Rival begums make common cause against government


Dhaka : Two of Bangladesh's principal politicians, rival women leaders who never meet or talk, have begun to speak the same language against a government that has held them under virtual house arrest and wants to upstage them politically.

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The last time that the two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL) and Khaleda Zia of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) came on the same platform was in 1990 to lead a mass movement and depose the then military ruler, General Hussain Mohammed Ershad.

They have since remained bitter rivals, leading opposing political parties. But today they again have a common adversary in a government that is widely perceived as pursuing a strategy of "minus-two", aimed at marginalising Zia and Hasina.

"Those who follow 'minus-two' are enemies of the nation," Zia was quoted in Bangladeshi daily New Age Monday, decrying attempts at creating dissension among her followers and placing restrictions on her movements.

Facing serious dissent within the party triggered by 'reforms' orchestrated by the government, Zia said such tactics had failed to break BNP earlier.

Visits and visitors for both the leaders are restricted. Only select political aides are allowed to meet them.

This includes occasions like meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries. When Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon came calling, three of the Awami League Presidium members were barred from entering the home of their leader, Sheikh Hasina.

Hasina says there are "three layers of security" around her house and the security personnel follow her wherever she goes.

Hasina, using a hospital visit to see ailing singer Sabina Yasmin as a way of reaching out to the media and the public, alleged that the government was misusing the intelligence agencies to harass her.

She named one of the agencies, Directorate General of Field Intelligence (DGFI), asking it to "stop operating beyond its mandated boundary of ensuring national security," Dhaka newspaper The Daily Star said.

"I ask the caretaker government to stop the agency from carrying out the atrocities and to make it carry out its real responsibilities. It is not their duty to get involved in politics or to break up and build political parties. The people did not give them that right," said the Awami League chief.

There have been attempts by the government to either keep the two politicians out of the country, or force them into exile.

Sheikh Hasina was offloaded from her plane at Heathrow on her way back from the US in April, in what turned out to be an abortive attempt to keep her from returning to Bangladesh.

An ailing Khaleda Zia, with her son Tareq Rahman behind bars, was forced into striking a deal to leave for Saudi Arabia along with most of her family.

However, these moves backfired. While Hasina – helped by international pressure – persisted in returning home, Zia bought time, lobbied with the Saudi government, and then backed out of the deal.

It was Zia who made the first apparent move towards a possible rapprochement with Hasina when she criticised the government's attempts to keep Hasina out of Bangladesh.

The gesture has been reciprocated. Last week, Matia Chowdhury, an Awami League Presidium member, spoke out against the harassment of both leaders. Analysts say Chowdhury, known to be close to Hasina, could not have made the remarks without a signal from her leader.

With the military government making moves to float an 'official' party, a ban on political activity, and elections due only next year, there may be room for myriad manoeuvres at which the two Begums are adapt.

Whether the two will come closer is a question only time can answer. As of now, the only certainty in Bangladeshi politics is that all politicians are facing a fight for survival – and that may force some unlikely equations.