Despite the existing law against political activities overseas and our political parties rescinding provisions on foreign branches for the sake of Election Commission registrations, party politics abroad is as prevalent as ever
In Bangladesh, the Awami League is spending a long spring in power and the BNP is witnessing its gradual quarantine from the centre of power.
Much cornered in the country, thanks to the party's dismal condition in parliamentary politics and the administration's habitual leaning towards the ruling parties, BNP in foreign lands, however, is usually seen to flex muscles neck and neck with the Awami League.
Consequently, both the parties emerge in their solid spirit "at battle" abroad – no matter how embarrassing they are for Bangladesh – and fight against each other equally. Such hostile engagements of these party activists in foreign lands, however, have been tarnishing the image of the country for far too long.
Recently, in Lisbon on January 18, an Awami League activist was killed after the Portugal unit activists of the Awami League and the BNP engaged in a morbid clash. Following the incident, the Portuguese police are now conducting operations in the Bangladeshi community in Lisbon to arrest the culprits.
When the news broke on The Business Standard website, people on social media were posting comments – rather flippantly – such as "you can take a Bangladeshi political activist out of Bangladesh, but you cannot take the practice of pervasive political culture out of him."
Indeed, the political hostility between the Awami League and the BNP in Bangladesh has crossed the geographical boundaries over the years and malicious manifestations of such confrontational politics are often seen beyond the borders.
Last year in September, the US unit members of both parties engaged in clashes on the United Nations premises on the day Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly. The New York police had to intervene and arrest several party leaders to deescalate the tension.
Similarly, in 2018, following the court verdict on Zia Orphanage Trust case that landed BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia in prison, both parties' US units took a confrontational stance before the Bangladesh Consulate in New York, the White House and the US State Department. It was possible to avoid unpleasant situations, thanks to the presence of US police.
It is tough to enumerate the chronicles of the hostile rivalry between members of the two parties beyond the Bangladesh border. Take BNP's black-clothed protests during Sheikh Hasina's visit to the UK in 2015 as another example, or Awami League's black-flag protests at the Heathrow International Airport during Khaleda Zia's visit in 2011. The list goes on and on.
The Business Standard asked Dr Shantanu Majumder, a political scientist and a professor of political science at the University of Dhaka, why the people of Bangladeshi diaspora would engage in such political hostilities so far away from home.
He stated two reasons.
Firstly, many of the Bangladeshis who "somehow manage" to immigrate to Western countries cannot integrate into the mainstream culture of the host countries.
"This failure can emerge either from linguistic weakness or due to lack of skills," the professor explained.
As a result, often in the name of "community work" within the Bangladeshi diaspora, they end up in disgraceful patterns of deshi politics in foreign lands.
Secondly, some opportunists engage in the deshi brand of confrontational politics abroad with a hope that their "contribution" to the party would be evaluated and rewarded.
It is debatable whether they eventually become successful in earning rewards in return. But there is no doubt, that they are "successful" in tarnishing the image of the country in the international arena.
Political analysts have been critical of such hostilities abroad for a long time and the country's legislation also has a clear stance against having branches of local parties abroad.
In 2008, the then caretaker government made some changes in the law in terms of registration of political parties. The changes were brought following the proposals of the election commission led by ATM
Shamsul Huda. The law says that a party willing to get registered with the commission cannot have any provision in its charter for establishment or operation of any office, branch or committee outside the territory of Bangladesh.
Despite a law made against political activities overseas over a decade ago and our political parties rescinding provisions on foreign branches from their constitutions for the sake of Election Commission registrations, party politics abroad never ceased to exist.
Brigadier General M Sakhawat Hossain was an election commissioner when the law was adopted. The Business Standard asked him why the ban on foreign branches is not working.
"When the ruling party breaks the law, other parties are encouraged to follow the pattern," he explained.
"The government and the Election Commission are in charge of implementing the law. Since they are failing at it, unexpected incidents like that in Portugal are happening," the former election commissioner added.
According to Professor Shantanu Majumder, however, the law is not being implemented because "our Election Commission is not independent."
He also mentioned the party leaders' desire for a political hub abroad. "They love the idea that once they are abroad, these activists shouting slogans in their names would make them look powerful."
Regretting the incident in Lisbon, Sakhawat Hossain warned that Portugal may not accept such incidents and the authorities could now deport any Bangladeshi who had settled there without the right papers.
With their unruly activities, the AL and BNP men in abroad have in fact put their partisan interest before national interest. The AL and BNP high commands should reassess their strategy whether they still want to keep their foreign chapters by allowing the unruly party men to tarnish the country's image.