12:00 AM, November 21, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 21, 2012

Ground Realities

Dialogue, violence and bad politics

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Syed Badrul Ahsan

Home Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir has brushed aside American suggestions that the Bangladesh government engage in a dialogue with the opposition. A dialogue is certainly a healthy thing, considering the proliferation of ideas it generally throws up. Besides, politics is all about dialogue, about an exchange of ideas. But in this particular instance, when activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Chhatra Shibir have been doing all they can to disrupt normal life through pouncing on policemen, the idea that the ruling Awami League should engage the opposition in discussions with it sounds rather queer. The US ambassador could have done something better than suggest a dialogue. On behalf of his government, he could simply have condemned the violence that the Jamaat and its adherents have been resorting to over these past few weeks before throwing in the idea of political engagement between the government and the opposition.
The home minister is absolutely right in informing the country that before any thought of a dialogue takes hold of the government, stability and discipline must be brought back on the streets. A government works on trust, which trust does not allow it to appease those trying to undermine it every day through repeated and organised violence. Beating up policemen and trying to seize their weapons is an invitation to chaos the Jamaat ought not to have indulged in. But now that it has, it remains for the government to ensure that the violence does not escalate and that those behind it are brought to justice. At the same time, it becomes the government's moral and legal responsibility to plumb the depths of the conspiracies now afoot to create disorder in the country, identify those behind the recent mayhem and haul them up before the law.
The sort of regressive activism the Jamaat has lately demonstrated, and so terribly, on the streets has had repercussions of another kind as well. A fairly good number of individuals have come up with the demand that a ban be clamped on the party as a way of neutralising it in Bangladesh. On the ban issue, we think it is extremely important that emotions do not come in the way of reason.
The Jamaat, whether or not we agree, is a party which has been operating under the terms of the law in this country. It is essential, therefore, that the legality behind the party's operations be seriously considered before any moves are made to proscribe the party, if indeed that is what the government aims for. What has been happening is that a beleaguered Jamaat, shorn of its senior leadership, is waging a desperate battle in the interest of its survival. Its back is to the wall. There are political organisations, all over the globe, that have lost their will to live once their leaders have been put away. That is not what the Jamaat appears to be ready to do.
And yet the Jamaat cannot be permitted to go free with all this demonstration of fury. The home minister is right to think that a serious handling of law and order is called for in the face of the militancy of the party. While that is a necessity, there is too the truism that if a party is not banned under the law, it cannot and should not be prevented from exercising its democratic rights in public. If the Jamaat wishes to organise a public rally or hold street corner meetings, there is no law in the country which says it cannot do that. The senior leadership of the Jamaat are on trial on war crimes charges. The Jamaat is not on trial. That being the reality, there is little validity in the government's opting for measures that circumscribe the party in its activities.
From such a perspective, the home minister's recent directive that anyone who is a part of the Jamaat or engages in its politics ought to be identified and caught and handed over to the law enforcers is a clear invitation to danger. The danger is not that the Jamaat will expand its area of violence. It is that such governmental sanction of action against its activists could sooner or later result in the rise of vigilantes all over the country. In a land where extra-judicial murders worry an entire nation and the impunity with which security agencies often operate quite undermines our collective faith in democracy, asking citizens to go looking for Jamaatis to catch and punish is certainly not a healthy exercise of political liberalism.
And liberalism, at least through a clear and swift response to incidents and events, is what the Bangladesh Nationalist Party could have called forth. A senior figure in the party has given us to understand that the BNP has had nothing to do with the Jamaat's recent activities. That is understandable, perhaps even acceptable up to a point. It would have been truly reassuring, though, if the BNP had gone for a public condemnation of what the Jamaat and its student wing have been doing in recent times. That it has treated violence as politics as usual says something about a party which refuses to learn from history. The BNP is certainly not helping itself by the manner in which it has chosen to agitate against the ruling party. Its ties to the Jamaat are yet in place. It refuses to go to parliament, but will go only if the ruling party places a bill in the House on a restoration of the caretaker system. That is a preposterous thought. Its vocal leaders do not remember that their lawmakers have a job to do. They have forgotten the horrific misgovernment they subjected the country to in their last stint in power.
Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, all things considered, is right. You do not negotiate with an opposition which sends panic running through citizens on the streets. You do not have a conversation with a political party which is only interested in parliament when it has a majority there.

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
E-mail: bahsantareq@yahoo.co.uk

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