The pictures on the front page of practically every major newspaper on Wednesday, January 17, conjure an ugly image of Bangladesh's political scene. Frenzied men with weapons attacking each other, their faces in grotesque contortions representing rage, venom, aggression. This would not be anything out of the ordinary given the current trends of streets looking like battlefields after clashes between opposing political groups or more realistically, between factions of the same political group. Wednesday's images, however, have taken our political image to an all-time low. They are of a woman city mayor, the first of her kind to hold such a position, being shielded by her followers from being attacked by a mob of men—supporters of an MP known for his mysterious and tenacious grasp over Narayanganj.
Despite all their attempts to protect her, Mayor Ivy was injured—a brick hit her leg and in the jostling she fell. Newspapers say around 50 were hurt though none of them can quantify the terror and despair of the people of this city who had to witness these disturbing, shameful scenes. For it is indeed shameful that a city's mayor would be attacked by members of the ruling party because she was trying to do her job.
The entire fiasco centred on the issue of eviction of hawkers from footpaths so that pedestrians could use them. Seems like a regular duty of a diligent mayor. But in Narayanganj, as anywhere else in the country, politics is far from being regular. As expected, when the eviction drive was announced, the hawkers, through their association, protested—where would they go after all?
The mayor was given a memorandum, she announced her decision to free the footpaths, the hawkers staged demonstrations, the city corporation announced a few designated areas where the hawkers could sell their ware till February 27 from 5pm to 9pm, a lawmaker gave a 24-hour ultimatum to revoke the eviction drive and give the footpaths back to the hawkers, and finally in a bizarre confrontation, the mayor and her supporters were attacked by the said lawmaker's men.
If you were a stranger to our special brand of politics, the first logical question would be: Why is this lawmaker interfering with the mayor's work? The second one would be: If the lawmaker was so concerned about the hawkers' wellbeing, couldn't he have had a discussion with the mayor and work out a solution? Thirdly, why did it all turn so violent with someone even brandishing his gun and allegedly firing shots into the air? Fourthly, and most importantly, why would a lawmaker's followers attack the city's mayor? Are they not on the same side—same government, same party?
These questions may seem quite straightforward and resulting from pure common sense. But this is Narayanganj we are talking about—Bangladesh's Gotham City where the Joker reigns with full impunity and Batman is a simply attired woman who has taken on the task of trying to fix a city that seems almost unfixable, being in the grip of one of the most powerful political families in Bangladesh's history. This is the place of the famous “seven-murder case” that involved members of the RAB as well as influential people connected to the political elite. This is where Tanwir Muhammad Taqi, the son of cultural activist Rafiur Rabbi of Narayanganj, was abducted and killed on March 6, 2013. Even after more than three years, the law enforcers have yet to find his killer(s) although Taqi's father has filed cases against certain individuals including the nephew of the lawmaker involved in Tuesday's incident.
But to be fair, having Selina Hayat Ivy as a mayor has been a sliver of hope for this Gotham of a city. Ivy, despite her formidable opponents, has endured, perhaps because of being from a political family—her father, Ali Ahmed Chunka, was a former Narayanganj municipal chairman and an AL leader—and definitely because of sheer grit and determination. In 2011, she won the mayoral elections after beating Shamim Osman by one lakh votes. In 2016, despite efforts by MP Shamim Osman to exclude her from nomination from the panel, the prime minister picked her to be mayor.
Tuesday's unsavoury incident in which a mayor and her supporters were attacked by goons of a lawmaker, gives an indication of the obstacles she faces. According to Mayor Ivy, she had come to Chashara to tell people that the footpaths would be free for pedestrians to walk on, that the displaced hawkers would be rehabilitated in a proper building, honouring the prime minister's directive. According to news reports, when some of Ivy's supporters tried to evict some hawkers, an altercation erupted. She was then attacked by supporters of the lawmaker.
After the incident a probe committee has been engaged and both the mayor and the lawmaker have been summoned by the PM—no doubt to express her disappointment in two important leaders and favourites from her own party.
But even for the ordinary citizens who have witnessed all kinds of violence in the name of politics over the last few decades, the idea that a mayor—a woman politician who has braved the patriarchal system to attain the trust of the public and the support of the prime minister who happens to be a woman—can be physically attacked and blatantly intimidated by a lawmaker, is shocking. If this is a preview of what is to come as we get closer to our national elections, there is little to feel optimistic about.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.