Thursday, May 3, 2012


Ruling party brings hartal back
Hoiday, May 4, 2012
M. Serajul Islam


A senior journalist who was once elected to the parliament on an Awami League ticket was asked to comment on the arrests and cases against the BNP leaders on a TV Talk Show recently. He said a few things that are worth noting seriously. He categorically dismissed any political benefit to the ruling party out of these arrests and cases. 

Instead, he said that the arrests and cases against the BNP would only strengthen the opposition. The BNP, according to him, was down and out after losing the last elections very badly. It has been the Awami League that has helped the BNP to stand on its two feet by pursuing it relentlessly without trying to deal with it politically. With every move to deal with the BNP like it was out to end it as a political party, it has succeeded in making it stronger. He said, courtesy largely the AL, the BNP is at present strong enough to challenge the ruling party!

The senior journalist said something that was very devastating for the ruling party’s claim as the party that led the movement for liberation of Bangladesh and democracy in the country. To him, what the AL is doing now is exactly what the Pakistani regime had done in East Pakistan in the 1960s. By implicating the AL and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in false cases aimed at harassment, the Pakistani military regime only helped strengthen the party and make Sheikh Mujib the unquestioned leader of the democratic movement in East Pakistan that in turn became our war of liberation.

Quite evidently, the ruling party is not aware of what it is doing.  It is failing to realize that its actions are bringing the BNP into public contention instead of breaking it apart. The State Minister of Home tried to appear convincing when he said in the media that action against the BNP leaders have been initiated because their call for hartal resulted in the damages to property and death of a driver when a bus in which he was sleeping was torched the same way past regimes rationalized their actions to suppress democratic opposition.

Minister on hartal

The State Minister’s stand would have convinced the public if only it was taken out of the context of the history of hartals in Bangladesh. It is the AL has played a dominant role in using hartal against the government where the BNP does not even come close.  The State Minister for Home must have forgotten about the AL’s role in establishing hartal in our politics. During the two terms of the BNP, his party had organized hundreds of days of hartal. There were extensive damages to property and deaths during these hartals. The BNP also used hartal during the last term of the AL that also resulted in damages to property and deaths. On balance however the AL has used hartal against the Government much more than the BNP and hence responsible for more damages and deaths.

In this present term of the AL, the people had started to hope that hartal would become history because the BNP took serious note of extreme public apathy for this evil political strategy.  It is the AL that had argued in favour of hartal very strongly as a political strategy for achieving democracy where the BNP has been a follower. In fact, till the Cholo Cholo Dhaka Cholo call of the BNP on March 12 that was a democratic movement against the government, the BNP had avoided hartal in deference to the public mood.

The BNP had resisted the temptation of falling back on hartal to make governance difficult for the government in the face of grave provocations. The AL led government  used the arm of the law to pursue the opposition leaders immediately upon assuming power where many were spending as much time running to the court as pursuing active politics. The AL also used extra judicial killing against its political opponents that the BNP had introduced while in power against hardened criminals. 

Not satisfied with filing cases and the extra judicial killings to deal with the opposition, the government surreptitiously introduced something no one would have imagined in a nightmare. They simply started making political opponents disappear. In the face of opposition uproar against these disappearances, the law enforcing and security agencies simply refused to acknowledge any involvement. In the meantime, such cases began to pile up. 

Strategy of disappearance

According to Odhikar, a human rights organization in Bangladesh over 50 people have disappeared since 2010 leaving the people convinced that the law enforcing agencies were behind these disappearances as almost all the cases involved someone opposing the government in one way or another. A chill came down those in the opposition camp because they were not prepared to deal with something that one read only in the context of dictatorial regimes like Pinochet of Chile.

The disappearance of BNP leader of Sylhet and a former lawmaker Ilyas Ali acted as the catalyst to bring this dangerous issue of disappearance to the top of the political agenda. The former lawmaker simply disappeared with his driver. As the opposition cried out foul, the ruling party responded with ridicule. The Prime Minister’s response was that the BNP had hid Ilyas Ali to make a political issue out of it. The BNP countered and blamed RAB for the disappearance.  The EU expressed concern and communicated it to the Government. Some US Congressmen also expressed concern. Human Rights Watch also voiced its deep concern and has asked for an independent inquiry. The news of the disappearance of Ilyas Ali found exposure in the media around the world. In the country, the news of the disappearance and the consequences of it cast a pall of gloom all over. The BNP’s demand to find Ilyas Ali and concerns everywhere failed to move the Government that tried to deal with it in an unbelievably casual manner.

