Winter is the time for political leaders to wake up in Bangladesh, don their panjabis and shawls and take to the podium to deliver their fiery speeches. The ruling party leaders spew verbal vitriol at the opposition and the opposition political leaders lash back in raging rhetoric. But coronavirus has put a dampener on that flurry of heated political activities.
But there were sparks on the day of the Dhaka-18 bye-election on Thursday when buses were set on fire around the city. In fact, 11 buses were set aflame. Now speculations abound as to who were behind this arson, why was it done and whether it had any connection with the bye-polls.
Things were no different from any of the other elections held under the present election commission. After the election schedule was announced, the prospective candidates of the two major political parties went around the localities, campaigning and putting up posters, exerting their existence. Then there was the race for nomination, with the aspirants rushing to the drawing rooms of the senior leaders. Nominating the Awami League candidate was peaceful, but there were hitches in the BNP nomination. Stones were hurled at the house of the party's secretary general and there were expulsions too.
The ruling party and the opposition are now pointing fingers at each other concerning the Dhaka-18 bye-polls. Awami League is saying that BNP's participation in the bye-election was nothing but eyewash. BNP says that the election commission and the ruling party had made the election a total farce. They had snatched away people's voting rights.
It was the chief election commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda who came up with a statement nothing short of incredible. He said that America could learn about elections from Bangladesh. He said it takes America four to five days to get their election results, but his election commission announces the election results in just five minutes.
Critics responded that the manner in which the CEC conducted the elections, it didn't even need five minutes to announce the results, not even one minute. The results were fixed well in advance.
Elections were always held with must festivity and fanfare in Bangladesh. Alongside the media, local and foreign observers would also be enthusiastic about the elections. They would visit the polling centres to observe the voting. Now when the journalists turn up, a 'photo session' is staged.
When the Dhaka-18 bye-election results had been announced, Awami League leaders said that it had been proven yet again that the people had rejected BNP. But the results of the voting certainly did not indicate that the people had warmly ushered in Awami League with open arms.
The voter turnout at the Dhaka-18 bye-election was 14 per cent. That means 86 per cent of the people did not cast their votes. Earlier, there had been a 6 per cent turnout in another bye-election in Dhaka. While the CEC said that America should learn about elections from Bangladesh, another commissioner, Mahbub Talukdar, said that the standard of election has fallen even below that of 2018.
The ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP are now in a mud-slinging match over the 11 buses being set on fire in Dhaka city on the day of the bye-election. Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader said, BNP has carried out its arson and violence just as in 2013. There was video footage of the buses being burned, with all old and known faces.
There is no one who can say they saw the buses being set on fire. Neither has anyone in the police nor the intelligence agencies said they saw anyone carry out the misdeed. But the buses were burned. If only the burnt buses could speak!
BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said that even a TV channel reported that an activist of the ruling party's student front Chhatra League had been arrested in the incident. The activist said he had been paid and brought there by Awami League men.
Evidence is essential for the trial of any crime. And the evidence must be gathered through thorough and credible investigation. But even before any investigation, the leaders have identified the 'criminals'. There is no indication of any proper investigation being carried out regarding the matter.
Prothom Alo reported on Sunday that even the plaintiff was not aware of the case. If the complainant does not know about the case, how were the charges filed, how were the accused named? Dulal Howladar, the owner of a minibus burnt in Khilkhet, said he had not filed any case. The police of Khilkhet police station had made him sign a blank sheet of paper. Then a case was filed at the Khilkhet police station in the name of minibus owner Dulal Howladar, against 114 leaders and activists of BNP, including the party's bye-election candidate SM Jahangir.
Dulal Howladar said he does not know any of the BNP leaders and activists. He wasn't even near the place when the bus was set on fire. So the matter of 114 BNP men being named in the case remains a mystery.
Ishraque Hossain, BNP's executive committee member and son of former mayor Sadeq Hossain Khoka, has been named as an accused in the case of burning another bus. Yet he is in isolation due to coronavirus.
There are 647 persons accused including BNP's standing committee member Gayeshwar Chandra Roy, deputy organising secretary Khandakar Mashukur Rahman, Jubo Dal president Saiful Alam, general secretary Sultan Salahuddin, Chhatra Dal president Fazlul Rahman and general secretary Iqbal Hossain. So far 36 have been arrested and 27 of them have been taken on remand. Confessional statements in all likelihood will be extracted from them while on remand. Where living persons die of fear during police remand, it will not be difficult to get 'confessional' statements about the burning of the 11 buses. But it is highly doubtful whether the truth of the matter will emerge.
In the capital city Dhaka, 11 buses were set on fire at different areas within a matter of a few hours, yet the government's law enforcement agencies and the intelligence agencies were clueless. There was no video footage of the incidents except for the burning of one of the buses. How is that possible?
In the past, bomb blasts and arson took place over some programme or the other. This could have been blockades and hartals of the opposition or public rallies. The government obstructs such programmes and the opposition leaders and activists respond with violence. But on Thursday there was no political party programme. The government too hadn't launched any drive against any party. So who set fire to the buses?
Miscreants set fire to the buses. There is no one who can say they saw the buses being set on fire. Neither has anyone in the police or the intelligence agencies said they saw anyone carry out the misdeed. But the buses were burned. If only the burnt buses could speak!
*Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at email@example.com. This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir