The enigma of hartals | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 02, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, August 02, 2011

The enigma of hartals

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Bangladesh has been experiencing a spate of hartals (street agitation) recently, bringing, for successive days, all productive life of the nation to a standstill. This legacy from the dying days of the British Raj has remained a part and parcel of life in Bangladesh, although its tenor has changed greatly, generating much heat and angst but no light, hope or salvation. On the one hand, rock-throwing, pedestrian-terrorising, car-vandalising, bus-burning, and economy-busting "protestors" rampage through the nation's thoroughfares, bent on destruction.
In its wake, property is willfully destroyed. The day-labourer and his family go hungry. The suffering of the afflicted is heightened. Delivery of services, including educational, jurisprudential, travel, and emergency needs, is disrupted. Uncounted national hours of productivity are lost. Exporters lose markets and credibility. Investors lose faith and withdraw. Sane and capable people, exasperated by the uncertainty, look for recourse and a peaceful life in distant lands. Even innocent and unwary lives are lost. The litany is long and painful.
On the other hand, the party in power remains steadfast in its uncompromising stance on issues highly pertinent to the citizenry. With little room for negotiation and compromise, and with the opposition's need to be assertive, hartals have unfortunately become powerful symbols of political disagreement. And while losses and hardships keep mounting for the citizenry, politicians, both pro- and anti-government, continue to show their true colours in callous disregard.
A case in point is the recent abolishment of the caretaker system of holding elections. The system is not perfect as the last caretaker government has shown, with its constitutional and operational deficiencies. In this connection, the flip-flop of those who raged for its establishment and those who vehemently opposed it is something that needs to be parsed. Importantly, given the extreme mistrust that exists between the present government and those aspiring to take over the reins, how the government can ensure free and fair elections, with promises of a strong an independent Election Commission, remains a valid question.
Before abolishing the caretaker system, the government could have assembled the cognoscenti to devise an alternative mechanism that would garner the confidence of those opposed to its removal. Something viable could have emerged. Instead, in the tussle between power, dialogue, and need for compromise, power prevailed: The caretaker system was voted out by the majority. The anticipated waves of hartals followed and promise to continue ad nauseum.
Not all hartal demands, however, are in the public interest. Sometimes the opposition will use hartals to deflect the public's attention from its own egregious activities and past misdeeds. Their intransigence in certain matters is also epic. It is in these circumstances that the legitimacy of hartals becomes suspect. The public has become weary, wary, and increasingly discerning, and political parties of all colours should give it serious thought before employing this overused, destructive, and debilitating tool.
Are there alternatives to hartals? One obvious answer is the Parliament where the opposition is expected to show up and vigorously debate its views through a constitutional process. But that process does not seem to function well, with the opposition taking to the streets to contest every issue. Such behaviour has valid explanations. According to some, the Parliament is often a venue to drown out the minority voice and to exercise the might of the majority, instead of adopting a path of rational exchange to find common ground. Lessons from the advanced nations suggest that the parliament is where the nation ought to work out differences of opinions and perspectives, thereby strengthening democratic values and norms. Bangladesh, since its birth, has been stuck with the word "ought."
With a seemingly dysfunctional parliament, a second alternative is to pursue non-violent and constitutionally permitted protests and demonstrations to bring attention to national issues. Historically, and even recently, non-violent movements have been aggressively broken up by those in power to subdue voices of discontent. Such intervention is often quite brutal where politicians bear its brunt, as if in recrimination. The recent brutal attack on the opposition chief whip, as well as similar attacks on Saber Chowdhury, Motia Chowdhury and others when they were in the opposition, remains etched in history as a blotch on the sensitivities of major political parties.
Such use of excessive force cannot be a sign of legitimate strength. When rational arguments are likely to fail, coercive strength is applied, often indiscriminately, and the cycle of vendetta and retribution is reinforced. Admittedly, the line between violent and non-violent hartals sometimes remains thin and controversial.
The twin ideas of dialogue and non-violent protest, unfortunately, seem to be avenues least sought by politicians of all colours. And this raises many questions. Are Bangladeshis by nature violence-prone, resolving disagreement with brute power? Does lack of education stunt the development of finer faculties in them to resolve differences in amicable ways? Do situational complexities or multiple solutions to a problem create cognitive challenges that politicians are simply unable to process, thereby turning to "my way or the highway" attitude? Or is the ideological divide so great that it simply cannot be bridged. The psychological, educational, cognitive and ideological foundations that perpetuate hartals in Bangladesh are not fully understood.
Then there are the economic, political, and legal dimensions: For example what are the substantive costs and benefits of hartals? Despite the litany of costs and losses discussed earlier, when a party in power is uncooperative and intransigent, do hartals help in the evolution of a democratic process? In other words, do hartals have a legitimate place in national life to fortify democracy? Should hartals, therefore, be an essential part of citizens' rights to strengthen democratic norms? Could the vulgarly repressive Pakistani rule of twenty-four years have been dealt its death blow without the crescendo of hartals? Should hartals, thus, have legal status and, if so, could its present character be redefined? What are the circumstances in which hartals would have a legal and/or moral footing?
Questions such as these open a big can of worms. Nevertheless, they remain to be answered through deeper intellectual discourse so that the multifaceted moorings of hartals are better understood. As a deeply controversial phenomenon that touches the lives of the citizenry in more ways than one, more voices ought to deliberate on this issue, publicly, vigorously, comprehensively, coherently, and analytically to find a better alternative for Bangladesh to steer a steady course of development. The convulsions of hartals can be a deterrent to finding that course.

The writer is Distinguished Professor of Marketing and Programme Chair, Black School of Business, Penn State, Erie,

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