If you want to kill your dog, accuse him of having rabies. That's a French proverb. Similar sentiment is expressed in different ways in different places. Like, give a dog a bad name. In short, if you want to harass someone, first besmirch his reputation.
In Bangladesh we have seen the varied use of such defamatory strategy. For example, those involved in Sarbahara politics were all accused of being 'robbers'. People are categorised by what they their wear. Individuals are intentionally misquoted so as to evoke public anger against them and pitch them into danger. In Bangladesh the recent trend has been to defame persons as terrorists or anti-independence elements and then take repressive action against them. Is that is what is happening in the country now, in the backdrop of the 28 October incidents?
After the incidents of that day, Bangladesh's politics has been taken in a different direction solely based on the one-sided narrative of the government. According to the government's statements, BNP carried out sabotage on that day, attacking the chief justice's house, assaulting the police and even killing a member of the police force. What the government is totally overlooking is that at least one BNP activist was killed (some say three), a journalist died and many BNP activists were injured. BNP's massive rally was disrupted by sound grenades and tear gas.
This version of the 28 October incidents was presented within just a few hours of the happenings. Based on that, a hundred or so cases were filed within the next few days, 10,000 or so BNP leaders and activists were arrested, including the party's top leaders, thousands of other leaders and activists are being kept in fear, and BNP activists have been killed during clashes in various areas.
Even just two weeks ago, BNP and the other opposition political parties had created pressure for free and fair elections, by means of their massive public rallies. But all this has been almost totally suppressed by means of arrests, cases and attacks. The opposition's programmes are now restricted to stealthy hartals (general strike) and blockades. More BNP men are being arrested during these programmes, on charges of setting fire to cars or from the street processions (though there are also allegations that Awami League men and people in police uniform are setting fire to the vehicles).
By means of the 28 October events, scope has been created for the government to fulfill its declared mission to hold the election in the system of its choice. But the government hasn't been able to dispel the questions raised at home and abroad about these events and government's sweeping arrests. On the contrary, the actions taken by the government on 28 October and afterwards have created questions as to whether these were legally justified actions or the implementation of the government's politics of defamation.
We do not know for certain how the clashes of 28 October started. But we do now that prior to the event, the instigation had been from the government side (having rallies on the same day, the call to bringing sticks and poles on the day of the programme and threats to carry out repression like they did in the case of Hefazat). The instigation on the day of the event was also from the government side (the Gazipur mayor's convoy of cars with the activists carrying sticks passing close by BNP's meeting). The police could have easily defused this instigation by diverting the vehicles to a different route (like Intercontinental-Shahbagh). It is the basic duty of the police to alleviate fears of such clashes. The police did not do so.
On 28 October we saw some youth damage cars with sticks near the chief justice's house while the police looked on. The police did nothing to stop them, did not arrest them. That is why perhaps even the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also alleged involvement of the pro-government elements in the damage of the chief justice's house.
We do not quite understand how the violence spread after that. However, at one point we did see the police and BNP activists in confrontation and that a member of the police was brutally beaten to death on the footpath. As a political party, Awami League can accuse BNP of being responsible for the incident. But the police made such allegations without any investigation or inquiry. They cannot do that.
The actions taken by the government side since then indicate that the events of 28 October had been unleashed with the intent of putting the blame on BNP. Immediately after the incidents of violence and death of the policeman, the police disrupted BNP's rally which was being held at a distance from the spot. They cordoned off the BNP office and declared it to be a crime scene. No one was allowed to enter.
There is no longer any government institution that has the capacity or the will to challenge the one-sided narrative of the government or to make an inquiry into the incidents of 28 October
After that began the police's indiscriminate filing of cases and arrests. In the past we had seen people being beaten to death with oars and poles, but those who had openly called for this were never arrested. Before 28 October, Awami League leaders had issued threats and the activists had behaved in a menacing manner (creating chaos with sticks and attacking BNP men), but none of they were accused or charged for their actions.
Yet the BNP secretary general, who had persistently called for a peaceful rally, and many other leaders and activists, were arrested en masse. So many cases and arrests centering a single day's incident, is unprecedented in Bangladesh's political history. It is heard that attempts are being made to coerce those who have been arrested into taking part in the election as the government wants it.
There is no way that these measures being taken by the government can be regarded in isolation. Over the past few years hundreds of fictitious and concocted cases had been filed against BNP leaders and activists, accusing them to sabotage, subversive activities and attempts to kill the police. Steps have been taken so that the accused BNP men can be speedily sentenced by keeping the court functioning even at night and making the police give testimony in court regarding false accusations. Given all these actions, there is plenty of scope to question the veracity of the government's narrative concerning 28 October, the justification of the steps they have adopted and the objective of their holding the election in accordance to their plans.
The problem is that there is no longer any government institution that has the capacity or the will to challenge the one-sided narrative of the government or to make an inquiry into the incidents of 28 October. Even the media and the civil society are to a great extent controlled or suppressed.
Under these circumstances, with its authoritarian powers that have grown over the past 15 years, it is possible for the government to place all blame on BNP and go ahead with yet another one-sided election. But that will not resolve the crisis of the country. Only recently the economist Hossain Zillur Rahman, in an article published in the Daily Star, said if another questionable election is held in the country, the democratic and economic crisis will worsen and, other than a handful of people, everyone will suffer.
Given the experience of the 2014 and the 2018 elections, many share this apprehension. I believe that is why the incidents of 28 October have dismayed and depressed the people. For many, many years a large number of people in this country have been deprived of the right to vote. For many years they have had no genuine representative. These issues raise questions. Perhaps that is what will happen in the 2024 election too. The recent repressive actions and statements of the government indicate so. But the question remains, do we have the strength to swallow and digest such an election in face of the economic crisis, multifarious pressures from foreign quarters, the looting and mismanagement that prevails? In this critical juncture of the nation, thought must certainly be given to these matters.
* Asif Nazrul is professor of the law department law at Dhaka University.
* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir