On 10 January 1972, my father came home to his country for the first time. It was three weeks after the end of the Bangladesh war, and he was making his way back from India, where he had enlisted with the newly formed Bangladesh army. When I think about that day, I always wonder what country my father thought he was returning to. Surely it was a thing of his imagination, born out of the years marching against the Pakistani occupation, the months touring India to gain support for the war, the gruelling training at the officers’ camp in West Bengal. I can picture the shock that he and his fellow freedom fighters must have felt when they finally did cross that border, seeing their imagined country and their real country meet for the first time.
The Bengali phrase desh-prem means “love for the country”. Like many expatriate Bangladeshis, my desh-prem makes me believe there will come a day when I pack my bags and leave London for good. My desh-prem is a long-distance affair, full of passion and misunderstanding; often, my heart is broken. Many Bangladeshis never actually return home; it is more of an idea, something to turn over in our hearts before we go to sleep, but for me the prospect of returning is real. In 1990, after 14 years abroad, my parents left their jobs with the United Nations and moved back to Bangladesh. So many of their friends told them they were foolish to return to a country that had so little to offer, but in the latter months of that year, Hossain Mohammad Ershad’s military dictatorship was toppled by massive public action of a kind not seen since the days of the independence movement. So the country my family returned to was bathed in hope, and, almost two decades after the birth of Bangladesh, we finally seemed on the brink of becoming a functioning democracy.
Sixteen years after Ershad’s dramatic fall, Bangladesh is a very different place. We have had three national elections, and our two main political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, have handed power back and forth to each other like a baton in a relay, each election becoming successively more bitter, and each five-year term bringing dramatic increases in corruption and partisan politics. Amazingly, when the Awami League was in power, the BNP refused to attend parliament; when the BNP was in power, the Awami League refused to attend. As a result, the people we mandated to represent us in government failed to discharge their responsibilities, instead taking to the streets and announcing that their defeat was engineered and not willed by the voting public.
In Bangladesh, elections come hand in hand with claims of vote-rigging. Where there is an election and a transfer of power, there will inevitably be rumours of conspiracy, of stolen ballot boxes and hijacked polling stations. Whether and to what degree these rumours are true is almost less important than the assumption that a sitting government cannot hold a fair election. Therefore, in 1995, the constitution was amended to include a peculiar and rather clever system of handing power to a caretaker government that is responsible for holding a fair election. According to the constitution, the last retired chief justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court becomes chief adviser to the caretaker government. He has the authority of a prime minister, and is given the responsibility of appointing a cabinet, together with which he will govern the country for no more than 90 days. During this time his main tasks will be to oversee fair and non-partisan elections and to hand over power to the newly elected government.
So far, so good. But as plans go, this one is not foolproof. Although the arrangement worked on the first two occasions, this time around the BNP felt it could not afford to lose the election. All the signs indicated that if the election was free and fair, the BNP would be defeated by the Awami League. After five years of alleged corruption, theft and autocracy, it was faced with the possibility that it would actually have to be accountable for the crimes it had committed during its tenure. The excesses of previous regimes were mild compared with those perpetrated during those five years, which saw an alliance between the BNP and the most powerful of the Islamic parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The BNP formed this strategic partnership in 2001, and over the past five years the Jamaat’s influence has spread throughout the bureaucracy and district governments, enabling the party to build grass-roots support and gain crucial political and public recognition.
As well as giving power and legitimacy to the Islamic right, the BNP alliance committed severe abuses of power. It politicised the police force and formed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special branch that was responsible for hundreds of killings in the name of “law and order”. This force signed contracts for bridges that were never built, bought television channels, appointed biased judges, jailed and harassed the opposition, and placed RAB people into every post that might influence the election. The alliance invented 14 million false voters. By the same stroke, it wiped most Bangladeshis from a religious or ethnic minority from the electoral register.
