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Bangladesh: Street Protests and Blockades Tapering off: Firmness Pays

Paper No. 5910                                 Dated 09-Apr-2015

By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan

There are unmistakable signs that the street protests and blockades in Dhaka, Chittagong and elsewhere of the opposition combine- BNP and JEI are tapering off though there is no official statement from the parties of having withdrawn the agitation.

Since January 5, Bangladesh has been witnessing hartals and blockades almost every day till recently that resulted in death and destruction of innocent civilians and property.  It had also slowed down the economy which until the protests, had been doing fairly well.

With both sides the BNP and the Awami league  taking rigid positions there was a mistaken perception outside Bangladesh that the country was teetering on the brink of a disaster all due to contest over power between the two major parties and particularly because of the rivalry between the two main leaders Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.

A visit to Dhaka or other places except in a few strong holds of BNP would have shown that the so-called protests and blockades were becoming more and more of a farce with no public participation.  On the other hand, the people were getting fed up with the politicians in general and the BNP-JEI combine in particular for disturbing normal life, schools sessions and examinations with attempts to create an artificial shortage of essential commodities in the capital and other city centres of the country.

The JEI ( Jamaat-e-Islami) which had been indulging in targeted terror attacks on police, public properties and people were being freely used by the opposition BNP as cannon fodder to continue the violent attacks on people and property.

But since the last week of March there are signs of the protests tapering off though the opposition combine has not formally abandoned the hartal programme.  The signs as we see were:

* The BNP without making a formal announcement, entered the civic polls of both Dhaka- North and South and Chittagong.  Unlike the Awami League and its other constituents, BNP in view of its boycott of the general elections had no official positions in the administration and was therefore free to participate in the elections.

* As said before, the hartals and the blockades were becoming more of a farce with no participation of the public.  The Jamaat which produced the cadres for the violent protests in the last few months restricted itself to some token processions and their attention was diverted more on the sentencing of their leader Muhammad Kamaruzzaman to death for the war crimes.  ( Kamaruzzaman’s death sentence has been upheld and his review petition has since been rejected by a four-bench  Supreme Court).

* Most importantly, Khaleda Zia who was unwilling to leave her Gulshan Office actually out of fear of being locked out but claiming fears over her personal security, left her office and surrendered before the court on 5 April to obtain bail on two corruption cases for which warrants were pending. The Court granted bail and the prosecution also did not oppose the bail in view of “Khaleda’s status, social and political dignity and age.” This was said openly in the court. He should also have referred to Khaleda’s health too but did not.

* More surprising, Khaleda returned to her residence and the Police allowed the BNP cadres to break the lock of the office of BNP at Naya Paltan on April 4.   It may be recalled that Khaleda this time skipped her visit to the National Monument and pay homage to the martyrs on Independence day on March 26 which she usually does and more significantly did not even visit her husband’s grave on January 19 on his birth anniversary as she usually did, all out of fear of being locked out of her Gulshan office from where she was directing the agitation.   

* Lt. Gen. (Retd) Mahbibur Rahman, a BNP Standing Committee member described Khaleda’s appearance in the court as a “step forward” to overcome the ongoing political deadlock.

The ongoing political deadlock was one created by the BNP and the mayhem thus created can be stopped only by the BNP.  With Hasina not giving in on any issue, the party was getting desperate to find an “escape route” and the impending municipal elections in Dhaka and Chittagong came as a good excuse. 

A large number of BNP leaders are either in jail or underground. The party cannot continue with the election campaigning in such a situation and it has to succeed in the elections.  In one sense it was a desperate situation.  But it was also a win-win situation for them anyway.  If they win, it could always say that the party is popular and that had it participated in the General elections earlier it would have won.  If the party were to lose, it could go back to the allegations that they did not have a level playing field and were prevented from winning the elections! 

People were not only getting fed up with the hartals but they were angry too on the innocent lives that were being lost in the agitation.  If the hartals were to continue, it was getting clear that Awami League was getting stronger and correspondingly the BNP’s relevance was also getting diluted.

Has the BNP learnt a lesson?  Very unlikely.  But the party has finally realised that the street protests and the blockades have limits and people are not going to tolerate senseless political violence indefinitely. Care taker government or not, the Party is unlikely to boycott the next General Elections when held.

But what needs to be done is to control the activities of the Jamaat which under the protection and encouragement of the mainstream BNP has been mainly responsible for the violence perpetrated in the streets against security forces and innocent civilians.   Most of the fire bomb attacks were by them.  The recent recovery of large quantities of high quality explosives in March in Chittagong showed the involvement of JEI and its student wing.

The present Government had once conducted an investigation on the war crimes committed by the Jamaat.  A report on this strongly indicting the Jamaat and six other organisations of their involvement in pre liberation1971 is with the government.  It is perhaps time for the government to move against the Jamaat which perhaps may involve some amendment to the international tribunals that have been set up to try the war crimes.

It is to the credit of Sheikh Hasina that she stood firm in dealing with the three month long disturbances.  There was never a “civil war type” situation though the Security forces had suffered many casualties in controlling the agitation. 

Despite repeated calls from other western countries, the UN and other well meaning friends from the civic bodies, Hasina realised that giving in would have undermined her own position and that of her party.  Ultimately her “firmness” worked and the BNP had to desperately look for alternatives until they found the opportunity to participate in the elections.

Finally a word on the Indian policy that worked.  India did not get involved in trying for any compromise or brokering an agreement between the two groups despite suggestions from many quarters.  Hasina won her battle on her own.  But it is time that India goes ahead with the Land Boundary Agreement which is almost ready. A quick disposal of this issue will go a long way in strengthening the relations between India and Bangladesh.  It should be followed later but not before with the agreement on the sharing of Teesta waters.