The BNP was thus left with no alternative but to go for hartal albeit tentatively not knowing how the people would react. At first, it started with a one day hartal and then extended it for two more days at the stretch. Not surprisingly, there was wide public approval for the hartal on the first day as the people in general felt that the opposition had no alternative to make an insensitive government listen. The second and the third days of the first call of hartal also were observed although there was sporadic violence on the subsequent days. Still the government refused to accept responsibility or do anything to help find Ilyas Ali.

The BNP’s call of hartal for another two days came after the Government refused to budge to its ultimatum to find Ilyas Ali by 28th April. The second round of hartal saw more sporadic violence. Nevertheless the second round of hartal was also observed successfully from the opposition’s point of view.  Meanwhile, the Home Minister and the LGRD Minister made statements in the media that showed some signs that the Government was willing to make efforts to find Ilyas Ali. Both said their objective was to find Ilyas alive that led to public speculation that some individuals in the Government must have knowledge about Ilyas Ali’s disappearance.

Govt takes hard line

However, other authorities in the Government were not willing to accede anything to the opposition on the Ilyas Ali issue. Instead they want to meet the BNP head on with a hard line that the State Minister for Home has underscored in justifying the arrest of Ruhul Kabir Rizvi and the cases against the BNP leaders. In the midst of the fluctuating stance of the Government, President HM Ershad’s statement that people get murdered when they stay at home (the case of the unsolved murders of the journalist couple and the Saudi diplomat) and disappearance (Ilyas Ali and others) has highlighted the untenable law and order situation in the country and the general fear about the fast sliding political order.

The Government nevertheless now appears to have opted to attack the opposition to get out of the mess into which it has landed itself by its single minded pursuance to hound the opposition in the same mindset as was shown by the past undemocratic regimes in our history. The senior journalist stated unequivocally that the only result of such a course of action would be a simple case of history repeating itself. Past efforts to deal with political problems by force have all failed. He felt that the present course that the AL has charted for itself would also meet the same fate.

The senior journalist was also asked whether the case of Ilyas Ali’s disappearance was stage managed by the ruling party to contain the ill impact of railway gate and to divert growing support of the people for the next general elections under a caretaker government. His response was one spoken out of wisdom. He said that the disappearance of Ilyas Ali would add to the pile of negatives against the ruling party while doing nothing to divert the attention of the pubic either from the issue of the CG or railway gate. In fact, with failure to deal with the Ilyas Ali case democratically, the ruling party would slide further into the political quicksand in which it is stuck now unless it deals with the issue not with the Pakistani military’s mindset but with a democratic one.

Recently, the Prime Minister asked senior citizens to advise her on correct way of governance. She said this while addressing a forum that was felicitating her for Bangladesh’s victory on the maritime boundary demarcation case.  An economist known for his leanings towards the ruling party lamented in a talk show that the news of this   great victory of Bangladesh has not registered among the people that should have given the ruling party great political mileage in its present predicament.  In another forum, the Prime Minister asked her party members to work hard to get re-elected to complete the social, political and economic agenda that the ruling party has initiated. It is heartening to see that the Prime Minister has sought advice and feels that her party would have to work hard for re-election.

History repeats itself!

Recent events have underscored that the Prime Minister indeed needs advice and that her party would also have to work hard for re-election. However she should seek advice not from those who gather to felicitate her with sycophantic zeal but from those who support her party as one established by the Father of the Nation and have now shown the courage to be critical of the way she has been running the government like the senior journalist on the TV talk show.  There are many like this senior journalist and their number is growing. She should not be seeking advice from those who gather to felicitate her for they would never tell her the hard truth.

The Prime Minister must realize for her sake, her party and the country that any other way to deal with the opposition other than the democratic path would be disastrous. History should be her guide to realize this. The BNP must be given the space to act in the democratic way for which its concerns about Ilyas Ali and others who are disappearing into thin air, individuals who are mostly its political opponents, must be taken seriously and not to be ridiculed. The government must make sincere efforts to trace those behind the disappearances, whether in government or elsewhere, and punish them. Most of all, the BNP’s demand for the next elections under an agreed system, called by the senior journalist as the “mother of all problems “, must  be discussed with it and resolved so that  it would participate.

The people are, as the State Minister for Home has said, firmly and unequivocally against hartal. However, they are also politically conscious and cannot blame the BNP entirely for resorting to hartal for which the Government must bear the major responsibility for not providing any democratic alternative. Even on the fifth day of the hartal, 63% respondents to an electronic poll run by a leading Dhaka English daily favoured the BNP’s call for hartal. This should alert the government that by its un-democratic actions, it is not just helping the BNP become strong politically, it is unfortunately bringing back hartal from the ICU where it was just waiting for the life support system to be unplugged.


The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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