Why 28 October? What may happen then?

The last day of the BNP-led four-party coalition government was 28 October 2006. It was on that day that the prime minister Khaleda Zia tended in her resignation to the president. But till then, it hadn't been decided with whom the caretaker government would be constituted.

In accordance to the constitution, it was the recent chief justice KM Hasan who was to be the chief advisor of the caretaker government. But the Awami League-led 14 party alliance had already declared that they would not accept that. They contended that it was to ensure KM Hasan would be made chief justice that the age limit of the justices had been extended. KM Hasan had at one point of time been involved in BNP politics.

Awami League had said that if KM Hasan was made chief advisor, they would carry out a continuous blockade programme. Centering 28 October back then, tension prevailed in Dhaka city. Awami League declared a rally in Paltan Maidan and told its activists to come to the rally armed with poles and oars. On the same day BNP had called for a rally in front of its party office in Naya Paltan and Jamaat at the north gate of Baitul Mukarram. The belligerent preparations by both sides gave rise of apprehensions of violence.

Given the circumstances, Dhaka Metropolitan Police deployed around 15,000 members of the police force in Dhaka on 28 October, prohibiting any gatherings of rallies in and around Paltan Maidan of the capital. Leaders and activists of the Awami League-led 14 party clashed with those of Jamaat-e-Islami near Baitul Mukarram. Four activists of Jamaat and one of Workers Party were killed in the violence. On that day, 11 people were killed nationwide.

The conflict at that time was over the ninth parliamentary polls. KM Hasan eventually did not take office as chief advisor. President Iajuddin Ahmed did not consider the other alternatives and himself became the chief advisor.

This time the problem is even deeper and more complex. The caretaker government had constitutional safeguards then. That is not there now. Awami League wants to hold the election within the perimeters of the constitution. Just as Awami League was adamant back in 1995-96, BNP is also adamant that the caretaker government be established once again.

Now once again the two sides are at loggerheads as 28 October draws near. Awami League was in the opposition at the time. This time BNP is in the opposition. Speculations run rife in the public mind. What will happen on 28 October? Why did BNP choose 18 October? Will there be a repetition of what occurred 17 years ago?

Back them Awami League's ultimatum had been that KM Hasan could not be made chief advisor. This time BNP's demand is for the government to resign before the election. BNP leaders has said that the 'maha jatra' or 'grand venture' to oust the government will start from the grand rally.

Colleague journalist Anowar Hossain's report has indications of how Awami League is viewing this ultimatum of BNP. He writes, "The government and Awami League at the moment are placing highest importance on BNP’s grand rally slated for 28 October. Many of the party leaders consider this as a final hard-hitting and lethal action of BNP as the government nears the end of its term. That is why they plan to create pressure so that the BNP rally will not be too large or to prevent it from even taking place at all."   

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For a year or so now Awami League has been keeping sharp watch on BNP. They are determined that BNP should not gain sole control of the streets. And BNP has kept Awami League under a sort of watch too, by holding all sorts of programmes and events. Both sides feel that whoever can keep the streets under control, will be the winners. But there is no one to keep guard over the owners of the state, that is, the people. They are always faced with insecurity.

Awami League leaders have reminded BNP of 10 December last year. BNP had prepared for a large gathering in Dhaka on that date. They were determined to hold a large rally in from of their party office in Dhaka city. The government, on the other hand, was determined not to allow them to hold the rally in front of the party office. The two sides locked in altercation over the matter. It was a tug-of-war over the venue issue. The government proposed one venue, BNP rejected it. In the meantime, the police raided the homes of BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and standing committee member Mirza Abbas at midnight and arrested them.  

BNP's mistake back then had been to stubbornly insist on Naya Paltan as its rally venue even though permission had been given for Suhrawardy Udyan. Had they accepted Suhrawardy Maidan as the venue, then perhaps the mishap of December could have been averted.

What will happen on 28 October? If BNP is not obstructed from holding their rally, then perhaps nothing will happen. They will announce a fresh programme. A new ultimatum will be issued. Talking to BNP leaders it seems that they want to carry on their programme till 7 November if the schedule isn't announced within that time. They will gain political momentum if they can carry on their programme till 7 November. Ziaur Rahman came to power on 7 November 1975 through the 'sepoy mutiny'.

It depends on the actions of the ruling party as to whether the situation will be peaceful or heated. If they don't want to step on toes to create trouble, then perhaps things will remain peaceful. But if they put any obstructions, then perhaps a conflict would be inevitable. The government reaped dividends by adopting this strategy last December, but that may not happen this time round.

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

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet  

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