Elections are a big thing in Bangladesh. Going back to his village at peak season was an expensive option for my neighourhood fruit seller, Siddique Ali. The election wasn’t so critical in his case, as his candidate was going to get elected virtually unopposed. But he was going to vote all the same.
My workaholic colleague Delower Hossain had also taken leave, not only to vote but to campaign for his candidate. Our electrician was working late into the night so he could get to Dinajpur in time. He too faced a one-sided election, but wasn’t going to take chances.
The euphoria in the streets was contagious. It felt good to be milling with the crowds. The smell of the street had its own magic. Contrary to the usual political rallies, These were not filled with hired crowd fillers or party goons, but people who genuinely loved their party and their leader.
Siddique Ali and Delower, like so many other ordinary Bangladeshis, were hard working, honest and politically astute. When I asked Siddique how well his candidate Shahjahan had done in his previous term, he gave a pragmatic answer. “He was an Awami League MP in a BNP government. You can’t expect him to achieve much.” Still, millions like Siddique and Delower voted. Still, they believed in the power of the people.
Parking my bicycle near the stadium I followed the crowd into Paltan. There were hundreds of policemen along the way, and everyone was being checked. My camera jacket and my dangling camera allowed me to get through several of the checks, but I did get stopped and politely asked to show the contents of my camera bag. There wasn’t the rudeness that greets one at a western airport, but they were making sure. Times had changed.
I remembered crowding around Hasina and Khaleda during the 1991 campaigns. Ershad had just been removed and there was hope in the air. Whoever won, we would have democracy. At least that was what we felt then
As another military government was stepping down, I knew too well, that this elected government was unlikely to yield democracy outright. The young man with Hasina painted on his chest reminded me of Noor Hossain, the worker killed by Ershad’s police, because he had wanted “Democracy to be Freed”. I remembered that the autocratic general Ershad was back, an ally of the Awami League. And the party made up of war criminals, Jamaat, was on course, an ally of BNP.
One could have predicted Hasina’s speech. There was not an iota of remorse. Not the slightest admission of wrong-doing. With the arrogance that has become her hallmark, she glorified her previous rule, and villified her opponent. And went on to insult the intelligence of the crowd by promising that every young man and woman would be given a job.
Through her proposed Internet revolution, no villager would ever again need to go to the city. The complete eradication of poverty was thrown in for good measure. The saying in Bangla ‘kothar upor tax nai’ “there is no tax on words” could not have been more apt.
Khaleda, the following day, had done no less. Her promise of leaving no family homeless, was perhaps less extreme than the promise of a job for every youth, but it was still sheer hype. She too promised the magic of the computer, which apparently, could solve all problems. Having overseen the most corrupt five years of Bangladesh’s history.
Having had her second attempt at a rigged election derailed by a fighting opposition and a defiant public, she spoke of how, if voted into power, she would shape a corruption free Bangladesh! Bypassing the most blatant misdeeds of her sons and their cronies, she spoke of the ill deeds of her opponents. The master vote-stealer even warned of vote stealing. There was perhaps one significant difference between the two. Khaleda did acknowledge that perhaps some mistakes might have been made, and if so, apologised for them. Even such half admissions of blatant misdeeds, is a landmark in Bangladeshi politics.
The security was less stringent for Khaleda, and I was able to get to the inner corral without being frisked or having my camera bag checked. Significantly, she chose not to use the bullet proof glass that had protected Hasina the day before. I had been surprised by the lack of women at Hasina’s rally, where I estimated less than a thousand women had gathered.
At Khaleda’s a rough head count yielded figures well below one fifty. Predictably however, there were many white capped men, and the yellow head bands of Jamaat’s militant student wing Shibir. Her’s was a more jubilant crowd, with slogans and chanting going on right through the rally, even during her speech. In comparison, Hasina’s rally had been a more reserved affair. Perhaps an indication of Khaleda’s younger following.
They had plenty of ammunition. Hasina reminded voters of the foreign bank accounts of Khaleda’s sons, and that the BNP had teamed up with war criminals. Khaleda reminded them of the one party rule of BAKSHAL, and the irony of Hasina’s statement that the partners of autocrats were traitors to the nation. Despite Khaleda’s tangential reference to ‘possible mistakes’, neither leader made any direct admission to any of the misdeeds that had ravaged the nation.
I felt insulted and humiliated. But I could not deny, that both leaders had their followers. Many of the people in the crowd did love them dearly, though there was little evidence to suggest that their leaders deserved, or respected this unrequited love.
So why this great longing for an elected government? Why this great love for undeserving leaders? An election offers the one hope for a disenfranchised public to be heard. They cling on to these unlikely champions of democracy as their only real hope for a system of governance that may eventually value their will.
Hopefully the misadventures over the last two years has taught the military that the Bangladeshi public is a tough nut to crack. Even these two arrogant leaders face a more robust media and a more questioning public than they’ve been used to. Delower and Siddique Ali might not get the democracy they deserve, but their love for democracy, will eventually force a change.
A state of danger
This is Shahidul Alam’s inside story, in words and pictures, of the intense struggle against repression which has been raging in Bangladesh, unnoticed by the Western media. Resistance work there is dangerous – photographers and journalists are regularly attacked and arrested.
This teargas was different. In 1990, people would bring buckets of water from their homes, we would wash our faces, and face the police again. This was some new formula. The only thing that worked was fire, and we held our faces close to a burning rag. We had been warned that the gas caused lung damage. We waited for the stinging to stop and got back to work.
