Shahbag and the politics of BNP

During the first week of Shahbag Square Movement, when the momentum and public passion for the movement was at its peak, the biggest opposition political party BNP’s discomfort with the movement was very clear.
BNP’s reaction was initial rejection and dismissal to a very uncomfortable embracing of Shahbag one week into its movement. However BNP was happy to get out of the painful embrace in the earliest opportunity. This opportunity came with the discovery of atheist blogs reportedly of slain blogger thaba baba. Very quickly getting rid of any lost love; BNP started denouncing Shahbag as an anti-Islamic movement.

It is, however, important to understand that BNP is not a homogeneous entity. It is mostly managed by a two tier decision making process. Although party chairperson Mrs. Khaleda Zia enjoys a supreme command and final say in all decision making process – she usually tries to build a consensus in the standing committee about all the decisions. The standing committee usually comprised of senior level grassroots connected leaders, in turn listens to mid-level leadership from different regions as well different affiliate organizations. And probably before even raising any issue in front of the standing committee, Mrs. Zia discusses the future directions and plans with a select group of advisers It is very difficult to know which set of advisers have Mrs. Zia’s ears at any particular period, but for the current period it can be safely said that current Party Secretary General Mr. Mirza Fakhrul as well as senior journalist Mr. Shafiq Rehman along with some of his G 6 colleague have Mrs. Zia’s ears. At this point it is not clear where Mrs. Zia’s son Mr. Rahman stands in this scheme. He definitely had major influence during last time BNP was in government.

Iftar_Jamaat_Khaleda Zia

It can be safely said that Mrs. Zia has the support of both these groups in her recent decisions to be seen sympathizing with Jamaat and in its political stand to be at least against “anti-Islamic Bloggers” of Shahbag. It is an irony that Mrs. Zia, the less hizabi one of the two ladies leading Bangladesh for the last 20 years has full blessing of the standing committee with not a single member with beard and tupi trademark of Islamist politician and advisers like Shafiq Rehman who is one of the most secular non-religious man around and who is the son of famous atheist of Bangladesh Mr. Saidur Rahman. The question is why these group of moderate men and women, most of them not religious at all, are pushing BNP towards the side of religion based politics.

It is, however noteworthy to mention that young BNP activists disdain for Jamaat Shibir and those alleged war criminals are not a tad different from that of the youth at Shahbag. And BNP leadership knows it very well how their younger activists feels about war crimes trial and Jamaat- Shibir particularly. In sharp contrast to BNP’s youth force, older and senior leadership definitely looks at Jamaat in a more favorable eye. In their core faith they are not much convinced of the alleged crimes of most of the accused. And their convictions only get stronger by the ongoing trial process which they perceive as a total travesty of justice. Although the conflict between the senior and the junior on this specific issue gets more and more intense with each passing day, it seems, from different decisions and directions of BNP, that the seniors so far have the final say.

There is also no reason for BNP not to feel the pulse of young Bangladesh beyond its’ activists and supporters. Although until few years ago BNP leadership might have been naive about the changing perception tide, during recent years the leadership of BNP was thoroughly debriefed of the passion of the urban new generation against Jamaat- Shibir and war crimes for 1971. The Shahbag movement showed BNP the passion and the power of the passion. BNP’s delayed hesitant and transient embrace of Shahbag was a testimony of BNP ambivalent appreciation of this power.

So why BNP keep on giving its back to Jamaat? Well it is difficult to analyze the decision making process of the political leadership of a Bangladeshi political outfit. In addition to the factors at stake, other factors; personnel- personality clash- personal aspirations- grouping – regrouping etc. play a major role in all major and minor decision making in organized politics in Bangladesh.

BNP never saw Shahbag as a friendly movement and they clearly see that Shahbag takes focus away from Awami Government misrule. In this year – the year before election, BNP cannot afford to let peoples’ attention stay away from their miseries. BNP feels that the more invigorated Shahbag movement will be, the longer Shahbag movement will be able to keep the focus away from real miseries on the ground. BNP thought it will be suicidal for them to support a movement that will harm their cause by all means. Their transient support might have been a face saving lip service.

