HARTAL politics has become pervasive in Bangladesh. It has become part of our life. The frequent hartals and work stoppages have been viewed from different angles,” says A Survey on the Impact of Hartal on the Poor of Dhaka City published in 2000 by ActionAid Bangladesh and Democracywatch. The survey was conducted on five categories of poor city dwellers such as rickshaw-pullers, footpath vendors, daily wage earners, slum dwellers/floating people and small shopkeepers/traders and shows how these people have been used by political parties and how their lives were badly affected by frequent hartals.
How could a country where 95% people speak the same language and share the same culture, and where 90% citizens follow the same religion and 98% people are of the same ethnic group be deeply divided into factions? This is Bangladesh, a country where normalcy seems a distant dream, and where hartal has become a way of life. People are so accustomed to hartal that they come out on the road on any sundry issue.
Both the major political parties — whether the ruling party Awami league (AL) or the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — have used hartal as a major political weapon to create mass unrest in the country since 1991. If BNP is in power, the AL goes on to call hartal after hartal, and if AL is in power, the BNP gets busy calling hartals. The party in power does not consider the demands of the opposition as logically right to accept, while the same party in opposition does not consider the policies of the ruling party as genuine. Hence, a hartal is always the result.
Who pays the price? The people, and the nation of course, but it is the people, whether they are killed or injured or face economic lose, who bear the brunt of hartal. Those who are angry or fed up with BNP-led hartals in recent times must know that during BNP’s rule from 2001 to 2006, the then-opposition AL called 173 days of hartals, while the BNP has called 17 hartals in the last three years.
The big question is: how can a country of 160 million people with a density of 1,000 people per square kilometre, and with more than 40% of the population still below the national poverty line, afford to undergo so many days without economic activities? How can a poor economy like Bangladesh go without production in factories, and closure of schools and colleges, disruption of exams and missing of classes due to hartals? And how long will people suffer in their daily life when hartal cripples all walks of life? Do the AL and BNP ever think about the violence and killing of innocent people because of hartals?
What do the ordinary citizens and the poor people do during hartals? Of course, they stay indoors, fearing violence, and those who venture out certainly risk their lives. And what about the daily wage earners? These poor people face the music the most, but both BNP and AL have been totally indifferent to their plight though, in their speeches, they take oath in the name of the poor. Think about readymade garment (RMG) industry of Bangladesh. It contributes $23 billion, which is nearly 79% of the country’s total export earnings in the fiscal year 2010-2011. Don’t the economic advisors of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia tell them that hartal badly affects both domestic and foreign investments?
The politico-economic loss is worth noting. In a recent statement, the International Chamber of Commerce, Bangladesh estimated that the country loses around $200 million every hartal day. A 2005 study, Beyond Hartals, of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows the adverse impact of hartal on Bangladesh economy. During 1947-58 the average number of hartals per year was 1.5 days, which reached a whopping 173 days during 2001-2006. It is obvious that number of hartals shows an increasing trend, and the numbers are higher post-liberation than the numbers before.
Political instability and democratic uncertainty, says Akbar Ali Khan in his book Friendly Fires, Humpty Dumpty Disorder and Other Essays, is the big price that Bangladesh pays. This is dangerous. The destructive politics that has been played by both AL and BNP, perhaps in order to soothe their respective egos, is taking huge toll of Bangladesh.
So, what is the alternative? Without doubt, democracy asks for criticism, complaint, and protest against the anti-people policies. There are ways, unlike Mahatma Gandh’s, who practiced hartals against British Imperialism, by which both AL and BNP can listen to the voice of sanity, sit down face to face and discuss issues of national importance. And much like the BJP in India, BNP has boycotted the Parliament, where it could have placed its viewpoints in a more convincing manner rather than opposing the abolition of caretaker government during elections.
Both the political parties must understand that, in democracy, the people understand and can differentiate between constructive work and destructive diatribe. Both AL and BNP must understand that they cannot fool all the people all the time. Dialogue, therefore, is the best means to sort out differences and resolve issues rather than indulging in negative politics and taking the country to the brink of danger.
Bangladesh is both lucky and unlucky to have two ladies as the prominent figures in the political arena; it is lucky in the sense that it shows how successfully democracy in a Muslim majority country flourishes, and unlucky because it suffers due to the super egos of the two ladies. The country cannot afford the national loss anymore, which is born out of the personal dislike of the two ladies.
The writer lives in New Delhi.