DHAKA, Bangladesh — In August 2001, while visiting Dhaka as head of a team sent by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, former President Jimmy Carter stood between Khaleda Zia — who had recently stepped aside as prime minister and yielded power to a caretaker government pending parliamentary elections — and her predecessor in office, Sheikh Hasina Wazed.
Mr. Carter clasped their arms and tried to have them shake hands, but the country’s two most powerful political leaders looked the other way and Mr. Carter’s efforts to mediate between the two women failed.
In the last three years, more attempts at mediation by representatives of the United States and the European Union have failed to bring Mrs. Zia and Sheikh Hasina to the bargaining table.
A power struggle between the prime minister, Mrs. Zia, and the opposition leader, Sheikh Hasina, which stems from a bitter personal rivalry, has spun Bangladesh into near anarchy.
Bombs and guns have trumped politics and good governance, plunging the country into crisis.
On Aug. 21, Sheikh Hasina was injured when an explosion killed 20 persons and injured 300 as she addressed 25,000 of her Awami League supporters at an opposition rally in downtown Dhaka. As bodyguards whisked her into her bulletproof sport utility vehicle, gunmen peppered the vehicle with gunfire.
Sheikh Hasina was reportedly being treated this week by medical specialists in Singapore for concussion and bleeding in the ears caused by the explosions.
The dead included senior party leaders and a bodyguard who shielded Sheikh Hasina with his body during the attack.
At the insistence of advisers, Mrs. Zia sought to meet Sheikh Hasina and offer her personal condolences, but the latter refused to see her.
U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas said Washington urgently wanted the two women to “sit and work together for peace and stability in the country,” but Sheikh Hasina turned down his request, saying she would never speak to Mrs. Zia because her government and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) were involved with those behind the Aug. 21 attack.
Sitting in her Dhaka residence recently, the Awami League leader said: “This well-planned assassination attempt could have never taken place without the involvement and complicity of the government.
“They [Mrs. Zia and the ruling BNP] think they can carry on in power smoothly if they can eliminate me. It is impossible to sit with the leader of this party for any dialogue. There is no alternative but to topple this autocratic and terrorist government to ensure the security of lives and property.”
Although Sheikh Hasina blamed Mrs. Zia’s four-party coalition government, which includes two Islamist fundamentalist parties, for the deadly attack, the government and BNP flatly deny the charge.
Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, secretary-general of the BNP — the largest party in the ruling coalition — said: “It is a ridiculous allegation. There is not an iota of truth in it.”
The attack on Sheikh Hasina provoked an immediate response. Awami League partisans rioted in Dhaka and fought pitched battles with police. They set fire to a train, scores of cars and some BNP party offices.
Strikes — a traditional form of protest in the region — called by the Awami League, paralyzed the country for four days and brought traffic, business and education to a standstill.
A previously unknown group calling itself Hikmat-ul-Jihad claimed responsibility for the deadly Aug. 21 attack on the political rally via e-mail to news organizations in Dhaka.
However, intelligence officials in neighboring India, piecing together evidence from different sources, suggested that hard-line political elements aligned with the BNP-led ruling coalition were behind the assassination attempt.
Some South Asian experts on terrorism said the attack could be the work of Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islam, a group formed in 1992 under the ideological guidance of Osama bin Laden. An attempt by that group in 2001 to kill Sheikh Hasina, then prime minister, failed when a powerful explosive device was discovered an hour before she was to address a public meeting in Bangladesh.
Quoting explosives experts, the Dhaka daily Dainik Janakantha said the “Arges” hand grenades used in the attack six weeks ago were made in Pakistan and were the same kind used by Pakistani militants in their attack on the Indian Parliament on Dec. 13, 2001.
Anwar Choudhury, the British ambassador to Bangladesh, was the target of a bomb attack on May 21 this year in Sylhet, a northeastern district. Mr. Choudhury sustained injuries but three others, including his bodyguard, were killed on the spot.
A British intelligence team investigating the Sylhet attack suspected Islamic radicals were behind it.
In the 2001 Bangladesh parliamentary elections, the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami won 17 of the 300 seats and became a key member of Mrs. Zia’s ruling coalition. Since then, Bangladesh has experienced an upsurge of Islamist fundamentalism and terrorism.
Many Talibanlike Islamist groups have appeared in Bangladesh during Mrs. Zia’s current term. Some have initiated attacks against movie houses, newspapers and liberal intellectuals, including noted writers, journalists and filmmakers.
Ashish Chakrabarti, an analyst based in Calcutta, said that the “bomb culture” in Bangladesh will “spell the doom” of the country.
“There is a pattern in all [their] attacks. They are targeted at political parties, cultural groups and individuals trying to uphold democracy, secularism and progressive culture. The attackers, on the other hand, are associated with 20-odd Islamic fundamentalist groups, most of which appeared recently and are relatively unknown.”
Seema Mustafa, an Indian journalist based in New Delhi, said extremism in Bangladesh has grown to monstrous proportions, occupying the space vacated by Mrs. Zia and Sheikh Hasina amid their bitter rivalry.