Popular opposition to the BNP’s blatant attempts at manipulating the election has made it terrified of losing power, and so, instead of allowing the caretaker government to fall into the hands of a neutral chief adviser, it encouraged the BNP-appointed president, Iajuddin Ahmed, to take the post. When we first saw the ageing Iajuddin taking the oath to become chief adviser, he appeared harmless enough. People, including the opposition, decided to give him a chance to show his neutrality – his desh-prem. But he proved to be easily manipulated, and after a few weeks he became a hated figure.
In the meantime, the beleaguered Awami League has committed its fair share of mistakes. In order to press its demands it called an indefinite series of strikes, bringing the economy to a halt while it conducted its campaigns of civil disobedience. No one went to work; the classrooms emptied out, the ships were marooned at Chittagong port, and the price of dhal tripled in a matter of months. But by far the most un forgivable blunder it committed was to sign a deal with the far-right Khilafat-e-Majlish. The Awami League has long claimed an ideological advantage over the BNP, branding itself the more secular, progressive party, so for those of us who believed there was a significant difference between the two parties, this was a cynical and heartbreaking manoeuvre. Under the terms of the deal, the Awami League will assist the Khilafat-e-Majlish in legalising fatwas and challenging any laws that contradict “Koranic values”. Whether the Islamic right will really gain a foothold in mainstream politics – and the hearts of the public – in Bangladesh remains to be seen; however, that both parties believe they cannot win an election without the endorsement of the right is sign enough that Bangladesh’s identity as a moderate Muslim country is under threat.
When I landed in Dhaka a few days ago, the city looked as it so often does in January. The fog was low and woolly on the ground; people were huddled under their shawls; the smell of oranges and roasted peanuts lingered in the air. But, of course, I knew that all was not as it seemed. In these past few months my desh-prem has been under siege, and this time, I arrived in Dhaka in bitter spirits. I had planned this trip so that I would be able to vote; I had spent months looking forward to returning to Bangladesh to exercise my democratic right. Yet as the day drew near, I realised I wouldn’t be going home to vote, but rather to witness a sham election. With the Awami League boycotting the elections, and talk of a constitutional crisis, we all began to worry that this year could mark the death of democracy in Bangladesh. The mood was sombre and people seemed resigned; it appeared there was nothing anyone could do to prevent this political charade from going ahead.
But then, just as it appeared there was no solution in sight, the president suddenly declared a state of emergency and postponed the elections indefinitely. He resigned as chief adviser and dissolved the caretaker cabinet. The exact reasons for his about-face are still opaque, but we do know that it happened through a combination of international pressure and army intervention. To what degree the army is now running things is unclear; vague and ominous ordinances have been proposed, some of which hint at restrictions on personal freedom and on the media.
Walter Benjamin famously said that a state of emergency is also always a state of emergence. Can we take this literally in Bangladesh? Will the emergency see us through to a fair election, or will the army consolidate its power and wrest democracy from us indefinitely? And what would happen to my desh-prem then? Could it survive another onslaught?
Whenever I imagine returning to Bangladesh for good, I wonder what kind of country I want to return to. I want, more than anything, to have that feeling of protean possibility that my father must have had when he crossed the border into his new country. I want a country where my gender does not preclude me from being an equal citizen. Where corruption has not touched every facet of public life. Where the children don’t sell popcorn on street corners or work in matchstick factories. I want to know that I’m going to show up on polling day and see my name on the voter registration list. I want to stand in a queue, press my thumb into a pad of ink, and put my mark wherever I like. I want my politicians to stop courting the Islamic right. I want the water table to stop rising. I want the government to stop driving the Hindus and the Chakmas and the Santals out of this country. I want someone to count my vote. I want a halt to the steady erosion of civil liberties. I want a country where the army cannot arrest anyone without a warrant. I want our political parties to be democratic, transparent and accountable. I want fair and neutral judges. I want the right to vote. I want there to be no such thing as a legal fatwa. I want the war criminals of the 1971 genocide to be tried, condemned and jailed. I want to vote. I want a country worthy of my desh-prem. I want a country.
Tahmima Anam’s debut novel, “A Golden Age”, set during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, will be published in March by John Murray (£14.99)