Kamran Reza Chowdhury, Special Correspondent
Weeks after the announcement of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken that any “Bangladeshi individual believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh” may be disqualified for an American visa, I wrote in the Opposition International how the visa ban policy would put Bangladesh’s main opposition, BNP and its allies, in challenge to overthrow Sheikh Hasina’s nearly 15-year old government through a general election under a non-partisan caretaker government, which the ruling party summarily rejected.
The opposition camp is ecstatic about Blinken’s announcement that clarifies what undermining the democratic election process means: “Undermine the democratic election process including vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their right to freedoms of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society, or the media from disseminating their views.” This is because the opposition thinks that the aforesaid undemocratic measures have been practiced against the opposition parties by the ruling Awami League party and their people as well as the police and other security forces.
The visa ban decision changed the behaviour of the ruling party to some extent: the government allowed the almost outlawed and the country’s largest faith-based party Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami to hold rallies in Dhaka, which was almost unthinkable before the visa ban declaration. In the same way, the BNP and other opposition parties could freely join the rallies across the country. The police and other security forces behaved cautiously while applying forces on the opposition rallies.
But the situation starts changing. Now the ruling party has blamed the opposition BNP for undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.
On Saturday, July 29, the ruling Awami League general secretary Obaidul Quader drew the attention of the international community and told a meeting that the “BNP was the main obstacle to holding fair polls”. He levelled the allegation after the police and the BNP leaders and activists clashed over holding sit-in programs at the entrances of the capital Dhaka as part of the anti-government protest.
The police did not allow the opposition activists to block the road to the capital and alleged that the BNP leaders and activists carried out attacks on the police, injuring many on-duty cops. They also said three public buses were torched “by the BNP”. The ruling party called the burning of the buses “arson terrorism”.
The challenge for the opposition, a charge of violence, has now surfaced a day after the BNP announced one-point demand through a mammoth rally in Dhaka: immediate resignation of Sheikh Hasina’s government and dissolution of Parliament to pave the way for holding the 12th general elections, highly likely to take place in the first week of January next year, under a non-party caretaker government.
The opposition has vehemently rejected the allegations of violence against the security forces and arson attacks on public transport. They said the police and their temporary civil auxiliary force—the members of different fronts of the ruling party—were behind the violence and arson attack in a bid to justify the violent actions against the opposition rallies.
Bangladesh has a very poor record of peaceful handover of power from one government to another. In the last 52 years since the country’s independence in 1971, a peaceful transfer of power happened in 2001 under the Awami League government. Unfortunately, street protests and political violence shaped the process of changing the government in Bangladesh, the lone country in South Asia which emerged as an independent state through a democratic movement leading to the liberation war.
The political parties in Bangladesh, both the ruling Awami League and the opposition BNP and Jamaat, believe that who controls the street controls politics. This political narrative has shaped the behaviour of the political parties as well as the common people to some extent. Obaidul Quader once said that why the ruling party would accept the demand of the opposition when the BNP and its allies failed to put up pressure through street programs.
The political parties cannot think beyond pouring onto the streets to counter their political rivals. Therefore, the ruling party has announced that they would be in the street till holding of the parliament elections in a bid to counter “the violence and terrorism of the opposition”. On Saturday, the members of the front organization of the ruling party were seen in different parts of Dhaka at the time of the opposition rallies.
The BNP announced it would hold peaceful protest rallies across the country on Monday. This is interesting to find how the opposition continues its agitation to force the government to step down through peaceful protests because converting a peaceful protest into a violent one through provocation and sabotage is very easy. The BNP must devise a strategy to cling to peaceful democratic protest; otherwise, they are sure to face the charge of violence and terrorism. The government would tout the opposition violence as an obstacle to the democratic election process.
The fallout of political violence is very painful: hundreds of people lost their lives in street political violence over the last 50 years. But people forget the loss once the political crisis is over.