South Asia

Interview | When It Comes to Human Rights, Awami League and BNP are no Different

Human rights activist Sultana Kamal speaks about the multiple rights abuses plaguing Bangladesh, the lack of a third front and why the election may not be conducted fairly.

Dhaka: With the Bangladesh’s national election scheduled for December 30, thousands of soldiers are being deployed across the country to maintain the peace.

Bangladesh has been no stranger to violence when each cycle of polls swings about. In recent week, at least six people have died while hundreds have been injured in different parts of the country. In its latest report, Human Rights Watch has demanded that Bangladeshi authorities impartially investigate allegations of election violence.

With Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seeking a third consecutive term in office, the Okiya Front, a multi-party opposition alliance, has alleged that the election may be rigged. Hasina’s long time rival, Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is presently in jail on corruption charges and has been barred from contesting.

Over the past decade, under Hasina’s rule, Bangladesh has witnessed an increasingly authoritarian government pulling the reins tighter. Opposition members have been arrested, there has been a rise in extra-judicial killings and there have been several attacks on supporters of opposition parties, which Human Rights Watch says the police never investigate properly.

“This report, based on more than 50 interviews with political activists, students, and members of civil society, and analysis of court records and secondary sources, documents repeated instances of arbitrary security force arrest and detention of protesters and political opposition figures, and acts of violence and intimidation by members of the ruling party’s student and youth wings. Institutions, including the judiciary and the election commission, do not appear to be fully prepared to independently and fairly resolve disputes around campaigns and elections, such as on registration, candidacies, and results.”

Earlier in August this year, photojournalist and rights activist Shahidul Alam was picked up from his home in Dhaka by plainclothes policemen without a warrant, just hours after he went live on Facebook to describe the student protests in the city and how he was attacked by members of the ruling party while covering a demonstration.

The recently passed Digital Security Act has been called another assault on free speech in the country. The Act combines the colonial-era Official Secrets Act with tough new provisions such as arrests without a warrant.

Also read: Why the Bangladesh Government Is Scared of Shahidul Alam

In such a setting, many like Sultana Kamal, lawyer, human rights activist and chairperson of the Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) in Dhaka, have been perturbed by the scale of the violence and vocal about it.

In an interview with The Wire, Kamal speaks about the humans rights issues that have plagued Bangladesh in the run up to the end of year election, the lack of a third front, why many believe the upcoming election may not be conducted in a fair manner, and the Awami League’s and Sheikh Hasina’s fear of what the future may hold if the election is lost.

Read the edited version of the full interview:

Aaquib Khan: When we spoke to people outside Dhaka, many says that ‘if there a free and fair election, then the BNP would win’. What is your assessment of this sentiment?

Sultana Kamal: People doubt whether this is going to be an inclusive election. Many political parties may be participating, but people doubt whether the processes that ensure free and fair election will be allowed to work.

They are looking at how the Election Commission is functioning, which is the de-facto government now and is responsible for ensuring a free and fair election. In many cases, they have not taken the expected steps to control the situation. On the other hands, there have been random arrests, of those who more often than not, belong to an opposition party.

The numbers are so overwhelming that the people have every reason to doubt whether the arrests are being made on a fair basis. These are points that raise certain questions in the minds of the people.

For one, incumbency always has certain challenges to meet. Losing is one particular aspect, which is why perhaps people feel the Election Commission is not being allowed to work in a fair way. There is no caretaker government and it is quite unprecedented in Bangladesh that the parliament is still there and that the ministers are still sitting ministers who have not given up protocol as of yet.

I was at the Rayer Bazar event celebrating Martyred Intellectuals Day on December 14 in Dhaka. It’s a national event, which mean it not an event tied to just one political party. Even so, when we heard the speaker, he made it clear that the Awami League (AL) is Bangladesh, and Bangladesh is the Awami League. Do you feel this is that wrong?

That is definitely not right. Obviously, Bangladesh is not AL. AL had a historical role to play in the liberation movements of Bangladesh and the liberation of Bangladesh. We actually fought the war under the leadership of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who was the leader of AL.

With AL’s name being on the right side of the liberation war, AL probably thinks and believes that Bangladesh belongs to AL. Even if they don’t believe it, the way they act, the way they behave, they way they project themselves, people think that AL believes that Bangladesh is AL.

There were three main events this year that took the country by storm. There was the that crackdown on alleged drug dealers and extra judicial killings, the violent response of the state when it came to student protests, and the introduction of the Digital Security Act.

We have been very critical of the Digital Security Act. As I said, there are certain issues I find rather inconsistent with the pronounced manifesto of AL. The Digital Security Act is one, because AL has always said it believes in democracy, in freedom of expression and in media freedom.

But the Digital Security Act is going to curtail media freedom; there is no doubt about it. But it is not only media freedom, now any individual can be implicated by that particular Act which is very risky.

Also read: Bangladesh Enacts Digital Security Law in Its Latest Assault on Free Speech

Then of course there is the crackdown on drug dealers. Several people were happy as drugs were becoming a very serious problem in society, across class and gender. In that sense, many accepted the crackdown. But those who work in the area of human rights were very upset.

The crackdown on protesting students was when many actually started reacting negatively against the government.

It is interesting to see how Sheikh Hasina is perceived internationally as someone who has dealt with the Rohingya refugee crisis in a very humanitarian way. But internally, human rights issues are a big concern.

