Last Sunday, supporters of the BNP mayoral candidate for Dhaka South, Ishraque Hossain, and those of the AL councillor aspirant, Rokon Uddin Ahmed, clashed while carrying out election activities on behalf of their respective candidates. The 30-minute clash left 15 people injured including two journalists. Both sides went to the police to lodge complaints. Police accepted that of one side and refused to accept the complaint of the other. Will our readers hazard a guess whose complaint got accepted and whose was refused? Not only that, within hours, five BNP activists, named by the AL, were picked up from various parts of the city. The result, as expected, is the spread of fear among the opposition activists and their natural reluctance to come and canvass for their candidate. And this is happening with days to go before the election.
Election rule violation is normal in our country. So is the dominance of the ruling party of the day. If BNP were in power today AL activists would have been similarly treated. We know it, we say it, and yet we expect that things should improve. After all, AL has been in continuous power for the last 12 years (2008 to 2020). Isn’t this long enough time for things to change? Elections are not everyday affairs. It comes once after several years. So is it too much for us voters to expect that more tolerance will be shown to the opponents during electioneering?
What is perhaps very worrisome is the partisan behaviour of the police. For, on the election day and the days just preceding it, every step, every gesture, and every statement by the police will have a wide impact on the outcome. Voters know well that mayors may come and go; councillors will also come and go and even ruling parties may come and go (seems doubtful at the moment), but they will have to live with the police forever.
Why didn’t the Wari police station accept the BNP complaint? Are we to believe that only BNP activists were the scum of the earth and the other side were followers of Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence?
Police is an invaluable institution of every modern state. While the army’s role is critical in protecting our sovereignty, police’s role is supremely important for the proper running of a country. If that country runs on democratic principles, as we claim to do, then their functioning as a neutral and non-partisan institution becomes all the more important. Police are not there only to harass, throw tear gas, beat up, and arrest people but also to make people feel safe. They are the institutional representation of the force of the state that people see on an everyday basis. In the villages, they are the representative of most things official. Corruption of their image and function amounts to an erosion of people’s faith in the state structure itself.
Obviously the image of the police is far removed from the ideal that I have mentioned above. It has come down over the years, even decades. All succeeding governments have used them for their partisan ends. (Two particular scenes come to my mind at this moment: one of Matia Chowdhury—a famous student leader, veteran politician, and two-time former minister—being assaulted by the police, and one of former BNP mayor Khoka, whose blood-stained picture resulting from police assault we published—both from the vicinity of Jatiya Sangsad. Nothing illustrates better the partisan use of police than these two instances). Their recent behaviour during the so-called “quota” movement and later during the “road-safety” movement by the school and university students have greatly shrunk their public acceptance.
"What is perhaps very worrisome is the partisan behaviour of the police. For, on the election day and the days just preceding it, every step, every gesture, and every statement by the police will have a wide impact on the outcome. Voters know well that mayors may come and go; councillors will also come and go and even ruling parties may come and go (seems doubtful at the moment), but they will have to live with the police forever."
Howsoever corroded their present neutrality may be during normal times, we expect the police to show some semblance of neutrality during the time of the election. When that minimum show of neutrality is not forthcoming, then we really need to worry as to how free and fair the upcoming city polls are likely to be. A video that went viral a few days ago shows that a police official was recorded to be using the term “them” and “us” in describing the activists of the two mayoral candidates.
Of equal concern is the role of the Election Commission. Even the secretary-general of the ruling AL felt the need to say that the EC could conduct an independent inquiry if it felt necessary. But, not surprisingly, till the writing of this column the EC was not known to have felt that need. Yesterday we carried an op-ed piece which raises many questions about the EC’s activities. We are looking forward to a reply from the EC’s office.
After the national election, we really hoped that the mayoral polls would see initiatives by the EC which will create confidence in the public mind about this election being above board. This, we thought, will happen because the EC needs, desperately, to raise public confidence about its neutrality. Unfortunately, the very reverse has been the experience. Practically none of the opposition objections have been taken seriously. The way one election commissioner has been side-lined and increasingly marginalised just because he happens to disagree with the rest is very disturbing. Not one of his observations has been taken into account. Why? Have his views proved to be outlandish, so devoid of facts, so utterly outrageous that he is no longer to be listened to? Let the EC be warned that public perception is quite the opposite.
It was also hoped that the government, having spared no effort to entrench itself deeply into the power structure, would feel confident enough to permit a semblance of free play during the city polls to strengthen their democratic credentials.
On both counts of our expectations from the EC and the government, we appear to be totally wrong. So the opposition continues to be harassed, the ruling party continues to flout EC regulations, the police continues to be one-eyed, and the media continue to cry foul. What else is new?
Mahfuz Anam is editor and publisher, The Daily Star.