It’s more than a month since the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the country’s second largest political party, and its allies began a nationwide transport blockade. Already, it is the longest such political program in the history of the South Asian nation since her independence from Pakistan in 1971.
The blockade started after the ruling Awami League government put barricades in front of BNP Chairwoman Khaleda Zia’s office in Dhaka to prevent her from holding a rally on January 5.
The rally was to commemorate what the BNP termed “democracy killing day”. The day marked the one-year anniversary of the January 5, 2014 elections, which the BNP boycotted after the Awami League government refused to hold the polls under a neutral caretaker government. Amid the boycott, the Awami League won a landslide victory in which more than 50 percent of the 300 parliamentary seats were won without any contest.
Facing mounting criticism, the government removed barricades from Zia’s office on January 11. But the BNP, in turn, launched its own blockade, which is meant to cut off all transportation between Dhaka and other districts.
Apart from the blockade, the BNP-led 20 party alliance is also enforcing hartals (strikes) aimed at halting transportation within Dhaka.
However, peoples’ lives cannot halt. Many continue to make their way across Dhaka for work, school, business, and health care — only to become victims of mounting arson attacks.
Nearly 70 people thus far have died from firebombing, and over 400 have sustained burn injuries. Most schools have been shut down, and nearly 50 million students across the country face a huge setback in their education.
Farmers in villages are failing to supply and sell their produce, while garment manufacturers are facing immense problems in transporting products for shipment to international buyers. Wage earners and the poor are facing a particularly hard time given the chaotic situation. In all, the country is losing an estimated US$150 million each day, according to former economics professor Reza Kibria of Dhaka University.
Against this backdrop, civil society members have called for dialogue between the government and BNP to end the political crisis. Nagorik Shamaj, a citizens’ platform, wrote a letter to President Abdul Hamid, requesting him to initiate the dialogue.
BNP leaders have welcomed the move, but the Awami League government rejected it, saying they cannot hold a dialogue with a party that is burning and killing people and destroying the economy.
But while the government rejects dialogue, it also cannot manage the economy under such violence. Transport owners and drivers are reluctant to ply roads with buses and trucks. The government is now arranging police guards on highways, but that has failed to guarantee protection from firebombs.
Police arrested a number of BNP leaders and some 6,000 people allegedly linked to violence, but the firebomb menace shows no signs of abating.
Such a situation is almost beyond imagination in Bangladesh, which has been doing quite well despite its political problems. Its GDP growth was 4.75 percent throughout the 1990s, but in the last two decades it has been over six percent. Primary school enrolment is 98 percent and the gender gap is zero. Average life expectancy is nearly 70. These social indicators are better than its South Asian neighbors.
Though it is a Muslim-majority country, it is well known for its religious harmony and has no major record of religious or sectarian tension. All this is because the country was created based on secularism and democracy in 1971 through an armed conflict against what was then West Pakistan, which was separated from India on the basis of religion.
After the father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was killed in an army coup in 1975, military rule continued until 1990. During the military regimes, Islamist forces had spread their wings. But after the restoration of democracy in 1991 through mass movements, the country has progressed remarkably well.
But the prolonged instability this time is more intense than ever with the government and BNP digging in. Security analysts believe the hardline elements will take advantage of this conflict between the center-left Awami League and center-right BNP and strengthen their ground if immediate democratic solutions are not sought through dialogue.
Democracy, secular values, freedom of expression and human rights will then suffer in the long run.
Porimol Palma is a senior correspondent of the Daily Star, Bangladesh’s leading English daily.