Policymakers in BNP operates on an assumption that the extreme 1971 related passion is an urban phenomenon and in the overall vote count these group is outnumbered by Islamic minded youth, working class youth, rural youth combined. BNP might feel that for the second group, 1971 nationalism may be less important that religion, prices of essentials, better wages, food prices. However this specific calculation of BNP is very tricky and risky and may cause BNP the election. BNP policy makers probably has not taken into account the fact that the ultra pro 71 nationalism is no longer limited to a handful of urban educated youth. In current social order with better communication and fluid boundaries between classes; no major social storm does stay limited to one class only. BNP might have failed to appreciate the extent and spread of the 71 nationalism. And if this indeed is a failure of calculation on the part of BNP, it may be a very costly, almost existential level mistake for BNP.

Some intellectual backers of BNP feels that in the run up to election, with or without the Shahbag movement, Awami League government has committed itself to hang some of the accused of war crimes. There is no doubt that at least some of the accused will be hanged before the election. Some intellectual backers foresee that with the hanging of some old apparently religious man, the public sentiment pendulum will start to swing. This school of thought feels that this harsh judgment may eventually and finally help put BNP from defensive to offensive position in this matter. This school of thought feels that although in the short term currently BNP may seem to be in the wrong side of the history, in the long run BNP’s current stand against the ongoing trial process will put them in the right side of history. Among some BNP stalwarts, there is also an appreciation of the need to prepare for a future when these trials will be seen as major injustices and religious persecution and the trial itself will be on another trial in front of another group of chanting crowd demanding different group of peoples’ death.

It is true that for a longest time BNP has utterly failed to take a bold and decisive stand on many issues they faced. In dealing with war crime allegations, in dealing with Islamic terrorism, in dealing with Jamaat -e -Islami etc.- BNP’s persistent hesitant stand cost this party a significant magnitude of clout. BNP was founded by war hero and the leading General of Bangladesh’s war of independence Mr. Ziaur Rahman to be a forward looking pragmatic party of reconciliation and national unity. Although he himself did not allow Jamaat-e-Islami to operate in Bangladesh, Mr. Ziaur Rahman showed lenient attitude to the persons who were in the wrong side of the history in 1971. In this context he followed the footsteps of his predecessor, the founding leader of Bangladesh, Mr. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also known as Bangabandhu. Based on Zia’s philosophy of reconciliation and looking forward, BNP’s natural instinct is not to subscribe to any politics of division based on actions taken 42 years ago. Hence, however wrong side of the history BNP may seem to be in at present time, BNP should stick to its natural instinct and stay put without drinking the coolade of 71 nationalism. If any organization in Bangladesh can dare to take the bold decision to stay logical and on message about current trial process, it should be BNP. It is not only the fact that BNP should be governed by its core faith, it is extremely important to remain aware of the fact that demise of centrist BNP or major deviation from BNP’s core policy, will only strengthen fringe elements from ultra right spectrum of politics. And BNP definitely does not want to give away the center right politics to HM Ershad.
The old ideological discrimination between the right and the left of political spectrum has transformed itself over the last centuries and now factors like abortion ( in case of USA) and factors like immigration ( in Europe) are the determinants of one’s ideological status. Fortunately or Unfortunately in 2013 for Bangladesh someone’s stand regarding hanging the alleged war criminals is the factor that would discriminate between right and left. If BNP also tries to move left – BNP will not find a voice in that over-saturated field. Also its too late for them to move left. And at the same time BNP should know that if the center right political spectrum is kept vacant it will soon be filled in by forces from the extreme right of the society. So BNP need to veer right and stay right to save Bangladesh from extreme rightist politics.

However it is also true that there is a very high chance BNP will lose the election due to this decision. Although many BNP decision makers believe that the tide of 71 nationalism will start to wane with the execution of the first victim, it more likely will need a 3rd Hasina government for the energy that drives Shahbag to dissipate. It is very likely that BNP will not survive a 3rd Hasina Government but there are very high possibility that even Awami league may not survive the 3rd Hasina government. Eventually that event may usher a new political era for Bangladesh.

For a prosperous future, Bangladesh needs a two party functional democracy. And it is extremely important that these two parties maintain a peaceful coexistence. Failure of either one will pave the way for extremist political organizations.


  1. I have no clue how to put myself in the shoes of such political calculations. But alal o dulal does do that well- I hope you guys understand that you kind of help foreigners to ‘know too much’ sometimes. This is not directed at Rumi– but in general, I was thinking this blog is can be very helpful to foreign intelligence trying to ‘glean’ our complex and strange politics. With respect.

    It’s still one of the best blogs around on Bangladeshi politics, so thank you.

