Bangladesh: Political chaos, Islamic fundamentalism and poverty

Capitalist parties clash but no workers’ alternative

A 36-hour strike that ended yesterday (7 February), once again exposed the chaos in the Bangladesh political system. This was the 12th strike call made by the main capitalist opposition party, the Awami League (AL), headed by Begum Hasina Wajed, the ex-prime minister, and daughter of the deceased first leader of independent Bangladesh (1971), Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The power struggle between the AL and the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the two largest capitalist parties, has weakened the already tortured political system.

Mainstream politics is bitterly divided among these two parties. Both parties have no differences over economic policies, because both follow the dicktates of the IMF and World Bank.

Personal and political enmity between the AL and BNP is rife and goes back a long way. Today, the ruling BNP is headed by Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, the widow of ex-military dictator, General Zia-u-Rahman. Back in 1974, General Zia-u-Rehman imposed martial law just three years after getting independence from Pakistan. In August 1974, Sheikh Majib-u-Rehman was assassinated and in the following November, General Zia-u-Rahman took control. Trade unions were banned in 1976 and in 1977 he assumed the presidency. Two years later, the political party that General Zia-u-Rehman founded, the BNP, won elections.

After 33 years of independence, the dreams of prosperity, stable democracy and political stability, are still not fulfilled. Both capitalist parties are split on the basis of being considered ‘pro-Indian’ or ‘pro-Pakistan’; the AL is considered pro-Indian and the BNP is considered pro-Pakistan. The BNP is a more reactionary, right wing party than the AL, which is more liberal and secular.

Economic and social conditions

The ruling classes have failed miserably to solve any of the fundamental problems faced by working class and poor in Bangladesh. Poverty, unemployment, price hikes, backwardness, illiteracy, and other social and economic evils, hugely damage the lives of the working masses. The free market economic policies of successive governments have made the situation worst. Many Jute mills, and other industries, have been closed down as the result of IMF and World Bank dictated policies.

Bangladesh stands at 145 out of 173 countries in the UN’s human development index. Per capita income is 390 US dollars annually. Out of a total population of 140 million, 25% earn less than a dollar per day. 30% earn just one dollar. Five million children are working as child labourers, which make up 12% of the total workforce. The government is spending just 1.7% on health, and 2.2% on education, in the annual budget. According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, asthma, and common diseases, are killing thousands of people every year. 80 million people are living in shanty towns, without clean drinking water, or sanitation. Only 11.2% live in concrete houses. More than 70% of the population do not have proper housing.

Agriculture is in tatters. This sector of the economy contributes just 3% to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country. But in terms of the size of the workforce employed in this sector of the economy its share of GDP should be at least 30%.

10% of the big landowners hold 50% of the land and 40% of small farmers own just 2% of the land. The majority of these farmers have in fact pledged their lands to the local money lenders. This situation has made the life for poor farmers and their families miserable.

Unemployment has increased significantly in the last few years. According to a leading economist, Dr. Barkat, from Dhaka University, 1.5 million female workers are employed in the garment industry and are paid half of what male workers are paid for doing the same work. They are forced to work longer hours than male workers and they have no right to social security and other basic rights. One female garment worker said "those women who are working as prostitutes are luckier than the garment workers".

In general, working conditions are so bad that many workers have lost their lives in workplace incidents. Last month, 20 women garment workers were burned alive when a fire broke out in a garment factory.

Women garment workers are protesting against these sorts of incidents and poor working conditions. These workers face super-exploitation from greedy capitalists. But according to Dr. Barkat most of these super-exploited will lose their jobs after the abolition of quotas in textiles is introduced under WTO rules.

Bangladeshi women are also trafficked to Pakistan, India and the Middle East. They are smuggled to Pakistan and sold, usually to the so-called "sex industry". At a "price" of 20 thousand rupees (350 US dollars) anyone can buy them.

