NOBODY was prepared fully prepared for what happened last Sunday and Monday in the capital, that was centered on the Hefajat-e-Islam’s (HI) so called seige programme of Dhaka and the unscheduled rally at Shapla Chattar. The level of violence perpetrated by some elements of the Islamist group has been unsurpassed since the liberation of the country.
Some have described it as madness, but looking at things after several days of the violence one cannot help but notice a definite method in the so-called madness in the mayhem perpetrated by the Islamist group. And that is exactly what political observers and social scientists, dealing with violence, are grappling with.
For HI, which had staged a largely peaceful and huge rally on April 6, to reveal a totally different character a month later is hard to explain. It is difficult to rationalise what their action was supposed to achieve, and who was the target after all. If it is public support they were seeking they should be certain that public support for their cause, whatever it was worth, is the last thing they should expect in future.
A few of the readers have reacted to reports in this newspaper asking how we were so sure that all that destruction and violence were the work of HI alone.
We have all seen the clashes between the HI supporters and law enforcing agencies very soon after they started gravitating towards the rally venue. And admittedly, these took place in the periphery of a very large gathering. But if there were any infiltrators at all it was the responsibility of the organisers to detect and apprehend them. And, therefore, on HI must fall the responsibility of all the destruction that took place in Dhaka and other areas.
But was the violence foreseen? The government as well as many socio-cultural bodies had spoken of the likelihood of violence on May 6 and, given the type of destruction that has taken place, agent provocateurs may also have been active to exploit the presence of the mass of people and the fact that the law enforcing agencies were fairly thin on ground in comparative terms.
I feel that the government and the law enforcing agencies had fallen for the HI assurance and had not anticipated the violence and thus perhaps not adequately prepared to handle it initially. Otherwise, how can one explain the methodical manner in which trees on road dividers were cut down, which was not possible without the help of a chainsaw? How could such contraptions be carried to the spot without anybody noticing that? The manner in which buildings were set alight, buses burnt and shops put on fire, it was not possible without the help of a huge quantity of incendiary device. And all these were transported into the area without being detected.
No elected government can countenance threats to either its existence or the safety of the state, and that is what was being spewed by HI leaders from the stage at Shapla Chattar, demanding acceptance of their 13-point demand. By late evening the area took the character of a war zone representing something like Beirut of the eighties. And government action was inevitable. However, the timing of it has raised questions.
That the government had to wait till the middle of the night to move in when they should have done so sooner to stop the violence, has surprised many. And that too the midnight action was launched to disperse the HI rally, because all the burning and vandalism and violence had been perpetrated well before operation to clear Shapla Chattar was launched.
One may well ask why the violence was not tackled immediately it started. The act of arson continued for several hours, and no police action against the perpetrators was palpable. For the government it was a Catch 22 situation. Although a lot of private and public property had been destroyed by the time the forces moved in, taking precipitate action sooner might have caused even more deaths.
There is confusion too about the number of deaths. It is detestable the way the number game is being politically played. There were casualties, and it is for the government to explain that the force used that night was the minimum to disperse the gathering. Why do the public have to hear explanations from a party office bearer instead of a statement from the government immediately after the incident? Though one death is one too many, it is as loathsome to over-exaggerate the casualty figure as it is dubious to say that no weapon was used that night.
One is not sure whether the Catch 22 situation was the making of the government itself. Certainly, there was effort to appease but not to engage. Why should any government allow even the idea of cutting off the capital from the rest of the country to occur in anyone’s mind?
It’s time to engage HI with firmness but not with hostility. But the attitude of the government in this regard seems to be one of hostility as evident from statements of some AL leaders.
The writer is Editor, Oped and Defence & Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.