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Wednesday 14 March 2012

Awami League's moral defeat: Govt holds Dhaka city hostage


Awami League's moral defeat: Government holds Dhaka city hostage

Mahfuz Anam

When does a government strangulate its capital city by preventing almost all modes of transport from reaching it? When does a government bring to a virtual halt almost all internal city movements? When does a government create such a panicky situation that traders do not open shops out of fear of vandalism? When does a government prevent its own citizens from carrying out their day to day activities? When do government leaders tell blatant lies on television while the truth is clearly the opposite? When does a ruling party let loose its goons upon normal citizens on suspicion that they might attend the opposition rally? When does an elected government adopt the most oppressive measure to prevent the opposition from holding a public rally?

Only when it is unsure of itself. A party confident of its popular base, sure of its public support, certain of the efficacy of its policies and surefooted about its public record would never have done what the ruling Awami League did yesterday to prevent the BNP from holding its public rally. What the ruling party did over the last two days to prevent mass participation in the opposition rally reveals a political party frightened of the strength of the opposition and loath to allow it to show it. In its massive show of strength the Awami League looked its weakest.

A party that only three and half years ago came to power with a massive four fifths majority in parliament should today be so frightened of a discredited (in the last election) opposition that it uses all, save the military, coercive machinery of the state to prevent its mass rally. What is it, if not a moral defeat?

The tragedy for the AL is that in attempting to suppress the opposition it has suppressed the citizens. Ordinary people were subjected to indescribable sufferings just to prevent the BNP from holding its rally. People who had nothing to do with the opposition's programme were searched, harassed, verbally abused and prevented from coming to Dhaka for their personal work on suspicion that they might join the rally. We have reports of job seekers scheduled to reach the Middle East not allowed to travel to Dhaka even after showing their tickets and passports. We have eyewitnesses to the fact that most launches were stopped at the point of origin and the few arriving at Sadarghat were prevented from reaching the shore and forced to go to far away jetties to let their passengers disembark, who then were stranded without any means of reaching their destinations. And we are not even talking of people arrested on suspicion and held in jails all over the country.

We published photographs of stick wielding ruling party goons attacking passengers of buses and launches in order to prevent them from reaching Dhaka. What mindset, what myopia, what perverted logic, what disregard for ordinary people could have allowed a government party to permit its activists to attack ordinary passengers whose only "crime" was to want to come to Dhaka. Seldom can we find examples of such disrespect for the fundamental rights of the people. Is this the ruling party's example of democracy?

We also condemn the fact that the mass media, especially the electronic media, were prevented from fully carrying out their professional duties during yesterday's opposition programme. Several TV stations were barred from airing uninterrupted live coverage of the rally. A few channels that were covering stories of public sufferings during the course of the day were visited by intelligence people and told to tone down their coverage. In other cases the cable operators were partially prevailed upon to take some channels off the air during the peak hours of the opposition's rally. Such blatant interference in the media's function amounts to suppression of the freedom of the media and public's inalienable right to know.

The oppressive measures the ruling party resorted to in order to prevent the BNP rally has shocked us all. The use of police, the intelligence agencies, and late last night, the BGB stunned the ordinary citizens are to why such a massive show of states repressive machinery was necessary. The government's apology of an explanation that it was only trying to prevent the opposition from creating chaos was neither credible nor acceptable in the absence of any proof. The more the government leaders repeated this narrative the more they sounded hollow and more their real intention became clear.

The question today is not what BNP did or how big was its rally, but what the ruling Awami League did. It showed a most ugly repressive face. It demonstrated that it would not hesitate to take any measure, however harsh, use any coercive instrument of state, impose any amount of sufferings on ordinary people, tell their fibs regardless of what the truth is, impose needless restrictions on public movement to prevent the opposition from carrying out protest activities permitted in a democracy. It may not realize that by its actions of the last two days the AL's image as a party that believes in democracy stands seriously damaged and its claim that it wants the opposition to play its legitimate role stands questioned.

We are sorry that Khaleda Zia has called a hartal on the 29th of this month, which we are opposed to in principle. But the issue of some sort of neutral body presiding over the election period and allowing the Election Commission to function freely is a legitimate question that AL cannot wish away. Here the opposition is right and the ruling party is wrong. The latter will have to concede on this point if it wants an election participated by all parties. Terming all BNP's actions as attempts to subvert the war crimes trial is a misconceived strategy and may have the opposite effect than intended. It is true that the BNP's position on the war crimes trial is condemnable (we will write separately on it) but its demand for an interim government for free and fair elections is justified.

We want to say in clear terms that the AL's policy towards the opposition, as exhibited in the last two days, is fundamentally undemocratic, legally untenable and practically unsustainable. What if the opposition calls for a similar programme a few months later? Will the government strangulate the country again for days? Will the public accept such sufferings again and again? As a country that proudly tells the world of its democracy such behaviour from its ruling party is totally unacceptable. The quicker the AL learns it, the better it is for its prospects in the next polls.


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