Battleground Dhaka

Democracy is not in danger in Bangladesh. It will be if the BNP does not participate in the polls

Khaleda Zia, chief of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has a record of playing the sovereignty-in-danger and democracy-in-danger cards whenever her political fortunes plummet. Since the sentencing of the Jamaat-e-Islami's leaders for crimes against humanity began, nobody has done more to damage democracy and social harmony in Bangladesh than the opposition alliance led by Zia. The BNP's declared boycott of the January 5 election came after months of bombing, rioting, arson, murder of policemen and civilians, attacks on minorities unleashed by the Jamaat. The siege laid by security forces on Zia's residence ahead of the march on Dhaka she had called in order to force the postponement of the election, followed by the detention of almost 700 people since Friday and Sunday's clashes in the capital, could lead to another escalation on the streets.

The BNP's non-participation will not delegitimise the election, but the credibility of the mandate will be questioned by Bangladeshis and the international community. Sheikh Hasina's Awami League (AL)-led government may have overlooked the possibility of this violence when it pressed ahead with the war crimes trial process. There have also been complaints of high-handedness in dealing with the resultant trouble. However, the significance of what Hasina has tried to do cannot be denied. The trials are a process to find justice for victims and perpetrators during the 1971 liberation war. The battle in the street is a fight to preserve Bangladesh's secular identity, and it is connected to Hasina's courageous stand against fundamentalists.

It cannot be forgotten that the opposition, particularly the Jamaat, started this cycle of violence. Moreover, Hasina's attempts to overhaul ties with India through an economic and security partnership as well as by demolishing the terrorist infrastructure that threatened India's security must be placed in the larger context of peace and stability in South Asia. Her success against the Islamists is a regional imperative. Her failure could see a Talibanised Bangladesh jeopardising the subcontinent. Zia should note that democracy will be endangered only if the BNP does not participate in the polls. On sovereignty, Bangladesh has been secure since 1971. That could change only if the fundamentalists she is allied with came to dictate matters.

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