Picture politics lead to clashes in the streets of Bangladesh

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Dead people, especially if they happen to be political leaders, assume a stature larger than life in many ‘third world’ countries. Politicians in Bangladesh, however, have turned the worship of dead leaders into a religious cult. The issue has assumed critical importance because two opposing camps have their own dead leaders whom they want to project to the exclusion of the other: Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia wants her dead husband Ziaur Rahman to be remembered as a hero; her arch-rival Hasina Wajid, not to be outdone, wants her father, Mujibur Rahman, to be remembered as the sole representative of the Bangladeshi people. Both have a point, but the tussle has become something of an obsession, especially as each has been prime minister and spent much time and energy, not to mention money,on projecting her late kin.

There were clashes in Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, on March 21 between Hasina’s supporters and the police after the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) scrapped a law that requires Mujib’s portrait to be displayed in public buildings. Paramilitary troops and police were deployed around the parliament building as MPs abolished the law, which had been passed during Hasina Wajid’s term as prime minister.

The Awami League was defeated in last October’s parliamentary elections, thereby returning Khaleda Zia to power. Police used tear-gas to disperse Awami League activists protesting against the bill near their party office, leaving several people injured. Awami League officials condemned the police action and criticised the government for its “repressive and undemocratic” attitude towards the opposition. As the parliamentary debate began, more than 30 Awami League MPs, led by party secretary general Zillur Rahman, gathered outside the main parliament chamber and staged a noisy protest. But the bill was approved by the house amid applause from the ruling party, which has a comfortable majority in parliament.

Prime minister Khaleda Zia later criticised the former government for imposing the portrait law “unilaterally”. She told the house that her government would propose a new bill providing for the display of a panel of four portraits that would include, with Mujib and Ziaur Rahman, sitting heads of state and government. Should such a bill become law, Begum Khaleda Zia would beam at her grateful public alongside her husband, from all government buildings for as long as her ruling party remains in power. If the rival Awami League returns to power, at least two portraits would immediately be consigned to oblivion. Ziaur Rahman, an army general who came to power after the assassination of Mujib on August 15, 1975, by his own military officers, himself fell in an abortive coup in 1981.

The Awami League has boycotted the 300-seat parliament since losing the elections on October 1 to the BNP. The party announced in mid-March that its 58 MPs would also resign their seats. Opposition leader Hasina Wajid has given no timetable for the en masse resignations, but hinted that the bill scrapping Mujib’s picture might precipitate the move and lead to protests. In response, prime minister Khaleda Zia warned the opposition on March 21: “Tough action will be taken if you resort to violence and chaos in the streets, causing damage to public property instead of joining the parliament.” The BNP boycotted parliamentary proceedings throughout the time the Awami League was in power.

The difference between the two ladies, however, goes beyond portraits; they are practically and politically far apart. The Awami League is seen as a pro-Indian party; Hasina Wajid owes her survival to the fact that she was in India when Mujib and his entire family were wiped out in the coup. She is beholden to India, much to the chagrin of most Bangladeshis. The BNP, on the other hand, is nationalistic in outlook and has cultivated close links with the religious parties. In that sense, it represents the sentiments of the people much more closely than its rival. Because of the Bangladeshis’ changeability of mood, however, this cannot be taken for granted.

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