Bangladesh’s grenade attack case: Politics of past or future?

Bangladesh’s grenade attack case: Politics of past or future?

Afsan Chowdhury,

The October 10 special tribunal verdict on the August 2004 grenade attack case that killed 24 and injured many including Bangladesh’s current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina didn’t carry too many surprises since it was a foregone conclusion that the “guilty men” would be handed out tough sentences.

It was earlier speculated that BNP’s acting chief and Begum Khaleda Zia’s son Tarique Rahman may be awarded the death sentence, but he was given a life term. The then state minister for home Lutfuzzaman Babar was, however, sentenced to death. The rest of the accused who were sentenced were members of Islamic extremist outfit Harkatul Jihad, several police and military intelligence officials and other accomplices. Awami League leaders have expressed disappointment that Tarique Rahman was left off with life imprisonment, pushing them to go on appeal.

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Although the party in power during the incident—BNP—has reacted by saying that the verdict was politically motivated, the general consensus is that the BNP mismanaged the investigation when it was in power. However, the long shadow of the past may continue to influence the future of Bangladesh politics.

Though the men who actually hurled the bombs, causing death and destruction, belonged to Harkatul Jihad, the prosecution alleged complicity of the BNP, particularly Tarique Rahman. He has been out of the country since 2007 and already sentenced to years of jail in two other cases.

Bangladesh’s toxic political environment, which is based on conflict and confrontation, appears to be firmly set. But other systemic issues have also sprung up around the case, including the inordinate delay in the trial. This particular case has taken 14 years, including four lost years— two under the military and the same number under the BNP rule. The fact remains that even if the lost years are discounted, we are still left with 10 years to deal with.

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This means that the judicial system is not only best by problems of inordinate delays of trials but the investigative processes that law enforcement agencies take recourse to are woefully inadequate. While the Awami League has said that the investigation was deliberately delayed by the BNP, the ruling party can now not say this because parts of the investigation took place when it was already in power. Another case dealing with the PM’s attempted assassination by an extremist group also took a dozen years or so.

Bloody past, bloody future?

Coming as the event does around 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence, it doesn’t speak highly of an established safe political process in action. Political outfits of many kinds are so antagonistic to each other that politics in Bangladesh is often more about violence than debate and discussion. The party lines are drawn so sharply that one is either a loyalist or a traitor. Hence, the scope for accommodation or negotiation doesn’t arise in a country of endless hostilities.

But can Bangladesh survive such political conflict and yet keep moving in the right direction? Bangladesh has done very well on many fronts, particularly in South Asia, on human development index indicators. That the country’s life expectancy at birth is greater than India, not to mention Pakistan, is due to its gains in reaching millennium development goals such as IMR (infant mortality rate), MMR (maternal mortality rate) reduction and other targets.

Extreme poverty has been drastically reduced almost to single digit and primary education is making great strides. Rural poverty reduction is real and has greatly engendered a sense of self-confidence reflected in Bangladesh’s growth rates which is now past 7 percent. This has largely happened through private-public partnerships.

Yet Bangladesh has not been able to handle some critical areas such as reducing income disparity, urban poverty and improving public utility services. Corruption remains endemic and law and order, including management of public institutions, below par. It’s in this line of low achievement that politics falls. It’s in this formal space that politicians, policy makers and public officials are most active.

Making politics participatory

That politics has been less than robustly productive could be due to the overall weakness of the middle class which is otherwise most active across countries that achieve multi-sectoral equitable growth. It’s this class that has fallen behind.

The recent street agitation for jobs, particularly the civil services, and demand for enhancing the age of entry in the formal job market shows how tense the aspirants are. They are not interested in social issues except their own and political activism is nowhere on their radar. This has resulted in a situation where a greater number of people from the aspiring class turn away from joining or even showing interest in politics, given how violence-driven it has become. Politics exists in a non-participatory space, which is why there is a spike in the general apathy for conventional politics.

It cannot be said with certainty whether Bangladesh’s future will be as bloody and toxic as its past, but the country has the capacity to make astounding gains as the records show. This is primarily because of social participation which hasn’t permeated the political sphere. To rid itself of its violent past, politics needs to devise ways that could function without the need for guns and grenades to settle issues. Unless than happens, Bangladesh’s achievements will remain lopsided.