It is said that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is now going through the most difficult time since its inception in 1978. The party chairperson Khaleda Zia has been facing a number of cases and was also convicted. The physically ill former prime minister is now confined to her Gulshan home. BNP's acting chairman Tarique Rahman is in London. In such a critical time, secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir is assigned to hold the party together.
Known for his clean image, Fakhrul was the president of Dhaka University Chhatra Union unit during the mass upsurge in 1969. A graduate in economics, Fakhrul participated in the Liberation War in 1971. He started his career as a teacher in 1972 and imparted lessons at many educational institutions including Dhaka College. Later he joined BNP and became a lawmaker. He also served as a state minister.
The soft-spoken Fakhrul on October 9 talked to The Daily Star on BNP's politics, its leadership and overall political situation of the country.
Following is an excerpt of the interview:
The Daily Star (DS): BNP is a large political party. It is facing a kind of leadership crisis now. The party chairperson is unwell and facing a lot of cases. Acting chairman of the party is in exile. Sometimes you have to wait for decisions that come from outside the country. These are the much talked about issues involving BNP.
Fakhrul: BNP is the largest political party of the country. Its leadership is always very strong. Certainly, there is a crisis right now. Party chairperson Khaleda Zia has been convicted in false cases. She was jailed for two years. As per the party charter, senior vice chairman Tarique Rahman is in charge and he is running the party accordingly.
The plus point is that all the standing committee members are united. We were united on participating in the (parliamentary) election and formed Oikyafront with 20-party alliance. Now we are facing the government's repression. More than one lakh cases were filed and more than 35 lakh party leaders and activists have been charged in those cases.
DS: Is the number of cases you mentioned a political rhetoric or a reality?
Fakhrul: We don't do politics based on falsehood. We have documents. The allegations are political. We have FIR copies. It is beyond imagination that there are 5,000 accused in a single case. There were not even incidents, (still) cases were filed. Out of 5,000, the case document mentioned names of 100-150 and the rest are unknown. The "unknowns" were filled in with the BNP leaders and activists. If anyone digs deep, everything will be clear. We can show you the documents.
DS: Are you facing any case now?
Fakhrul: A total of 86 cases have been filed against me. High Court stayed 35 cases but the government is trying to revive those.
DS: Cases are filed only when someone commits a crime. What are your crimes?
Fakhrul: Have you ever asked about the types of crimes? In some places I "blasted bombs", "burnt city corporation's waste carrying truck", "burnt bus in front of prime minister's office", "blasted bombs at Secretariat" and so on. When Madam (Khaleda Zia) was confined to her Gulshan office, she was accused of hurling petrol bomb at vehicles at five districts simultaneously.
DS: BNP leaders committed crimes and perhaps she is accused of ordering those crimes as party chief?
Fakhrul: BNP leaders did not commit any crime. They probably brought out processions. Bringing out procession is not a crime. Awami League leaders or agency people set fire and filed cases against BNP leaders. In case documents, it was not said 'accused for ordering' but mentioned number one accused.
Few days ago, police obstructed a procession of Muktijoddha Dal in front of the High Court. There was no incident of violence. Two motorcycles were torched in the evening at that place and one case was filed where I was the number one accused.
DS: Who torched those motorcycles? Isn't the allegation against BNP leaders and activists?
Fakhrul: As far as we know, agency people did it. They set fire and filed case against us. I am the number one accused and the very next day I had to take bail from the High Court. When the motorcycles were set on fire, no BNP leader and activist was there.
DS: When the motorcycles were torched where were you then?
Fakhrul: I was at home.
DS: Still, you are number one accused?
Fakhrul: I am not alone, a total of nine standing committee members are accused in that case.
DS: There are allegations that BNP does not talk about issues related to public interest like price hike of gas, electricity and essentials. How do you react to this?
Fakhrul: it's a propaganda which is going on for a long time and especially after the 2018 national election. BNP tries to take to the street but we were not allowed. Whenever we took to the street, water cannon and truncheons were used by law enforcers to drive us away. Our women leaders were harassed. Around 60 women activists were arrested in a single day. Many party leaders were abducted and killed. Party leaders and activists are in constant fear of abduction and murder and they cannot stay in their houses.
