When Dhaka’s street battles began to intensify earlier this year, the ambulances started to pour out onto the streets. Going to pick up the dead and injured? In many cases, no. Instead, they were often used to shuttle expats, businessmen and rich kids to airports, offices and garment factories.
For much of this turbulent year, Bangladesh’s capital has been devoured by hartals, relentless waves of violent general strikes that cripple the nation’s political, economic and social nerve center.
Cars, buses even trains that defy the strikes have been attacked, torched and bombed (resulting in an impressive array of YouTube videos) – leaving only cycle rickshaws for the public and ambulance “taxis” for a privileged few as safe modes of transportation.
Dhaka-based human rights group Odhikar claims 322 people have already been killed in political clashes this year, as a high-stakes general election looms. It’s the highest death toll outside a conflict zone, and higher than in many of those.
On July 15, a war crimes tribunal convicted Ghulam Azam, the nation’s most prominent Islamist leader, of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during its war of independence. A 9-year-old girl was run over by a bus retreating from Islamists trying to torch it in the protests that followed.
Now the courts have banned Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest religious political party. Bangladesh is bracing for worse, with a fresh round of hartals on the cards.
Originally a cornerstone of Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement in India’s independence struggle, hartals used to enjoy the support of the masses, eager to join the cause. Businesses would stop doing business, public and private transport would cease transporting, workers wouldn’t show up for work.
But more recently hartals have transformed into a wholesale replacement for democratic checks and balances in Bangladesh. Upset about inflation? Call a hartal. Think a court verdict is too lenient? Call a hartal. Think that same verdict is too severe? Why not call a competing hartal on the same day? Frustrated by the endless tide of hartals? Well, don’t let a sense of irony stop you.
Opposition parties – and sometimes, bizarrely, even those on the government’s side – routinely take to the streets instead of debating in parliament. Armed cadres skirmish with security forces, and Dhaka’s residents are left confined to their homes.
Midway through April, a particularly bad month, there had been only four working days in the capital. In the week that followed the Azam war crimes verdict, there was only one working day. The economic damage to one of the poorest countries in the world has been immense. Bangladesh’s garment industry, which can seem omnipotent in every other respect but appears powerless here, estimates the sector alone loses $25 million each hartal day.
“Hartals affect people, garments, exports, agriculture, a whole range of people are affected by the hartals. But who cares? The government does not care, the opposition does not care. That’s how things stand, no one cares,” says CR Abrar, Odhikar’s president.
Obviously public support for this mutant form of dissent has faded to non-existent. But the strikes have become more violent, more prolific. This owes much to the rise of the qedar, the street-fighting men of Dhaka.
Police and thieves in the streets
“I got beaten up in front of the President’s House. They were throwing bombs. We were throwing bricks at them, no point lying about it.”
Mohammad Joynal Abedin holds your gaze. “I’ve seen a hell of a lot,” he likes to say, perhaps more often than he needs to, though he’s right. In 1971, at age 15, he picked up a sten gun to fight in Bangladesh’s liberation war.
After the conflict ended, Abedin was a man without a job in a country without opportunities. He became an “activist”/enforcer who provided presence and muscle in political rallies as well as financial, real estate and other disputes.
“I was in the hospital for three days after that beating,” he says with some pride.
Sohel Rana, the owner of the garment factory building that collapsed earlier this year killing 1,127 workers in the country’s worst industrial disaster, was a qedar who made good.
Many of those crushed to death were women who had left behind a traditional role in the home for a more independent, empowered existence. If the female garment worker is one emblem of the Bangladeshi Dream, Rana is her perverse counterpart, a model for many young, jobless men – fight hard on the streets, control your territory, attach yourself to the right political patron and one day you too can own a building.
In a country where the qedars enforce their own law, the police are left in a strange situation, seen as targets by political thugs and as political thugs by the public.
The recent street clashes have left hundreds of police injured, and 14 dead, authorities say.
The police can give more than as good as they get. Late one night in May, security forces attacked Islamists who were laying “siege” to the capital. The death toll is disputed, but at least 27 were killed.
“We have a very politicized police force, and as a result more time is taken to harass and control the opposition than perform the functions police are supposed to do,” Abrar says.
“Whenever there’s a crime, residents get angry when we show up,” says the senior police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The relationship with the public is strained, it is not the way it should be.”
Vigilante justice is pervasive. Odhikar says 61 people have been killed so far this year in mob lynchings, for crimes ranging from theft to river piracy. A suspected motorcycle thief’s eyes were gouged out in May this year. In 2010, six students were killed by villagers in Aminbazaar, just outside Dhaka, after they were mistaken for robbers.
“In Aminbazaar the students were picked up by the cops, and the police actually handed them over to the mob,” Abrar says.
Mohammad A Arafat, a professor at Independent University Bangladesh, says: “The gonopituni [public beating] culture is a syndrome. Today, look at Sohel Rana. Everyone is shouting faashi chai [hang him], no one is saying ‘we want his trial’. I think this will change through the democratic process, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
“Unfortunately we live in a system where mob justice has a major say,” Abrar adds.
Lack of trust
The triumph of force over rule of law infects Bangladesh from top to bottom. Nasiruddin Ahmed Ashim, the human rights affairs secretary of the opposition BNP, says as many as 20,000 of his party’s “activists” are in jails across the country. Local and international human rights organizations say torture in custody is common.
“There are 2000 Jamaat/BNP [opposition] leaders in jail, and if there was more space in our jails, there'd be more arrests. But then we'd also be letting more criminals walk – we need to make more quality arrests,” the police source said.
This year’s political violence has erupted due to fears the upcoming elections, due between October and January, will be rigged. Ruling parties cling fiercely to power knowing that being demoted to opposition status will have severe consequences.
“You can’t have fair elections under the ruling administration,” says BNP’s Ashim. “The way our politics works, our political groups don’t have trust, they don’t have respect for each other.”
Arafat says this mistrust has its seeds in the brutal, bloody birth of Bangladesh in 1971 – when the country was torn between those who wanted independence and those who wanted to remain part of Pakistan – and the template it set of violence and impunity.
“Civil society offers superficial solutions,” says Arafat. “They say we need to have more dialogue, etc. But the original problem is the violence in our politics.”
Maher Sattar is a print, broadcast and new media journalist based in Bangkok. Follow him on Twitter @mahersattar.