Cooperation, non-cooperation and who’s responsible for the violence

A pickup van is vandalised during the clashes between the leaders and activists of Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) in Kakrail, Dhaka on 28 October 2023.Sazid Hossain

Those who had imagined BNP’s very existence would be obliterated after the 28 October incident, have proven to be very wrong and the ruling coterie is understanding that only too well. Again, those who had thought that the election could be prevented by hartals (strikes) and blockades, have also proven to be mistaken. No election could be thwarted so far in Bangladesh by means of any movements.

Bangladesh’s politics is now divided into two sides. One side is going all out to generate enthusiasm for the 7 January election. The other side is carrying out one programme after the other, calling for a rejection of the election. But the people, who are the owners of the country according to the constitution, have been thrust into a state of insecurity and uncertainty.

It is indeed unfortunate that the political leaders of the country that won independence though a liberation war, have still not been able to reach a consensus on an election. Certain political pundits see an ideological conflict between Awami League and BNP. Even if that is so, Awami League can go to the people to highlight its policies, ideology and programmes. BNP can highlight it policies, ideology and programmes before the voters. The voters can chose whoever they like. But the voters haven’t been given that chance.

Rather than non-cooperation, the BNP leadership should think of cooperation with the people, establishing direct contact with the people. BNP has routinely been calling for hartals and blockades every week. The people, however, are hardly responding to these programmes
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Political parties in almost all countries of the world have ideological differences. But that does not mean they’ll keep the other out of the election fray or remain away from the polls. In Bangladesh, whoever is in power makes an effort to swing the election in their own favour and take up strategies accordingly. The BNP government first created controversy by extending the age limit for judges. The Awami League government exacerbated the controversy by removing the caretaker government system from the constitution before the full verdict of the court was passed in this regard.

We also need to remember that the caretaker system is not the ideal for elections to be held in any country. But when a political leadership loses all qualification, capability and impartiality to hold a free and fair election, then there is no alternative to a caretaker or non-partisan government. For the sake of argument if we say that Awami League did away with the caretaker system in order to uphold the spirit of the constitution, even then the question remains, why could they not hold free, fair and inclusive elections in 2014 and 2018? Why was the latter election even more controversial than the former?

Even though the two sides held inflexible stances before 28 October, the people had hoped that they would eventually reach a consensus. But instead of reaching a consensus, the two sides took on almost frontline battle positions. The government sent thousands of BNP leaders and activists to prison on charges of ‘terrorism and sabotage’. And BNP took up hartals, blockades and non-cooperation as the last resort in its movement. The opposition parties in Bangladesh have held hartals and blockades before, but this is the very first time that there has been a call for non-cooperation. In the height of unrest during March 1971, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had called for a non-cooperation movement against the Pakistan rulers, and the people of all walks of life actively complied. Bangladesh had been running at the behest of Bangabandhu. The situation is entirely different now.

Before taking up its programmes, BNP did not even consult with the 63 other parties in the movement. It is not only the ruling Awami League that has a Big Brother attitude. BNP has such an attitude too. A senior leader of Ganatantra Mancha said on a private TV channel show, “BNP has not discussed matters with us, but we have moral support for this programme.”

Again, there are questions about the sort of non-cooperation. BNP has called upon the people not to pay gas, water and electricity bills and not to carry out bank transactions. The thing is, firstly, does BNP have the power to challenge the government and the administration in this manner? Secondly, does BNP believe the people en masse will refuse to pay their electricity, gas and water bills and halt their bank transactions? Calling for programmes to which the people will not respond, will simply weaken and isolate the party further.

Rather than non-cooperation, the BNP leadership should think of cooperation with the people, establishing direct contact with the people. BNP has routinely been calling for hartals and blockades every week. The people, however, are hardly responding to these programmes. Long haul buses may not come from outside the city much during hartals and blockades due to the lack of passengers, however Dhaka city still has its traffic jams. On the other hand, it is the people who are suffering due to the buses and trains being set on fire during these programmes. Three bogeys of the Mohanganj Express were set on fire and four people, including a mother and child, died. Who will take responsibility?

According to the fire service, over the two months since the 28 October incident, around 258 vehicles were set on fire during the BNP hartals and blockades. In the latest incident, miscreants set fire to three buses in Gulistan, Mirpur and Kalabagan of the capital city on the night before Sunday’s blockade. BNP leaders claim this to be the work of the ruling quarters. The government claims BNP is carrying out arson. Where will this all end? How many more lives must be lost for an election? In how many more fires will we have to burn?

The BNP leaders should take up programmes that connect directly with the people. They may not be able to hold large anti-election rallies due to restrictions from the home ministry, but there are no restrictions on meeting the people, holding human chain programmes and distributing leaflets. BNP has not called for any fresh hartals or blockades after the Sunday blockade. This is positive. For a stretch of three days they will meet the people and distribute leaflets from Tuesday to Thursday. They should take up programmes that will bring them closer to the people.

Meanwhile, those in power must realise that the political crisis will not simply clear up if an election is somehow or the other held on 7 January. Both the government and the opposition need to reorganise their political actions.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor at Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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