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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bangladesh: Are our leaders at war against citizens?

Otherwise how can they be so destructive?


In wars, enemies not only destroy the soldiers and weapons of their opponents but also each other’s industries, agriculture, roads, bridges, food supply chain, etc., with the express purpose of making the common people of the opponent’s country suffer.

The way our two leaders are refusing to reach any compromise, the indifference they are showing about the impact of their actions on our industry, agricultural products, income of the poor, disruption of food supply chain, etc.,  force us to ask the question as to whether or not they are at war against a country called Bangladesh. Is it their wish to make our common people suffer? Is it their wish that our productive capacities built at huge expense and with exceptional leadership be destroyed? Is it their wish that we return to the label of a ‘basket case’ after having proven so determinedly and forcefully that the original remark was based on false premises?

If not, then how can they be pushing the country and its people towards an end that everybody knows will be disastrous? How can they be disrupting education of all levels of students and demoralising them in ways that are making them lose faith in the future of the country? How can they continue to call hartals and blockades for weeks, pushing more and more people below the poverty line? How can they knowingly create a situation which will inevitably lead to RMG buyers shifting to other countries? How can they set fire to public transport, killing and burning innocent travellers and commuters? How can they be destroying state and private properties in the way that mercenaries do inside enemy territories? How can they be just onlookers while our dream for a better future slowly but surely fades?

Some of us may brush aside the above questions as rather exaggerated. Bangladesh, they will say, has seen similar political crises before and has survived. So will it again. While we hope that they prove to be correct, we still have reasons to believe that the situation is far graver than before.

The level and cruel nature of the violence that we have seen this time around has surpassed the violence of the past in intensity and fury. Throwing petrol bombs into a running bus full of passengers can have only one purpose — kill people. Setting fire to vehicles with people inside cannot but have only one aim — kill people. From January till date, 174 people have been killed and more than 4,600 injured. This makes for an average of 14.5 citizens of Bangladesh killed per month and 383 injured. These deaths are from political violence alone. The question is: Why should even a single citizen die just because our two leaders refuse to compromise?

What are these two leaders fighting for anyway? Sheikh Hasina wants to stick to the present constitution and Khaleda Zia wants to go back to the previous version     of it.

What is the reason for Sheikh Hasina’s sudden love for this constitution? Because she amended it to her liking in 2011, without consulting anybody, and abolished the caretaker government system meant to oversee national elections every five years. Why is an election time government so vital? Because our history says that every government uses the state machinery to influence the election. If we recall, it was Sheikh Hasina and her party that popularised the idea of the caretaker government and forced Begum Zia and her party — vehemently opposed to the idea — to incorporate it in the constitution in 1996.

The reason was as clear as it was simple. The incumbent government cannot be trusted to hold a free and fair election. So the incumbent government must go and be replaced with a neutral caretaker government that will hold a free and fair election. People accepted this argument and went along with the AL and its chief’s proposition.

Today, ironically, the situation stands totally reversed. The original proponent has now abolished it and the original opponent now wants it. And we, the people, must die because they cannot agree about it.

What is most disgusting is the duplicity and immorality of it all. The very arguments that the AL is putting forward today against the caretaker government system — continuity of the constitution, unelected people running the government, etc — were the very ones (in fact the wordings are the same) given by the BNP in 1996. And, conversely, what the BNP is saying today in favour of the caretaker government were the same arguments given by the AL to justify why its leaders wanted it. Both have shifted their respective positions because it increases their chances of, for one, retaining power and, for the other, capturing it.

Thus there is no principle, no ideology, no moral or ethical questions involved in today’s standoff between Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia. It is a clear case of fighting for power and the people and the country be damned.

As a freedom fighter and as a proud citizen of this country, I feel ashamed that a UN envoy has to shuttle between our two supreme leaders to bring about an understanding between them so that people are no longer brutally killed, an outsider has to plead with them to compromise so that our people suffer less, so that our factories can run, our children can go to schools, our doctors can attend to their patients, our poor day labourers can earn enough to feed their families, so that we can again walk on our streets with a modicum of security. I feel a thorough sense of betrayal knowing that a foreigner has to fly in to teach us how to be civil to each other. Even so, we will be grateful if we learn.

We can no longer afford to be victims of the vendetta between these two leaders.

First published in The Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh, December 10, 2013

Mahfuz Anam is Bangladesh 1971 liberation war veteran and editor of The Daily Star

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