Will the minorities be allowed to freely vote in the ensuing ninth general election in Bangladesh which is set to go to poll on 29 December to elect the 300-member Jatiya Samsad (National Assembly)? If all goes well, the Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and Ahmedia Muslims will exercise their voting rights. If it happens, and most of the poll-pundits think, that the 14-party alliance, led by the Opposition Awami League will be back to power with its chairperson Sheikh Hasina Wajed as the Prime minister. Polling will take place in all but one seat , a Noakhali constituency, due to death of a candidate.
The Sampreeti Mancha ( platform for harmony) in a 30-page booklet – Nirvachan O Sankhyalaghu Sampraday: Poriprekshit Bangladesh (Election and minorities – Bangladeshi Perspective), authored by Sourabh Sikdar, Chiraranjan Sarkar and Robayat Ferdousi( editor- Prof Ajoy Roy) made revealing information on the plight of minorities. The largest of them, Hindus, account for 9.58 per cent of 150 million people although 13.5 p.c. were Hindus in 1974. Emigration of Hindus went on unabatedly since 1951 when 22.5 p.c. of people there - then East Pakistan- were Hindus.
In 2001 when the Bangladesh National Party-dominated four party alliance with the right wing Islamic party, Jamaat-i-Islam as its main ally defeated the AL –combine, only a fraction of Hindus- about 10 p.c. of electorate, could turn up to the polling booths. Amnesty International in a report in December 2001 wrote that BNP followers committed atrocities on the Hindu community as the former were under the impression that the latter would cast their ballots for AL candidates. Journalist, film-maker and civil rights activist Shahriar Kabir, told this writer after months after the eight national poll during a visit to Calcutta, “Had the Hindus and other minorities been allowed to cast their votes, the BNP-Jamaat bloc would not have won. Kabir campaigned abroad a well-knit documentary on repression of minorities, "Ei Simana Manchhina (we don’t recognise this boundary).
He was thrown behind the bar, denied prisoner’s rights and harassed for the act. However, a protracted legal battle forced the government to release him 2006 when the Bangladesh Supreme Court termed the detention unconstitutional. "Taliban elements are there in the government. It is a great shame that anti-liberation elements are moving hoisting national flags on cars," he said at the jail gate, accusing the Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, BNP chairperson, and her ally, JII of spreading communal venom. The JI is committed to Political Islam along with politics of intimidation against defiant secular voices. Kabir is a prominent functionary of the South Asian Coalition Against Fundamentalism.
The aforesaid booklet states, “ Minorities in our country are far from being well. Aside from being ignored, neglected and humiliated, various tactics of mental torture and other forms of oppressions are unleashed. Minorities – as they are known – number about 20 million – have been trampled, tortured and deprived for several decades, at times in menacing proportions”.
Prof Roy, during his visit to Calcutta last week, expressed his guarded optimism about defeat of rightwing BNP- JII combine. “If minorities freely vote unlike in 2001, AL-alliance will win. The vote share of AL –led 14 party alliance is anywhere between 38 and 40 per cent as opposed to BNP’s four-party combine’s 25 p.c. In between is the deciding marker. If the minorities can vote unlike in the last elections, the probability of AL-front’s comfortable majority is high.”
In 2001, only a small fraction of Hindu voters – accounting for 8 per cent of electorate could reach polling booths. They were threatened by BNP and JII hoodlums. A section of political commentators including the late Enayetullah Khan, editor of pro-Maoist weekly Holiday went out of the way to sell the BNP-JII concoction that there was no coercion or intimidation against the minorities.
At an international seminar of the South Asian Federation of Free Media in New Delhi in October 2004, he reiterated the stand. Surprisingly, Ashis Chakraborty, political editor, Calcutta-based daily Telegraph toed the same line, stating that he found no such evidence while covering the Eighth general election there. A delegate from Dhaka told this writer at the seminar, “ All this is inspired propaganda against secular forces”.
An interesting feature in the poll campaign this time is wooing of Behari Muslims by both the AL and BNP alliances. Bihari Muslims who were stranded after the liberation of Bangladesh on 15 December 1971, got citizenship and voting rights by an order of the apex court in May this year. The vote bank consisting of about 40, 000 votes is concentrated in Mirpur, Pallabi and Mohammadpur constituencies in the national capital region. The AL issued a leaflet ( pasted at the end) in Urdu. The irony of history is that the birth and flowering of AL is based on imposition of Urdu by Pakistan at its birth, a blunder that paved the way for dismemberment of Pakistan .The historic Language Movement which demanded that Bengali be a national language alongside Urdu was the dress rehearsal for the greater battle, the Liberation Struggle of 1971 , based on the right of Bengali nation to self-determination.
The stranded Bihari Muslims were not taken back by Pakistan although most of them wanted to leave the new-born state. They remained marginalized for nearly three decades but now reconciled to the reality of recognizing Bangladesh as their state. The Bengali-speaking Muslims look down upon the Bihari counterparts . The nightmarish memories especially during the Liberation Struggle can hardly get out into the recycle bin of political history. “ The Bihari Muslims behaved like fifth columnists. However, they too veer round to the ground reality and have to identify themselves with Bangla nationalism”, said a former civil service official on conditions of anonymity. A prominent figure among them is septuagenarian Moksud Alam, who belonged to the Pakistani Congress. “We got registered as voters by swearing allegiance to Bangladesh as soon as the opportunity came along,” he told a Dhaka English daily.
AL in its campaign highlights high degree of corruption, nepotism, extortion, Taka 200 billion power sector scam, politics of terror and last but not the least, nepotism especially by Zia family. Its USP is its founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman .The BNP snaps fingers at the latter for clamping Emergency and one-party rule forming Baksal Party mainly comprising AL, Communist Party of Bangladesh and National Awami Party (Muzaffar group).
Some Dhaka-based poll analysts sense a last-minute swing in favour of AL-front. Desperation and disjointed statements by Khaleda Zia endorse the hypothesis. The BNP chairperson made two statements reflecting the pessimism. At one meeting in Jamalpur, she said she might be assassinated by a rival party, implying Awami League while at the next meeting she accused the Caretaker government of conspiring against her. Her anger is directed against the CTG which arrested her son Tareq Rahman for running a one-man extra-constitutional authority. For every big financial deal, a 10per cent commission was to reach Hawa Bhavan, Tareq’s headquarters. Recently, it is revealed that he siphoned several million US dollars and parked in Singapore Bank. He allegedly run an armada of hoodlums for coercion against anyone in the way.
Bangladesh walks slowly into bankruptcy. The total borrowing from the banks by the government crossed taka 400 billion. Any child born today has a debt of over Taka 2000. Much of this was due to the misrule of Khaleda Zia regime, but the regime under the AL chairperson Sheikh Hasina Wajed did very little to resist the monster of poverty.
There are 48 candidates including 27 from BNP and 17 from Awami League (AL) with charges of corruption, plus another 100 contestants - 34 of BNP and 24 of AL involved in murder cases, according to a report released by Shushashoner Janyo Nagorik (Shujan) based on affidavit and tax returns of the candidates.