In a decision that has surprised us, the police have allowed the ruling Awami League to hold a rally in downtown Dhaka, temporarily lifting an eight-day ban on such activities. The police's new stance, quite sagacious towards the ruling party, stands diametrically opposite to its handling of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and its leader. Khaleda Zia has been virtually imprisoned for the last nine days in the name of protecting her from unknown and undisclosed threats. To make matters even more grievous, lorries filled with sand have been kept at the entrance to her house to prevent her from participating in any open political activities.
It is true that the police's bias, unashamed that it is, towards the ruling party has undoubtedly reached its peak in the last few years. This is especially so when we see the law enforcers use live bullets against unarmed opposition activists, who have taken to the streets to realise a demand, which, according to some opinion polls run by this paper, an overwhelming number of ordinary Bangladeshis support.
While we cannot but condemn setting fire to private and public properties or vandalising them in the name of street agitation, in the same breath we deplore the police's partisan attitude towards the ruling party. There is no denying that the AL has every right to hold a rally in the capital, a privilege that it should share with other political parties. For any such group, holding rallies is one of basic ways to reach people and make its voice heard, but bestowing one political party with that and obstructing the other's path with sand-filled trucks undoubtedly smacks of undemocratic behaviour.
There is no denying that the police have blocked the entrance to Khaleda's house following some government order, and the same is true about the ban on rallies in the capital that was slapped immediately before Khaleda's 'arrest'. The AL should keep it in mind that in any democratic society, the party in power has to work as the vanguard for freedom of speech and expression; it has to make sure that it is amply criticised, and its actions scrutinised. It is even more necessary in a dysfunctional democracy like ours, where, as history suggests, the absence of a dissenting voice always paves the way for tyranny.
In the last few weeks, the ruling party MPs have been talking about the possible arrest of Khaleda Zia on alleged charges that range from 'patronising terrorists' to 'stealing the money of orphans'. Given that she's been kept under virtual house-arrest, sand-filled truck and all, all the AL leadership needs is a warrant to make the matter more official. The implication of Khaleda's 'real' arrest is going to be huge. Not that we believe, after her arrest, the BNP stalwarts will risk their lives and will throng the streets of the capital in their millions. If they do, it will be a different ballgame altogether.
But the balance of probability runs dangerously high against the BNP. After Khaleda's 'arrest', the BNP-led agitation, thanks to a leadership crisis, might fizzle out. The erosion of people's trust in the BNP to become a force to be reckoned with will surely create a vacuum, which Bangladesh's politics might want to fill with elements that many of us might feel uncomfortable to deal with. The weaker the BNP gets the more right wing its supporters might become. And that does not bode well for the country.
Be that as it may, the country is in the hands of a set of intolerant power-hungry politicians who do not even bat an eyelid while trying to find ways to deny the opposition's right to speak or, in the case of the BNP, to vandalise public property, the very ordinary people they so vociferously claim to represent.
Presently Bangladesh stands at a crucial crossroads in its history. Every decision that is taken now will make an impact on the country's immediate future and will shape the nature of its polity. But our politicians, it seems, are not aware of it at all.
First published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh on January 14, 2015