Intransigence, thy name is politics

by CR Abrar

spc01THE nation celebrates its 45th Independence Day in great fear and anxiety. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s spates of hartals (general strikes) and non-stop oborodhs (blockades), accompanied by incidence of hurling of petrol bombs on public transport, have created panic among the common citizenry. Likewise, the inability of the state law enforcement agencies to curb such crimes through apprehending the real perpetrators and their decision to seek recourse to disproportionate use of force, including extra-judicial killing and disappearance, has further aggravated the situation.
In the guise of political movement the opposition alliance has made the common people target of senseless violence resulting in charring of bodies, scores of painful deaths and maiming of individuals, bringing immense hardship to their families and loved ones. Likewise, the intransigence of the ruling alliance to engage in a meaningful negotiation with the political opposition in settling the impasse has only added fuel to the fire. In sum, the country has become hostage to groups of power hungry politicians and their cronies, who care little about life, livelihood, rights and welfare of the common people and are bereft of rational thinking and statesmanship. Establishing or retaining control over the state power for personal, family or party aggrandisement by any means has become the principal feature of Bangladesh’s political culture of the day.
In line with severe curtailing of democratic space the main opposition party was denied permission to hold rallies on 5 January to protest what it viewed as holding of illegal elections a year before. To thwart the opposition move in going ahead with the declared rally on the eve of programme, the government imposed its own blockade to deny entry of anyone into the capital city Dhaka. It is in this context hartal and non-stop oborodhs became the most favoured weapons in the opposition arsenal to force the government to a negotiating table.
After the initial phase, the effectiveness of hartals soon began to peter out. Ordinary people had little option but to defy the programme simply to eke out a living. Fairly soon hartals became farcical, as city roads became vibrant with vehicular movements and government supporters aided by the members of law enforcement agencies far out numbered the opposition picketers. In comparison the effectiveness of oborodhs was relatively weighty. For quite some time, inter-district transport services remained largely affected. Over time, the flow of movement of inter-district traffic has also registered an increase and by now oborodhs has also lost its steam. Thus, for all practical purposes the BNP strategy of forcing the government for a dialogue has, thus far, failed to attain its desired objective. The highhanded policy of the government has led the BNP supporters and agitators to remain off the streets, its high and mid-ranking leaders to go into hiding and the top leadership cocooning itself in the Chairperson’s Gulshan office with little contact with its organisational network across the country.
In such a scenario, the ruling quarters remain steadfast in its rejection of talks with the opposition. As per its reckoning any such engagement would amount to encouraging mindless violence and to borrow its catch phrase ‘terrorism’. It argues that the BNP must unequivocally denounce violence and shun its ties with Jamaat and only then it would re-consider its decision. The government continues to pursue a policy of intimidation by bringing about charges of arson and other types of violence against the leading members of the BNP of various tiers. Raiding of their houses and incarcerations have become rampant. It has been reported that prisons of the country now host more than the double their capacity.
The sessions of parliament is dominated by spewing invectives against the BNP-Jamaat alliance, with members calling on the government to crush the opposition. Responding to such calls, top executive of the state ruled out any dialogue with persons whose hands are stained with blood. Threats were meted out against the BNP chief that she would be arrested for violating courts’ orders and charged for instigating violence. Sands and brick laden trucks were posted in front of the residence and office of the BNP leader to restrict her movement. Over-enthusiastic ruling party leaders had threatened to cut off water, power and internet connections to the BNP Chairperson’s office where she is holed up for weeks. The threat was partially executed as supply authorities cut off power to the premise for several hours, which they claimed was done at the instruction of the local police authorities. Members of law enforcement agencies routinely intercept visitors and supply of cooked food to the office. To top it all, the bags containing garbage disposed off from the Chairperson’s office have become objects of scrutiny by the law enforcement agencies. In short, a new low was reached in the state’s dealing with the opposition party and its leader.
Instead of advocating moderation, the government’s firm stance against the opposition is fanned and fuelled by its cohorts. In addition, in demonstrations and rallies organised by a plethora of front organisations of the ruling party and its allies, the pro-Awami intellectuals extended all out support to the iron-fisted policy of rooting out what they perceived as terrorism. They reaffirm their position through newspaper columns and talk shows. Likewise, a few anti-terrorism conclaves of the converts were held under the auspices of newly formed research outfits on anti-terrorism. Vice chancellors, business leaders, security analysts, cultural luminaries, media personalities including talk show hosts, former diplomats and religious scholars graced those occasions that were telecast live on a few channels. Barring a few dissenting voices almost all of those present pressed the government for remaining resolute in its uncompromising mode.
