21 August grenade attack has created a wall in politics

Dhaka City Awami League had organised a rally at Muktangan on 21 August 2004 in protest of the 'militant bomb attacks all over the country and police repression in Gopalganj'. Later, for some unknown reason, the venue was hurriedly changed and shifted to Bangabandhu Avenue, in front of the Awami League office.

Awami League president and the opposition leader at the time, Sheikh Hasina, had been the chief guest at the rally. She reached the venue at 5:00pm. She delivered a 20-minute speech standing on the truck which was the improvised stage and then announced a protest rally. She was about to climb down from the truck when a grenade attack was launched at the stage. In a matter of just one and a half minutes, 11 powerful grenades were exploded. On the spot 12 died immediately and another 12 passed away in hospital.

That was the news. It was tragic, but it happened. This was not the first time. Attacks on the rival political party rallies and processions, attempts to assassinate politicians, abductions and enforced disappearances, beating to death, are nothing new in the history of this country. This has been happening in independent Bangladesh since 1972. The size and nature of such occurrences grew with time. All this can be learnt from the old issues of the newspapers.

Before the 21 August 2004 incident, such a large incident took place on 24 January 1988. There was a rally of the 8 party alliance at Laldighi Maidan in Chattogram. An armed attack was launched on Sheikh Hasina's convoy travelling from the Chattogram airport to the venue of the rally. Police charged with batons and opened fire in from of the Chattogram court building. Sheikh Hasina was unhurt in the incident, but 30 Awami League leaders and activists were killed, according to Awami League sources. Other sources say 7 were killed and 300 injured. She was shot at twice while delivering her speech at Laldighi Maidan but was not hit. After the meeting while returning by car, her vehicle was fired at again. The next day Ittefaq reported that the police and BDR had opened fire with the intention to kill Sheikh Hasina.

The Chattogram killings were tried and five members of the police were sentenced by the court to be hanged. They were constables Mustafizur Rahman, Pradip Barua, Shah Md Abdullah, Mumtaz Uddin and patrol inspector JC Mandal. I do not want to comment on the court's verdict, but it hardly seems plausible that a handful of constables and inspectors would carry out such a horrific incident. Hussain Mohammad Ershad had been in power at the time. He had always maintained an equation with Awami League. Even so, five low ranking members of the police force were hanged.

There was no mention of any constable in the 21 August 2004 incident. The allegations were leveled at the top. A case was later filed in this regard. Many high ranking civil and military officials were sentenced by the court to death and varying prison sentences. The case lies with the Appellate Division at present. Three have already been hanged in other cases.

Many have forgotten the 24 January incident. But 21 August remains the headlines because its relevance remains. The two sides involved in this incident are fierce rivals in politics. As long as this feud lasts, 21 August will be discussed and will remain in politics.

Outside the court ruling, the two sides have two different narratives concerning the 21 August grenade attack. It may be recalled that after this incident, on 26 August the foreign minister Morshed Khan had told journalists that he was not dismissing the possibility of any secret organisation, religious extremists, internal or international forces behind the incident. There had even been talk of the armed insurgent organisation of Assam, ULFA. We know that the Indian former prime minister and later leader of the opposition Rajiv Gandhi had been killed in a bomb blast at a public meeting. Investigations revealed that the Sri Lankan armed rebel force LTTE was directly involved in the incident. The important question here is, what was the motive behind the attack? Vengeance? Or is this just the nature of politics?

The BNP led government was in power at the time of the 21 August incident. Khaleda Zia had been the prime minister. Questions had arisen at that time about her role. That does not mean she aided and abetted such a heinous act or was aware about it. But she didn’t show the reaction or the action expected in such a serious breach of law and order. Sheikh Hasina has a grievance about this. At a recent meeting of the party she said, “When we tried to raise the issue in parliament, they did not allow us to talk about it. We wanted to place a condolence resolution, that too was rejected, not taken up. The mike was not given to those of us who wanted to speak. Khaleda Zia herself stood up and said, who is going to kill her? She carried the grenades there herself in her bag and blasted them herself. That was what Khaleda Zia had said.”

There are certain noticeable features in Bangladesh’s politics. One, from the very outset politics here had been authoritarian. Two, no party wants to remain out of power in any way and will take up any strategy to come to power

In an interview with BBC Bangla after the incident, Sheikh Hasina said, “When our workers went forward to help those who were injured, the police used tear gas, batons and started arresting them. Instead of coming to the aid of the injured, when the police fired tear gas, charged with batons and started making arrests, it was clear that they had backed the incident.”

BNP’s senior joint secretary Ruhul Kabir Rizvi recently said, “Awami League is using the 21 August incident for their political motives. This was a part of a deep-seated blueprint and the people have plenty of doubt as to whether those in the ruling seat were involved.”

The problem is that her party’s government at the time didn’t investigate adequately to unearth the blueprint. Had they done so, the blame wouldn’t have fallen on them.

There are certain noticeable features in Bangladesh’s politics. One, from the very outset politics here had been authoritarian. Two, no party wants to remain out of power in any way and will take up any strategy to come to power. They make this quite unabashedly clear. And the inevitable consequence of this is politics of elimination. Contest and competition in politics have been replaced by brutal designs to eliminate the rival from the scene.

Awami League leaders feel that the grenade attack took place that day to kill the top leader of their party. Such incidents took place on 15 August 1975 and 3 November the same year. They see a link between 1975 and 2004.

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The grenade attack incident has had a deep impact on Bangladesh’s politics. It has rendered relations between the two parties even more bitter. An impenetrable wall has arisen between the two parties, a wall that cannot be surmounted unless a common enemy is found was for some time in the eighties. Efforts to overcome this hurdle would be a sign  of farsighted leadership befitting a statesman.

* Mohiuddin Ahmed is a writer and researcher.

** This op-ed, originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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