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The commotion outside, on the streets, was unmistakable. On the pavement across from the offices of this newspaper, hundreds of young men were suddenly seen to be running toward the Sonargaon crossroads. It was clear that they were coming down in droves from the high street on Farmgate or its vicinity. Just how they emerged in such force and with such seeming determination was a mystery.
It was yesterday. The time was close to 5:00pm and approaching the twilight hour. A greyness had settled over the day. Stillness was supposed to be in the air. But the shouts and the screams drew everyone, in this office and in offices and homes on both sides of Kazi Nazrul Islam Avenue, to the windows and the roofs. These were young Jamaat-e-Islami and Shibir activists and their supporters. Suddenly, as you watched, you seemed to be living through a nightmare. It couldn't be happening before your very eyes. Yes, over the past four days in seven, Jamaat and Shibir workers had gone on the rampage in other places, other towns of the country. But in Dhaka, the capital?
Yes, it was a nightmare. And it was happening right before you. Panicky vehicle drivers slowed down or screeched to a halt, in the natural fear that if they didn't, their vehicles would be dashed into pieces or go up in flames. Shop owners briskly pulled down their shutters. As the young men marched or ran, you knew they were in little mood to be pacified. There were, initially, no policemen in sight. And then a few of them appeared, batons and rifles drawn, hoping to intimidate the mob into retreating.
The mob was not afraid. One policeman who hit out at a young activist was kicked from behind by another. As he turned to see who was behind him, another activist tried snatching his rifle from his hands. The rifle fell from his hands. As he picked it up, almost keeling over as he did so, a push from another violent young man sent him reeling on the pavement. His attempt to pick himself up was nearly thwarted by a stone thrown at his head. You could feel, from your safe distance, that blood had begun to ooze from that wounded forehead. The policeman looked for refuge. Some people quickly pushed him into a shop.
As if the assault on this policeman were not enough, two others came under attack as well. They could not be seen clearly, for they were at quite a remove from the vantage point where one could spot them. But that they were under attack was clear. The Jamaat-Shibir activists moved on, driven by a bizarre sort of bravado. They kept coming, but one didn't know from where. The vehicles remained stranded on the road. One kept hoping that police reinforcements would arrive soon, for unless they did, there would be more violence. That mob was baying for blood.
And then a platoon of policemen appeared, with more following them in jeeps. They got down right where their colleague had taken the bruising and beating, sent him and the other injured policemen off to hospital in whatever vehicles were on hand, got together in separate lines and slowly moved forward in riot-preparedness formation. They soon went out of sight. And then they marched back, sending what probably were the remnants of the mob running for cover.
It was an unreal day. Reports soon came in of a young Jubo League activist pushed down to the ground, within the Farmgate area, and readied for a slitting of his throat. He escaped with his life, but not before he had been grievously wounded on the head and arms. When last reports came in, he was fighting for life in a hospital.
As evening descended and an eerie calm returned to the streets, one could not help recalling the viciousness with which an earlier generation of fanatically driven young men had pounced upon a nation struggling to be free of colonial rule. The thought was saddening. In the imagination, you wondered if such violence could be handled purposefully, if democracy could put such dark elements to flight -- for all time.