POLITICAL violence has plunged the nation into a vortex of uncertainty. As the BNP-JI led 20-party alliance's agitation continues, there is widespread despair in the minds of the ordinary citizen. We never saw the kind of senseless violence that we are witnessing now. A new element introduced this time is petrol bomb. The agitators are targeting public transports. There have been a number of cases of sabotage of railway system causing derailment. The aim is to instill fear in the minds of the people so that they stay home and everything comes to a standstill. Because of indiscriminate petrol bomb attacks, hundreds have suffered serious burn injuries; many have died and many others will continue to endure a painful life as long as they live. So far, the agitators have not been able to achieve their political aim of unseating the government.
The BNP-JI led opposition wants the government to resign immediately and hand over power to a neutral caretaker government that will hold a free and fair election. The government claims that the provision for a caretaker government has been annulled by a High Court ruling and restoring it would entail constitutional amendment.
The government claims that it has gained legitimacy at home and abroad and has dispensed good governance. In its support, the government says that its first year had been a year of growth in every sector. The country had over 6% GDP growth rate despite global slowdown, and there was rise in export, investment, per capita income and calorie consumption. More children, especially girls, were going to school and staying on beyond the primary level; our Human Development Index (HDI) was rising faster than many others, which prompted Nobel Laureate Prof Amirtya Sen to term Bangladesh “a development enigma.”
BNP-JI-led political agitation exploded on January 5, when the alliance was not allowed to hold a public meeting and rally in the capital. Since then, the alliance, especially its second most important partner JI, has been on the streets to enforce a nationwide blockade of all forms of transportations. Continued fire bomb attacks on the transportation system, targeting innocent travelers, have taken a heavy toll of human lives.
A survey of the victims shows that they are mostly truck or bus drivers, small traders, farmers, menial workers etc. The pattern of the attacks revealed that the attackers are well trained in military style ambush -- a quick attack on an unsuspecting target and then quickly getting away from the crime scene.
The pattern that has so far emerged reveals that sections of the youth belonging to BNP and JI, who are trained and dedicated to the cause, are behind these attacks. A recent survey carried out by a local daily revealed that while in previous anti-government agitations most of those killed or injured were political workers, this time virtually all are ordinary citizen far removed from any political affiliation. Ordinary people are increasingly feeling insecure in a society that cannot ensure peace. This raises the question, “Is our national security at stake because of the current political violence?”
Former US Secretary of State (1977-81) Harold Brown defined national security as “the ability to preserve the nation's physical integrity and territory; to maintain its economic relations with the rest of the world on reasonable terms; to preserve its nature, institution, and governance from disruption from outside; and to control its borders.” This definition envisages external aggression as the main threat to national security. Professor Charles Maier of Harvard University described national security as the “capacity to control those domestic and foreign conditions that the public opinion of a given community believes necessary to enjoy its own self-determination or autonomy, prosperity and wellbeing.” Given these definitions, we might argue that while Bangladesh is not threatened from outside aggression and while its territorial integrity is not at stake, the internal political violence is threatening the prosperity and well-being of its people.
Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Arab political scientist, said that a state exists to provide physical security and well-being of its subjects, and when that fails, the raison d'être of the state disappears. The states that are called “Failed States” or “Fragile States,” where state machinery have ceased to function and where the population live in utter fear of their life and property, are not victims of any external aggression but the result of internal chaos and dissention. In Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, internal chaos, civil war and a near complete absence of governance has led to massive disorder, violence, famine and mass migration.
The breakup of political order gives rise to extremist forces that use the political vacuum to consolidate their position. Fragile State Index, published yearly by Fund for Peace, classifies the states' vulnerability to failure based on 12 political and socio-economic indicators. Bangladesh's position in 2008, during pre-election political agitation was down to 12, which was the lowest score ever. Since then Bangladesh's score reached a score of 29 in 2014. During the same period, Pakistan's position went down from 32 in 2008 to 10 in 2014.
The violence wreaked by Taliban and other terrorist organisations all across Pakistan, as well as political volatility, was to blame for Pakistan's fall, whereas steady socio-economic progress and a stable political climate were responsible for Bangladesh's rise. Are we going to lose all the gains in 2015 and again slide down the scale? The political leadership of all shades must weigh the risk they are putting the whole nation into. Failure of democracy only strengthens the hands of the extremists with their variants of a totalitarian state. At this juncture, political instability coupled with violence is posing a serious threat to our national security. Only through a total rejection of all kinds of violence and a national dialogue on our common future can the nation march ahead.
The writer is Registrar, East West University.