ON 5 JANUARY, election day in Bangladesh, Lakon, a 45-year-old vegetable vendor, was in his bed at the High Dependency Unit of the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. The streets of Dhaka, like those of other Bangladeshi cities, were tense and largely deserted as the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its allies continued a campaign of hartals (strikes) meant to violently disrupt the election and undermine the credibility of its results. As I walked into the ward, Lakon’s eyes flickered open as he sat up. The skin on his entire upper body, face and head was blistered and raw, and he was unable to speak or hear. His brother-in-law, standing at his bedside, told me that three days ago Lakon had been burned by a “petrol bomb”—a crude incendiary—that hit him on the forehead as he set up his vegetable stall in Gazipur District, north of the capital. Throughout the hospital, I met many more victims of political violence.
The January election—in which the incumbent Awami League (AL) won 232 of 300 parliamentary seats, about half of which went uncontested after the opposition decided to boycott the vote—was Bangladesh’s most violent to date. The immediate dispute between the BNP and the AL centred on the caretaker government system, a provision dating back to 1996, under which incumbent administrations were to step down prior to elections in favour of non-partisan interim governments that would conduct polls. In 2011, the government under prime minister and AL leader Sheikh Hasina concluded a judicial review of the system, in which the country’s Supreme Court judged it legal for the incumbent administration to scrap the system and conduct the next election itself. The BNP and its allies, including the Islamist Jamaati-i-Islami, lacking sufficient parliamentary seats to challenge the ruling legislatively, demanded that the government step down.
In an attempt to paralyse the country, the opposition launched a series of general strikes, blockades and violent protests, which often entailed the use of homemade incendiaries to attack infrastructure and transportation, including buses full of people. State authorities responded with force, killing scores of protestors and arresting many more, and AL activists also took to the streets to retaliate. According to the Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK), a prominent rights group, Bangladesh witnessed 848 violent political clashes in 2013, in which 507 people died and over 22,000 were injured, many of them innocent bystanders like Lakon. On voting day, at least 18 people were killed nationwide, over 100 polling booths were torched, and turnout was a mere 22 percent.