Sunday, June 26, 2011

On hartal, demoracy and common sense

The Independent
As I See It
June 25th Saturday
M. Serajul Islam

Columnists are writing good number of articles these days on hartal, particularly after the 36 hours called by the BNP and Jamat with promise of more to come. The Prime Minister condemned the call while the Leader of the Opposition called it a democratic right against an un-democratic government.

The columnists have backed the Prime Minister describing hartals as bad for the country and the economy. One columnist supported hartals of the past years when they were held against military dictatorships. This columnist also supported the AL hartals during the closing stages of the last BNP Government but rejected the last hartal called by the BNP. Generally these columnists seemed to have concluded that people are now against hartal.

My own view of people’s perception of hartal was the same as the columnists; that people are now generally against hartals. I have of course my own view on hartal to which I will come later. I was therefore somewhat surprised that the 36 hours hartal called by the opposition was successful despite the attempts by the Government to keep business open as usual.

In my years as a diplomat abroad, where representing Bangladesh is not easy, one issue that made it even harder to represent Bangladesh was hartal. As an Ambassador in Japan while the BNP was in office last time, my biggest hurdle in arguing Bangladesh’s case as an investment destination was political instability caused by hartal. That was the time when hartals were regular feature of our politics aimed to overthrow an elected government.

My own views made it even more difficult to defend hartal. In a democracy, the opposition has every right to protest the actions of the Government. They can call strikes and even general strikes depending on the gravity of the issue. They can even ask for a general shut down of the government. However, the people are sovereign in democracy and they have the ultimate right either to accept or reject the opposition’s call of a general strike or a shutdown of government.

A hartal takes away from the people that sovereign right and leaves them at the mercy of those who call hartal. The party that calls hartal burns vehicles; attacks businesses, closes educational institutions to tell the people in no uncertain terms that they must close down their lives and livelihood to make a hartal successful! In the process hartal enters into the dangerous arena of fascism.

With the new term of the AL, the opposition seemed to finally accept that hartal is no longer a strategy that people are willing to accept, no matter whether they are good in their perception or otherwise. Thus in two and a half years of this government, the BNP has been cautions with hartal and so far they have called only 4 hartals. However, it takes two to tango and here the AL instead of building on the opposition’s positive stance on hartal has surprisingly done the reverse.

The AL has not exactly helped the cause of making hartal history by announcing that future elections would be held under the elected government and not under the CG. Suppose the BNP was in power today and had announced elections under it and not the CG, would the AL accept it? The question does not require an answer for knowing AL’s style of politics it would have by now brought the government to a standstill with “lagatar” hartal.

Despite the clearly un-democratic nature of a hartal, it is the product of the negative style of politics in the country. Unless this negative politics becomes history, hartal will continue to plague us and our lives. In a recent discussion with a senior politically appointed official of the government, I was simply amazed to hear his views on hartal. At first, he sarcastically commented that hartal is welcome because it is environment friendly. In the next instance, he said that the hartal will have no affect on the government as the ruling party will use its “brute” majority to deal with the issue! He did not care to consider that with 48% of the votes cast in favour of the ruling coalition, it does not even have a simple majority!

It is this stance of the ruling party that has surprised many. The summary trial of hartal activists by invoking one of the blackest laws of the Pakistan era, the ruling party has given the public enough to worry about its intentions. At a time when it has crossed the first half of its term with most of its election promises still promises and where political stability is a fundamental pre-requisite to govern, it has decided to provoke the opposition. It is simply absurd to believe that the BNP would accept elections under the AL and it will go to any length for its demand for the CG. It has made that intention quite clear.

The Prime Minister’s contradictory statements on the CG system
indicate that the ruling party is in two minds about future course of politics in the country. At first, she and her party leaders made statements about holding at least two more elections under the CG. Then when the Supreme Court decision exactly what the ruling party was seeking but only after declaring the CG system illegal, the Prime Minister accepted the illegality but not the option of holding two more elections under the CG system. Now in another twist, the ruling party leaders are suggesting that the door for negotiating future election under CG is still open.

Now ruling party leaders are openly hinting at finding a way to retain the CG with some saying that the decision on the CG and constitutional amendments is exclusively a matter for the parliament and not the court. One hopes that sense would prevail upon the policy makers of the ruling party for if the AL decides to go ahead to hold next elections under it and deal with opposition hartals by “brute” force and summary trials of hartal activists, then it would be pushing the country to the brinks of civil disturbance that could put the country’s future in serious jeopardy. Let us not forget that only recently we have been listed as a country in danger of failing.

There is really no good or bad hartal; nor “rational” or “irrational ones” as the AL Secretary Genera has suggested. Hartal is bad for the economy and the country and fascist by its very nature. There is however an explanation why hartals take place and that too just in Bangladesh. It will be there as long as politics is the way it is; negative and provocative. To end hartal, it is the duty of the ruling party to stop provocating the opposition.

The Prime Minister who has shown great respect for the Court should follow its offer to the parliament to hold the next two elections under the CG. That would take the wind away out of the sail of any opposition desire for hartal and save the country from sliding into an abyss. The ruling party leaders who dismiss BNP led hartals sarcastically should keep in mind that they have championed this strategy and the opposition parties have been poor followers. And it is also not true that all its hartals it called when in opposition were “rational”; majority of them were forced on the people for no reason at all. For example, it called innumerable hartals for the CG system in BNP’s 1991-96 term and now rejecting it as undemocratic!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan.

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