THE 48-hour hartal on March 18 and19 by BNP-Jamaat combine, demanding release of 154 leaders who were arrested on March 11, started with pre-hartal violence in the capital city. In one incident, three physicians sustained burn injuries when a crude bomb was hurled at their car. On the first day of hartal, pro-hartal activists clashed with police in different places that left at least 76 people injured and two dead. The report that more hartals will be enforced in the coming days till the demands of the BNP-Jamaat combine are met has a sent chill down the spine of the nation.
Even though hartal as a form of protest is allowed as a democratic right, its consequences in terms of loss of lives and property, and damage to public and private vehicles, have assumed enormous proportions. Frequent hartals — 4 days in the last week — have impacted businesses severely. With retail sales coming down because of disruption in communication network, it has impacted production, distribution and new investments in a way never seen in the past. This has resulted in shooting up of commodity prices.
About 30 million retail and small scale businessmen in the country have been pushed to the margins. Reports by the International Chamber of Commerce Bangladesh said that hartals cost the country an estimated $200 million a day, with $3 billion lost since last December — a sum that could finance the construction of the Padma Bridge.
Enforcing hartals one after another for either release of party men or preventing the war crimes trial or forcing the ruling government to opt for caretaker government in the next national election can hardly solve the problems. People paid a heavy price through loss of lives and property whenever a hartal was imposed. The biggest casualty turns out to be badly needed economic expansion, as investors and donors at home and abroad are wary of venturing into an inflammable area.
The main issue for the proponents of hartal is the modality of conducting the next parliamentary election. True, parties or powers that be would never have dabbled or dared to resort to vote buying tactics or terror politics if the cases instituted against rigging, vote buying or terror tactics were promptly dealt with by an empowered Election Commission (EC). With the availability of clean voter list and National ID card along with EVM, the fear of rigging should have been dispelled because an independent EC will have the power to protect the rights of an individual from any arbitrary state action.
Although hartals are often used as a means to challenge the government of the day, people now suspect that it is being overtly used as a weapon to damage the economy rather than destabilise the government. People have seen how this democratic right wreaked havoc on economic growth and development works during 1994-96 and continues to do so now when the economy appears to be more fragile because of the slow growth of business and industry caused by non-availability of gas and electricity.
On the other hand, the ruling party must allow the opposition to express its views freely and openly and efforts must be made to resolve the issues through discussion. Hartal can be eliminated only when the dissenting parties are willing to work together for the greater good of the country. The business community must do something more meaningful than just voicing their concern and disapproval of hartals that are often imposed for narrow partisan purposes.
An independent judiciary is the most important element to ensure that governmental powers are not exercised to serve partisan interest. This could only be possible by establishing an independent human rights commission that could act as arbiter of the disputes between the government and the opposition.
The general people are concerned about the ever increasing threats to their lives that come in the form of growing menace of terrorism, corruption in public offices and development works, extortion, mugging, violence on women and minor girls, price spiral of commodities, campus violence and a host of other social ills. But shockingly, the political parties seem to be fighting only for power and not for alleviating people’s sufferings and woes. Now the people are caught between the devil and the deep sea.
People are questioning the patriotism of a certain faction of the opposition political parties after they burnt the power station in Kansat on February 28, the day Jamaat leader Delwar Hossain Sayedee was sentenced to death. Can any Bangladeshi claiming to be a patriotic citizen go to the extent of destroying a utility organisation that is directly linked to his living and survival, in the name of registering protest or toppling the government or defending his faith?
Things are so bad in the countryside that thousands of people pour into the capital city everyday because life here is better than it is in the villages. Rickshaw-pullers eke out a living in the city streets, but that means of earning is at stake because of the shutdown for days. Even the glimmer of garments and shrimp export that appeared to be so bright for a while is now fading out because of frequent hartals and port lockout.
Sensible citizens think that the contentious issues must be resolved by a meaningful dialogue between the two main political parties. In the context of the present political scenario of conflicting and incendiary statements made by the two party chiefs, the possibility of holding such a dialogue with their direct participation across the table seems highly improbable. But some senior high-ups of both the parties, with total briefing from the party chiefs, have to carry out the difficult task. It would be utterly irresponsible to say that the end result would be achieved by more bloodshed, rather it will cause more violence.
The February 1996 election showed that the winning party, without the participation of some major political party or parties in the polls, will not have the legitimacy and power to push forward its agenda, and that the overriding fear that political feud, till now a chronic culture of Bangladeshi politics, might surface again and take the country back to chaos.
The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.
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