present themselves as a democratic force by investing significant sums of money in various Western countries, including the United States. However, in 2016, a US court declared the BNP a non-designated terrorist group. In a secret cable message sent on November 3, 2008, James Moriarty, the former US Ambassador to Dhaka appointed during the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama, revealed that Tarique Rahman had amassed millions of dollars through corruption and extortion. Ambassador Moriarty characterized Tarique Rahman as the epitome of a kleptocratic government and violent politics in Bangladesh.

Despite this damning assessment, how can American policymakers, even under the current Democratic administration led by President Joe Biden, overlook the true nature of Tarique Rahman and the BNP? Under what ethical framework does the BNP demand a non-partisan government? Have they forgotten that their actions have made the caretaker system controversial?

In the 1990s, following mass movements against military ruler General Ershad, the caretaker government system was introduced through a joint decision involving all parties, including the Awami League and BNP, to fill the constitutional vacuum and hold general elections. In the 1991 general election, the BNP formed a government with a slim majority. However, at the end of the five-year term, they attempted to extend their tenure through a controversial one-sided election on February 15, 1996. This endeavor was thwarted by a mass movement led by Sheikh Hasina, resulting in a general election held later that year under a caretaker government, which brought the Awami League to power. Subsequently, after completing their term, the Awami League once again handed over power to a caretaker government, and in the 2001 elections, the BNP-Jamaat coalition emerged victorious and formed the government.

But in 2006, just like in 1996, when the BNP’s tenure was coming to an end, they attempted to prolong their grip on power by conducting a farcical election under a controversial caretaker government appointed by their own supporters.

In response, the Awami League, led by Sheikh Hasina, launched a strong movement to uphold democracy, pushing the situation out of control for the BNP-Jamaat alliance. In a desperate bid to retain power, three generals, known to be loyalists of the BNP, seized power and established a military-backed interim government led by Fakhruddin Ahmed. Over the course of two years, this regime made various attempts to install their own political party in power, isolating Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia from politics and send them to exile.

In that conspiracy, leaders from both the BNP and Awami League openly or covertly joined forces. Some of today’s champions of democracy were also involved in supporting the King’s Party’s mission. Ultimately, due to international pressure, general elections were held in 2008 under the army-backed interim government, resulting in a landslide victory for the Awami League.

As Western nations focus on the upcoming national elections and demand fair and peaceful processes, they should be reminded of the actions of the BNP in 1996 and 2006. The recent incident involving pro-BNP lawyers creating disruptions during a meeting with the Attorney General of Bangladesh should serve as a stark reminder of the dangers of BNP’s ascendancy and the potential transformation of Bangladesh into a neo-Taliban state.

By understanding the historical context and the true nature of political parties in Bangladesh, policymakers can make informed decisions to safeguard the country’s democracy and secularist principles.


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