In early 1996, BNP finished its first term, and soon it fell into trouble. Oppositions led by AL, Jamaat-E-Islam (JI) and ousted Ershad’s Jatiyo Party (JP) initiated continuous demonstrations, which lasted for months, demanding a caretaker government to control over upcoming national election. BNP rejected the idea, arguing it would not be constitutional to let unelected officials run the interim government. I personally believed, for the sake of establishing a strong base for our novice democracy, BNP should have listened to the oppositions, and tried to deal with their concerns. Instead, BNP continued everything and arranged a general election, in which I also contested (and won) and BNP achieved a ‘100%’ victory, while the oppositions boycotted altogether.
Soon afterwards, enormous diplomatic pressure started being gradually imposed on newly elected BNP government. By then, BNP agreed to bow to oppositions’ demand and amend the constitution accordingly. I was among the lawmakers who contributed in that bill. New election was arranged under constitutionally established caretaker government, the concept of which was so unique that before its advent in Bangladesh such administration system did not exist in the history of parliamentary democracy.
In the second general election of 1996, held in June, BNP lost, though decorously, securing 116 seats in the 300-seat-parliament – which made BNP most formidable opposition party Bangladesh has ever seen. However, the first regime of Sheikh Hasina’s AL, truly, was tantamount to a ‘reign of terror’. A number of local dire terror groups, under active shelter of AL, reared their ugly heads all over the country. The most notorious local gangs were headed by Joynal Hazari in Feni, Abu Taher in Lakhsmipur, Hazi Selim and H.B.M Iqbal in Dhaka, Shamim Osman in Narayanganj, Altaf Hossain in Mymensingh and so on. Most dangerously, all of them seemed to have bare endorsement and praise from AL leader Sheikh Hasina herself once and again. Hence, I believe it was AL that should be blamed for missing out the most realistic opportunity to strengthen the foundation of our weak democracy. There could have been a fair fight in the parliament and rule of law could have boastfully prevailed till now and beyond, if then-ruling party had fortified democratic institutions by encouraging effective democratic functions rather than turning a blind eye to countrywide vicious terror.
In its part, BNP also failed to seize the chance. Its repeated boycotts in parliament did not produce any advantages. Thus, its immense influence in the parliament as the opposition party became futile.
I would like you to have a glimpse on an instance. It will help you to understand how ineffective our important democratic institutions became. Abu Taher’s gang killed an organizational secretary of BNP’s Lakhsmipur unit, who also happened to be a lawyer. The atrocity and barbarity in his death could not be described in words, as his whole body was axed into pieces, then hidden into a hole, allegedly by Abu Taher himself and his infamous wife. This horrific event silenced the whole country. 114 MPs of BNP, led by party’s then-general secretary (and later country’s president) A. Q. M. Badruddoza Chowdhury, went to Lakshmipur just to file a murder-case in local police station but their repeated attempts went in vain.
[Note: Next BNP government started the trial against Taher and his son Biplob who flew away the country just after AL had lost 2001 election. Supreme Court verdict awarded Biplob a death-penalty. However, during AL’s next regime in 2009, Biplob entered into Bangladesh again and was awarded President’s pardon! Currently Taher is the mayor of Lakhsmipur municipal and his son controls the district’s politics from the jail.]
In another shocking event, Jashimuddin Manik, then-general secretary of Jahangirnagar University unit of Chhatra League, the student wing of AL, celebrated ‘century of rapes’ in the campus, for which he infamously was named as ‘Century Manik’ (Centurioun Manik)! It was later emerged that there were 320 allegations of rapes against him. Perhaps more shocking was the fact that no case was filed, while police argued that no victims wanted to report or file a case due to social stigma. Few days later, Manik was sent to Japan by government to avoid more embarrassment. It was the harshest example of AL’s impunity toward party associated criminals.
Meanwhile in Chittagong Hill Tracts, country’s only hilly region where my constituency situates, tribal armed guerrilla force – Shanti Bahini (SB) – intensified its operation against civilian and military establishments. I was actively mobilizing a public movement against SB. AL government publicly and secretly was negotiating with SB as did our BNP government. Although BNP’s negotiation with SB went well, however, as a nationalist force, my party could not agree to make that much concession SB demanded. During AL-SB talks, some external actors surfaced one the stage and diplomatically pressurized, and lured, the AL government to make some concessions that could have jeopardized country’s sovereignty. At last, Sheikh Hasina reached an agreement with rebel force in December 1997, maybe in hope of getting the Nobel Peace Prize but she ended up being awarded a UNESCO prize. BNP did not accept the treaty, I did not either. I escalated my civilian campaign and demanded that the rights of non-tribal communities living there would have to be secured, and that their sacrifices against SB would have to be taken into account. In addition, I demanded that among SB cadres who blatantly violated generally accepted norms of human rights would have to be tried in civilian court. Govt. responded so harshly that I had to keep fleeing away from here to there for a long time. After the treaty had been signed, BNP high-command was convinced, partly by me, to protest the treaty publicly. BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia consequently mobilized a ‘road-march’ from Dhaka to Khagrachari, my constituency, of which I was the main organizer. BNP did the right thing, if you regard it from a conservative viewpoint. The campaign successfully isolated AL from conservative fraction of the population. However, BNP officials reportedly exaggerated some facts and increased expression of their anti-India views because India patronized SB since Ziaur Rahman’s rule. Some remarks, I feel, contributed to further escalation of feud between India, especially its National Congress Party, and BNP.
There was another minor implication of that road-march. When Khaldea Zia’s motorcade reached Kanchpur, close by Dhaka, terror godfather Shamim Osman and his gang attacked motor convoy, which eventually forced BNP activists to take a position right there. However, by evening, attackers were instructed by AL high-command to leave. It was an incident that shocked the nation and dominated media coverage, and further deteriorated BNP-AL bitter political rivalry because AL later promoted Shamim Osman instead of taking actions against him.
[Previous part of this opinion piece can be read here. Next part will be published soon.]