DS: It is often said that the government will not allow the opposition on the streets. Is BNP acting on the government's desire?
Fakhrul: These are also propaganda against BNP that are being circulated in a very planned way. The target of the army-backed caretaker government was to remove the two leaders, depoliticisation. The same evil attempt is on and unfortunately, Awami League is doing this. BNP is a strong political party and it has played a very positive role in establishing democracy in the country. One cannot ignore BNP's role and the movement led by Khaleda Zia against the autocratic ruler to restore parliamentary democracy. This party cannot be eliminated. Awami League is working on how to eliminate the leadership of the party, how to make the party dysfunctional -- filing cases against leaders, activists and abducting them.
We took to the street protesting rape, we formed human chain in front of the Press Club. I participated despite severe illness and amid Covid-19 pandemic. Not only in this case, we are trying to work on every issue. It is a lie that BNP does not talk about people's problems. Unfortunately, many participated in this propaganda which surprised me.
DS: What do you mean by many participated in such propaganda?
Fakhrul: Some civil society members joined in. When you people write columns, we see this. These are not true. We did not do anything to compromise with the government.
DS: There are two allegations. Government is trying to split the BNP and trying to make it dysfunctional. How do you react to it?
Fakhrul: No, not at all. Not a single person left the party. One or two senior leaders resigned on personal grounds. Rather the party is more fortified. The main success of the party is that it is still intact even amid repression. When a political party becomes victim of such repression, I think survival is a success. Those who believe in democracy should promote our cause and cooperate.
You will see an anti-BNP publicity is going on in the media. Today I had a discussion with some journalists. They said they did not discuss anything at their offices. They cannot say anything freely because they feel like someone is spying.
If you look at other countries where authoritarian regimes are in power, the same situation is prevailing there. People of Bangladesh did not expect it. Since my student life, I fought for democracy, for freedom of expression, for rights. It seems the fight is never ending. But we want the end of it.
DS: You said you (BNP) did not compromise. In social media some senior leaders have been saying that you compromised and that's why Khaleda Zia is out of jail.
Fakhrul: This is not true either. Begum Zia is very ill. She came home following application of her family members. She was not getting treatment at hospital.
My question is why media is not raising voice against the Awami League government for snatching away democratic rights of the people? No newspaper writes anything criticising Awami League. It is because they created a terrorising situation. That's why people don't dare to say anything.
DS: The party has decided to join the parliament with only a few elected members. But you did not join the parliament. How do you evaluate both the decisions?
Fakhrul: It was our decision to join the parliament because we wanted to utilise the minimum space that we got to restore democracy. We believe in democracy. We believe shifting of power can happen only through election. You know that the fight of a democratic party against a fascist government is not an easy task. We hope that those who believe in democracy, rule of law, independence of judiciary should join our fight. Criticising us is not the way of supporting democratic movement.
We decided to join the parliament from a democratic point of view. I did not join, to keep the party united. A negative political culture has developed in the country. You can say that I tried to build a connection and I believe we were successful.
DS: Do you think the decision of joining the parliament was right? What is the experience?
Fakhrul: We do not even get the minimum space. (without it) You cannot do anything in parliament. There are certain procedures. We don't get what we deserve as an opposition. An extreme dictatorship exists. Speaker does not allow our lawmakers to speak in the house. Unfortunately, when we do get to speak, it's not published properly in the media. When there is dictatorship, newspapers compromise for survival. We understand it. That's why I don't say anything against any newspaper. But at the same time, it is true that the media accuses us frequently.
DS: You (BNP) have complained against Election Commission publicly and repeatedly. But even after that you are participating in elections. Isn't it contradictory?
Fakhrul: It is not. What is the alternative? The alternative is to resist election, resort to violence. We don't believe in politics of violence. We have experienced it many times when the government resorted to violence and blamed us for that. That's why we tried to maximise the use of the minimum space (we get) in a democratic manner. Whenever we participated in any election, we got scope to talk. In Pabna by-election, everything was fine three days prior to the polls. Then the same old game. But those were not reported in the media.
