Even though both counsel the BNP chief politically, Mahmudur Rahman and Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury are two very different people.
Mahmudur Rahman belonged to right-wing politics in his student life. A BUET engineer with an MBA from the IBA, he was a successful businessman before entering government as the head of Board of Investment and then Energy Advisor during the third BNP administration. After 1/11, he emerged as the key election strategist for BNP in December 2008, and exerted a hardline, rejectionist influence that led to the party’s disastrous result. However, he continued to play an influential role in BNP politics as the editor of Daily Amar Desh, the dominant pro-BNP newspaper until it was banned a month ago.
Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, on the other hand, was a decorated freedom fighter who was tortured by the Pakistan army in 1971. He left Bangladesh army in January 1975 to join the civil service, and was a professional diplomat until retirement a few years ago. He served as foreign secretary and headed our mission in the United States. He joined BNP after 1/11, and is reputed to sound a conciliatory tone in internal party deliberations that seek to restore BNP as a party that is firmly in the centre of Bangladeshi politics.
The two men have very different ideas about Bangladesh’s place in the world, and what BNP should do to shape it. Whereas Mahmud is an ultra-nationalist who sees Indian and western conspiracy in most things, Mobin is a pragmatic nationalist who wants Bangladesh to be firmly anchored in regional and global comity of nations.
For all their differences, the two men have another thing in common: both face the wrath of the current government.
And, I suspect, their recent arrest and incarceration will have serious consequences for the Awami League government, consequences it couldn’t have intended when the two men were arrested.
I don’t repeat the details of these men’s arrest and remand — these are well known, and interested reader can get more details here and here. And the remand and torture of political opponents are to be condemned without equivocation, it goes without saying.
Having noted the background, and after condemning the government, let’s think through the fallout.
Start with Mahmud. His arrest and the ban on his newspaper has been seen as acts of censorship and stifling dissent. While this government has taken political spin to unparalleled heights, this is not the kind of publicity they intended when arresting Mahmud. But it gets more interesting. He has now been charged with treason, for allegedly plotting to rig the aborted election of January 2007 in BNP’s favour.
This is a serious charge. It has to go to the court at some point. And there, a case has to stick. Imagine after all the sound and fury, if the government’s case on the so-called Uttara Conspiracy collapsed and Mahmud were to be acquitted. Meanwhile, it’s interesting that while Mahmud was fiercely vocal against the 1/11 regime, he wasn’t touched by the powers-that-be. When a case related to the events leading up to 1/11 goes before the court, who knows what uncomfortable and inconvenient facts might come to light.
I am sure the government didn’t intend the consequences to be thus, but the so-called Uttara Conspiracy case may bring to light many other conspiracies that were hatched and aborted in the fateful weeks leading up to 1/11, while Mahmud could turn into the second most popular figure in BNP.
And the fallout of Mobin’s incarceration could be even more unintended. A few weeks ago, the Economist ran an article that began with the risk of political impasse leading to another coup. When a former envoy to Washington DC is tortured in a phony case, it is noticed in our Embassy Row, and our global big brothers development partners start exploring the alternatives such as extra-constitutional change in power.
The thing is, any such alternative will now come at the expense of the Awami League, surely not the intention when Mobin was arrested.
And they don’t even have a reasonable case against Mobin.
One day both Mahmud and Mobin will be out to heroes’ welcome by the BNP rank-and-file. Both men will probably end up ministers in a future BNP government. As a friend put it: maybe after this torture, Mahmud will the guy to fix our police. And maybe Mobin will be the guy to restore BNP’s credibility to the world. And in the process, despite their differences, both men will contribute to the politics of synthesis that BNP’s founder envisaged.
Whatever happens, it won’t be what the government intended. And that serves the government right.