On Saturday, politics was laid low
Note the irony. On a day when Burma's long serving prisoner of conscience Aung San Suu Kyi emerged into freedom, a tearful Khaleda Zia made her way out of the home she and her family had lived in since the early 1970s. Notice another irony. On a day when Recip Tayyep Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister known for reaching out to varied sections of the population in his country, arrived in the Bangladesh capital on an official visit, Bangladesh's ruling circles stayed busy demonstrating before the rest of the world their unwillingness to promote inclusive politics in the country.
On Saturday, all men and women of good conscience, irrespective of political affiliation, were shamed through the spectacle of the leader of the opposition being made to leave her home in a manner that was as crude as it was bizarre.
No one will argue that it was wrong for the Sattar government, in agreement with army chief General Hussein Mohammad Ershad, to have given away the residence in question to the widow and children of a just assassinated General Ziaur Rahman. It was an act that was highly charged with emotion and those who took charge of the state at the time did not or would not see the implications of the move. The home was made available to Begum Zia because she was a widow, because she had two sons who were yet to reach adulthood.
In all the years since, Begum Zia has evolved from the status of wife of a murdered military ruler into a politician in her own right. Her sons, for all the notoriety which has come to be associated with them, have prospered in life. It ought to have been for Begum Zia, therefore, to give up the residence on her own, to inform the country that she was grateful to those who had allotted it to her, that she was now returning it to the army, the rightful owner of the property, that she was moving out and into circumstances befitting a pre-eminent politician of the country. Such a position on her part would have earned her the respect of the nation. It would also have upheld the idea that politicians who mean to serve the country do not take from the country but give it their best.
Begum Zia, of course, did nothing of the kind. We need not repeat the tale. Which is why we go back to the manner in which the government has now thrown her out of the house in the cantonment. Inter-Services Public Relations would have us know that the former prime minister vacated the residence on her own. And in a display of gross insensitivity, the Awami League has come forth to thank the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party for leaving it through upholding the law.
Consider now the bigger realities here. When an individual weeps in public and tells you she was forcibly evicted from her home, you cannot quite tell yourself that she is making up a tale. And when the Awami League tells you, with much conceit, that the BNP leader demonstrated her respect for the law by saying goodbye to her residence, you ask why the law was not allowed to run its full course in the matter of the eviction.
When a hearing had been scheduled for later this month, what were the compulsions for the government to have the opposition leader's home surrounded and then raided by security agencies in order to ensure that she could not stay there any more, that indeed she would be physically forced out if she refused to budge?
The ruling Awami League has patently landed a hard blow on itself. Self-inflicted injuries are often hard to treat, especially when these injuries are made in politics. In the latter phase of the first Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina, the cabinet in its questionable wisdom decided that Ganobhavan, the official home of Bangladesh's prime minister, would be made over to Bangabandhu's daughter as a gift from the nation.
In similar mode, a home in Dhanmondi was allotted to Bangabandhu's younger daughter. Both decisions were made in unwise manner. And because of the absence of wisdom involved in the acts, it was the nation that was left surprised.
When its turn came to form a government again, the BNP showed not a bit of sophistication in the way it rescinded the directives relating to Ganobhavan and the Dhanmondi residence. It could have adopted a legal and moral position to reclaim the premises in question. Its hurried moves soon after the October 2001 elections pointed to the vindictiveness with which it meant to deal with a beaten Awami League.
The Awami League, now that it is in office again, need not have followed the same course. It need not have given people reason to think that it was paying the BNP back in its own coin. It need not have let the world know that in Bangladesh, it is quite in order for those out of power to be treated with manifest contempt. It need not have set a few more of its supporters into rethinking their options at the next spate of general elections.
Millions of Bengalis have a thousand and one reasons to explain why they do not agree with the politics of the BNP. They remember the miseries the party has caused them over the decades; they will not forget the systematic mutilation of national history its leading lights, beginning with Ziaur Rahman and going all the way down to Khaleda Zia, have engaged in.
All Bengalis remember too the high moral ground of politics on which the Awami League operated in the era of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Tajuddin Ahmed. Why is it that they do not discover that Awami League in the age of Sheikh Hasina?
On Saturday, it was not just Begum Khaleda Zia who was treated with disdain. It was politics which took a beating. It was our tenuous democracy which was fractured anew in a good many places. A weeping Khaleda Zia was an unedifying spectacle for all of us in this tortured land.