It seems as if Khaleda Zia just can’t shake off the ‘state of emergency’. She went to jail once during the state of emergency and then, for the second time, in 2018 during the rule of the government which came to power through the constitutionally-held 5 January election. The case was filed, though, during the state emergency. Both the two paramount leaders of the country were jailed at that time, now Khaleda Zia is serving the sentence alone. She is all alone in the isolated prison of Nazimuddin Road.
The political restrictions of the state of emergency were first relaxed and then abolished, but the BNP did not benefit from this. Ever since the mahajote (grand alliance) government came to power, it has been subjecting the BNP to a continuous stream of arrests, attacks and restrictions, throwing the party into a situation of emergency. Previously Khaleda Zia had been incarcerated for 372 days. Who knows how long the lady will remain behind bars this time? The count has just begun.
It is not just Khaleda Zia and the thousands of BNP leaders that are facing this predicament - the party’s supporters are living in an apparent state of emergency, too. They cannot freely take part in any political activities. The spectre of oppression, arrests and imprisonments loom large. Every time an incident takes place, a few hundred or even a few thousand of BNP activists are detained. If nearly half of the people in this country support this party, then that means the political rights of a huge number of people are being curbed, as during the state of emergency. The state of emergency may not be imposed per se, but they are in a virtual vortex of emergency.
Are they the only sufferers? Any form of protest is now risky. Firstly section 57 of the proposed digital security act, then section 32, and then laws to harass journalists and a host of other threats all indicate that not everyone has the right to politics, to public meetings and free expression. Those who are obstructed, who fear, who are deprived of the rights of a free citizen, will suffer the same as during the emergency of 2007-08.
The state of emergency is nothing new in Bangladesh and perhaps has not ended. This cannot be explained with constitutional definitions. In fact, if such definitions are expanded a bit, it will indicate that Bangladesh has actually been in a permanent state of emergency since its birth. It is not just political crises, but social and natural crises that seem to have taken a permanent grip on the lives of a large section of the population. And the people are used as an excuse by the governments to suppress their political opponents.
In keeping with Article 141 C (1) of the constitution, during the 2007 state of emergency it was said that a state of emergency prevails in the country in which Bangladesh’s security and economic life was threatened by internal turmoil. Many accepted this contention. Even now, many are willing to swallow that development excuse to repress the opposition.
Anyway, Bangladesh is always going through the turmoil which was used as an excuse to impose emergency on 11 January 2007. There was turmoil for quite some time before and after the 5 January elections of 2014. And now, as the national election approaches, that fear of turmoil arises again.
During the 5 January election, 154 members of parliament were elected uncontested and many of the others were ‘elected’ without any votes. This put a big dent into Bangladesh’s culture of democratic representation. Though the excuse for this election was to uphold constitutional continuity, in effect it was the continuity of power. Coercion is the only means to cling on to power in this manner. In any state of emergency, the state relies more on use of force as a tool rather than the rule of law.
In democracy, the use of force is covered by the glove of law. It remains behind the scenes, with the façade of dialogue and understanding in the forefront. An election is an understanding where power changes hands without the use of force, and the government is renewed. Those who have more support, do not need to resort to the use of force. But the rule which has more dominance than support, is called dominance without hegemony. We saw such dominance without hegemony during the British and the Pakistan rule.
The question is, with the scope for understanding slipping away from both sides, are we once again entering the game of force? To all appearances, so far the BNP has taken up peaceful tactics to face the government’s fresh use of force. But how far will this peaceful stance sustain, given the en masse arrests and the repression? A rose will spread its fragrance no matter by what name it is called. And no matter how we term it, free and fair elections are imperative for democracy. And that calls for an environment conducive to elections, so no one’s back is pushed up against the wall. There is need for space to move about, for dialogue.
It is not just within the political parties alone. Such democratic negotiations and dialogue will not take place in any sphere of the state automatically. It will only happen when all concerned will realise that it is beneficial to reach an understanding. Towards the end of the last emergency, we saw that the political and non-political quarters were more or less obliged to hold dialogue at home and abroad. And that eventually manifest in the 29 December 2008 election. If the consequence of that understanding was good, then why cannot something like that happen again?
This understanding came about with both the leaders behind bars. So though Khaleda Zia is interned, that does not mean that dialogue cannot be held with her or with her party.
* Faruk Wasif is an assistant editor at Prothom Alo. This column, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.