Rural Sylhet on a damp winter's night presents a most forbidding scene. The Stygian darkness is pierced only by the dim light of the lantern of a roadside stall in the far distance. The stillness is remarkable, particularly to a city-dweller used to the noise of traffic at all hours, and even in a densely populated area, there is virtually no one to be seen. People lock their doors and retire with their families to the relative comfort and security of their homes.
Imagine the terror caused when the silence is broken by the noise of police vans and the angry shouts of two dozen heavily armed uniformed men as they kick at the door demanding entry. It is 2am and a man working for the opposition looks helplessly at the terrified faces of his wife and their two young daughters, who have begun to cry. He utters a hurried goodbye to them and tells them to lock the door, walking out quickly, seeking to draw the police away from his home.
No, this is not a story from a war zone. This is the grim scene that took place on December 21 in Sadarabad (Aushkhandi) in Nabiganj. Similar scenes are being enacted all over the country. Despite an assurance from the prime minister (during the so-called dialogue) and the Election Commission that there would be no further arrests of opposition people before the December 30 elections, all over Bangladesh many hundreds of local Oikyafront leaders and activists have been detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. In contrast, even the most flagrant violations of the law by ruling party candidates and supporters are being ignored.
The Habiganj-1 (Nabiganj-Bahubal) constituency, every day this month has seen arrests of opposition people, generally under the cover of darkness as during the day there would be resistance from local people. There are many disturbing tales: a 70-year-old village elder is dragged from his home after midnight; a 16-year-old boy is taken into custody because his father was not home; and a man is pulled away from the bedside of his sick wife. These actions represent a systematic campaign unchecked by the Election Commission, so far, to terrorise and brutalise the opposition. It has certainly had the effect of frightening wives and many children, but it has not succeeded in quelling the spirit of opposition workers. It has had the opposite effect of galvanising many workers who realise it is not just any election but a historic struggle against tyranny and oppression.
The attitude of those entrusted with the duty of protecting the public has been mixed. I have come across some police officers who take their oath to serve the republic very seriously. Some others take the “Nuremburg defence” (i.e. I was just following orders), but they need to be reminded that they must always follow the law. They must be held to account for any excesses and those who ordered illegal actions must realise they will one day be held accountable.
Oikyafront vehicles are being attacked, processions are being broken up by ruling party activists, posters are being torn, and commercial printing presses producing opposition materials are being put under pressure. Some journalists who cover Oikyafront activities are being threatened and attacked and have had false cases filed against them.
All these activities by the ruling party have had the effect of completely destroying any vestige of a claim to a “fair election”. Clearly, popular support is not what the Awami League government is seeking to gain through its campaign.
This leads one to a chilling conclusion: this government seems to have little intention of allowing a genuinely free vote on December 30. Even with the money, weapons and administrative power at the government's disposal, this should not lead to despair. When the time comes, public officials will realise their first loyalty is to the republic. Most importantly, the rulers of this country have underestimated or simply forgotten the power of the people.
Dr Reza Kibria is an economist and a contestant for the 11th parliamentary election, to be held on December 30, as a candidate of Gonoforum and Jatiya Oikyafront.