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     Volume 9 Issue 46| December 03, 2010 |

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The Return of an Old Foe

After two long years, hartal culture is back. Regardless of the stand of the politicians against or for hartal, it's always the public that pays for its destructive consequences


A functioning Parliament: Key to Democracy. Photo: Zahedul I Khan

The post 1/11 Bangladesh was thought by many as the beginning of a new era in Bangladeshi politics--a society where liberal democracy would flourish, politics would be based on tolerance and national progress was going to be ensured. The role of Awami League and the grand alliance as a liberal democratic government might be considered nebulous but the recent re-emergence of political strikes called by the opposition is a clear indication of the failure of the post 1/11 aspirations.

Despite the controversy created by the timing and the reason of the strike, despite the pleas for withdrawal of the strike from all sectors of the society, the opposition retained their motion and caused the nation to suffer a violent, economically incapacitating and socially pernicious hartal. All educational institutions were closed, midterm and final examinations were halted causing dilemma among students. Public and private transports were torched, cocktails were exploded causing huge monetary damage and raising panic. Though over 600 opposition activists were arrested prior to the strike to prevent vandalism, such pre-emptive action fired anger among the opposition. Ships were unloaded but no trucks left the Chittagong port, impeding export-import and garments trades.

Political strikes used to be the strongest weapon for the masses to revolt against the oppressor. The same weapon, today, is used to oppress the very masses it used to support once upon a time. During the liberation war, the general public backed the strikes voluntarily, sacrificing their wages, security and even their lives; today, on the contrary, strikes are imposed on the masses, depriving them of their wages, security and sometimes their very lives. Strikes that used to represent public protest against repression, today merely represent the anger of the opposition against the ruling party. Hartal culture, a friend in the pre-liberation period, has turned into a foe during the post-liberation age.

“Except for the election part, nothing in our politics is democratic. The recent hartal is just another symptom of the illiberal democracy that we practise,” says Akbar Ali Khan, adviser of the former caretaker government. “There is no rule of law; the political parties have no mutual respect, trust or healthy interaction between them. The politics we practise is confrontational, not constitutional; hence, such strikes are inevitable. Still, political parties should resort to strikes only when all other options are being exhausted.”

MK Anwar, an MP and a member of the standing committee of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), however, disagrees. He says, “We tried to convey our message peacefully in past. But, we were attacked in our processions; we were beaten up and tortured when we stood in human chains; whenever we tried to protest rationally, we were brutally silenced. That's why we turned to hartal. We are never given any floor to speak in the parliament.”

Anwar's statement, though, contradicts speaker advocate Abdul Hamid's, he says, “Five questions are allowed to be asked to the Prime Minister during a parliamentary assembly session; we have had sessions when four out of the five questions were taken from the opposition. Still if they complain about being deprived, it's very unfortunate.”

Destruction of public property: Protest against what? Photo: Star file

On the polemical reason of the strike, Anwar says, “We called the strike to protest the prevailing sorry state of the country--the economic collapse, violations of law and human rights, rashness of the Government in handling power crisis, terrorism, tender issues, extortion, etc.” On the fact that the economy, one of their hartal agendas, is critically hampered by the strike, Anwar says, “If you have a disease, you might go through a painful operation for cure. Our strike is the 'operation' here; I agree that political strikes always injure the economy, but we are left with no other options.”

Industrialists of the country, however, do not seem to share his view; their continuous plea to the BNP to withdraw the strike proves their stand against it. Sunil Kumar Sarkar, production director of the Hameem Group, remarks, “The dimension of damage a company faces due to a single strike is more colossal than most people think. During a strike, we cannot transport our goods to or from the Chittagong port and the ship does not wait for us either. We suffer from losses of thousands of dollars, as we have to resort to airfreights, which cost much more. In the strike called on the 30th of last month, I had one and a half lakh goods to deliver and the strike had cost us a loss of two crore and 90 lakh taka. This is only one industry and a single aspect I am talking about. Hartal hinders almost all the spheres of a nation.”

Mahmudur Rahman Manna, an Awami League leader, believes the opposition is trying to disguise their selfish motive with governmental issues. He says, “Calling hartal for power crisis when winter is at the door is not convincing, especially when the strike is on the following day of the High Court's appellate division's hearing about the Cantonment Residence dispute.”

He also says that the opposition never proposed any solution to resolve the state problems they are complaining about. And despite their noncooperation, none of the issues remained unaddressed by the Government. BNP leader MK Anwar, however, says, “Awami League called 303 day-long strikes when they were in opposition, while we have called only three in the last two years. So, before blaming us for strikes, they should remember their actions.” Reacting to his comment, Manna says, “Calling strikes is not a competition; hartal is a political process and democracy allows it. But the reasons of calling a hartal should be logical, legitimate and acceptable.”

According to noted economist Professor Muzaffar Ahmad, member of Transparency International Bangladesh, the recent hartal is a survival tactic of the opposition, a declaration of their existence. He says, “It's the violent hartal we should stand against. Forcing the general people into a strike is unacceptable; using Governmental forces to subdue the protestors is deplorable as well.”

A regular Bangladeshi does not understand the political twists, does not know whom to blame for a hartal. All he/she knows is that hartal is a devil that costs a day-labourer his wages; it's a curse that steals a day's meal from his children's mouths. The blame for calling hartal seems to toss like a tennis ball between the government and the opposition; but the devastation it leaves behind dodges the politicians and hits the masses, acutely and painfully most of the time.



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