The Days of Uncertainty and Confusion
Life for the general public could not get any worse. After a few days of semi-peace, again the streets were on fire. At least one person died and two others critically injured when a police truck ran over the three as they were trying to make a run. The police were apparently trying to disperse an otherwise peaceful 14-party alliance rally spraying hot water on them using a water canon. Apart from beating the demonstrators with unbelievable brutality they decided to take a tougher course; with a van apparently deliberately ramming into the demonstrators, leaving behind three people in pools of blood.
On November 13, the AL-led 14-party alliance resumed its non-stop countrywide blockade although it did promise to carry out a 'peaceful' movement. The Caretaker Government responded by saying that the blockade was unlawful and unconstitutional and had instructed the police to go tough on the programme. Police sources said that they had been directed to even fire gunshots if the demonstrators attacked them. The alliance planned to block 22 points in the capital and hold rallies and bring out processions in Dhaka and other parts of the country until their demands were met. The police banned the blockade and prohibited the carrying of oars, sticks or poles. The BNP-led coalition announced that they would not be holding any programmes that day. It seemed as if the demonstrations would indeed remain peaceful. But all too soon there were reports of buses being burnt, trains being vandalised and set on fire. Activists of the alliance derailed a rail track and the ensuing accident left at least 50 people injured. The Alliance seemed to have resorted to their old tactics, at least some of their members had. Leaders of the alliance, however, did call upon their party members to exercise restraint and to carry out the programmes peacefully.
While most of the demonstrations remained peaceful, life came to a standstill for the people. Not just that, most people were in the grips of fear after watching the television footage of Karwan Bazaar where the crowd turned rowdy, people being run over and vehicles being set to fire. TV footage showed the intensity of police brutality: riot police were seen beating up a person mercilessly with batons before stripping him naked.
Before the street fiasco resumed there was much drama associated with the President-cum Chief Advisor and the most talked about man in town, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). First the CEC denied having met caretaker government Advisor Hasan Mashud Chowdhury. Chowdhury categorically said that he was not making up this story, which, in effect meant that the CEC was. Later the honourable CEC went back to his silent mode when journalists asked him about the incident.
Meanwhile more interesting developments were taking place in the brand new caretaker government. At a formal meeting with the secretaries of various ministries that was not attended by any of the Advisors, the President announced that it was now a presidential form of government as the responsibility of the caretaker government had been reposed on the president. Among other things the president warned that any unwarranted remarks about his personal officials were tantamount to interference in the affairs of the state. The dumbfounded media severely criticised the president for such strange remarks. Later a clarification came from the president's office that stated that the president had not said anything about changing the form of government and that the media had unnecessarily distorted his words.
There was more to come. When the 14-party alliance was all set to start its blockade another shocking announcement was in the offing. The rumours that the army had been deployed to maintain law and order turned out to be true. A stunned public read the breaking news bulletins at the end of the screens and realised that it was indeed true.
But what was most disconcerting was that again, a major decision such as the deployment of the army was not taken by the cabinet of advisors but solely by the president. Later news reports revealed that the circular announcing this had been sent all over the country (without the knowledge of the advisors). Later when they did come to know about it, the advisors strongly objected the home ministry's unilateral decision and cancelled the order. Although the mystery of who had actually ordered the deployment of army remained unsolved, the advisors did manage to stop an action that would have created great uncertainity.
Police wash away the blood of demonstrators who were struck down by a zooming police van on October 13 when the AL- led 14 party alliance resumed their countrywide blockade. Khaleda Zia and her four-party alliance have said they will not accept changes in the EC as prescribed by the 14-party alliance. Meanwhile, brutal scenes on the streets continue along with the demand for an independent election Commission and a neutral Chief Advisor.
On the same day, October 13, the interim government initiated talks with the 14-party alliance to end the Election Commission crisis. After a close-to two hour meeting with a four-member committee of advisors the AL-led 14 party alliance's stance remained the same. The alliance put forward their previous 11-point demand and stated that its movement would continue until the Chief Election Commissioner and his present colleagues were removed. At the time of publishing of this magazine, meetings with the BNP-led four party alliance and the newly formed Liberal Democratic Front (LDP) were scheduled and the advisors expressed their optimism about resolving the crisis. The BNP-led four party alliance, however, had already announced that they were not going to accept the removal of their favourite M A Aziz, the CEC.
But there seems to be no end to the bag of tricks of some invisible puppeteers who are pulling the strings to make the work of the caretaker government very difficult to do. Apparently disregarding all the media criticism as well as displeasure of the advisors regarding the continued presence of his secretary, Mokhlesur Rahman at all the cabinet meetings, the Chief Advisor decided to promote this very person to a post of advisor with the rank and status of a state minister. Mokhlesur was politically appointed as the president's press secretary during the immediate past coalition regime. He is a former diplomatic correspondent of The Dainik Dinkal, a BNP mouthpiece owned by Tareque Rahman, outgoing prime minister Khaleda Zia's son.
Interestingly foreign dignitaries have shown their interest in Bangladesh's present political situation like never before. Apart from various ambassadors visiting the President-cum Chief Advisor, the inflexible CEC and the two women leaders to talk about how to solve the present crisis, officials from abroad have flown in too for apparently the same reason. US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher visited the political leaders and met with the Chief Advisor and the CEC. The purpose of his visit was 'to assess the pre-election ground situation and call on the political leadership to lower the level of tension and violence and hold peaceful demonstrations so that the voters get educated about elections'. His visit however, proved to be rather uninspiring, at least from the media's point of view. The only thing worth quoting was Bouchard's remark (when the whole country was abuzz with talk of army intervention) that military interventions would not help to conduct a free and fair election. Everything else he said was frustratingly bland “ The voters need a fair choice. They need to make their decision through free and fair elections where each vote is counted and respected”, and regarding the Election Commission: “Our view…is a great responsibility lies with the Election Commission and they need to exercise that responsibility fairly but carefully in accordance with the constitution and avoid any outside influence so that people trust their decisions and election results.”
With the four-party alliance all psyched up to oppose the 14-party alliance's blockade and the latter's determination to continue it until the CEC is removed plus other things and the Chief Advisor's unilateral decisions, the dream of a free and fair election seems further away than ever. Perhaps the only hope left, is that somehow the advisors of the caretaker government will continue to resist arbitrary decisions and work neutrally despite all the political machinations that plague the bureaucracy.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006