Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Government helps BNP politically by imposing undeclared hartal

As I See It Column
The Independent
March 17, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

Courtesy the electronic media, the nation saw the unbelievable extent to which the Government went to spoil the BNP’s “Cholo, Cholo Dhaka Cholo” programme.   The private TV channels have showed days prior to the event the actions taken by the law enforcing agencies assisted by ruling party activists to restrict/check all busses and public transports plying to the city from the rest of the country.  Even the river routes and railways were clamped down to stop people from joining the BNP call. Nearer to March 12, all public transport to Dhaka was virtually stopped.

The police also clamped down on the hotels and boarding houses, issuing orders that they should not take guests till the 14th. The police of course denied issuing such orders. Nevertheless, the electronic media exposed that denial as untrue where hotel owners interviewed informed viewers about huge losses. In doing so, the law enforcing agencies did not consider the fact that the hotels and guest house are used by ordinary people who come to Dhaka for a multitude of reasons, including treatment for life threatening health problems.

The AL’s political leadership also went into the act. They claimed that the BNP’s call was intended for acts of subversion in Dhaka. They linked the claim to the line they have taken for a long time that the BNP/Jamat is conspiring to create a breakdown of the law and order to derail the trial of those being tried for crimes against humanity.  The ruling party leaders, however, have not been able to give convincing evidence of such conspiracies to the public except repeating their statements like the pin caught in a broken record.

The result of the actions of the law enforcing agencies and the AL leadership created a situation that was surreal. In the past, we have faced hartals, shamabesh and mahashamabesh by the opposition that had put such fears in our minds of the public that we shut ourselves in our houses and hoped and prayed that the calls by the opposition would pass by without harming us. This time, we faced a similar predicament of fear and apprehension but very little of it due to the opposition and almost all due to the ruling party. Dhaka was deserted by 11th and the BNP cannot claim even a little credit for it because it was the Government that did it all!

In the past, hartals of the opposition did not always pass by harmlessly. Lives have been lost, property damaged and the economy was forced to incur huge losses.  We were utterly disgusted and have been praying to the Almighty to give better sense to the opposition not to make us and the country hostage to their politics and put an end to hartal. It seemed like the Almighty heard us. In the past three years, unbelievable as it may sound, the BNP called just  7/8 hartals.

A lot of people would have a lot to say about the BNP’s governance in its last term for which it has paid badly by losing the last elections miserably. Nevertheless, in the last 3 years, the BNP has done very little to link itself to acts of subversion to destroy law and order to bring down the government. Instead, the BNP has adopted strategies such as demonstrations, long marches, etc that are guaranteed by the Constitution. Of course, many may blame the BNP for not going to parliament but then if the BNP did that as well, then it would have been too good to be true.

Nevertheless, even on the issue of not attending the parliament, the BNP has their reasons.   They feel that their 34 seats are so few that in a highly partisan parliament, their views would not even have any chance of being heard, let alone taken up for consideration. This was underscored by the Speaker while “reprimanding” the Minister for Finance in Parliament in parliament recently for his provocative statements against the BNP/Jamat in the context of their March 12 event.                                            

Those who thought that by stopping people from going to Dhaka, they would be able to turn the BNP’s event into a flop were badly mistaken. In the end, the number of people who turned out for the event was huge. It is strange that the AL leaders never considered that Dhaka has close to 15 million people and even a fraction of the people of the city would give the BNP the number it needed to claim success. By its un-democratic steps, the BNP has been given a much larger victory in political terms.

Few believed the police explanation that people were stopped from coming to stop Dhaka for acts of subversion.  In fact, ordinary folks interviewed on this point by private TV channel dismissed the explanation by saying that there was no reason for the BNP/Jamat activists to attack their own meeting. One folk said that if the BNP/Jamat activists were at all interested in subversion, the better target would have been the AL meeting on 14th March where everyone was welcome to attend! 

A more unbelievable explanation was given by the authorities that said that the transport owners themselves did not run the buses on the highways, fearing attack by the opposition. The electronic media has interviewed the owners lamenting losses in many crores of Takas from the action of the Government. The shutdown of the private TV channels from live telecasting of the BNP programme was the most regrettable act of the authorities because it badly damaged the ruling party’s democratic image and its claim of giving the country a free media. The live telecasting of the PM’s address on 14th March and encouraging access given to people to attend it also flagged the double standard of the Government. These actions have also dented badly its democratic credentials.

In the end, the Government’s fears of sabotage and subversion did not come true. In fact, the media showed armed ruling party activists in the streets of Dhaka trying to provoke the opposition.  Surely, if sabotage was the aim of the event, it could have been done at will.  The BNP event was to register their points against this government. In those objectives; the BNP achieved more than it could have hoped for. The opposition’s main claim that the government is undemocratic was successfully established by the government’s unbelievable actions.

One question lingers in the public mind which is why did the Government do all it did to stop the BNP event? One possible answer is that it feared that the opposition event would draw a huge number of people from across the country that would damage its political standing in the country  badly. In the end, the BNP programme drew a huge gathering. The public was left with no doubt that if the Government had not acted the way it did, the March 12 event would have drawn unprecedented numbers of people as the Government had feared and perhaps more.

Ironically therefore, by its undemocratic actions, the ruling party strengthened that fear more successfully than the opposition would have even if they were allowed to hold the event unhindered.  Nevertheless sadly, it is democracy that has been served badly in all that has happened by the actions of the Government leading to March 12. BNP’s overtures to do politics the democratic way have been spurned. It is such a shame that it the month of March, the country had to witness such un-democratic actions that led many to suggest that the country has returned to the Pakistan days.

People are now really worried whether by its actions the government has pushed the country and its politics into uncertainty. The programme given by the BNP from its Dhaka event is not encouraging with a daylong hartal called for the 29th of March and a 90 ultimatum for the ruling party to accept its demands.  For the time being, the BNP is relishing its current healthy position in politics thanks almost entirely to the ruling party’s unbelievable efforts.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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