The Pulse

Crackdown on Bangladesh Nationalist Party Hasn’t Broken its Morale Yet

Recent Features

The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Crackdown on Bangladesh Nationalist Party Hasn’t Broken its Morale Yet

Contrary to the ruling Awami League’s calculation, activists are not leaving the BNP in droves.

Crackdown on Bangladesh Nationalist Party Hasn’t Broken its Morale Yet

Police personnel stand guard during a protest by relatives of imprisoned leaders and activists of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on November 28, 2023.

Credit: Deposit Photos

December 16 is commemorated annually as Victory Day in Bangladesh, the day the Pakistan Armed Forces were formally defeated in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, which sealed Bangladesh as an independent country. This year on Victory Day, Bangladesh’s main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) organized a massive rally in the capital city of Dhaka. The size of the rally came as a surprise to many.

This is because most of the senior leaders of the BNP have been imprisoned ahead of Bangladesh’s general election on January 7, 2024. More than 20,000 activists have been arrested between the end of October and mid-December. At least five of the arrested activists died in prison.

Despite the onslaught on the party, its leaders and the rank-and-file, the BNP rally on December 16 drew tens of thousands of supporters to the streets, according to reports.

The Bangladeshi government’s crackdown on the BNP has been relentless. In the past two months unidentified masked men are reported to have carried out a series of violent attacks on opposition members and their businesses in the country’s north and south.  According to newspaper reports, opposition activists are on the run. They are avoiding their homes for fear of being arrested or attacked.

In September 2023, the New York Times reported that about 2.5 million BNP activists are now facing multiple court cases. Many of these cases were found to be fictitious and politically motivated. The BNP recently alleged– and media reports corroborated – that “police had been arresting the father, son, or brother of the BNP leaders and activists if they did not find their targeted BNP leader or activist.”

The Awami League (AL) government alleges that BNP men are violent and have attacked public properties, even setting fire to buses. Speaking at a press conference at her residence on October 31, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called the BNP a “terrorist organization” and said that “they [BNP] will be taught the lesson they need to be taught” hinting at a heavy-handed state response to  BNP.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described the government’s handling of the opposition as a “violent autocratic crackdown.” Earlier this month, Civicus, a global alliance of civil society organizations downgraded Bangladesh’s civic space to “closed, its worst rating” amid the government persecution of the opposition.

A prominent Bangladeshi columnist Kamal Ahmed told The Diplomat that state persecution of BNP in the past 15 years has been “unprecedented.” Hundreds and thousands of BNP activists have lost their livelihoods, and their family relationships have been disrupted while they are going through persistent judicial harassment.

Amid such a severe crackdown, how and why the BNP managed to organize such a big rally on December 16 is a question that requires further exploration.

Journalists who covered the BNP’s rally on Victory Day told The Diplomat that participants in the rally told them that many who joined the event were not BNP activists, although a significant number were BNP.

Among those who participated in the rally were street vendors, small-time businessmen, day laborers, rickshaw pullers, and others. They said that rising prices of essential commodities had hit them hard and was the key reason for their participation in the rally. The BNP, they said, is providing them with a platform to oppose the AL government.

Reuters journalist Sam Jahan, who covered the event posted on X (formerly Twitter) that as many as 300,000 people attended the rally.

The BNP has called for a boycott of the January 7 election. It has been demanding elections under a neutral caretaker government as it believes that an election held under the AL government cannot be free and fair. But Hasina has ignored the demand.

Her government is trying to get individual BNP leaders to contest the election. A recent report in the local Bangla daily Manabzamin hinted that imprisoned BNP leaders were offered various options including cancellation of cases against them and large sums of cash to get them to participate in the election.

Recently, Minister for Agriculture Mohammad Abdur Razzaque told Bangladeshi media that the government even proposed to release all imprisoned BNP leaders if they agreed to participate in the election. The BNP turned down that offer, he claimed.

This shows that the mass arrests of BNP leaders is merely a bargaining chip for the ruling party, despite the severe human costs of those affected by it.

Some believe that the BNP is on the verge of being fully dismantled. With its leaders and activists being arrested and sentenced, it has been forced to function almost like an underground party.

BNP Chairman Khaleda Zia, a former prime minister, is seriously ill, and her son, Tarique Rahman, the acting chairman of the party is living in exile in London.

The AL government had expected that with its crackdown on the BNP, its members would leave it in droves. However, that has not happened. “Persecution has only doubled the resentment of BNP activists and that is why they are resurging,” Ahmed the columnist said.

The BNP’s Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi told The Diplomat, “It is true that we have been temporarily weakened but this crackdown has boosted the morale of our grassroots activists. Newer leaders are stepping in to fill the void even as someone is arrested or killed.”

Reiterating Rizvi’s view A.K.M. Wahiduzzaman, the BNP’s information and technology affairs secretary said that a crackdown will not be able to suppress BNP’s moral strength as “we believe we are fighting for our rights. The crackdown has already failed.”

However, while psychologically the crackdown has not served to weaken the morale of the BNP, the AL has managed to secure for itself a temporary strategic and tactical win as it is going ahead with organizing an election without much resistance.

It remains to be seen how Bangladesh’s foreign development partners will react after the January 7 election. While the United States has been pressing the Bangladesh government to organize a free and fair election, India and China have sided firmly with Hasina. Meanwhile, Russia has accused the U.S. of plotting a “post-election Arab Spring in Dhaka,”