Last week, I had the misfortune (and that is the only way I can describe it) of witnessing the effect of a country-wide strike (Hartal) in Bangladesh that was called by the opposition 18-party alliance, led by Madam Khaleda Zia’s BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party). The strike was for 60 hours and it was extremely violent. The opposition wanted a total closure of everything – all government offices, business centers, educational institutes, and even all forms of road and rail communication networks – totally paralyzing the country.
Protests of this kind are nothing new in Bangladesh and are a common feature, esp. during the election time. Bangladesh is scheduled to have a parliamentary election early next year. Public worries are around fairness of that election and the transfer of power. Although Bangladesh government has an Election Commission (EC) to ensure a fair election to take place the opposition alliance does not believe that it is neutral or would remain so during the important parliament election. This doubt is somewhat exasperating to the ruling party given the fact that in recently held municipal elections, the EC demonstrated its neutrality in which candidates affiliated with the ruling Awami League were defeated miserably. The opposition says that those municipal elections were more like baits used by the ruling party to draw the opposition alliance to accept the government proposal. It wants a caretaker government instead to conduct the election, more like what had been the norm in Bangladesh since 1991.
Interestingly, every time after the election since 1991, the incumbent party has lost which had accused that the election was unfair and hijacked by the caretaker government, which was biased in making sure that it lost. So, why this fallacy about hosting an election under a caretaker government when no matter how neutral it was and how fairly it may have been conducted the election process, the losers are always going to cry foul?
The ruling alliance of Sheikh Hasina does not want the next election to be held under a caretaker government and says that it wants to conduct it following the dictates of the constitution in ways that have become the norms in all democratic countries around the globe. That is, it wants to hold the election when it is in office, albeit under some restrictions imposed a priori by the EC, and not under a caretaker government. It has brought in constitutional amendments to justify its stand, which it says will avoid a repeat of 1/11. The problem is: the opposition alliance does neither trust in the sincerity of the ruling alliance nor the constitutional amendment.
Since no major political leader wants to compromise in this current political tug of war, street politics with corpses, sadly, has become the fate of this unfortunate nation of 154 million people, resulting in violent clashes, injuries and deaths, let alone suffering of the people.
In the last week’s 60-hour protest, nearly 20 individuals had died. A young girl lost her two eyes. The low-income day laborers, rickshaw pullers, and vendors could not work and suffered miserably. Some of them were beaten mercilessly by the members of the opposition parties who did not want them to work or go out. Trains were derailed, smashed and set on fire, injuring many and killing some. Buses, cars, trucks and taxis were set on fire. Some drivers were pulled out from their vehicles, beaten and killed. Even offices, shops and business centers were not spared of this senseless violence. It was a total breakdown of law and order, and police had difficulty controlling. Some of its own members had suffered serious injuries.
I don’t know of any country which witnesses this kind of criminal violence during an anti-government protest. I am told that every day Bangladesh lost some 1.6 billion taka as a result of the nation-wide closure. Students who were scheduled to take their A or O level test could not appear, thus falling behind by a year. It is a big loss for those students and their parents. But none of these losses, pains and sufferings seems to matter to either the ruling alliance or its opposition. Without a compromising formula, the people had to suffer. And this kind of violent protest will go on until a compromise is reached, which seems highly unlikely. As I write, the opposition alliance has called for another 3-day total shutdown strike beginning on Monday. That is sure to further worsen the prevailing delicate situation.
I am sure a reasonable solution can be found if the parties are willing to make some concessions. If they don’t get to that desired solution, they will take the country to a situation in which a repeat of the so-called 1/11 when military took control would become inevitable. And this time, guessing the public mood, a minus-two formula (i.e., without both madams Hasina and Khaleda – the leaders of the two major parties in the country) may become the reality, whether either the powerful business leaders or the major political party leaders of the country like it or not. That would be a sad event for an emerging democracy, which has failed to learn the D of democracy in the last 42 years of its existence as an independent nation!
As I see it, politics has become an investment these days – a big one, which I must add, in which every investor wants to win. This is true everywhere, even in the western democracies like the USA. The cost of defeat at a party level is simply unacceptable under the current setup for many politicians. But only in an illiberal democracy like Bangladesh, the losing party loses all the government connections for business dealings, tenders and contracts, flow of money to its region and the potential benefits thereof that could be passed on to its cadre and the sycophants, let alone the sponsors and lobbies. Even if they are elected to the parliament, as a member of the opposition party, no money may flow into those areas from which they are elected.
Unless, therefore, this culture of cost of defeat is addressed, i.e., reduced to a minimum, I see little hope that Bangladesh would move forward in which pre- and post-election era violence would become an exception and not a norm. For this to happen, however, not only does Bangladesh require an effective shadow government to monitor the activities of the government, but it must also make sure that her politicians understand that the Bangladeshi pie is a big one which can be shared between all its members, and that democracy need not mean a majoritarian rule in which the winner – the majority party - takes it all, and that legitimate grievances and demands of the opposition members are heard and addressed properly.
I, thus, believe that simply moving to a caretaker government will not in itself solve the post-election era violence and the rejection of the election outcome on the part of the losing party. These are all the alarming episodic symptoms of a chronic legal, economic and political sickness and not the root causes. Unless the fundamental issues around that cost of defeat are addressed, the politics of violence and insanity will not ebb an iota in Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi politicians have forgotten that we have only one tongue and only one mouth to talk, but two ears and two eyes to listen and see. Instead, they are terrible listeners, and behave like the deaf, dumb and blind (soom-moom, book-moon, oom-youn). Just a recently released video of phone conversation between the leaders of the two major parties is sufficient to prove my case here. This attitude must change so that they can respect each other and do what the nation deserves from them. If the political leaders can’t tolerate each other as fellow human beings, politics is a wrong profession for them in a democracy.
Leadership is ultimately about accountability – to God the Creator and to His creation. If one is oblivious of that hard fact, only ruination awaits that person both in this world and in the afterlife. It was this fear of accountability which led Amir-ul-Mu’meneen, the Caliph, Umar ibn Khattab (R) to say 14 centuries ago, “Should a lost goat die in the Shat al-‘Arab I tend to think that Allah, the Most Exalted, will question me about it on the Day of Judgment.” [Wisdom of Mankind; Hilyat’ul Awliya wa Tabaqatul Asfiya] If that be the concern of a ruler for a mere goat, how about saving human lives? Don’t they deserve better as the best of the creation?
Surely, the Bangladeshi nation hates bloodshed, but craves for sustainable peace and prosperity. And its politicians can deliver this if they have the will and sincerity of intention and purpose. But do they?