“The sharply polarized country is helplessly watching the extremist groups grow in strength, partly out of direct patronage and partly because of the inability of the mainstream political parties to tackle any agenda other than that connected with their own deep hatred for each other,” said Miss Mustafa.
“The polarization has affected the judiciary, bureaucracy, universities and even the army. Even journalists are now politicized to a point where individual editors and newspapers are known better for their political affiliation and less for the content of their writings,” she added.
A senior editor of a popular Bengali daily in Dhaka said: “Until a few years ago, you would find most of us with independent views, but now we are either Khaleda Zia supporters or belong to Sheikh Hasina’s camp.”
Writers and journalists deploring the growing Islamist fundamentalism, crime and violence in Bangladesh are often attacked by criminals and religious fanatics shielded by powerful politicians.
Since 1997, seven journalists have been murdered and many others have been injured in violent attacks in Bangladesh. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists recently called Bangladesh the most dangerous Asian country for journalists.
For the third year in a row, Transparency International, in its Global Corruption Report, last year identified Bangladesh as the “most corrupt country in the world.”
Observers say that frequent national strikes — such as the four general strikes called by Sheikh Hasina that paralyzed Bangladesh this year — are the outcome of Sheikh Hasina’s and Mrs. Zia’s no-holds-barred enmity and burning desire to drive the other from office.
An executive of Dhaka’s chamber of commerce said a one-day strike costs the impoverished country more than U.S. $60 million in lost production and exports, but that doesn’t seem to bother the two powerful women.
“Vendetta, at the cost of good governance, has topped Begum Zia’s list of priorities since she become prime minister last October,” said Haroon Habib, a leading political commentator in Dhaka. [Begum is a title for the spouse of a high-ranking Muslim leader, and is routinely used in Bangladesh for Mrs. Zia.]
The law-and-order situation deteriorates every day amid an unprecedented increase in murders, rapes, lynchings and kidnappings across the country, Mr. Habib said.
“On the economic front, growth has slowed down, exports have slumped, while prices of essential commodities including rice have risen sharply, making life increasingly unbearable for the common man,” he said.
Some time ago, Mrs. Zia called Sheikh Hasina “beadab,” (uncivilized) after Sheikh Hasina called her “golapi” — the Bengali word for “pink” but also slang for a woman wearing too much rouge and lipstick.
Mrs. Zia also likes to call the former prime minister an “Indian stooge,” while Sheikh Hasina calls the present holder of that office an “accomplice” of Osama bin Laden.
Political observers say the antagonism between the two leaders is not political at all, since ideologically, the Awami League differs little from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Moreover, the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islam, now an ally of the ruling BNP, was an ally of the Awami League until some years ago, they say. The conflict, the observers say, is personal.
Many believe the reason for the enmity between the two women stems in part from their feud over who played a greater role in the country’s independence — Sheikh Hasina’s father or Mrs. Zia’s late husband.
Sheikh Hasina’s father, Mujib-ur Rahman, who led Bangladesh to independence in 1971 and became its first prime minister, was named “father of the nation” in the country’s 1972 constitution. Sheikh Mujib, along with his wife, three sons and 16 other family members, were assassinated by disgruntled military officers in a 1975 coup.
Sheikh Hasina, who was visiting West Germany at the time, remained there as an exile. In 1968, she married M.A. Wazed Miah, a scientist from Bangladesh.
Mrs. Zia’s late husband, Gen. Zia-ur Rahman, who became president of Bangladesh in 1976, was assassinated by rival army officers in 1981. That year, Sheikh Hasina returned to Bangladesh and took the leadership of the Awami League.
In the 1980s, Sheikh Hasina and Mrs. Zia, at the helm of BNP, emerged as the country’s most powerful leaders. Toward the end of the decade, the two women locked horns.
Mrs. Zia became the country’s first female prime minister when her party won the 1991 elections.
Sheikh Hasina apparently believes Mrs. Zia’s late husband did nothing to prevent the assassination in 1975 of her father, Sheikh Mujib, and the rest of her family.
After assuming power, Mrs. Zia downplayed Sheikh Mujib’s role in the independence of Bangladesh. This year, her government amended the constitution to delete the reference to him as father of the nation.
Mrs. Zia pushed the idea that her husband, an army major in 1971 who revolted against Pakistan, had a greater role in the creation of Bangladesh.
Holidays marking the birth and death of Sheikh Mujib were canceled by Mrs. Zia’s government. A navy frigate named after him has been decommissioned to change its name. A Dhaka conference hall named after him has also been renamed, and currency carrying his image has been withdrawn from circulation.
Calcutta-based analyst Manojit Mitra says Mrs. Zia’s obsession with Sheikh Hasina and anybody or anything associated with her is costing Bangladesh dearly.
The family martyrdoms have kept the two women dominant in the country’s politics and prevented the rise of new leaders, analysts say.
Added a Western diplomat: “They are obsessed with one another. And they are unlikely to bury the hatchet in the foreseeable future. Unless the parties decide to replace the two heads of their parties, the country will turn into another Afghanistan soon.”