A sadly familiar phenomenon
The opposition parties have every right to organise rallies, processions, etc to express their displeasure and dissent vis-à-vis the performances and policies of the government. In fact, the government is ordained by the constitution to protect their right to the freedom of assembly so long as it is peaceful and does not pose any threat to public safety and
security, writes Saifur Rahman Tapan
THE manner in which the Awami League-led government dealt with the March 12 rally of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led opposition at Naya Paltan in the capital Dhaka borders on the tyrannical. The incumbents employed law enforcement agencies and activists of the ruling party and its front organisations to create obstruction to opposition leaders, activists and supporters trying to join the programme, which had been announced on January 9.
Earlier, the ruling alliance planned to stage a rally of its own on March 12, in a repeat of the January 29 tactic. The city unit of the ruling Awami League announced on January 26 that it would stage a rally in the capital on January 29 coinciding with the procession that the BNP had planned to bring out as part of a countrywide programme, prompting the Dhaka Metropolitan Police to impose an 18-hour ban on rallies and procession. Subsequently, the BNP deferred its procession till the next day and the city Awami League postponed the rally scheduled to be held at Bangabandhu Avenue. Suffice it to say, the ruling party’s action earned it, and the government too, widespread criticism and condemnation.
Key functionaries of the government and the ruling party, including the prime minister herself, claimed to have intelligence reports that certain quarters planned to use the March 12 rally as a cover to carry out subversive activities. What followed was reminiscent of the actions taken by previous governments, elected and unelected, to constrict the space for the opposition.
The law enforcement agencies made wholesale arrests in the capital and elsewhere in the country, apparently to keep the leaders and activists of the opposition parties on the run. Then, the capital was literally disconnected from the rest of the country for more than two days, with long-distance bus and launch services to and from Dhaka suspended. Within the city, most buses and other public transports stayed off the road on March 11 and March 12. Moreover, city hotels were asked not to check in any guests, except foreigners, from March 10 to 12. Even eateries in the Paltan area were asked to keep their shutters down on March 12.
Little wonder then that the capital sported a deserted look on March 12, as if a hartal (general strike) had been enforced. Let alone motorised vehicles, even non-motorised vehicles stayed off the road in large numbers. Furthermore, activists of the ruling Awami League and its front organisations, especially the Bangladesh Chhatra League, roamed the streets brandishing sticks and sharp weapons, swooping on Naya Paltan-bound opposition procession at many places. Besides, the law enforcers, meanwhile, stopped people at random in the name of security check. That was not all.
The Dhaka Metropolitan Police took time to grant permission to the opposition for the rally, that too, with a long list of dos and don’ts. It set cut off points and time for the rally, and also put a limit on the use of speakers. Still, despite all such legal and extra-legal barriers, people turned up in droves at the rally.
Maybe, as the BNP leaders claimed, the government dreaded the possibility of hundreds of thousands of people marching to the capital. Maybe, it took the threat from the BNP leaders that the March 12 rally would turn the capital into something like Tahrir Square in the Egyptian capital Cairo, where pro-democracy protests eventually led to the ouster of the Hosni Mubarak regime. Whatever the reason may be, the incumbents seem to have ultimately made a mockery of their oft-repeated claim that the people were with them.
True, elected as it is, the AL-led government has the right to complete its tenure. It is also true that the opposition parties have every right to organise rallies, processions, etc to express their displeasure and dissent vis-à-vis the performances and policies of the government. In fact, the government is ordained by the constitution to protect their right to the freedom of assembly so long as it is peaceful and does not pose any threat to public safety and security.
Regrettably, however, the incumbents have thus far displayed its disinclination to ensure the democratic rights of the opposition parties. Worse still, they have appeared extremely intolerant of dissenting views, be it in the political arena or society in general, and sought to constrict the space for opposition. The incumbents have employed law enforcers and pro-government activists even to disrupt such innocuous programmes as human chains by the opposition parties.
The AL-led government may arguably has taken employment of coercive measures to disrupt opposition programmes to a new height, the practice itself, however, is neither isolated nor unprecedented; successive elected governments, who are expected to bring an end to the pernicious trend often resorted to by autocratic regimes, have employed such measures to varying degrees. Here it is pertinent to recall, the BNP-led alliance, when it was in power between 1991 and 1996, clamped down heavily on a platform led Jahanara Imam and dedicated to realise the popular demand for war crimes committed in 1971, apparently to prevent it from marking the first anniversary of the mock trial it had organised on March 26, 1992. On and around that day, the government did not allow leaders and activists of the platform, mainly belonging to the Awami League and left-democratic political forces, to take to the streets. Worse still, the government charged Jahanar Imam and 23 other renowned personalities involved in the movement with treason.
It is also pertinent to recall that the days before April 30, 2004 — the deadline given by the then AL general secretary Abdul Jalil — during the previous tenure of the BNP-led government, thousands of people were subjected to arrest and the AL processions came under repeated attacks from the police. It would thus be foolhardy to think that the end of the incumbent AL-led government’s tenure would bring about any change in the trend and the much-coveted democratic polity would emerge overnight. However, history tells us that whoever had resorted to repressive measures to perpetuate control over state power in the past ultimately paid a heavy price in the long run.
A demand was raised during the movement against the autocratic regime of Ershad that a law be enacted criminalising any interference on the part of the police or any law enforcement agency in any democratic movement. Ironically, all the political parties, including the current ruling party and the opposition, which spearheaded the movement to topple the military dictator, hardly made any effort to translate the demand into reality once they assumed power. As many argue, without a major overhaul in the existing state machinery alongside the political system, it is almost possible to ensure democratic governance in its true form. But it is also true that enactment and enforcement of a law in line with the demand could be a good start in this regard. It is high time that all the democratic forces became active to this end.
Saifur Rahman Tapan is an assistant editor at New Age.
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