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Association of Retired Senior IPS Officers (ARSIPSO)

This is with reference to my letter No. ARSIPSO/GS-BSD-4/2023 dated. 10/08/2023 on the 4th B.S. Das Memorial Lecture, which had to be rescheduled for unavoidable reasons.

The 4th B.S.Das Memorial Lecture to be delivered by Shri Anil Kumar Sinha, IAS (Retd.), on the subject Disaster Management: Creating Safer Communities, has now been rescheduled for October 14, 2023 as per the following:

Conference Room No. 2, India International Centre, Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi, October 14, 2023 (Saturday)

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Bangladesh has again come under a military regime. However, nobody openly calls it a coup. The army in Bangladesh stepped in with noble goals in January, 2007 and asked the then President Izazuddin Ahmed to declare a state of emergency. Basic rights were suspended. The President stepped down as the head of the caretaker government that had been formed to oversee the elections. He was replaced by Fakruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official, who now heads a technocratic administration. This intervention by the army had become inevitable because frequent clashes between the supporters of the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the main opposition party Awami League (AL) had plunged the country to a virtual chaos. A dysfunctional Parliament was dissolved. The National Security Chief, head of the Power Ministry, and the Attorney General were ousted. A large number of local gangsters were also arrested.

The caretaker government had also launched a full fledged anti-corruption drive. It has arrested a large number of senior members of the two ruling parties who had looted and misruled Bangladesh over a decade. Bangladesh, as per Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI), is regarded as one of the most corrupt countries of the world. In its clean-up drive the military-backed government has already jailed 30 top level criminals, mainly politicians and businessmen. Another 100 are wanted. A law to deal within 60 days with people charged with corruption is on the anvil. The government has formed teams of military and civilian investigators for the task and feels confident that they will be able to collect necessary evidence to get the culprits convicted.

To prove that its anti-corruption drive will spare none, it arrested on March 9, 2007, Tarieq Rahman, son of Begum Khalida Zia. It also searched the house of Begum Sheikh Hasina Wazid, the former Prime Minister and leader of Awami League, but no arrests were made. The detainees were mostly from the groups that prospered when either Begum Zia or Sheikh Hasina was ruling.

Common people of Bangladesh who are poor but politically alert including employees of numerous NGOs are rejoicing at the discomfiture of the politicians. "Everybody but the politicians", as Economist puts it (January 20th-26th, 2007) "is apparently happy".

Zia's son and presumed successor, Tariq had in recent years become the symbol of corruption, violence and kleptocratic misrule. He was referred to as "Mr. ten percent", because of his cut in any deal done by Zia's government. Indeed, the people had become sick of corruption and spiraling violence that rocked Bangladesh.

The caretaker government has vouched to de-politicize the enfeebled institutions. It has appointed a new Election Commission and also weeded out Mrs. Zia's acolytes who were in charge of anti-corruption wing of the government. It has announced plans to make state banks accountable and realize money from the politicians and their cronies who had taken massive loans and were reluctant to pay them back. Initially the caretaker government also announced a clamp on the media, but later on good sense prevailed and it decided to relax it. The administration has also taken a number of other sensible steps. It is trying to deal with the looming power crisis and overhaul the malfunctioning seaport at Chittagong. For dealing with the chronic power shortage it has approved a long pending deal with an Indian firm to build a 240 MW power station.

It seems that the object of the army is to force the two ladies to quit by starting corruption cases against them. The strategy has been nicknamed as "Musharraf solution", after the success of Musharraf, in forcing two redoubtable civilian leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to leave Pakistan. Dhaka is agog with rumour that Khaleda Zia is trying to negotiate a graceful exit for herself and her two sons. The Army's response is yet not known. Sheikh Hasina has left Bangladesh, and is unlikely to return soon.

However, it is clear that the army, though it is treading carefully, is not going to allow election within a year. The National Democratic Institute, a US based monitoring group, found in December that the electoral roll in Bangladesh has 13 million extra dubious names. Even the BNP concedes that there are problems with electoral rolls. Revision of electoral roll will take several months and the administration says it wants to issue fraud-proof identity cards. This will take more than a year. It is clear that the army, though it is not clearly showing its hands, would like to extend its rule. Realization is also slowly dawning that engineering army's return to barracks will be difficult. The administration has now announced the setting of a National Security Council which will include the chiefs of three branches of armed forces and also civilians led by the head of the interim government, Fakruddin Ahmed. The new council gives the army a formal mechanism for effectively controlling the administration that it has installed in January 2007. The army top brass feel that it is not possible to govern the country from behind the curtain any longer. It fears a backlash by the BNP loyalists.

With the decline of the influence of the BNP there is now a political void. Md. Yunus, who recently won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in micro credit, is trying to build up a new political force. But this will need Army's backing which Yunus wants to avoid. Already Sheikh Hasina in a sarcastic reference to Yunus has said that she saw, "no difference between usurers and corrupt people".

For the time being the people in Bangladesh have appreciated these emergency arrangements. Western governments and donors are also happy and feel that emergency for a year or so will reinvigorate Bangladesh's crippled institutions. However, this is a dangerous state of affairs. Army rule is an anachronism in the 21st century. Further, in army, judiciary and other institutions, BNP has many loyal supporters who are sulking and who do not want the present regime to succeed. BNP still has people in key positions, plenty of money and popular support across the country.

Though Bangladesh is a Muslim country with liberal and secular traditions, the fundamentalist Islamic groups and parties in recent years, and particularly during Begum Zia's rule, have gamed disproportionate influence. Jamat-e-Islami and its violent student wing Chatra Shibir, which control the campuses of some of the important universities in Bangladesh, have acquired both money and muscle power.

Army rule in 21st Century is an anachronism. For a country like Bangladesh prolonged army rule will do more harm than good. Initial euphoria will gradually wear off. To remain in power and to marginalize the main political parties the army may have to join hands with the fundamentalist groups as it has done in Pakistan. Jihadis adore a vacuum. Disillusionment with the main political parties will strengthen their hands. Bangladesh is far from being a hard line Islamic state but its so-called secular leaders have done their best to give secularism a bad name.

Authoritarian rule is unlikely to appeal for long, despite the disenchantment of the voters with the two mainstream political parties. Socio-economic problems of Bangladesh are too many. By 2050 its population is projected to reach 250 million. Only democratic rule and institutions can help Bangladesh to tackle its manifold problems.

India has a big stake in the goings-on in Bangladesh. It wants a stable and friendly neighbour. Bangladesh has so long harboured many insurgent groups from the Northeast and sheltered many fugitives from justice from India. It is learnt that the present regime will embark on fence-mending exercises and improve relations with India. At a recently concluded conference between the senior officers of the Border Security Force (BSF) and Bangladesh Rifles (BDR), the latter stressed on the need for improved relations with India. But the acid test is the willingness of Bangladesh to firmly curb the activities of the terrorist outfits operating against India. Present indications are encouraging.

The views and facts stated above are entirely the responsibility of the author and do not reflect the views of this Association in any manner.

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