Friday, November 15, 2013

The changing rules of engagement

14 Nov, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

These are definitely not the best of times and certainly the worst of times.  We are seeing human character at our worst and nothing could have underlined this deterioration in our human values more detestably than the way 14-year-old Monir was burnt alive during the hartal. At the time of filing this report, the dark clouds in the horizon are getting darker. By the arrests of the senior leaders of the opposition, the AL-led government has signaled it is no longer interested in a negotiated settlement to the crisis it has created by the 15th Amendment. The judges who wrote the judgment that led to the 15th Amendment had recommended holding of two more elections under the caretaker government (CTG) because they could envision the consequences of election under party government that we are witnessing now.

It was not only the wise judges who alone envisioned the consequences of dispensing with the CTG in a hurry. The people also feared that the BNP would not accept it and oppose it the way it is doing now.  In fact, the members of the committee from the ruling party also feared the same consequences. Between the judges and members of the committee and the people, the fears were that if the government tried to force the issue on the BNP, the country would slide towards a catastrophe. Therefore, despite the times being the worst, there is little or no surprise at all at what is now happening in the country. In fact, people now apprehend that their worst tryst with political disturbances since the war of liberation in 1971 has just begun.

This eerie feeling is widespread because the rules of engagement of the political parties in the previous political disturbances in the country and the current one are not the same. The present political disturbances and the one the country witnessed in 1995-96 have so much similarity that they appear to be acts out of the same political script except that the roles of the principal actors have been reversed. In 1991-96, the AL was the opposition and the BNP, the ruling party. The constitution of the country in 1991-96 required national election under an Interim Government headed by the incumbent Prime Minister with a smaller cabinet with members from the ruling party.

The AL opposed it, the constitutional mandate notwithstanding. They argued elections under the ruling party would be heavily rigged where its defeat would be assured. It demanded election under the CTG. The AL carried out hartals and acts of destruction to force its demand. There were 173 days of such hartal where the parties with which the AL was aligned were the Jamat and the Jatiya Party. The BNP refused to listen to the AL/Jamat/JP's demand for the CTG and used the same constitutional arguments that the AL is now using. It also argued that elections under it would be fair and used its defeats in the city corporation elections in Dhaka and Chittagong in favour. It is the BNP as the opposition that is now demanding from AL, the ruling party, the CTG as election-time government, making the same arguments that the AL had made in 1991-96 for the CTG and using hartal that the AL had also used, as a strategy. As the ruling party, the AL is now making the same arguments that the BNP had made to deny the CTG.

The similarity between 1995-96 and the present situation on the rules of engagement end thereafter. The BNP accepted outside meditation. Retired Australian Governor General Sir Ninian Stevens spent time in Dhaka to bring peace between the BNP and the AL on holding the election. He proposed an election-time government where five members would be from the BNP and five from the AL with the incumbent Prime Minister Khaleda Zia heading it. The Awami League had dismissed that proposal because they did not want Begum Zia heading the Interim Government and intensified its hartal strategy. The BNP went ahead, held a one-party election but to its credit, it amended the Constitution, gave the opposition what it wanted, namely the CTG, dissolved the parliament in 17 days' time and then allowed elections under the CTG that it lost.

The AL-led government has not allowed any outside power to intervene to resolve its differences with the BNP. It has received letters and calls from the US Secretary of State, the UN Secretary General and urgings from China, the European Union and a number of other friendly countries to engage in talk with the BNP without conceding. The only attempt that it has made for negotiations with the BNP has been the telephone call by the Prime Minister to the Leader of the Opposition but the way it was made, it became clear that the ruling party had no intentions of negotiating with the opposition. The verbatim report of the call, all 37 minutes of it, has been released to the media by sources in the government that established that the ruling party did not intend to settle its differences with the BNP.

There have been a few dangerous deviations in the rules of engagement between 1991-96 and the present. First of these is the order given to the law-enforcement agencies to take any measure in order to browbeat the opposition to submission and end their strategy of hartal. 

A second dangerous deviation, something that has happened in Bangladesh's politics for the first time, is the use of the armed cadres of the ruling party to tackle the opposition. These armed cadres are seen both separately and with the law-enforcement agencies attacking or obstructing the opposition from even placating in favour of their hartal calls.

A third major deviation is the way the government ministers and ruling party leaders are using the media to humiliate, insult and misrepresent the actions of the opposition. They have gone on a media offensive to show to the public that the opposition is committing acts of murder/arson/destruction of property and even attacks on the minority Hindu to discredit it the to the public. While it is true that the opposition is committing some of these acts, the ruling party has conveniently forgotten that when it had carried out its hartal programmes in 1991-96, it too had committed similar acts of murder/arson and destruction of private property.

However, the ruling party has done more than going into denial to bring a paradigm shift in the rules of engagement. It has engaged agent provocateurs who are committing acts of destruction of arson/bombing/ destruction of private property to discredit the opposition.  Houses of opposition leaders have been bombed. Buses have been found torched in places where they were not supposed to be. A BRTC bus that plied on the Narshindi route was found torched in Azimpur.  Newspapers reported that ruling party goons who had led the vandalising of a Hindu temple and Hindu property in Pabna were seen standing behind a minister while he was addressing a public meeting in the scene of the crime and blaming the BNP/Jamaat for the nefarious acts. The victims pointed the goons to the journalists for not just the acts for which the Minister blamed the BNP/Jamaat but also for other acts of lawlessness in the district.

The most dangerous change in the rules of engagement between 1995-96 and present is in the treatment of the political leaders. The incarceration of the three senior BNP leaders on framed charges of murder does not augur well for the time that lies ahead. While the AL is selling election forms and celebrating, opposition leaders, who are not in jail, are underground hiding and the BNP central office cordoned off by the law-enforcement agencies!  These actions underscore the point that the ruling party does not intend to hold "inclusive" national election and, of course, not to repeat a 17-day government to please the opposition. The country is thus on course for a long winter of discontent.

The writer is a retired   career Ambassador.

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