DS: A strong political opposition is of paramount importance for democracy. Awami League leaders and ministers said so. They also said BNP does not have that capacity, they cannot wage movement.
Fakhrul: They said so to mislead people. Their propaganda mechanism is very strong even in national newspapers and media houses. Media published their (AL) statements with priority but whenever we say something, we do not get any coverage. I think the big success of a dictatorship is that it creates a reign of terror in the society. We saw martial law but did not witness such suffocating situation.
DS: College teachers and students cannot post anything anti-government on social media. Have you seen that?
Fakhrul: An authoritarian government is always fearful of losing power. They don't allow people to speak up. What is the reason behind the directive that college teachers and students cannot express their opinions? Government knows that college teachers and students are not in favour of the government.
Digital Security Act gaged the scope of freedom of expression. You see we are not even creating a buzz against it. If college students are barred from freedom of expression it is a dreadful incident.
TDS: Government is saying massive development is taking place in the country. People are not taking to the street because they are getting benefits of development. People are supporting the government. What is your take on it?
Fakhrul: It is their old trick to fool and mislead people. If you ask anyone, s/he will ask when change will come? Even a rickshaw-puller says he wants change. I can share one such experience. A friend's wife Dr Ferdous Kaderi became member of a group of international scientists. I went to a flower shop to purchase a bouquet to send to her. The shop owner asked when will we be freed? How long will we stay in such situation? This is the reality. It is not an isolated incident. This is the scenario of the whole country. Those who have fought in the Liberation War did not want such country. We wanted a democratic atmosphere but we could not ensure it. The institutions are destroyed just to stay in power. Sometimes I feel guilty that I could not do anything. Today violence against women, rape are happening because of this system. There is no rule of law.
DS: Government is saying it is taking action against every incident whether it is corruption or rape.
Fakhrul: These are all lies. Almost all the rape incidents involve ruling party leaders and activists. Can you imagine a Chhatra League president in a place like Faridpur siphoned off 2000 crore taka? A driver of DG health accumulated thousands of crore taka? Is this the picture of development? Construction of Padma bridge is going on. It was a project of 10,000 crore taka but now turned into 40,000 crore taka project. I often said mega projects are for looting public money.
Informal sector of the country is destroyed completely. It has turned worst after coronavirus hit the country. Only the big garment factory owners are barely surviving. Those who have connections with influential people can only reschedule the bank loans but the small businessmen don't get any loan. This is the reality of the country. We understand very well with whom the government has compromised, became a puppet of that.
DS: Are you talking about international or regional politics?
DS: The same allegation was also against BNP when it was in power.
Fakhrul: You know BNP tried to cancel (projects) as many as possible. We declined to take loan with tough conditions. The situation of the country was good during BNP tenure. Banks were in good health. There was huge pressure from the party but Saifur Rahman did not give permission to open any new bank. This is fact. We brought reform in economic sector. We promoted the remittance and readymade garments.
DS: There was a time when BNP was very vocal against India. After a pause, the party is making some statements against India. But BNP is very flexible about China. What is the reason behind it?
Fakhrul: BNP does not do politics against a particular country. The party's stance has always been to uphold the interest of Bangladesh. India is our big neighbour, we have always raised our voice about the unresolved issues with India. We are not getting our fair share of water from Teesta and other common rivers. We have always talked about it. We are continuing our protest against border killings of Bangladeshi nationals. Killing of innocent people at the border is a grave crime and India will have to stop it immediately. Our stand against Rampal power plant is unequivocal.
China is a leading economic powerhouse. Bangladesh needs the support of that power. As a political party we believe in maintaining cordial relationship with a powerhouse like China. To talk about the unresolved issues or asking for our fair share does not mean we are anti-Indian. We believe in maintaining cordial relationship with China, India and other countries on the basis of fairness.
DS: It is learnt that China sent greetings to BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia on her birthday and then withdrew it. Will you tell us what actually happened?
