A battle between Bangladesh’s old and new elites?

A battle between Bangladesh’s old and new elites?

Afsan Chowdhury,
Dhaka: Barrister MainulHosein has been sent to jail hours after he was arrested on charges of defaming a journalist in a TV talk-show

Bangladesh society and the power relations within are undergoing significant changes. The paths to elite-hood and the protection that many established elites had taken for granted for long are also undergoing transformation. This doesn’t mean that impunity is declining in general but that new structural values have emerged as the old elites have begun to fade away as new ones take their place.

The old elite is symbolised by Dr Kamal Hossain who was very close to Sheikh Mujib. He headed the 1972constitution committee, was a minister and is today the grand old legal man of Bangladesh. In the past he was even the losing Presidential candidate of AL. However, he parted ways with the League after conflict with Sheikh Hasina and went on to form Gono Forum. As it happens with almost all ex-Awami League leaders, Hossain faded into political oblivion as the party swept to power under Hasina.

In every sense Kamal represents the past and Hasina the generation after. She returned from abroad in 1982 and then took over the party partly due to the efforts of Kamal Hossain and other veterans of the erstwhile Awami League. They may have hoped to control her perhaps, but she prevailed. In the end, the rest faded away, but Bangladesh has seen the strongest party in charge of a government under Hasina. She refused to be manipulated by the seniors and gained an iron grip over the leadership. She prefers to depend on her own lieutenants of choice, signaling a break with the past and its elite.

It’s symbolic that with all his prestige drawn from the past, Hossain has no political power and must depend on the BNP to push out Awami League and Hasina. It’s not about good and bad politics but a sea-change in political sociology in which one section of the elite rises while another declines.

Shahidul’s global profile

Globally-recognised photojournalist Shahidul Alam’s profile wasn’t enough to protect him from arrest and later get bail when he went after Sheikh Hasina’s government in his international broadcast and Facebook lives. Although the luminaries of the world appealed on his behalf, it didn’t generate much pressure. He is yet to get bail and continues to languish in jail. Normally, a person of such international stature would have received decent treatment, but his political activism was against Sheikh Hasina while his allies were part of the pro-Kamal Hossain camp, the “civil society” group. So, fame and genuine achievement doesn’t quite cut ice with the new elite who are strong at home and can ignore the West.

The Mainul matter  

Mainul Hosein has a past built on his political connections that lie deep within the Awami League, just as Kamal Hossain’s past does. While Hossain is a self-achiever, Mainul became an MP for his claim to be the son of Manik Mia, the legendary Awami League supporting editor of Ittefaq. Mainul differed with the Awami League and resigned from Parliament that passed the 4th Amendment which legalised one-party rule in 1975. This may have been possible because of his family connections which Sheikh Mujib deeply respected. They both belonged to the same cluster.

Mainul was a member of the Democratic League founded by Khondakar Mushtaque who is seen as the brain behind the killing of Sheikh Mujib. Mainul also served as a member of the Moinuddin-Fakhruddin government in 2006 which jailed Hasina and Khaleda Zia and tried to replace BNP-AL with Prof Mohammad Yunus and others.

More than his achievements, Mainul who has lived on his past and heritage. But today, he has ended up with Kamal Hossain, another member of the old elite. In a speech in which he announced the Front’s position recently, he referred to the need for a purush (man) to stand up to this “woman”. It shows the rather antiquated views and values of the person when two of Bangladesh’s prime ministers have been women.

Old vs New

His encounter with journalist Masuda Bhatti shows that he is totally out of sync with contemporary values. The leaked audio tape in which the episode was discussed further reinforces the idea. However, his arrest as an accused in a defamation case filed outside Dhaka by an Awami League activist is more political than otherwise. But he has been playing politics and its rather odd to expect him to be treated with kid gloves.

Mainul took upon Hasina and when one does that, you can’t expect to be given any quarters. Once she had already asked her supporters to sue him, called him a collaborator of 1971, his arrest was a matter of time and Mainul knew it.

He had become a part of a political process, with credentials, as a member of the Democratic League which was led by the person held responsible for the August 15, 1975, event. Later, he was member of the martial law-backed government which tried to oust and try Hasina. He comes from a past to which Hasina doesn’t belong and has no intention of making peace with.

Members of the old world, often used to safety and privileges in the past can expect few now while standing on this side of time in which they have little power.