IT felt like a horror replayed from Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds. The film showed seabirds invading Santa Cruz township in California in 1961 leaving the dwellers petrified, utterly helpless and fleeing their abodes to safety.
Those who had seen the movie could not but be stricken by the swarming effect of the birds from the sea. Metaphorically, if not literally, the event staged by Hefajat-e Islam last Sunday may have been remindful of The Birds.
When the Hefajatees, mostly stick-wielding, filed through the city streets in massive numbers and gathered around Shapla Chattar from all entry points to the metropolis, a fear of the unknown swept through our minds. The huge processions followed a government permission to hold a rally at Shapla Chattar and then you saw mammoth unwieldy demonstrations being staged — leaderless, and, therefore, hijacked by the militants. Violence enflamed spreading all around.
The government should have learnt its lesson and so perhaps the organisers that the sheer weight of numbers can be extremely hazardous to public order. The authorities should not have been hoodwinked into thinking that the rally would disperse in the evening like it had in its incarnation last month. But the government has not regretted its ineptness on this count, much as we were eventually relieved by the freeing of Shapla Chattar.
Now about the casualties, the debate is pointless because you are not addressing the cause, rather you emote over loss of lives which you know would be repeated if you do not strike at the root of political confrontation and get it over with. Then there’s an interesting paradox: In earlier times, a single dead body would literally vanguard a huge procession culminating in a successful movement, but now several people have been killed failing to arouse similar passion.
What it does stir is a new version of politicking with dead bodies — first of Savar building collapse and then of Shapla Chattar flush-out operation. It is ‘culling’ that is taking place as though human beings are some animals. The dispute over numbers can only cloud our understanding of what really ails the normative texture of the state.
Rana Plaza was a closed compound, and a precise death figure is determinable, so no need to contest the number of casualties being revealed by those in charge of rescue and recovery operations. Yet, the opposition kept questioning the credibility of the figures which in any case would be fully known sooner rather than later.
But Shapla Chattar, where a late night action was mounted by law enforcement people under a pall of darkness, is a somewhat different matter, even though humanity stood diminished in both cases. However, considering the very nature of the action around Shapla Chattar some doubts are likely to be entertained as indeed they have been by some quarters. But then it should be eminently possible to arrive at the total number of casualties because in the ultimate sense these are verifiable through crosschecks from definitive sources.
The figure of ’2500-3000 dead’ being given out by the BNP and Hefajat without backing up such a claim with proof is patently incredible, more so when it is likened to a ‘genocide’ as on March 25, 1971 in Bangladesh and the Jaliwalanabagh massacre in British India. Such overstatement is making light of genocide and Jaliwalanabagh carnage, the first leading us to an armed struggle for the birth of Bangladesh and the second strengthened the freedom movement in India. Sense of proportion has long been lost as absurd parallels are drawn to past events as a fancied chimera.
The use of youngsters including children in Hefajat processions and rallies drawn from madrasas has left many of their parents and guardians complaining about it. They were kept in the dark about the galvanisation process. Increasingly, we find that political parties are using children and women in processions and rallies. No wonder, Unicef has voiced its concern over the trend.
However much the Islamist parties and their allies on the right try to drum up public support through drawing sympathies for their present plight, they have also given cause for disenchantment among the public.
The recent events have given the impression of attempted radicalisation of society by the Islamic parties. How the people are receiving it is another matter; traditionally Bangladesh society is pluralistic but homogeneous. Whilst piety is part of their lives, it is also a matter of private belief. Majority do draw a line between religion on the one hand and politics and state affairs on the other.
The electoral status of Islamist parties is a proof of their political standing with the people. The religion-based far right parties have been used by major political parties at one time or the other to serve their political agenda and benefit from ingratiating themselves with the parties to reach out to the religious-minded vote bank. It was something of a two-way traffic because the Jamaat or any other Islamic front cannot win parliamentary seats in any meaningful number without aligning with one or the other major political party.
Finally, we need not be unnecessarily allergic to counsel given by our development partners provided they are not meddlesome or interfering in our affairs. Who says is less important than the merit of what one says?
If Hefajat-e Islam’s 13-point charter of demand is met, it would mean the end of the way of life we have been used to. Thus, one is inclined to share the concern of German ambassador to Bangladesh, Dr. Albrecht Conze, over BNP’s support for Hefajat-e Islam’s demands.
The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.