Fakhrul: The truth is that China sent a bouquet of flowers on the birthday of Bangladesh's former prime minister and most popular leader Khaleda Zia. We are not aware of greetings being withdrawn or any message of regret from China. Since the greeting has been sent to our chairperson, any withdrawal or message of regret was supposed to be sent to her. We have not received anything like that from the Chinese embassy in Dhaka.
It is a propaganda from our foreign ministry. China does not do such cheap diplomacy.
DS: The party formed Oikyafront for election and then participated in the polls. Is Oikyafront active now?
Fakhrul: Oikyafront is still intact. Everything is not visible all the time for various reasons. Due to government repression, we cannot do proper politics but our front is intact.
DS: There are reports that Khaleda Zia is not happy with the formation of Oikyafront and its activities…
Fakhrul: This is not correct. She has directed to keep the unity intact. After coming out of jail, she has emphasised on widening the scope of unity. She has run the country with the mandate of people and from that experience the BNP chairperson has emphasised the need for wider unity.
DS: Is BNP united with Jamaat-e-Islami?
Fakhrul: Yes, BNP in united with Jamaat. The unity remains as it was before. We haven't observed any programme with Jamaat for a long time. We have not observed a programme with Jamaat since 2015.
DS: In that context can we really say the unity with Jamaat remains as before?
Fakhrul: Our relationship with 20-party alliance that includes Jamaat has not diminished. A few parties have left the alliance, but Jamaat is still there.
DS: It is said that BNP's relationship with Jamaat is strained because of the war crimes trial issue…
Fakhrul: Difference of opinion can be there between parties in an alliance. And it can be the case in 20-party alliance. But that relationship is not strained.
DS: The war crimes trial took place after a long time since 1971. Still, BNP took a stand against the trial of war criminals. Has BNP opposed the war crimes trial due to its association with Jamaat?
Fakhrul: It is not that BNP was against the war crimes trial. We were always for the trial, and our position is still the same. We have talked about the quality of the trial. We have criticised the loopholes of the trial process. We have always demanded that the trial process should be of international standard. We should keep in mind that BNP's founder was a valiant freedom fighter, sector commander and Bir Uttam. We fought to liberate our country. There are so many freedom fighters in BNP -- this party cannot oppose the war crimes trial.
DS: But BNP never advocated for holding the war crimes trial…
Fakhrul: This allegation is not correct. We did not want to politicise the war crimes trial. Awami League did it. We wanted a fair war crimes trial.
DS: The fact is that the Awami League government initiated the war crimes trial…
Fakhrul: Awami League made the trial process controversial as they were obsessed with gaining political milage. We wanted a fair and international standard trial. We wanted fair trial and that does not mean we opposed the trial. It is also a propaganda from Awami League that BNP opposed war crimes trial.
DS: Has BNP done any assessment regarding public perception about its association with Jamaat? The impression is that it has damaged BNP's reputation…
Fakhrul: No, I don't think there is any reason to even entertain it. We have our assessment not only about Jamaat, but a whole range of political subjects.
DS: Did the association with Jamaat benefit BNP or did it damage its reputation?
Fakhrul: How do you calculate the loss-benefit in politics? The popularity of BNP has not declined, but increased. Awami League knows that it cannot beat BNP even after rigging the election. That's why they filled ballot boxes at night.
DS: Do you think the party has to be reorganised?
Fakhrul: Why do you think that we have to rely on decisions coming from outside. BNP leadership is united in running the party. No matter where the chairperson of the party is, we are consulting him regularly. It is a positive sign of politics. Government is afraid of his popularity. That's why the government's propaganda mechanism is working against him.
DS: You are carrying out the responsibility of secretary general for the last few years. Do you think you have lived up to your role?
Fakhrul: I tried. The path of discharging the duty is very tough. But we are moving forward. I think a national unity is badly needed to restore the democratic system.
DS: You are considering participating in the election a success. What about the result?
Fakhrul: The government's ugly face was revealed as we participated in the election. People of the country witnessed how the government and Election Commission snatched away people's voting rights. Voting happened in the night, supposedly dead people cast votes… People came to know of their misdeeds because we participated in the election.
The government is in power using force. But this government will fall one day. A repressive government cannot stay in power for long.