OF the three principal political figures in the country--Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda Zia and H.M. Ershad -- one is fully involved in election campaigning while the two others are in forced and -- in the absence of any lawful reason given by the government -- illegal confinement. This is happening with elections just two days away.
Election time is one special period in a democracy when maximum freedom is enjoyed by the people. It is a period when the constituencies are filled with festoons, banners, processions and rallies. People expect to become “King” for a day and they start savouring the taste of power from the beginning of the election process. It is an occasion when the most 'high and the mighty' condescend to mingle with the most deprived and 'rub' shoulders with the poor. At least for a very brief period a sense of equality, however surreal and transitory, prevails.
Regrettably in this election the atmosphere is different, to say the least. While the AL chief is carrying on her whirlwind campaign the two others are confined and unable to take their messages to the people.
Admittedly the opposition has greatly misused its position in creating hitherto unprecedented and most brutal violence in the name of agitation. Using this pretext many senior and influential BNP leaders have either been arrested or kept on the run. However it is the confinement of the BNP chief that marks a new level to which our confrontational politics have been taken as neither side had confined the chief of its rival party ever before.
We are no fans of the BNP chief. As freedom fighters we have no reasons to be. We have often wondered even after being elected prime minister twice (her supporters prefer to count thrice, including the controversial one of February 1996) how could she be so indifferent to the greatest event in our nation's history, and one that brings such a sense of pride in very citizens' heart, namely our Liberation War, also since her husband was such an integral part of it.
Everything about our secular Bengali heritage -- Ekushey, Pahela Baishak, Rabindra and Nazrul Jayanti etc. were matters of neglect during her stewardship of the government. Even March 26th and December 16th -- two crucial anniversaries in our nation's life -- did not receive the importance that they naturally receive under Sheikh Hasina's government.
Her comment that she will try the “real” war criminals if she returns to power, implying that those being tried now are not, cannot but infuriate millions of people like us who have lived through those brutal times, have witnessed many of the atrocities that are now being recounted and have been personal victims of atrocities committed those who are on the dock for crime against humanity.
Her views on our nationalism remain unarticulated. Whatever little that we heard gave clear indications that she is not above using religion for political gains and seem to have very little idea about the tragic consequences of communal politics at various stages of the subcontinent's history. We would go further and say that over the years we have developed a distinct feeling that she does not intellectually 'own' the core ethos of our nationalist struggle and hence cannot deeply feel what Bangladesh is all about.
However, having said all the above, as a journalist, I must admit that she is one of the two principal political leaders of the country, head of the second biggest political party of Bangladesh, has huge public following, is a former prime minister and, since the 9th Parliament has not yet been dissolved, is at present is the “Leader of the Opposition” with the rank and status of a minister.
So why is she confined? Why hundreds of police are guarding her house? Why several trucks filled with sand -- trucks that have appeared mysteriously and are being replaced in regular intervals and the drivers being fed -- have been put up to obstruct her movement? Why some BNP leaders who have gone to see her were either arrested or picked up, detained in police custody and later released? Why was she prevented from attending a family function? Why is she denied free access to her party leaders? Why can't anybody go and meet her without fearing arrest, interrogation or intimidation.
The more despicable thing is that while the government has detained her it does not have the moral courage to admit it. Ministers, in Goebellian style, are repeating the claim that she is free to go anywhere she wants hoping that their repetition we will somehow make us forget what we repeatedly see on the local TV. One minister even said she can go out for peaceful reasons but 'we cannot be allow her to go out to create chaos”. How does the minister know what purpose Khaleda Zia is going out for? And who has given him, or his government, the right to keep a citizen confined? Under the law the government can arrest her but in that case she must be allowed all her rights including the benefit of a lawyer and of bail. Only a government bent upon abusing the law can confine a free citizen without giving any reason, and then denying that she is even confined.
So far a total of 4 standing committee members, 2 vice chairmen, 2 advisors to the party chief, 2 joint secretaries-general, 3 members of parliament and 22 executive committee members of the BNP have been put behind bars. Many of them have been taken on remand, some charged with murder, some with arson and others with all sorts of other crimes.
Take the case of H.M. Ershad and his Jatiya Party. Again I have no reason to be upholding his cause but for the underlying issues involved much of which deals with the legality of government actions. His party was part of the government for the last five years. As long as he was agreeable to participating in the elections everything proceeded smoothly. There were also talks of seat sharing, with JP demanding a 100 and the ruling AL agreeing first to 70 and settling at 60. Later when Sheikh Hasina formed her so-called all party poll time government she gave 6 ministerial and one advisor's post to Ershad. Such was the closeness of the relationship.
However the moment he declared his intention not to participate, and withstood pressure including from a number of his own party leaders to reverse his decision, he was forcibly taken to the Combined Military Hospital by intelligence officials and prevented from running his party. While keeping him confined at the CMH, the ruling party applied all sorts of dirty tricks to create dissenting within his party which ultimately resulted in faction of JP contesting the elections.
Meanwhile the Election Commission, in spite of a formal letter by the party chief requesting the contrary, allowed his party symbol -- “plough” -- to be used by the JP dissenters.
Earlier we saw the registration by the EC of the dubiously formed Bangladesh Nationalist Front (BNF) under highly questionable circumstances.
As we move closer to the voter less elections, we are seeing more and more examples of bending rules and using the state power for the advantage of the ruling party. Whatever else happens on the 5th of January it will not be an expression of “People's Will”.
The writer is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.