Today we have with us, Mr. Hartal, the most discussed ‘personality’ in our life. We are going to have a conversation with him trying to know more about him and better.
Hello Mr. Hartal, and welcome.
When were your born?
March 11, 1948 in Dhaka when the language protests first happened. Since then I have been going strong.
What keeps you so fit?
Regularity. I am always there on the road. I am always happening in new ways. Everyone wants me.
Yes, Awami League, BNP, Jamaat-e-Islami … even Ershad.
Why do you think you are so popular?
Well, I am a product and there is a demand in the market. Let me explain. If every time you face a political problem, you end with a hartal. So you see my need? Problems are created because people want power without responsibility and loyalty to the constitution.
But what else can they do?
My point exactly. There is no point in discussion because this system doesn’t allow discussions. You are out of normal politics and that’s why I occupy so much of the space.
But isn’t Hartal a democratic right? Our leaders always say so.
You are an idiot! You turn to Hartal only because you have no alternative. You want no alternative. In the Pakistan era, I was very popular because during then there was no democratic tradition or option. You had a form of government which didn’t allow public participation. The laws were repressive and ultimately meaningless; Pakistan was never going to give you freedom and they didn’t as the example of March 1971 shows. The Pakistani political system had failed from the start and so I grew from strength to strength. Pakistan didn’t give you any right to Hartal, you reacted to the absence of politics. Don’t dilute my importance.
So are you suggesting we are some sort of a Pakistan?
I am saying that like Pakistan your political system never grew up. Use whatever little brains you have. Hartal can never happen when a political system exists. There is no consensual politics. Because it doesn’t, you have me. Think about this. Within two years of the passing of your first constitution, you had violated its basic principle of pluralistic democracy through one-party rule, had three military coups that ended with martial law and several amendments. Does it mean you want parliamentary democratic rule? But I feel very safe. The more undemocratic you become, the more there is demand for me. It’s a binary relationship.
But you know a lot of people die in Hartals, people suffer a lot…
Excuse me, don’t try to trash my name! In the last 42 years of Hartal how many people have died? Go and count if you want. One single Rana Plaza has killed more people in the entire history of Hartals in Bangladesh. This hype is all media produced because without these news what will they do? They have to survive. They are my good friends but I can’t let anyone challenge my reputation. Hartals are silly, stupid, useless acts but no more so than having parliaments which no one takes seriously because they never function and the opposition always boycotts it. And that keeps me going.
But what about our great political tradition of mass movements?
My history. It’s all about me. Think of the major movements. The Language Movement was a response to an illegal process because Pakistan wanted to deny the majority’s right to language. It led to my birth, remember? In 1969 the Agartala conspiracy trial was illegal because it accused Sheikh Mujib when he was not the leader of it. And it came at the final phase of a long and illegal rule of martial law of Ayub Khan. In 1971 March, Yahya Khan refused to hand over power to the AL even after they won the elections so we had massive unrest. It was the same with the 1990 movement. If there is an established legal process, rule of law, effective parliament, why would you need Hartal? Thankfully, none of that has ever existed in either Pakistan or Bangladesh, so I have a permanent job.
So are you saying that the present crisis is not the result of the Jamaat-BNP alliance?
It is actually but you have to add the AL to it. You don’t understand what a great pressure there is for these parties to maintain so many cadres and supporters. That is why politics is a substitute for economics. So they have to come to power, let the people make money and then go. The caretaker system worked for a while but it’s gone and the interim government has come in. But even that has not worked. Nothing will work because I am always there as an alternative.
But people don’t like Hartals do they?
So what? Hartal is a “constitutional right”. Supporters are people too. Don’t complain when they say it is a democratic right. It’s also an alternative.
Politics that is governed by the rule of law. Without Hartals life would also be very dull. See the talk shows? They are somewhat an alternative to the parliament and don’t you all enjoy it? I have heard that they are now going to change the format. Now politicians will actually be wrestling with each other and talk shows will become even more fun.
Any final word?
Under the existing system, Hartal is here to stay. I exist only when law fails, constitution fails. Stop treating the political system like your mistress and I will go away. But that you won’t and so I will always be there. Thanks Bangladesh.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist, activist and writer.