Since I left home to pursue higher studies, I have been visiting my parents, in the village, two to three times a year. And every time I visited, I noticed a new fracture in our small community. The last time it was unbelievably quiet—everyone seemed fearful, terrified by the presence of an unknown being.
Incidentally, I went home the night before February 8, the day when the verdict on Khaleda Zia would be delivered. Even in a remote village so far away from Dhaka, the tension of the moment could be felt, with all shops closed and armed police personnel deployed in our tiny bazaar. An eerie silence dominated our neighbourhood for the next few days. Throughout my entire weeklong stay, I missed some familiar faces. They happened to be involved with BNP.
A particular incident left me shocked. One of my friends was talking to a “Boro Bhai” with whom we used to play cricket even a few years ago. The Boro Bhai wasn't sure of my political allegiance, which was enough for him to deliver a threat to me through my friend. “Ask him (me) to not come out of his home so often,” he told my friend. When I got the message, I wasn't frightened. I was overcome with sadness. I didn't realise that the political climate of my village had turned so toxic.
In Dhaka, you may not know who your next-door neighbours are, but in a village, everyone knows everyone. Not many urbanites regularly meet with their friends, relatives and acquaintances, but there are multiple occasions and places in a village—mosques, tea stalls, local bazaar, playfields, etc.—for people to meet and chat. It's entirely normal for them to pay their neighbours a visit without any prior notice. They quarrel, but they also take care of each other like family.
Dhakaites may not feel a deep attachment to those around them, but the feeling is strong among villagers. Theirs is a cohesive community, which, sadly, has been affected by petty political rivalry.
In the days leading up to the elections of 2014, a keen observer of Bangladeshi politics must have noticed how prominent international think-tanks regularly published analyses and articles, expressing grave concerns about the growing polarisation in Bangladesh. Back then, multiple factors were identified as responsible for stoking tensions in Bangladesh's politics. This year, with only months to go before another general election, there's been hardly any hue and cry about this “polarisation” phenomenon.
The issue, it seems, has been settled. Or has it? As of now, the ruling party appears to have decisively won in its battle against the opposition parties, entrenching its root so deep into the system that the two are now almost indistinguishable. Meanwhile, with its chief in jail, it is hard to predict how BNP will recover from this blow. Many people seem to think that Bangladesh may witness a change in its ever-divisive two-party system. Hence they find that there is no point in talking about “polarisation” when one of the poles appears severly weakened.
However, the ruling party isn't convinced yet that its arch-rival has exhausted all its energy. This is not to say that Awami League still fears a comeback by BNP so forceful that it would reverse the current equation of power; the government simply does not want to take any chances. This explains why the police so aggressively clamped down on a BNP inititive as harmless as a black-flag protest on the flimsy ground that the party had not taken permission to do that beforehand.
The critical fraction of the civil society and intelligentsia has not been spared either. The civil society has always criticised those in power regardless of which party runs the government. Now, the ruling wparty's “you are either with us or with them” mindset hinders how civil society functions.
The government has set a noose-like boundary beyond which BNP—or any other party or organisation not supported by the ruling party—is not allowed to go. What such restraints will cause to our country in general is pretty clear. What hasn't been explored, however, is what this could cause to rural Bangladesh.
Beyond our Dhaka-based bubble, across villages and mufassil towns, the extremely polarised politics has left a profound and toxic effect, which has shattered the social fabric—a glue that holds a society together—of our rural communities.
There is no data to measure how our rural cohesion has been affected by politics but it is safe to assume that the situation that I saw in my village is more or less the same elsewhere. Many people had to leave their ancestral home because they had a different political view as to who should govern the country. Righteousness and wisdom of the elders no longer carry any value. Political affiliation will earn you a position in the places of influence such as in committees of schools, mosques or bazaars. In the process, the faith that people have traditionally held in informal institutions is on the wane. And we can only imagine what would happen if the common ground, which no longer exists in our mainstream politics, disappears from our rural society, too.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.