    • Thrishty wrote: “I hope you guys understand that you kind of help foreigners to ‘know too much’ sometimes. This is not directed at Rumi– but in general, I was thinking this blog is can be very helpful to foreign intelligence trying to ‘glean’ our complex and strange politics.”Shamruh says: “What’s wrong with sharing an article by Basher Kella?”

      And yet, Shamaruh wrote, on another thread: “What’s wrong with sharing an article by Basher Kella?”

  2. Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister (1964-70 and 74-76) supposedly and famously said that “A week is a long time in Politics”. Probably BNP is heavily counting on that. Everything that rises to high must eventually come down.

    This is a very good analysis of BNP’s probable motive in keeping the seemingly unpopular stances at this period. Determination to remain the main center-right political entity explains a lot. The crucial question is whether the Shahbag movement has been able to move the center ground dramatically.

  3. By your own admission, BNP is sympathasizing with Jamaat (BNP supporters often dance around this issue, citing nuances like “we never do joint rallies, there’s an understanding but not an alliance, we do this only to contain them so it’s strategic in the interest of the country to prevent them from getting too powerful” etc. so I thank you for not denying all this opportunistic positioning).

    My question is, when the issue seems to be AL vs anti-AL, rather than pro vs Anti Islam (as a coalition of anti Jamaat Islamist parties also seems to be arising, even if probably created / encouraged by AL), how can the BNP with a clean conscience support Jamaat and still claim to be principled on other issues? If the justification is, people support Jamaat, shouldn’t they be taking a leadership role and try to change peoples’ opinions? (these are the people who believe Sayidee was on the moon, after all whose votes they are chasing). It’s not a battle of right vs wrong, it’s of we are not in power vs we want to be in power (by any means necessary). OK, that makes them no better than Awami League (who also made arrangement with Jamaat in 1996 but not so clearly as BNP has ever done even in 1991, and also have an alliance with the killer-dictator Ershad) but it doesn’t make BNP good in any possible framework (and if I have to choose between alliance with Ershad and with Jamaat, I know which one I will choose). Can we call a spade a spade please? Power hungry, and prepared to support people who never supported the country – how can we then accept the only principle logic that BNP ever had (it has always been a party of opportunists rather than ideology) but at least some of us old enough to remember can recall how Zia inspired us to build corruption free, fast growing country under umbrella of “nationalism”. As a child I played games with my friends of digging canal in the mud like Zia, as we all were building a country inspired by “nationalism”. But what is nationalism if under that umbrella and part and parcle of that so called nationalism today is the Jamaat party (which still today does not hide that it is against the nation as most of us define it) and one only has to read BASHER KELLA to see what they feel about the “nation”. What is left in BNP? Please, explain it to me.

    THe other thing I want to say is, BNP has sided with Jamaat or had some understanding in every election including and since 1991 except 1996. Formally in 2001 and 2008, and informally in 1991. On each occasion, BNP believed the vote was crucial to push it over the edge. Perhaps in 1991 and 2001 it was true. In 2008, I believe it dragged them down. (Awami never benefited from Jamaat votes coming to it in 1996, but they skillfully divided its anti vote in some key constituencies). As you say we don’t know what will happen this time. But let’s remember how we got to the position with Jamaat being so powerful today. Forget whether Zia rehabilitate them or Ershad or whoever. Starting in 1991, and more forcefully since 1998, BNP has pushed them to greater strength with each passing year. Every casualty of Jamaat today has BNP’s blood on it, regardless of if a cadre was participating. And just as every Chhatra League goondami is Sheikh Hasina’s responsibilyt at the end of the day, that resposnibility ultimately flows upward to the leader.

  4. I thought by mistake that the author is Alal O Dulal, but no, it is Rumi, such an expert on Bangladesh Politics.
    Why didn’t you also have the honesty of writing another one on Shahbagh and the Politics of BAL !!!

  5. Motikontho puts it much more succinctly and accurately: বৃহত্তর জামায়াতে ইসলামীর বিএনপি শাখার মহিলা আমীর বেগম খালেদা জিয়া

  6. An interesting post though Thristi’s comment about foreigners disturbs me greatly. As a foreigner – with no connection to foreign intelligence or otherwise – I am worried by the ‘us and them’ mentality showed here. I would suggest that there is no place for such thinking in a post-modern web-based world today which is, increasingly, a global village. I can’t imagine anyone making such a remark in the UK, or America, or other Western countries. Why should this be a fear in Bangladesh?

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