Politicians seek power to use it for the benefit of the people whom they represent. Two of those primary benefits are the life and liberty of the people. Obviously, in the current political climate in Bangladesh, both are challenged. The tactics of terror practiced by petrol bomb throwers, who burn people alive and severely restrict freedom of movement, surely challenge the notion of life and liberty.
That the government in power has failed to safeguard the basic welfare of the people is confirmed in the words of the Education minister, Mr. Nahid. The Education Minister is not looking at the government, of which PM Sheikh Hasina has responsibility for internal security and command over the internal security apparatus, to ensure that SSC exams are held on time in a safe and secure environment. He is instead appealing to the opposition to call off agitation so exams can be held on schedule. Instead of members of the state security apparatus assuring the Education Minister that they will safeguard the welfare of the examinees, it is the students belonging to the BCL who have offered to guard exam halls to keep them secure. This attempt to look outside the state security apparatus is itself an admission that the state, with the PM in charge of all security apparatus, is not able to fulfill its very basic function of ensuring life and liberty for its people. In fact, the State Minister for Interior agrees as much. After meeting with owners of buses and trucks, it was decided that buses and trucks will be off the road after 9 pm since the state cannot provide necessary security.
That the state is incapable of providing basic security was made very apparent in the violence of the same nature that occurred before the January 2014 elections. Those in power should not have been surprised that violence of the same nature has been repeated today. Those who are intent on violence showed quite capably that they do not need large numbers to sow doubts in the minds of the people. They are willing to burn, take life, and destroy property in the pursuit of political power. It takes a small number of petrol bomb-throwing terror-mongers or a few removing small sections of railroad tracks to wreak havoc physically, and in the minds of the people. Given that the people of the country were subjected to the same violence prior to the January 2014 elections, it is surprising that the state security apparatus has failed so miserably to anticipate and prevent this new terror campaign. The state response, “by all means necessary,” is tantamount to a terror campaign of its own, with daily news of burnings now accompanied by news of extra judicial killings with death by crossfire.
The Health Minister Mohammad Nasim talks about the use of “maximum force.” The PM’s Advisor HT Imam calls it a war: “We will provide more weapons to law enforcing agencies in a bid to win the war. Side by side volunteers of pro-liberation forces will assist law enforcing agencies to defeat enemy forces.”
So, BCL men guarding SSC exam halls and volunteers of pro-liberation forces assisting the uniformed men and women entrusted to provide security! Passionate, but not persuasive words. These are words that admit that those in power do not have control and lack the necessary means to safeguard life and property. In the words of Finance Minister Muhith, “the situation outside Dhaka is dangerous.” It is an acknowledgement that all is not well.
One has to ask those in power: why do you want to hold on to power when you cannot even exercise it to secure the lives of the people whose welfare is entrusted to you?
Yes, you can hold on to power. You can do so by taking the advice of Minister Nasim and Advisor HT Imam, by unleashing the power of the state security apparatus and state judiciary to support your cause. But there is a difference between exercising hard power which forcefully unleashes the state apparatus, and exercising soft power, which persuades. You don’t have to persuade the petrol bomb throwers. But you have to persuade the people whom you serve to thoroughly reject the politics of the bomb thrower and to stand beside you.
But what you do is contrary to what is needed for persuasion. You use the metaphor of war. You routinely call people anti-liberation. New charges are filed, old cases are revived, and you shuttle those opposed to you in and out of jail. Your actions breed cynicism about your motives. If you fail to persuade, then you have to exercise hard power – the type of power that eventually destroys state institutions that form the backbone of a liberal democracy.
If you have to unleash hard power, then in the minds of many, your goal becomes very much like the goal of the bomb thrower: power for power’s sake. If people perceive that to be your goal, as many surely do, then you have lost. But far more importantly, the entire nation has lost to the petrol bomb thrower.
Muhammad Q. Islam, is an Associate Professor of Economics at the John Cook School of Business of Saint Louis University, USA.