Some viewed it as an ultimate struggle between secularism and communalism. Any deviation from it would amount to surrendering to the fundamentalists, they argued. Another group felt that the opposition move is essentially directed to thwart the war crimes trials and to destroy the ideologies of freedom struggle. Others felt that the movement was nothing but a sinister attempt to scuttle the process of economic development that the government has ushered in. Any dialogue with the opposition would subvert Bangladesh’s forward march to become the next Asian tiger, they reckoned. Terming a section of the civil society as power hungry opportunists, they branded the initiative for a national charter and a national dialogue as moves against the Constitution of the land.
The pro-government intellectuals and others were loud in their displeasure with the UN and development partners’ call for a dialogue between major political parties to work out a solution of the continuing crisis. They felt those moves amounted to interference in the internal matters of a sovereign state. While some reminded the conspiratorial role of a superpower during the war of liberation, others felt that the outsiders have become active as they were in 1/11 situation.
The no-dialogue highhanded approach in dealing with the opposition is not only restricted to the ruling party, its alliance members and their associated intellectuals, but also among the members of statutory bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission and the Bangladesh Law Commission. While the Chair of the NHRC demanded that law enforcement agencies should take stern action against the perpetrators of violence, a member of the BLC observed, ‘If the blockade-hartal is not stopped, there should be more shoot at sight.’ He reasoned that in the past when shoot-outs increased, violence and bombing decreased. Perhaps, the esteemed member of the Law Commission had taken apt cue from an illustrious Member of Parliament who had earlier suggested that in dealing with the trouble mongers ‘the police should target the chest, not their feet’.
Thus, the overriding mood in the ruling quarters is sticking to their avowed position that there cannot be any talk with the opposition, unless they shed violence. Of course, the party members were quick to spell out that if any talk ever eventuates then that would only take place within the parameters of the constitution that is now in force.
The nation is, thus, pitted against the reality where the government and the opposition are at loggerheads and are in no mood to compromise. In the process, until 23 March, 33 people became casualties of crossfire and 128 of other forms of violence including hurling of petrol bombs. 734 vehicles were torched and 661 more were vandalised. People, particularly those of the opposition camp, are subjected to harassment and ill treatment, from illegal detention to extra-judicial killings. The charred bodies of victims of petrol bombs pile up in the corridors of burn units of hospitals. New burn units are being opened in other institutions to cater to the growing need for such care. More and more families succumb to uncertainties as their breadwinners die or sustain injury to police brutality or by incendiary devices.
The apparent lack of success of hartals and oborodhs belies the reality of long-term adverse impact on the Bangladesh politics, economy and society. It has taken an obvious toll on the regular law enforcement efforts by the concerned agencies. This situation of uncertainly and low-keyed, yet, protracted violence has provided a fertile ground for evildoers to organise themselves to strike at a time of their own choosing. There is little realisation among the ruling quarters that their crying wolf may indeed become a reality if the condition is allowed persist for long.
The crisis has taken heavy toll on ordinary wage earners. Slowing down of economic activities, make them incredibly vulnerable to slide further into the abyss of poverty. The business leaders of all categories have amply highlighted the long-term effect on the economy. There has been a sharp drop in orders for export items and also in local and international investment. All these would result in an increase in the cost of production, increase in debt financing, drop in international competitiveness, retrenchment of workers and closure of factories and enterprises. This overall slump in the economy is likely to have grave social and political ramifications.
At the societal level, the endemic crisis has taken heavy toll on education. The public examinations are stalled and face absolute uncertainty, taking enormous psychological toll on students. Academic sessions are getting prolonged. Sociologists and psychologists have alerted to the long-term adverse impact of persistent fear and uncertainty on the people of all ages and income categories. The element of uncertainty has disrupted family and social interactions such as weddings, picnics and excursions.
On this Day of Independence the nation is at a crossroad. We hope the day would be an occasion for the political leadership to deeply reflect on the responsibility they bear in steering the nation out of the abyss that it is currently in. By addressing the root cause of the crisis and by creating conditions of peace, tolerance and compromise they can pay befitting homage to the martyrs of our Great War of Liberation. Reason must prevail over intransigence.
CR Abrar teaches international relations at the University of Dhaka. He researches and writes on migration and rights issues.

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