Review 2011

Bangladesh: little respite from politics of confrontation

Three important episodes would have bearing on the future of Bangladesh. First, is the current war crime trial; second, the judgment on the fifth amendment to the constitution; and, finally, abolition of the caretaker government. Writes Smruti S Pattanaik


Dec 30, 2011


By Smruti S Pattanaik

Smruti S. PattanaikBangladesh's politics and relations between the ruling party and opposition have remained same in 2011 in spite of the promise of a new beginning and the Awami League's much-flaunted election manifesto 'Charter for Change' that gave out the hope for a new beginning. Parliament has remained dysfunctional due to boycott by the opposition and the government has legislated on various issues disregarding views of the Bangaldesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party.

Three important episodes would have bearing on the future of Bangladesh. First, is the current war crime trial; second, the judgment on the fifth amendment to the constitution; and, finally, abolition of the caretaker government.

One of the election pledges of the Awami League was to hold trial of the people allegedly involved in war crimes of 1971, 40 years after its independence, and formed a  war crimes tribunal on March 25, 2010. Even after arresting some of the political leaders the prosecution could only frame charges this year. The war crime tribunal became controversial from the beginning when one of the appointed judges was accused of being involved in war crime. Later, he resigned.

The trial has now become a mere political tool in contested politics rather than a genuine trial of people involved in the war crime. To make matters worse, the BNP, buoyed by its performance in the last municipal election, has questioned the purpose of holding the trial and has demanded its scrapping and release of leaders of its main political ally, the Bangladesh Jamaat Islami. Successful conclusion of the trial could have an important bearing on Bangladesh polity.

In a significant judgment, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh declared the fifth amendment to the constitution introduced by the military regime of General Zia ur Rahman in 1975 as illegal. The court termed military coups as unconstitutional. However, the government exhibited utmost caution while implementing the court's decision. The enactment of fifteenth amendment restored some of the features of the 1972 constitution and restored secularism among other three fundamental principles of the constitution. The government however was careful not to repeal some of the Islamic features in the constitution which includes Islam as state religion, insertion of Bishmilla-ur-Rahman-ur Rahim before the preamble and decided to continue with the practice of allowing the religious political parties that was banned under the 1972 constitution.

The fifteenth amendment to the constitution abolished the system of caretaker government that was introduced in 1996 by the BNP after the Awami League and Jamaat refused to participate in the election without caretaker government (CTG) in place which would conduct elections. However, the 2007 experience proved that the CTG can be manipulated by extra-constitutional authority. The 15th amendment has inserted 7A and 7B to prevent extra-constitutional takeover as per the court decision that had earlier declared the CTG as unconstitutional, though it suggested that the system can be retained for next two parliamentary elections.

The BNP has declared that it would not participate in the next election without the reinstatement of the CTG. Since March 24 this year the BNP-led opposition has kept off the House for 47 consecutive working days. It is opposed to the abolition of caretaker government and has charged that its abolition is aimed at rigging the next election. Given the brute majority that the Awami League commands in the Jatiyo Sangshad, BNP has been reduced to a political non-entity in the Parliament.

In the context of foreign policy Bangladesh is playing a leading role in climate change debate. Its stable growth rate has attracted foreign direct investment. It is now the chairman of BIMSTEC. It signed nuclear energy agreement with Russia to cope with growing energy need. Hasina recently visited Myanmar in a bid to strengthen Bangladesh's relationship with its eastern neighbour with which it has maritime dispute. Repatriation of Rohingya refugees continues to remain a problem between the two.

Bangladesh has carefully balanced its national interest between the two giant neighbours - China and India. It has sought China's help to build the Chittagong port which would be used by India, Nepal and Bhutan for exports. Bangladesh and India have not only demarcated their longstanding land boundary dispute but have also exchanged enclaves and land under adverse possession. The two countries are hopeful to resolve the Teesta water-sharing agreement and sign a transit agreement that would connect India's northeast with Bangladesh and beyond. Bangladesh has already signed an agreement on various infrastructure projects to utilize the one billion USD soft loan that India had announced last year.

Bangladesh has been able to address the problem of religious militancy with several arrests of militant leaders and busting of their hideouts. However, the domestic political situation does not generate hope for greater democratisation. Lack of political accommodation has led to a political culture that breeds impunity, intolerance and does not provide space for healthy political contestation.

The future of Bangladesh, however, would depend on how the government concludes the war crime trial as well as how it brings the opposition around on the issue of a caretaker government. Without the cooperation of the BNP on the issue of a caretaker government, Bangladesh can face political uncertainty, and even perhaps a bloodbath, just as one witnessed in 1996 and in 2007 before the military-backed caretaker government took over.

(Smruti S Pattanaik is a research fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses ( IDSA), New Delhi. She can be contacted at

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