These are the conditions faced by working masses in Bangladesh after 33 years of independence. These horrible conditions are the result of the failure of capitalism. According to the official figures, poverty increased 22%, from 1985 to 1999, and in this same period military expenditure increased 70%, and foreign loans increased by 130%.

The rise of political Islam

Bangladesh has seen a rapid growth of political Islam. The main religious political party is Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JIB – a sister organization of Jamaat-e-Islami, in Pakistan). This party has a long history of violence against left workers and was responsible of killing hundreds of left wing activists during the 1971 civil war. It is an openly pro-Pakistan party.

Until the 1990s, Bangladesh was considered a liberal society. But that has changed rapidly. In the last general elections, held in 2001, the JIB won 18 seats in the parliament, with the help of BNP. The JIB is part of the government and uses its position to spread the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism.

On many occasions, the CWI in Pakistan, the Socialist Movement Pakistan (SMP), has made the point that Bangladesh has become a new fortress for religious fanatics. Now this has been confirmed by the international media. According to the recent report in the ‘New York Times’, 10,000 Islamists regrouped, on 23 January, under the banner of ‘Jagrata Muslim Janata’ (JMJ), in northern Bangladesh. This group want to place several provinces under Islamic laws. This group has so far killed 22 left wing activists.

Bangladesh has become a centre for activities for Islamic fundamentalists. Different religious groups are involved in violence against different minorities. According to the New York Times, communists are not the only targets of Islamic militant groups. Most attacks are carried out against either members of religious minorities, such as Hindus, Christians and Buddhists, or against moderate Muslims, who are considered ‘out of step’ with the doctrines espoused in the militant Islamic religious schools.

According to the leading journalist, Enayetullah Khan, editor of the ‘New Age’, the most important Islamic group, among many, is ‘Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami’ (HUJI), which tried to kill the famous poet Shamsur Rehman, in 1999. This attack led to the arrest of 44 members of HUJI. Two men, one Pakistani and one South African, claimed they had been sent to Bangladesh by Osama Bin Laden with more than $300,000, which they distributed among 421 religious schools.

Hundreds of religious schools are working in different areas of the country. The same process was adopted in Pakistan, in the 1980s, to strengthen the Islamic militants under the state umbrella during General Zia’s regime. The Taliban were created in these religious schools. Now there are 12,000 religious schools in Pakistan, in which more than two million students are enrolled.

Today the same is happening in Bangladesh. ‘Task Force against Torture’, an NGO, have found 500 cases of people intimidated and tortured by these militant religious groups.

Left weak and divided

The working class is the only force which can decisively defeat the reactionary forces of religious extremism. This can only be done on the basis of class unity and by struggling to overthrow this rotten capitalist system.

The working class has a strong tradition of struggles in Bangladesh. Two years ago, dock workers in Chittagong forced the government to withdraw its planned privatisation of the town’s port. In recent years, many workers’ struggles have erupted but the trade union leadership is playing a dirty role to hold back workers’ resistance.

Currently, the Left is weak and divided, and not in a position to provide an alternative for the working class. It is still dominated by Stalinists and Maoists, who still believe in a ‘two stage theory’ of linking up with ‘progressive’ capitalists to carry through a ‘democratic’ revolution. This leads them to always ending up supporting one section or another of the ruling elite.

The Communist Party lost the opportunity to develop as mass party of the working class because they followed the policies of class collaboration instead of taking an independent class position.

Clearly the working class desperately needs its own political party to defend its political and class interests. The working class needs a revolutionary party to overthrow capitalism and feudalism, and to establish workers’ government to carry through a socialist programme. That party needs the correct programme, tactics, and strategy, to transform society along socialist lines.

A socialist planned economy, under a workers’ and poor peasants’ government, will end exploitation and repression. The nationalisation of all the main industries, banks, trades and services, under the democratic control of workers, will provide the basis to end the poverty, hunger, unemployment and other basic problems that afflict the working people and poor of Bangladesh.

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February 2005