Bangladesh opposition’s game plan: More violence, no polls


The Islamist Opposition led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Bangladesh is seeking to use PM Sheikh Hasina’s India visit as an issue to intensify the agitation to oust the government from power.

“Awami League-led government has sold the country. We gained nothing from this visit,” was how Mirza Fakrul Islam Alamgir, the secretary general of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), reacted to the media a day after the country’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, returned from a four-day visit to India.

Ignoring the many agreements for cooperation in diverse spheres signed during Hasina’s visit, the Opposition seems to be focusing on the Teesta river water-sharing issue. India’s failure to clinch an agreement on this rather emotive issue has been picked up by the Opposition as a classic example of Hasina “giving India too much and getting little to nothing in return.”

Though Hasina herself pitched strongly for an early agreement on the Teesta issue, the Opposition sees in her failure to get an agreement on Teesta as a useful issue to attack her.

Since Bangladesh continues to be largely an agrarian country, river waters are seen by its peasants as a livelihood issue which the Opposition feels can be exploited to corner Hasina’s ruling Awami League.

Over the past fortnight in a rundown of Hasina’s India visit, the Opposition stepped up their violent protests across the country and multiple clashes were reported.

“Now the Opposition is likely to step up the agitation in a rather violent way,” a senior Bangladesh intelligence official said.

The BNP leaders have already rejected the Election Commission’s plea to join the parliamentary polls in 2023 and have called for an ouster of the Hasina government. One of them has even threatened “a repeat of 1975”, alluding to the violent coup that killed much of Hasina’s family, including her father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Decoding BNP-Jamaat decoupling

In an attempt to project a moderate face, the BNP has been seeking to decouple from its long-time ally, Jamaat-e-Islami and link up with other apparently secular parties like Kamal Hossain’s Gana Forum.

“This is a clever BNP ploy to gain acceptability in India and the West but this will never happen,” said Bangladesh watcher Sukharanjan Dasgupta, author of ‘Midnight Massacre’ on the 1975 Bangladesh coup. An earlier video of BNP lawmaker Rumin Farhana actually laid bare the reality, when she described the BMP and the Jamaat “as brothers from the womb of the same mother.”

Jamaat-e-Islami’s Nayeb-e-Ameer Dr Syed Abdullah Mohammad Taher also let the cat out of the bag, according to a Prothom Alo report.

“Forging broad-based alliances with ultra-left, ultra-right and other forces, irrespective of ideologies, we have to fight till the end in our quest to topple the government,” Taher told a meeting organised to recruit members, says the report from the country’s largest daily this month.

So the BNP may pretend to keep the Jamaat at arm’s length for tactical reasons, but in reality, the two will combine to launch a campaign of street violence a la 2013-16. Copious media reports exposed such grisly fire bombings on public vehicles and a wave of attacks against minorities and law enforcers to foil war crimes trials.

Key leaders of both parties have assured their supporters at the grassroots through public statements that their alliance is very much intact.

These elements seek to project Sheikh Hasina as an “Indian stooge” and count on whipping up anti-Indian sentiments, centring on her visit to Delhi.

In 1971, Jamaat directed his party workers to build Al-Badr to resist freedom fighters, according to ‘Fortnightly Secret Report on the Situation in East Pakistan’. In line with an official procedure, the then East Pakistan home ministry regularly dispatched the report to General Yahya Khan, the head of government, who reads a report in the country’s leading daily.

At a rally to mark what was then known as Badr Day on November 7, 1971, a top Jamaat leader, later tried by a war crimes tribunal, came up with a four-point programme to “wipe Hindustan off the face of the earth”.

Call for violence

Bangladesh intelligence says the Opposition has been trying to whip up violence because it has decided not to contest the parliament polls due next year.

“They want to unleash massive street violence like before 2014 polls which they boycotted so that the government is forced to step down. They plan a complete breakdown of law and order to weaken the government’s grip,” said a senior intelligence official.

But he was not willing to be identified because he is not authorised to brief the media.

He said the massive use of petrol bombs and Molotov cocktails targeting public transport has been the signature tactics of the BNP-JAMAAT rioters.

BNP’s acting chief Tarique Rahman, who is leading a fugitive life in London, in a speech addressing party leaders recently reiterated calls for violence to grab power, echoing the tones of Jamaat leaders.

Tarique is convicted for masterminding the plot to kill PM Sheikh Hasina in a massive grenade attack on an Awami League rally on August 21 2004, when his mother Begum Khaleda Zia was prime minister.

Back in that tenure, the infamous recovery of ten trucks loaded with arms and ammunition, meant for India’s northeast separatist groups, a botched operation reportedly planned by the ISI.

In a recent interview, former BNP-Jamaat government’s Energy Advisor and BNP ideologue Mahmudur Rahman admitted that allowing ten trucks full of military-grade arms to pass through Bangladesh for the Assamese separatist group ULFA, was indeed, a deliberate state policy of the then BNP-Jamaat Government.

Leadership crisis puts BNP in a bind

Bangladesh watchers say the BNP faces a serious crisis of leadership with many senior leaders in the country ill at ease with Tarique’s endeavour for monopolistic control of the party, by remote control from London. Most of them, including BNP chief Khaleda, stand convicted in corruption cases or for involvement in violence.

“So, it is expected the BNP and its radical Islamist allies will aim for massive violence to bring down the government rather than fight elections,” says a veteran watcher, Sukhoranjan Dasgupta of Bangladesh, who also authored books on the gruesome August 15, 1975, killing of the father of the nation with his family members.

Due to the exposure to flagrant corruption and breeding of rabidly radical groups during their last regime, Tarique hardly holds any credibility within the country and inside the party, as evident from the BNP’s strong reluctance to face polls.

Weaponisation of human rights

What complicates Hasina’s effort to curb Islamist radicalism and check street violence is the outcry of Western rights groups about what they describe as serious human rights violations.

The US sanctions against seven Bangladesh security officials like police chief Benazir Ahmed have only upped the pressure on the Hasina government.

“But how do you control Islamist radicals if you don’t crack down hard on them? Could the US keep the Taliban under control by preaching democracy,” said noted researcher and columnist Ajoy Dasgupta.

Moreover, the emergence of an offshore outlet run by David Bergman, British-born activist and son-in-law of opposition leader Dr Kamal, and some rights bodies, those earlier opposed the trial of war criminals, went on an overdrive to project radical subscribers as innocent victims of tough government actions.

Interestingly, during Covid, a wave of smears blowing death tolls out of proportion and the prediction of an apocalyptic scenario in Bangladesh, through that portal, fell flat on the face of prudent policies pursued by Sheikh Hasina.

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