The Pulse

Bangladesh Government Doubles Down on Pressure Campaign Against Opposition

Recent Features

The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Bangladesh Government Doubles Down on Pressure Campaign Against Opposition

Clashes between BNP leaders on the one hand and police and ruling party activists on the other broke out in Dhaka during a major opposition rally.

Bangladesh Government Doubles Down on Pressure Campaign Against Opposition

Smoke rises from flames near the stage set for a protest by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Oct. 28, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

On October 28, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) organized a massive rally in Dhaka. Despite police intimidation, thousands of people from all over the country converged at the capital to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the installation of a non-partisan caretaker government to oversee national elections to be held in January 2024.

The BNP is Bangladesh’s main opposition party. Its rallies in recent years have mostly been non-violent.

However, the October 28 rally was not able to proceed peacefully as violence broke out between BNP activists on the one hand and police and ruling Awami League members on the other. At least three people, including a policeman and a BNP activist, were reportedly killed.  Police filed murder charges against many BNP leaders, including General Secretary Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who has been arrested. The houses of many BNP leaders were raided, prompting Daily Prothom Alo to publish an editorial stating that the arrest of BNP leaders will only deepen the political crisis in Bangladesh.

Police allege that BNP activists set fire to vehicles. A Daily Star report quoting witnesses said that youth wearing police vests set fire to at least one vehicle, complicating a simple narrative of violence.

A Dhaka-based analyst, who spoke to The Diplomat on condition of anonymity, said that the Daily Star report indicates that the state may have been involved in sabotaging BNP’s political rally to make it appear violent.

In July 2023, Alamgir alleged in a press conference that members of various intelligence agencies and ruling party men torched vehicles to blame it on the BNP.

However, the ruling party and police denied this claim and blamed the BNP. In most instances, the arsonists remain at large.

According to the New York Times around 2.5 million BNP activists have been slapped with charges, which are usually vague, and accompanied by “shoddy” evidence in cases that seem politically motivated.

In the past decade, human rights organizations have noted that hundreds of people were extrajudicially killed and forcefully disappeared. Most of them are BNP leaders and activists. Many are languishing in jails, while others have fled the country and living in exile in Malaysia, the U.K., the U.S., Australia, and Canada among other countries.

BNP chair Khaleda Zia is critically ill. Her son, acting chair Tarique Rahman, has been living in exile in London since 2008. after surviving torture in custody. Yet the BNP is thriving on the streets.

Photographs of the BNP rally posted on social media and news reports of the event indicate that a large number of rickshaw pullers and day laborers participated, indicating that the BNP’s campaign is resonating with the masses. This may be the reason why the AL government has swooped in to stop BNP rallies before it becomes a mass movement.

Why are Bangladeshis joining the BNP and participating in its rallies, knowing the risks involved in associating with the party?

There are several reasons underlying growing support for the opposition, including the economic downturn, ongoing state repression, harassment of BNP activists, and the U.S. imposition of sanctions on Bangladeshi security officials for human rights violations.

Most important is Tarique Rahman’s leadership in the capacity of acting chairman of the party. He is the son of former President Ziaur Rahman and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia.

Tarique has been convicted in several cases, including a grenade attack on an AL rally on August 21, 2004. His wife Zubaida Rahman, who is a physician and was never involved in politics, was recently charged in a graft case where he was named too.

BNP denies all the charges and claims that the allegations are politically motivated. Interestingly, previously a lower court judge who acquitted Tarique on a graft case fled the country. Bangladesh’s anti-corruption commission filed a case against that judge.

The AL government has declared the publishing or broadcasting of Tarique’s speeches to be illegal.

According to BNP sources, Tarique took active leadership of the BNP in 2018. From his home in London, he has been addressing party activists in villages and towns via WhatsApp and Zoom. This means a lot for party activists as they feel they have direct access to the son of a former president and prime minister.

The “BNP is now Tarique Rahman’s party,” a journalist in Dhaka told The Diplomat, pointing out he has become “a grassroots leader from London.” He has strong support among BNP leaders too and “without his blessings, no leader can garner grassroots support in the party.”

According to a recent report in Daily Prothom Alo, which claims to have drawn on the opinion of several top AL policymakers, a key reason for the government crackdown on the BNP is to weaken Tarique’s unprecedented influence in the party. The government wants to convey to BNP leaders that they have no future if they follow Tarique, the report says.

The Daily Prothom Alo report claims that Tarique is against the BNP participating in an election under the Hasina government. Therefore, the crackdown on the BNP is also possibly aimed at pressuring the party to participate in the election. The AL government is apprehensive of additional punitive measures by the United States if the election is perceived as one-sided.

A torture survivor and leader of a party that has suffered the “enforced disappearance” of its leaders and activists, Tarique  recently announced that if the BNP comes to power, it would sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Bangladesh is not a signatory to at present

Several party sources claim that Tarique has avoided adopting violence in street protests and is focused on making the BNP’s campaign a mass movement for democracy. The Diplomat could not independently verify this claim.

A highly placed AL source told The Diplomat that the AL believes that so long as Tarique is in a leadership position in the BNP, external powers — India in particular — will not accept the BNP as he is perceived to be anti-India.

A leaked diplomatic cable from former U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh James T. Moriarty in 2008 revealed he too was highly critical of Tarique, although the U.S. position on Bangladesh politics has now evidently changed.

In an interview with The Diplomat just days ahead of his arrest, Alamgir said that the “BNP is not anti-Indian.” Referring to India’s unwavering support for the AL, Alamgir said that the BNP “expects India to support the people of Bangladesh over any political party.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu has condemned the violence on October 28 and announced that the United States will be reviewing all violent incidents for possible visa restrictions.

The European Union tweeted that it is “vital that a peaceful way forward for participatory and peaceful election is found,” indicating that it is not ready to accept yet another election that is skewed in the ruling party’s favor.

Now that the AL government has launched a new campaign of intimidation toward the BNP, which includes arresting its top-tier leadership, how will the BNP tackle this pressure? And what will be the reaction of the international community, especially of the U.S. and EU in the days ahead?