As I See It Column
Saturday, 9th., 2011
M. Serajul Islam
The picture that most newspapers posted on the second day of BNP’s 48-hour hartal was a police officer landing a blow on the face of a man lying on the street. The police officer was easily recognizable from his uniform. So was the man he was assaulting. The man was unarmed. He is the Chief Whip of the opposition in parliament, Mr. Zainul Abdin Farroque!
The dastardly acts were also caught live on camera by the private TV channels. He was beaten, ripped off his shirt, dragged, thrown from the vehicle bleeding in the head and face and later landed in the ICU of a local hospital.
From newspaper reports, it was also revealed that the Chief Whip was targeted intentionally and brutally assaulted the way he was. To make a comedy out of a tragedy, the authorities later filed a case against him for assaulting police on duty!
The script is not a new one. The police have acted this way as long as its history in this country and in this region. They assaulted the freedom fighters under the British in the same manner. In the same way, they beat up opposition political leaders during the Pakistan time.
The British and the Pakistani regimes did not believe that there could be any opposition to the government. They used the police for browbeating the opposition into submission. In the end, both failed miserably.
Unfortunately for us, these two oppressive and detestable regimes of the past have left their indelible mark on all governments in Bangladesh, both elected and unelected, in encouraging them to use the police for oppressing the political opposition.
In fact all Bangladesh governments have taken the strategies used by the British and the Pakistani governments to their hearts and have refined it to deal with the opposition in ways that are a regression of democracy.
The present government has fine tuned police brutality for subjugating the opposition in a number of newer ways whose preview were there for the nation to see during the recent hartal. First, as a strategy, it employed a larger number of police officials and greater force to stop the opposition from picketing, something not seen in past police ways of dealing with hartal activists. This strategy worked very well and the opposition was not allowed to do any picketing at all during the hartal.
Second, a qualitative change was in view during the recent hartal in the use of police against the opposition. This police on duty have shown political commitment against hartal activists. In the past, police have been brutal because of conflict with hartal activists who were also armed and posed danger to them.
This time, the hartal activists were almost benign in their commitment to hartal but the police acted against them brutally with very little provocation out of political commitment for the ruling party.
The way the Chief Whip was singled out and beaten was in no sense a spontaneous act. It was well calculated and deliberate and was taken under instruction of higher political authority with which the police force complied like activists of the ruling party.
This time, the hartal activists lacked leadership because most opposition leaders are now afraid of being arrested and taken into remand. There are few politicians today in the opposition ranks who have the courage to face the threat of remand that is a leaf that the present police force has accepted as a legacy for torturing opposition from the last Caretaker Government. In fact, opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia had reprimanded her senior colleagues for their lack of courage during the few hartals that the BNP had called in the past under this government.
These facts notwithstanding, the police used every opportunity to beat up opposition leaders during the 48-hour hartal with the clear intention to discourage them against actively picketing for hartal. Strangely, the police was not so focused or ferocious while hartal activists broke cars and burnt down busses.
Clearly, the strategy of the police has been to allow hartal activists to attack and vandalize cars and buses to create contempt in the public mind against the opposition. At the same, the police provoked and went after the opposition leaders to scare them from leading processions for picketing in favour of hartal. Apparently, the strategy was worked out at party level and the police carried out like activists of the ruling party.
Thus police actions during the two-day hartal has underscored the fact that although our politicians have been “fighting” for democracy for many decades, but the mindset of the politicians who have gone on to rule is no better or no worse than the British and Pakistani rulers.
In fact, the present government has shown a marked deterioration even in such a contemptible mindset. It has clearly underscored its intentions to use the police force to ensure the objectives of the ruling party against the opposition.
It is an irony that the ruling party while in the opposition has been the most vocal protagonist of hartal claiming it to be a democratic right of the opposition. Its commitment to hartal was such that it makes the ones undertaken by the opposition in the present term of the ruling party look almost innocuous and benign.
The latest hartal that the opposition had called was to challenge certain fundamental changes in the Constitution that the ruling party brought unilaterally for ensuring its victory in the next elections. Even on such a serious issue, the opposition has not shown even a bit of the ferocity that the ruling party had shown during hartals that it had called for issues far less significant. Yet they were dealt with ferociously.
In fact, the constitutional changes that the ruling party has introduced are all designed to reintroduce the 4th Amendment to the Constitution in a new format. The Baksal imprint is written so large in the present politics of the ruling party that one has to pause and wonder what is it that is really guiding it towards such a dangerous frontier in the politics of the country. It is forgetting one fundamental difference between the two periods.
In 1974, the Awami League was the only political party of consequence in the country. It had in leadership role Bangabandhu Sheikh Rahman. Yet, its journey with one-party government was too shortlived with tragedy beyond comprehension. Today, a major segment of the people of the country are opposed to the ruling party and as for leadership, there cannot be any comparison.
The “brave” police force of Bangladesh has shown a preview of the nature of politics to come by the brutal and uncivilized way they handled the opposition. It would do the government and the ruling party a great deal of good to consider why despite such police brutality that did not allow the opposition any chance for picketing, the 48-hour hartal was successful all across the country where the overwhelming majority of the people simply detest hartal. It could look at the sense of deep frustration among the people who were promised so much but so far have been given so little.
The ruling party seems to be forgetting that 75 million people became one in 1971 for democracy and no matter what it does or wishes, it can never achieve anything by undemocratic ways. It is also the verdict of history. Its political acts over the last few months have been anything but democratic. It is high time that it mended its ways for itself and the nation.
The writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt