After more than three months of political agitation and unfettered violence causing the death of over 150 innocent human lives, loss of over 700 public and private vehicles by fire bombing, and untold suffering of millions of people up and down the country, as political headwind subsided a bit and unacceptable demands were withdrawn for the time being, things started going belly up. The fresh political clash and, needless to say, associated violence is now just about in the offing!
Khaleda Zia, the leader of the BNP and the 20-party coalition of political-religious groups, was agitating against the present government of Awami League for the restoration of democracy. Her demand for democracy might have been be correct and admirable, but her tactics and mode of enforcement were definitely disingenuous. How could she hope to restore democracy by the most undemocratic means – by bringing down the government, by punishing people, by blockades and strikes and paralysing the country economically?
Khaleda Zia chose to launch her political action of enforced violence on the anniversary day of the national election that took place on January 5, 2014. She boycotted the election and consequently the incumbent Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina of Awami League, was elected almost unopposed. The reason she boycotted that election one year ago was that she claimed no free and fair election could possibly be held under the running government. It’s a damning indictment of the honesty of a government in Bangladesh – be it the Awami League or the BNP government!
However, despite repeated pleas from the then ruling party – the Awami League – despite strong pressures from national organisations and international bodies such as the EU, UN, and a host of friendly countries including the USA, UK, Japan, China, India and many more to participate in the election, Khaleda Zia paid no heed to good counsel. The ruling party pointed out that it is the constitutional requirement (by virtue of 15th amendment) to hold the election under the incumbent government.
She probably mistakenly assumed that no election can possibly be held in Bangladesh without her participation. When election was indeed about to be held, she did everything in her power to stop it: she called for national strike on the day of the election, she ordered her troops – mainly the Jamaati morons – to disrupt the election by all means; voters had been intimidated and physically attacked, the polling stations had been vandalised and burnt. Despite all these things, elections did take place, a government was formed, and the country got going again. Admittedly it was not a participatory election as such, but it was the least of the bad options.
It may be pointed out that Khaleda Zia had no political clout to demand any change in the Constitution or the running of the government whatsoever. The BNP and the 20-party alliance had no representation at the national parliament and hence she could not move any legislative programme. To demand any constitutional change and to threaten violent action if it is not implemented is blatantly illegal.
For three months this direct action programme of blockade and strike continued. Those three months were a vivid nightmare for the people of Bangladesh. Bangladeshis were, in effect, imprisoned in their own country. The net outcome was the suffering of the people. People had been denied of their most fundamental rights – the right to lead normal lives, to earn their livelihood, to live in peace. No party, no institution can deny people of these rights, for political or any other reasons.
Then suddenly, after three months of this vicious nightmare, it comes to an end, at least for the time being. People try to pick up the pieces: the psychological wounds to heal, the financial loss to the family to recover, the broken relationship between friends and family, and above all the long-term damage to the country to overcome.
The World Bank (WB) in a recent report stated that due to this political turmoil, Bangladesh has suffered a loss of $2.2 billion in lost production and a substantial amount of agricultural output. In other words, each and every person of the land suffered a loss of nearly 1000 taka. On top of that, the reputational loss of Bangladesh to foreign investors is quite substantial. Can delivery of goods be relied on in time by foreign companies if such turmoil happens in the country?
Although Khaleda Zia bore the brunt of this vicious programme and carried political responsibility, one may ask, was she wrong to presume that free and fair election was unlikely under the incumbent regime?
Yesterday’s event attacking Khaleda Zia’s campaign in Mayoral election testifies that she was not possibly wrong. How could alleged Awami League vandals come and disrupt the campaign and damage six vehicles including Khaleda Zia’s own?
Was the leader of Awami League – the present Prime Minister – not aware that this vandalism was going to take place? Is it believable that such an action could have been taken without the knowledge of the leader?
Sheikh Hasina needs to testify that she was not complicit in this heinous activity. (It may be pointed out that President Richard Nixon had to resign from American presidency only because he lied on oath that he was not aware of the Watergate break-in, whereas he was complicit in it).
If Hasina was unaware of this incident, she must initiate, as a matter of extreme urgency, an investigation to look into this matter. All involved individuals, no matter how important those people may be, must be brought to book and properly punished. It may appear outwardly that over-jealous political activists may have taken things beyond the normal course of decency. This is not acceptable and must be dealt with severely. Democracy must be applied scrupulously and must be seen to have applied scrupulously.
However, Khaleda Zia had also made a wrong decision in falling back on violence and declaring April 22 as a day for a national strike (except in Dhaka and Chittagong, where Mayoral elections are going to take place on April 28). She should have waited to see if the ruling party would rein in their unscrupulous and vicious activists and punish them properly. By pre-empting the legal process by her tentative direct action, she is giving away her political advantage and high moral ground. The world would watch which way things move.
The two -times British Prime Minister, Mr Harold Wilson, once said some half a century ago, that “a week is a long time in politics.” It was true in Britain then and even now and it seems it is true in Bangladesh too. Only about a week or so had passed since the withdrawal of direct action of blockade and strike by Khaleda Zia and the people had sighed in collective relief. Now it seems the direct action is just back on the menu.
Bangladesh seems to uphold one and only one tool when faced with a conflict situation and that is violence. In any civilised society, faced with a conflict situation the antagonists would go for discussion, mediation, and compromise, thereby diffusing the situation – but not in Bangladesh.
Why and how this mind-set developed in a country which was traditionally peace-loving, is very puzzling and frightening. The unhesitant use of violence can be seen not only in politics, but also in students’ dispute, personal discord, theological disagreement, and much more. The recent killings of secularists, violence against teachers, and violence in student politics all tend to show that there is a fundamental degeneration in national moral standards.
Dr. A. Rahman is an author and a columnist.