Rashed Khan Menon is an important figure in Bangladesh's political history. He was at the frontlines during the mass upsurge in 1969 and the Liberation War in 1971. Currently, he is the president of the Workers Party of Bangladesh. He is also a lawmaker from Dhaka-8 and has previously served as a minister in the Awami League-led government. Menon recently talked with The Daily Star about the current political situation in the country.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
The Daily Star: The AL-led grand alliance government is in its third consecutive term. As a politician and alliance partner, what is your observation on the current political and social situation?
Menon: The government has achieved outstanding success in accelerating the country's infrastructural growth and economic development. Bangladesh has graduated to a developing country from being a least developed country. Per capita income has increased.
A stable political situation is also prevailing, although politics has been polarised by two parties. Along with these developments, measures were supposed to be taken to curb corruption and stop criminalisation of politics, which was a commitment of the 14-party alliance. But corruption has increased.
It has spread in every level of society despite the government's zero-tolerance policy that saw some mid-level corrupt persons arrested. Criminalisation of politics is still prevailing. Still, the level of corruption is lower than those of the past autocratic governments and the BNP-Jamaat era.
DS: You said the country's political situation is stable, but there is a question whether political activities exist in the country at all. Opposition parties are barred from holding political programmes and speaking freely. There are also questions over killings and abductions.
Menon: There are allegations of opposition parties being barred from holding political programmes. We had waged movements in much more adverse situations in the past. We fought against Pakistani ruler Ayub Khan, fought for one and a half decade (against autocratic rulers) post 1975.
During the BNP-Jamaat era many people died and many others were injured in Operation Clean Heart. But none could stop us from waging a movement, driven by a democratic spirit. So, saying that democracy is absent and doing nothing don't make sense.
DS: Hefajat-e-Islam is active in politics again. It opposed the construction of Bangabandhu's sculpture and even said they would throw the sculpture in the Buriganga river. Awami League leaders and ministers reacted saying sculptures and statues are not the same. What's your take on this situation?
Menon: This is not an isolated issue; it is a political issue. It aims to establish Bangladesh as a fundamentalist and communal state. In a recent press conference, Mamunul Haque of Hefajat said they respect Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, but not his sculpture. He even said, "Once we get the morale and organisational strength, we will dismantle all sculptures and throw them into the river".
While referring to "Shikha Chironton'' inside the cantonment, Mamunul's father, late Azizul Haque, in 1997 said, "Military persons guard the cantonment with firearms. If we want to go there, we will have to be prepared for a battle and we are preparing for it."
His interview was published in 1997 in the weekly Bichitra, in which he even admitted that he was against the Liberation War in 1971, saying, "Neutrally, our stance was against the Liberation War in 1971."
So, there is a continuity in the words of the father and son.
Hefajat leader Babunagari said the government will have to entertain their conditions, if it wants to stay in power. They demanded the cancellation of women policy and education policy. They don't want anyone to speak against them, and they will declare anyone an atheist whenever they wish.
They created similar noises against a Lalon sculpture and another sculpture on the Supreme Court premises. Then, the government compromised with them.
DS: You were a minister at the time...
Menon: I said at the time that it was a moral defeat for us. The prime minister scolded both me and Hasanul Haque Inu for our remarks. She asked how we could say this, being ministers. She also said we could say so only after resigning (as ministers).
Fundamentalists like Azizul, Babunagari and Mamunul never retreated from their stance. It is the government that has retreated time and again.
DS: Some ministers and ruling party politicians are saying that statues and sculptures are not the same. How do you react to it?
Menon: In the last 14-party meeting on November 30, I said when Hefajat took to the field against war crimes trials in 2013, the prime minister adopted a strategy. But when a strategy overshadows core principles, it invites trouble.
When allegations of demeaning religion were raised against Bangabandhu, standing in the parliament he unequivocally said no one will be allowed to do politics using religion. But we are compromising every step of the way in the "Mujib Year". Nothing appears coincidental to me. When Bangabandhu's speech was played in parliament, the part where he talked about secularism was dropped. But none took responsibility for that.
In the 14-party meeting, I said a fresh effort was being made for the emergence of a new religion-based politics.
DS: Is the 14-party alliance still active?
Menon: The 14-party alliance was formed amid a movement, but its activities have dwindled after the  election. Recently, the alliance's activities have become limited. It was once said that the government was a 14-party government, but now it is an Awami League government. I raised the issue in a recent meeting.
DS: Considering your ideological position and ethics, did you ever feel that those values were compromised by the way you were elected as a lawmaker in the 2014 and 2018 elections?
Menon: Definitely. I spoke about this issue in parliament… I said people have lost interest in elections. Not only that, I have also said people have expressed their dissatisfaction over their voting right. I even said people did not accept the election. I was criticised for this remark.
But it is a matter of regret that a negative perception has been created in the public minds over the elections. We have gone far from the point for which we fought during the Pakistan era and after independence.
DS: Ensuring the rights to vote and the right to rice was the slogan of your alliance. But people's right to vote have been curbed and allegations of rigging are widespread...
Menon: Such a situation prevails when there is no protest or movement. We have seen Ayub Khan happily complete his first term. It was also the case with Ershad's regime in '86 and '88 elections. But movements were waged against them.
Mere words will not help restore people's right to vote. Struggle and movement are needed.
I believe democracy is endangered without voting right.
DS: Is the Awami League following the election models of Ayub, Ershad and Ziaur Rahman?
Menon: Let me share my experience of the last election in 2018. An influential BNP leader was my opponent. But I did not find him in any electoral campaign. Nor did I find him or any of his men in the polling booths. It was clear that they would say the election would not be fair.
DS: Assuming the BNP or the opposition party did not play its role, do you think it is acceptable that votes can be cast the night before the election?
Menon: I don't accept that. I have said in parliament that in such situations, when the state mechanism becomes over-enthusiastic, it drives the whole system towards destruction. Think of the Election Commission. They are sleeping. You might argue that this is how the EC is formed. The EC has been formed in the same way by previous governments. The election is destined to be criticised if the EC does not act.
DS: You have accepted the activities of the EC when you became an MP. There are allegations that you hardly talked about this issue while you were a minister. What is your response?
Menon: I spoke on this issue when I was minister. I even spoke about it in the parliament after the 2018 election. I also spoke when I went to the EC. My lone voice will not help. We need all the democratic, social and intellectual forces to unite and overcome this situation.
DS: A health ministry official issued a circular asking Muslim women employees to wear hijab and to make sure their clothes cover their ankle joints . Do you think the action of that official has anything to do with your attitude of compromise with Hefajat?
Menon: Not us, but the government has compromised with Hifajat.
DS: There were allegations that what you avoided saying as a minister the things you said when you were not a minister. Some are even saying that if you are offered the post of a minister, you will stop saying what you are saying now…
Menon: Let me tell you again, when I was a minister I spoke on issues like oil, gas and ports in the parliament. It disappointed the prime minister. I made amendments to uphold labour rights. I was offered the post of a minister in 2013, but I did not accept it. There was a lot of controversy that put me in an embarrassing situation. At the end of 2013, when arson attacks started, I became a minister. Now our party stance is clear. We have not only decided against taking ministry posts, but also decided to go independently with an election symbol.