Street Power

Flex­ing po­lit­i­cal mus­cle, fac­ing so­ci­etal dead­lock

Southasia - - Contents - By Saleem Sa­mad

On March 12, the Bangladesh Na­tion­al­ists Party (BNP) en­larged the elec­toral coalition from 4 to 18. Other than its tra­di­tional Is­lamist part­ners, like Ja­maat-e-Is­lami and the Is­lamic Unity Front (frac­tured into three), no other party has the po­lit­i­cal strength to mo­bilise as many ac­tivists to or­gan­ise anti-gov­ern­ment protests.

Most of the mega 18-party al­liance mem­bers are a “one-leader” party and among them, seven new part­ners are not even reg­is­tered with the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion. Ob­vi­ously, the ques­tion re­gard­ing their po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism and abil­ity to muster strength dur­ing an anti-gov­ern­ment rally, will arise. The al­liance part­ners of­ten keep their ac­tiv­i­ties lim­ited to form­ing hu­man chains and hold­ing in­door dis­cus­sion meet­ings. De­spite lim­i­ta­tions, they wish to stand to­gether.

How­ever, the main op­po­si­tion needs to ac­quire more strength to ex­ert pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment to hold the up­com­ing gen­eral elec­tion un­der a neu­tral care­taker sys­tem. The gov­ern­ment scrapped the ar­ti­cles and clauses from the con­sti­tu­tion af­ter the high court re­voked the sys­tem last May.

BNP, which op­posed the care­taker sys­tem in 1996, som­er­saulted soon af­ter the sys­tem was deleted from the con­sti­tu­tion and in­formed its sup­port­ers that it will boy­cott the elec­tion sched­ule next year, out of fear of rigged elec­tions. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, it also boy­cotted the by-elec­tions and may­oral polls, wher­ever elec­tronic vot­ing ma­chines (EVMs) had been de­ployed.

The 18 party mega al­liance is hope­ful that they will be able to gain a po­lit­i­cal edge on their de­mand for a care­taker sys­tem to hold a cred­i­ble gen­eral elec­tion and also re­ject the no­tion of evot­ing. How­ever, po­lit­i­cal ob­servers do not pre­dict any such achieve­ment. Firstly, the high court ver­dict is against the care­taker gov­ern­ment, which it deems il­le­gal and un­con­sti­tu­tional. Sec­ond is the no­tion of e-vot­ing, which the op­po­si­tion pre­dicts will be ma­nip­u­lated. The elec­tronic wiz­ards of Bangladesh Univer­sity of En­gi­neer­ing and Tech­nol­ogy ex­plained that the gad­get is full-proof from hack­ing or ma­nip­u­la­tion. The op­po­si­tion has how­ever ig­nored the ex­pla­na­tions of the e-wiz­ards.

In 20 years of a democrati­sa­tion process, which be­gan af­ter 15 years of mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship, the demo­cratic cul­ture is con­spic­u­ously ab­sent. In fact it has not taken root since the in­de­pen­dence of Bangladesh, some forty years ago, ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Naz­mul Ah­san Kal­imul­lah, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist with Dhaka Univer­sity.

He ar­gues that re­gard­less of who

was in the op­po­si­tion, both par­ties have de­lib­er­ately boy­cotted the par­lia­ment, mak­ing the leg­isla­tive process in­con­se­quen­tial. Nev­er­the­less, the ab­sen­tee law­mak­ers do not for­get to re­ceive doles from the na­tional ex­che­quer, VVIP pro­to­cols, red pass­ports, duty-free ex­otic ve­hi­cles and many other fa­cil­i­ties at the ex­pense of the pub­lic’s money.

The re­cent stand-off be­tween the gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion pro­voked the busi­ness com­mu­nity to raise their voice af­ter weeks of coun­try­wide shut-down and street ri­ots which led to a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in the in­vest­ment cli­mate. The op­po­si­tion fought street bat­tles with thou­sands of riot po­lice in bul­let­proof vests, armed with shot-guns, tear­gas grenades and with the sup­port of ar­moured ve­hi­cles and wa­ter can­nons.

Ear­lier on April 17, BNP’s former law­maker Elias Ali went miss­ing along with his chauf­fer. Tahsina Rushdi Luna, wife of Ali claimed plain­clothes se­cu­rity agents had picked him up at mid­night and his car was found aban­doned in a posh area of cap­i­tal Dhaka. She said that the ab­duc­tors did not seek ran­som, nor any­body con­tacted her to re­lease the be­lea­guered leader on cer­tain con­di­tions. But she reaf­firmed that she will agree to any con­di­tions for her hus­band’s free­dom.

Op­po­si­tion leader Khaleda Zia, how­ever pointed her fin­ger to­wards elite anti-crime force, Rapid Ac­tion Bat­tal­ion (RAB), which she cre­ated in 2004 when she was prime min­is­ter. The gov­ern­ment re­peat­edly scoffed at the al­le­ga­tions and claimed that the law en­forc­ing agen­cies had launched a mas­sive manhunt.

The op­po­si­tion im­me­di­ately clamped a coun­try­wide shut­down on April 22. From road trans­porta­tion to na­tional school ex­ams, from bank­ing to ac­cess to health care, ev­ery­thing lies at a stand­still. Frus­trated with the de­vel­op­ments, in­de­pen­dent news­pa­per Daily Star, in an ed­i­to­rial urged the gov­ern­ment to rec­on­cile and re­quested the op­po­si­tion to re­strain from po­lit­i­cal ran­cour on the is­sue of the miss­ing leader.

In­stead of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the gov­ern­ment’s crack­down on op­po­si­tion lead­ers was widely crit­i­cised as scores of cen­tral lead­ers of the BNP and their adopted part­ners es­caped the po­lice drag­net. On the other hand, the High Court re­fused to hear the bail pe­ti­tions of the hid­ing lead­ers as none have ap­peared in per­son at the court, due to fear of be­ing picked up from the court premise.

Ear­lier, the Ja­maat-e-Is­lami lead­er­ship found it­self in a pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion. Most of its cen­tral lead­ers were in prison, fac­ing charges of crimes against hu­man­ity dur­ing the bloody war of in­de­pen­dence in 1971. They were ac­cused for form­ing the dreaded Al Badr, a death squad for ab­duc­tion and ex­tra-ju­di­cial killings of pro­fes­sion­als in­clud­ing teach­ers, physi­cians, engi­neers, sports­men, jour­nal­ists and lit­ter­a­teur. Thou­sands of mem­bers of the Ja­maat-e-Is­lami and its stu­dent wing, Is­lamic Chat­tra Shibir (Is­lami Stu­dent Front) were de­tained. It seems un­likely now that the Ja­maat-e-Is­lami would be able to con­trib­ute in the present street protests. Saleem Sa­mad is a jour­nal­ist, elected Ashoka Fel­low for Jour­nal­ism and re­cip­i­ent of the Hell­man-Ham­met Award.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Pakistan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.