It is good to see the BNP in the political arena after a period of hibernation. So far it has been a one-sided affair with the AL hogging the political show or whatever of politics we have in the country. It was a change from last year when BNP's request to use Suhrawardy Udyan was turned down by the DMP. And even more refreshing was the fact that the meeting at the Udyan on Sunday went off peacefully. It has also left the AL without the future use of the oft-brandished excuse for denying BNP the use of public venue, which is that the BNP programmes are preceded by disorder and end in chaos, and much inconvenience to the public. Both the BNP and the police deserve our compliments for an orderly political programme. But interestingly, police involvement in the BNP rally went beyond granting permission.
A notable aspect of the day was that, whereas, on previous occasions when the ruling party had organised such a meeting, or even of one of its appendages, there would be severe jams on the main roads and traffic would be closed on particular roads in the capital with police advisory well in advance as to how to beat the shemozzle on that day. Lo and Behold! There was hardly any public transport on the main streets of Dhaka! And all the entry into the city was blocked. Why?
As usual, in the case of the BNP, the permission for holding the rally was accompanied with 23 conditions which the BNP was obliged to fulfil before, during and after the rally. However, conditional political programme in the case of BNP is nothing new. In the past, it had to give undertakings to fulfil similar conditions before getting permission to hold meetings. And that is what begs the question: should the police be the ones to accord permission for a political event and be the final decision maker as to who should or should not be allowed to hold meetings, and where and how that should be organised? Why should a political party have to obtain permission from the law enforcing agencies to hold political meetings in a public place is a question whose answers have eluded me. To hear political leaders in the government say that it is not for them but the police to allow meeting in a public place demeans both politics and politicians.
Certainly, the police must be informed of the political programme but that should be only to allow the force to take necessary measures to provide security and maintain law and order, not to seek permission. It should be the responsibility of the home ministry, which can certainly ask for the opinion of the police, but the police cannot be the final arbiter, as is the case now. The party in power needs to address this.
Some of the conditions laid down by the DMP would be considered ludicrous if only those were not imposed by the police. The organisers were directed to “end the rally by 5:00pm," they were not to make any "provocative remarks" or circulate "provocative leaflets" at the rally, and that "people must come at the venue two hours before the scheduled time at the public meeting and not to join the rally with processions." And who decides what provocative remarks are? And public meeting venues are not classrooms that one is expected to enter at the bell and leave at the bell.
That being said, would one be misplaced to ask whether a written request was ever made to the police for use of Suhrawardy Udyan or such conditions had ever been placed on ruling party meetings?
As for the empty streets on that day, the use of state machinery to once again foil the opposition's political programme indirectly was not surprising but rather distressing. Even a child could see through the orchestrated action by the private transport owners and operators to put as much impediments as possible in the way of the BNP and keep attendance as low as possible by keeping their vehicles off the road that day. If it was the intention of the police to reduce as much as possible the sufferings of the people that such public meetings inflict, keeping private transports off the streets or putting check posts on the ingress to the city, through which only outgoing vehicles were allowed to pass that day, imposed more hardships on the people. Has it done anything to brighten the image of democracy or politics or even that of the ruling party's?
Such measures do not demonstrate the strength of the party in power, on the contrary it betrays a degree of uncertainty in the minds of the ruling party, infused by the fragile character of democracy in the country today. The AL thinks very little of the political clout of the BNP, as evident from comments of its senior elders. So what is the worry? After all, the AL has thrown down the political gauntlet, daring the BNP to join the elections. The least it can do is to allow its main political rival to pick it up.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.