Well, I somewhat know Sheikh Hasina personally because we happened to be classmates; we lived in the same neighbourhood, so we grew up together. But on the other hand, as a political leader, she probably has to deal with different challenges. In that position, I have sometimes found Sheikh Hasina to have been rather insensitive about certain issues.

She has actually earned a goo reputation in the West for not just how she dealt with the refugee crisis, but for being anti-terrorism as the West takes that very seriously. The West feels she has done very well in that area.

But within the country, when it comes to human rights abuses, we find that the prime minister has not been very sensitive to certain issues, such as the cases of enforced disappearances. People’s basic sense of security has not been ensure in Bangladesh.

As Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League, and as the daughter of Bangabandhu, she should have been more attentive. 

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives to address the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina arrives to address the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York, September 27, 2018. Credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

There are millions of young voters who will vote in this year’s election after two two different kinds of student protests. Do you think the crackdown by the government on the protests will have an impact on how they vote?

It may have an impact on the voting pattern. I am sure the young people are intelligent enough to see whether Hasina accepting those demands has had any effect on the actual situation of the quota system or the road accident issue. Nothing much has changed. 

Also read: Arrested and Killed: Inside the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s War on Drugs

During our research, we came to understand that much of what Sheikh Hasina does stems from what happened to her family, so much so that she believes she will be in danger if the opposition comes to power.

That is the political culture she has seen around her and she definitely is the worst victim of that culture, there is no doubt about that. She lost her father, he mother and her brothers. And there have been so many attempts on her life in Bangladesh. So I think she is the worst victim of the political culture we are living in.

But our concern is that AL itself does not want to change the culture. They too did not stand with firm footing and make the circumstances change. Instead, they followed the same rules of the game. The Awami League perpetuated the same culture of vengeance where it looks upon the opposition as enemies and trying to make friends with the most conservative fundamentalist forces who are anti-people, anti-women, anti-freedom in many ways.

So they are following the same pattern of politics. That’s why they fear they will also be, if I can use the word, ‘victimised’ when they are not in power. The fear is very real.

Why there is no political alternative in Bangladesh other than the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party? 

I am not in mainstream politics, but I have the same question as you have – why don’t people stand on their own, outside these particular hemispheres of power? And we had actually hoped Dr. Kamal Hossain, a key leader of the opposition alliance, probably would be able to that, because he is personally respected as a human rights person. He has actually had done a lot for this country, and he could use his charisma and give people breathing space outsides these two hemispheres.

But then I don’t know why he decided not to. I am also as disappointed and surprised as you are. Not only about Mr. Kamal Hossain, but also about him being unable to help leadership emerge on a third front, or is not deciding to not give leadership to third force. When he started to actually form this particular alliance, we had hoped that he would do that.

Kamal Hossain (Centre, sitting) at the launch of the Jatiya Oikya Front. Credit: Twitter/Noor Moahammad

People in Bangladesh are educated and aware of their rights. Then why were no alternatives created?

Since we were under the rule of two generals for so many years, Bangladesh has been affected time and again by undemocratic processes. That’s why people actually didn’t have the time to really express themselves, to build, and to become strong enough to say that ‘we are rejecting all this and we want third alternative’, or something beyond these two oppressive spheres.

They were not even allow to grow strong enough. Because of the undemocratic ruling of this country, democratic forces have not been allowed to become strong enough to carve out a position for themselves.

Whose fault is it? Is it the fault of these two parties or the fault of smaller parties?

It is also the fault of the smaller parties, not only these two parties. Why couldn’t they unite and do something? They were more interested in criticising the two parties and not doing anything substantial for the people. I have a lot of criticism for them.

What we can expect from Oikya Front?

The contest will be between the two alliances only. It’s again the same. There’s no third front anymore and that is where I have problem.

Many Islamists groups are in alliance with AL, like BNP had been earlier. 

Why are we against the people who use religion to do politics? It is not because we are anti-religion, or we don’t believe people can’t use religion as their basic sort of value system in politics. Why are we against either Jamat-e-Islami or Hefazat-e-Islam? Because in their own words, they are anti-pluralism. They are anti-women, they are anti-anybody who is not of their own religion. So it is a very narrow path of politics they want to really walk on, and that is totally against the spirit of the Liberation War.

Hefazat and Jamat, are essentially one in their aim. So AL’s alliance with Hefazat-e-Islam is quite contradictory. Because they were the leaders of the Liberation War and they always committed towards building the country in line with the spirit of the Liberation War.

So if they ally with Hefazat-e-Islam, then they are actually moving away from that commitment.

Also read: In Recording, Chilling Proof That Hasina’s War on Drugs Involves Extra-Judicial Killing

If we look at both the human rights record of the AL and the BNP, the writing on the wall is always the same. 

Unfortunately, that’s the reality. We haven’t seen any difference between the attitude and the behaviour of the State towards the human rights issue, be it an AL or a BNP government. 

Elections for the people of Bangladesh is actually a much-desired event, in the sense that is the only day the people of Bangladesh feel the recognition of their citizenship. But on the other hand, we are a bit wary about the security of certain communities, certain groups, the opposition and other political forces, so that’s why probably it is very important that the world also keeps an eye on the election process – not because they are better than us, but because I am sure that we live in global situation where everybody is a guard of everybody’s right.

Aaquib Khan is a Mumbai-based media professional. He tweets @kaqibb.