Mostafa Kamal Majumder
A round-table held at a hotel in Dhaka city on Saturday underlined the need for dialogue but only after what its participants are reported to have said the end of ‘violence’. As reported, the speakers have called for national unity against ‘terrorism’. The round-table was a very good initiative by the ‘Regional Anti-Terrorist Research Institute’ (Ratri) and one cannot disagree with the observations mentioned above. But despite the great exercise the deliberations have not gone across the political divide. Fact remains, the political impasse that they tried to address and which the nation is in for little over a year, more intensively for two months, owes its origin to the lack of communications and understanding between the humans who belong to two sides of the divide. These good deliberations are devoid of partnership, inputs as well as ownership of the other side of the divide. If messages do not reach the receiver and the sender of the message cannot interact with the other side, then do the messages carry any meaning? We hope every one of us confronts this basic question. A largely circulated vernacular daily has listed the participants of the roundtable under categories of teachers, diplomats and politicians, business leaders and journalists, a former captain of national cricket team, two former MPs and the Imam of Solaria Edgar Maiden. Most of them are dignitaries and command respect in the society in their own spheres. But they are also known as votaries of one side of the political divide – the government side. Only two former MPs who had some past relationships with the political opposition and the former national cricketer were exceptions for their expressed allegiances. The opposition side which also has luminaries in the professions mentioned above remained by and large unrepresented. Because of this lack of participation of the opposition side of the divide, the proceedings unfortunately represented only a polished version of the government side of the story.
One should not blame the participants because they have said what they honestly believe to be true and just. But truth and justice in politics are multi-faceted, and in some cases might even be mutually exclusive. The political parties operate with diverse political assumptions, theories, beliefs and stories. They unite on the basis of minimum fundamental principles that bring unity in diversity but never cement the diversity which is the beauty of democracy. If one has respect for the democratic principle of unity in diversity one should also accept that ordinarily what is true for the Awaji League may be untrue for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and vice versa.
To avoid a lengthy narrative, let’s confine our discussion to what the participants of the roundtable have said. First of all, one cannot but welcome them to emphasising that there cannot be any alternative to dialogue, which they however said should be only after the end of violence. What does this mean when one puts this statement against the perspective of the present political impasse? The government blames the Bnp-led opposition for the violence in the form of petrol bomb attacks leading to deaths of people since the start of the transport blockade by the latter on 06 January last as it was prevented from holding a rally in Dhaka on the day before. The opposition blames the government for the violence and says the deaths were in petrol bomb attacks launched by pro-government activities, and that their movement was essentially peaceful. The opposition blames the government also for ordering the Police, Rapid Action Battalion (Rab) and the Border Guards Bangladesh (Bgb) to shoot at pro-blockade and pro-hartal activists (termed ‘terrorists’, ‘anarchists’ or ‘arsonists’) to bring the situation under control.
The opposition calls this as serious violence and alleges that many of their activists became victims of ‘crossfire’ or ‘shootout’ by police or Rab as a result. What the learned speakers have said in the big roundtable in the interest of ending violence have, may be because of their honest expectations, in effect directly gone against the opposition whose viewpoints have either not been weighted or not taken cognizance of, or ignored. The opposition points of view missed from their deliberations. If end of violence that they have stated means crushing the opposition that the government has expressly intended to, then they would give the opposition the handle to blame them for charting the government’s hawkish line. If they have meant dialogue between two sides of the divide such dialogue cannot be on the ruins of the opposition because after the opposition has been crushed there would be none left to pick up the thread of the said ‘dialogue’. The opposition has said the blockade would come to an end if dialogue is called ‘with the agenda of fresh elections under a neutral government.’ One should have strong reasons to believe that the learned participants would not want the destruction of our party system just for short term gains of either of the two sides. They would definitely be for a win-win solution for contenders of political power in Bangladesh. Two wish win for somebody one should first of all give him a patient and dignified hearing. He should be taken as having an equally respectable voice or opinion. If the learned speakers cannot accept the opposition as an equal partner, then the dialogue they so earnestly have sought to promote would only be a monologue between the government and its extended obedient political networks.
Their call for national unity against terrorism is great. No one can challenge this statement. However, if the first premise of blaming the political opposition for all violence and demanding its destruction is taken as correct, then regarding their activities as acts of ‘terrorism’ is just extension of the first argument. Calling either side ‘terrorist’ cannot be an invitation for dialogue. The learned speakers fervently want and end to the political impasse. But their call means little to the opposition. One should first accept that had there not been two competing partners there would not have been a political impasse at all. A movement enforced by political workers who are targeted and arrested or hit by state-run forces on sight cannot last two months without some popular support, by whatever name one may refer to the same. If behind the call for national unity against terrorism, there is even the slightest idea of peril for the opposition in the back of mind then this call is bound to invite the peril of democracy. The blind support might not be helpful even for the ones such support is meant. When people are in positions of power and influence the cleaver ones among them look for ideas, feedbacks and guidance from out of power. By lending blind support people can only deprive decision makers of the much needed service.
One of the speakers even observed that a programmes of a political movement are not announced from an undisclosed location or hideout. This argument strengthens the tendency to call the present agitation as ‘terrorist’ activity. What is out of sight here is the fact that the Bnp leaders do not have the option to operate their party activities from their designated offices. Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, the joint secretary general who used to make most of the party announcements was picked up from the Bnp central office on 03 January night since when the office has also has remained under lock and key put by the police. Rizvi however managed to flee from the Apollo Hospital where he had been admitted to under police guard and went into hiding in a Baridhara house from where he announced most of the programmes of the current blockade before being arrested by Rab in early February. In his absence another joint secretary general of the party Salahuddin Ahmed has been making the announcements. Bnp leaders say, at least 30,000 leaders and workers of their party have been arrested so far. Leaders and workers of Jamaat a main partner of the Bnp-led opposition, remain on the run because of all-out efforts to haul them. Those on the opposition side of the political divide would thus find their pitiable state hardly reflected in the criticism of programme-announcements from undisclosed locations.
People can commit wrongs even by remaining honest and truthful if they adopt faulty methods of ascertaining what is true and just. One example would suffice. Back in 1991 one human rights organisation had done a lot of work on how the February elections could have been organised better. The so many election observer groups seen now had not been there at the time. The HR body in its report pointed out loopholes in the voter list and suggested how those could have been taken care of. The man in charge of that HR organisation however in private told some senior journalists that he wanted to keep the findings of one of their surveys ‘secret’ because he considered it might be unfair to make it public before the election. He said their survey indicated more than 60 percent of the people said that one of the parties that he mentioned by name would win the election. However, results subsequently showed the opposite. The other party won and the party they had marked for win actually trailed far behind. Bemused, one journalist commented, ‘the HR organisation could have recorded even 90 percent support for their favoured party by conducting the survey in its backyard’.
We hope the great people on both sides of our political divide do not commit methodological mistakes. Because we want them to be right and help our parties to be on right tracks.
(A renowned journalist of Bangladesh Mostafa Kamal Majumder is the editor, GreenWatch Dhaka.)
Mostafa Kamal Majumder