Monday, January 19, 2009

A plateful of democracy called Bangladesh

Syed Neaz Ahmad, editor of MWL English Journal and adjunct faculty at Umm Al-Qura University, Makkah, Saudi Arabia, has written this piece in Saudi Gazzette today.

BANGLADESH as a small country has a lot to be proud of. The young nation has worked relentlessly to establish sound traditions of democratic values. There is in place a smooth system of transition of powers, regular democratic elections and a multi party culture that is often quoted as an example of healthy democratic framework.

Bangladeshis working abroad have made a name for themselves. Believing that no job is too small they have picked up the thread – where other expatriate communities left – and have helped make Bangladesh treasury overflow with foreign exchange reserves.
As a result of this hard work – it is no wonder – that today after Arabic, Bengali is the most widely spoken language in the Middle East. Recently-elected prime minister, Awami League (AL) chairperson Sheikh Hasina will find a lot on the credit side, but to balance the ledger of good deeds, she needs to plan ahead to sort out the inherited disorder.

Her new scheme of things must please the eyes as well as generate confidence at home and abroad. To begin with a strict code of conduct for public servants and leaders must be introduced to avoid being included in the ‘Most Corrupt Nations’ league.
This is one area of ‘contact sports’ where relegation will bring good name to the country. So far the new prime minister has done well. She has shown vision and political astuteness not seen in Bangladeshi politics. It reflects in her appointment of ministers and advisors. While not disappointing the old guards in the December parliamentary elections, she has steered clear of the old boys – particularly those with a reputation of one or the other kind.

Party sources say most of the incumbent members of the presidium, the highest-policy making forum of the party, and some other central leaders might be dropped from the new central committee, as Chairperson Sheikh Hasina wants to bring forward young leaders to prepare the party for the next decades.

Appointing a former civil servant as her finance minister, a lady-doctor-turned-lawyer-turned politician as foreign minister, another lady-lawyer as her interior minister and naming the old-guard Zillur Rahman as the next President of the country - are indications of things to come.

However, with local government elections scheduled to be held next week in 481 sub-districts both the AL and the BNP politicians are out and about flexing their muscles in the rural areas.

Sheikh Hasina’s directives to grassroots leaders of the party to pick a single candidate for the post of chairman in the upcoming election to upazila councils appears to have fallen flat with rival contestants from the party still in the polls race in many upazilas.

In the first week of this month, AL President Sheikh Hasina sent directives to the president and general secretary of the party’s district units to put up only one contestant for the chairman’s post to ensure the party’s victory in the local government polls slated for January 22, sources in the party said.
Supporters of many candidates, who were not picked by grassroots-level party committees, are clashing with the supporters of party-backed candidates in many areas, let alone extending support to them.

Beyond the party the law and order situation in the districts appear satisfactory, but clashes between students groups and supporters of some ‘Islamic scholars’ is something of a matter of concern. On Friday at the Baitul Mukarram national mosque in Dhaka supporters of the new and the old Imam clashed with each other.

Shameful as it was, there are reports of ‘flying shoes’, scuffles, shouting and slogans in favor and against the two ‘scholars’ inside the mosque. Newspapers also reported that one group organized their own Friday congregation outside the precinct of Baitul Mukarram. Last week Awami League’s student wing Bangladesh Chhatra League, and Jamaat-i- Islami’s student wing Islami Chhatra Shibir clashed at Mirpur Homeopathic Medical College. The hour-long clash in the Dhaka suburb left at least 10 people injured, some seriously. There are reports of trouble at Rajshahi University too.

Perhaps in an effort to control the outbreak of violence at campuses and set the change in motion the new administration has appointed a new Vice Chancellor (VC) of Dhaka University.

The University has been for long a hotbed of politics. The new VC says he would like to work together to ensure a congenial atmosphere on the campus through a concerted effort.

“The main task of the university is to impart education properly,” he said, adding: “The University administration should act to ensure smooth holding of classes and exams.” This is one thing that doesn’t seem to go down well with the students but with a firm hand AL must try to shun students getting involved in politics.

Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country and despite what some politicians’ claim it will remain a Muslim country. Dhaka, even in the Days of Raj was known as the City of Mosques.

The new administration in Dhaka needs to distance itself from its so-called ‘secular’ image. This way it can contain and curb religious militancy in the country, achieve harmony and involve the innocent poor masses – be they Muslims or non-Muslims – in nation-building activities.

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