There were other fears. This time we saw the police had submachine guns. We wondered who provided these guns and gases, and the smart armoured vehicles that sprayed hot water. We wondered how much they cost. I remembered an army officer proudly relating that they were UK-trained. Was that where they learned to apply electric shocks to the head, to dangle you from the ceiling by the ankles, and fracture your bones with mallets? Was that where they had been trained to scald faces with hot water and chilli?
It was a strange feeling to see the military patrols in the empty streets on election day, 15 February 1996. There were bunkers on the corners of all major roads. The machine guns followed you as you walked the streets. It was like 1971 again, when Pakistani soldiers roamed the streets, except that this time it was our army, propping up an autocratic regime by ensuring that this farcical election could go ahead.
It had now been over a year since the opposition parties had resigned from parliament en masse in protest. We had been naive in thinking that a civilian government, elected by a genuinely fair vote in 1991, would be any different. I remembered the people dancing in the streets when the dictator Ershad was deposed in 1990. The general had held on to power for nine years, and it had been a long drawn-out battle. But the characteristics of the ‘democratic’ government led by Begum Khaleda Zia which succeeded him proved to be all too familiar. The draconian Special Powers Act was never repealed despite the election promises. Then there was the entente with the Jamaat-e-Islami fundamentalists, who had sided with the Pakistani Army in 1971.
Enraged by the Government’s rigging of by-elections, we realized that a caretaker government would be the only way to ensure a fair election. The resistance began anew. Farmers who protested the hoarding of fertilizers by government-sponsored dealers were shot. When police raped and strangled 14-year-old Yasmin there was a spontaneous siege of Dinajpur police station. It was time to take to the streets again.
On 31 January, a meeting called at the Teachers Students Centre to protest against military violence never took place. Police had raided nearby Jagannath Hall in Dhaka University and people were fleeing the campus. As we made our way through the teargas, we came across hundreds of police who had taken over the hall of residence. Students, most dressed in lungis, were cowering in a corner, tied together and crouching on the ground. Teachers’ protests were disregarded as 96 were herded into the small prison van. One student screamed out to friends for his identity card, in the faint hope that the official piece of paper might spare him. Those who had escaped arrest hurriedly took us to the students’ rooms. We saw the blood on the floor, the broken doors, the ravaged rooms. A student who had been beaten but had escaped arrest, huddled on his broken bed and would not speak. Another cried over his broken guitar. Those arrested, without warrant and without evidence, have yet to be released.
For the 1991 elections, the polling station in Lalmatia Girls High School had been in a festive mood. Huge queues had built up outside. Women had turned up in large numbers, unwilling to miss out on their first chance to cast their vote without coercion. This time round there was a deathly silence. Army and police trucks were stationed outside the empty school. When they spotted my camera, polling officers hurriedly occupied their seats, but there were no voters to be found. The evening news reported a massive turnout and a landslide win for the BNP (Khaleda Zia’s ruling party). Who was the news for? We all knew what was happening – surely Western diplomats could not be blind to what was going on?
Then the violence began to escalate. BNP hoods, supported by the police, took on both political activists and the general public. The total disregard for law and order made it difficult to identify which attacks were political and which were not. We kept in close contact and re-tested our escape plans.
The Government became desperate. Until then only minions had been arrested, but now they turned their attention to the big fish. They miscalculated. When Mohiuddin, the popular Mayor of Chittagong, was arrested, people could no longer be contained, and the port city was set alight. The unrest began to spread, and when the entire country became paralysed due to the opposition’s call for non-cooperation, even high-ranking government officials began to defect. By the time they realized their mistake and released Mohiuddin, it was too late.
We gathered in Shahid Minar, the martyrs’ memorial, which became a seat of resistance – just as it had been way back in 1952, when Bengalees fought for the right to speak our own language.
We knew that a fair election would not in itself solve the country’s problems. The major political parties differ little in terms of class or gender. We wondered if the official opposition, the Awami League, cared that over half-a-million garment workers had lost their jobs due to factory closures. We wondered why opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who was so keen to protect the property of ministers from protesters, had never intervened when workers went hungry.
But now was the time for solidarity: this movement was about removing an autocrat, rejecting a rigged election, challenging an illegal government. So we all worked together. And last night, 30 March, news reached the Janatar Moncho (People’s Stage) that the Prime Minister had finally stepped down. We did it! But the euphoria was short-lived. Soon they brought in bodies of yet more resistance workers killed that day, and the crowd silently wept.
So many have died so that we would not be denied our right to vote. It is our basic right, but this democratic movement’s definition of democracy is all too narrow. The Government’s resignation is a victory, a ray of hope to take into the dark days ahead. But the resistance is far from over.
In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia’s victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.
But the optimism is short-lived. Demonstrators take to the streets when the Government allies with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islam, whose leaders aided the Pakistani Army’s genocide of Bangladeshis in 1971. Under the watchful eye of authority, children of that war’s martyrs demand the trial of the war criminals.
Women feel they have most to lose if the Islamic fundamentalists gain ground. On International Women’s Day in 1994 Shamima Nazneed enacts a play by Tagore (Stri’r Potro, ‘The Wife’s Letter’) which shows the oppressive influence of the family.
The Government becomes increasingly repressive and starts to rig by-elections, leading all opposition parties to resign from Parliament. A general election is called and there is a brutal clampdown on dissent. This student is arrested on 31 January 1996 in a police swoop on a mainly Hindu hall of Dhaka University – he screams out to friends from the prison van.
Resistance hits the streets.
The opposition boycott of the election is complete: polling stations stand idle. Yet the Government reports a huge turnout of voters and a landslide victory. The contrast with the last election is painful as heavy security cordons guard Khaleda Zia while she addresses her followers. She is just visible over their shoulders in the centre, aloof and distant heir to an autocratic tradition.