December 30 and the cycle of violence  

December 30 and the cycle of violence  

Afsan Chowdhury,
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Election related violence is already at its peak and more is expected. This was not quite unexpected. Arrests, court cases and attacks on motorcades and public rallies continue unabated. With just three weeks to go for elections to Bangladesh’s parliament, there is anxiety in the air: it could be one of the deadliest elections in a long time.

The incidents of violence are well spread out and, going by media reports, are affecting both the Awami League and the BNP. A few deaths have already been reported. It’s an indicator of how high the stakes for both sides.

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Spectre of violence

One of the reasons for this mayhem is the winner-takes-all attitude. Many believe that the level of post-election violence perpetrated by the winner, either as revenge or as punishment, will be extensive. The losers will be seriously at bay once the results are out.

The Awami League has made no secret that it expects the BNP to commit large scale killings and most party leaders, including Sheikh Hasina, have said so. The Awami League campaign is based on this position and it continues to warn people about the cost of a BNP victory in terms of blood-letting.

The BNP has, however, said that this is just an electoral ploy as it has constantly suffered at the hands of the Awami League for the last decade and not the other way around. It says there are several forms of sufferings and one its cadres and activists are being arrested and jailed or slapped with court cases. This is so pervasive that even as electioneering is on, leaders have been picked up and put behind bars. The BNP says this shows the Awami League’s attitude.

The party has also said that its chief Khaleda Zia had declared in her manifesto that she will eschew any politics of revenge which is produced and reproduced by the Awami League to scare voters.

However, many believe that this may be a promise now that may not be fully kept if the election is won. Violent confrontation between the Awami League and the BNP stretch all the way down to the villages and both parties may do what is happening right now, only in a bigger way. No matter which party wins, the post-election scenario is scary to even contemplate. Violence, skirmishes, court cases, legal charges, bails etc have become a permanent feature of Bangladesh politics.

Helpless EC

However, both parties are blaming each other for the violence. BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul’s house was attacked and the Awami League has said that this was actually done by its opponents. The Awami League further states that its their cadres who are suffering more from such violence and several of its cadres have died.

On the other hand, the BNP has also lost a few of its supporters to violence and its rallies have been attacked across the country. Violence, in fact, appears very democratically distributed.

Keeping the days ahead of the elections, and polling day itself, violence-free is in a way the Election Commission’s responsibility but nobody believes that it’s possible for the poll panel to do much. The EC has said that it is “embarrassed” by this high scale of violence but no one is sure what this means. It may mean the EC’s capacity to rein in violence is rather limited. Embarrassment can’t ensure violence-free elections.

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Many forces, both political and otherwise, are getting involved in the violence and that may well be beyond the power of anyone to control. The EC looks pretty helpless and the opposition leaders, media and ordinary people agree on this.

The officials responsible for the elections—returning officers—also happen to be the administrative heads in the districts. However, a writ has been filed challenging their appointment. As one waits for an order, the fact remains that law and order will be the biggest issue that will have to be handled more effectively than public participation.

Violence between workers of both parties has been extensively reported from across Bangladesh. Party leaders have not yet made any call for peaceful elections so there doesn’t seem to be much chance of a decline in the scale of violence. Even if appeals are made, one is not sure that violence may decline, let alone cease. Local level heat is very high.

Conspiracy theories?

Meanwhile, Dhaka’s conspiracy theorists are working full-time, finding many causes behind this escalation of violence. The pro-Awami League camp says that the BNP is indulging in violence so that the polls are not held and its leaders describe this “fishing in troubled waters”. Though one is not exactly sure what this means, it probably points to extra-judicial power transfer situations.

On the other hand, the BNP camp has said that the violence is being conducted by the Awami League so that it can find an excuse to scrap the polls. The BNP claims that the Awami League knows that even if there is 50 percent of clean voting, the BNP will win. So, the Awami League can’t allow the elections to be held given the consequences of its likely loss.

Meanwhile, the announcement that the army will be deployed from December 23 to ensure safe polling on December 30 has been welcomed. Given the situation now, everyday is a countdown to an unsure date with history and the role of the army to ensure safety has been a news that is not related to politics. What matters in the end is the safety of ordinary people.

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