Bangladesh | Whatever It Takes

The country’s political parties continue their relentless scrap for power

Supporters of Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League beat a supporter of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party during an anti-government protest in Dhaka. AM Ahad / AP Photo
01 February, 2014

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.

But neither the opposition hartals, nor the AL’s reprisals, were organised on a voluntary or populist basis, according to a new report by BRAC, a development NGO that works in all of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. Rather, the report finds, much of the violence, including the widespread use of incendiaries, was carried out by street children hired for the purpose, or cajoled into such actions through networks of patronage reaching all the way to the top of Bangladeshi politics. Street children, the report says, were also hired to bulk up processions and meetings of both the AL and the BNP.

When I met him at BRAC’s sprawling Dhaka headquarters, Abu Ahasan, a researcher supervising the report, noted that street children are ideal targets for such manipulation. He told me that these children are essentially faceless, largely ignored by much of Bangladeshi society, and so have little fear of being individually identified or punished. A preliminary draft of the report states that “children are [each] paid from 200 to 500 taka [$2.5–6.5], sometimes up to 1000 taka [$13], according to what the task is.” Crucial to this system, the report says, are bhangariwallas—scrap merchants—who act as intermediaries between street children and political goons belonging to party youth wings. Often, street children have an almost parental relationship with a bhangariwalla who offers them regular employment and whom they call bhai. “We’ll run forward and throw [petrol bombs] … no need of any single word,” said an unnamed 12-year-old quoted in the report. “Bhai … asked for it, so it must be done. Even if it causes death ... Bhai’ll take care of everything.”

But such allegations of what Ahasan terms the “outsourcing” of political violence did not stop BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia from claiming that “the people are with us”. When I met her at her spacious north Dhaka residence a few days after the election, she was confident that her party had undermined the credibility of the AL’s victory, and did not seem unduly concerned over the rise in violence. “Obviously [the programme of hartals] has worked,” she told me.

Zia was keen to point out the irony in the current political impasse. In 1996, Hasina’s AL had led a violent campaign that succeeded in getting Zia’s then-incumbent BNP government to institute the system of caretaker election governments. Today, Hasina adamantly rejects that very system. There are other eerie twists: the AL vilifies the Jamaat today, and in 2009 Hasina’s government initiated a war crimes tribunal that has convicted several major Jamaat leaders over actions against independence activists during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War against Pakistan; but, as Zia noted, in the 1990s the AL “were with the Jamaat-i-Islami”. Then as now, it seems, Bangladesh’s political divisions had little to do with ideology, and everything to do with the ruthless pursuit of power.

I saw further evidence of this a few months ago, before the opposition boycott was formalised, when I met an aspiring Muslim BNP parliamentarian clutching a whiskey at an expat bar in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave. The purchase and consumption of alcohol is banned in Bangladesh for all but foreigners and a few non-Muslim minorities, but such legal restrictions are of little consequence to the country’s social elite. I asked the aspirant, who warned me not to identify him by name, about his party’s support for the Jamaat and its Islamist allies, who would hardly approve of his drinking. “We are fucking using them,” he replied with drunken earnestness, and told me that the BNP needed the vigour of dogmatic and well-organised religious groups to cause enough disruption on the streets to oust the AL government, which positions itself as a champion of secularism.

Those religious groups include the Hefazat-i-Islam, a rising madrassa-based organisation established in 2010. Hefazat held violent demonstrations against women’s rights in 2011, and in 2013 it organised large rallies calling for the suppression of the Shahbag protest movement, which defended secularism and demanded death penalties for Islamist leaders convicted of war crimes. Placards at recent Hefazat gatherings have demanded that atheists be hanged, and that men and women be banned from mingling in public.

The AL government, for its part, has tried to suppress the Islamist opposition, whom it calls “terrorists”. In May 2013, government security forces attacked a large and violent Hefazat rally in Dhaka, killing at least 60 people, according to the international rights watchdog Human Rights Watch. Afterwards, the government stubbornly refused to acknowledge even a single death, and arrested the head of a pro-BNP human rights group that had reported on the massacre.

Though Dhaka remains Bangladesh’s primary political theatre, organised political violence has reached far beyond it. Four days after the election, I travelled south-west from Dhaka across the Padma River to Satkhira District, which the ASK identified as the country’s most violent in the run-up to elections. In Gopalpur, a village located just a few kilometres from the Indian border, Hindu villagers crowded around me one morning to recount their torment at the hands of local Islamist thugs, whom they accuse of looting, murder and harassment. They told me of Borun Kumar Dey, who they said used to run a jewellery business and was killed by Islamists, and Prodip Das, whose small shop they said was recently destroyed.

But in these incidents, too, the underlying motivation was not just ideology or religion—in Satkhira, many villagers told me that they were targeted for their land. One of those villagers was Shubash Ghosh, a 63-year-old veteran of the Liberation War, whom I met as he stood tearfully outside his burned house on a verdant plot in the village of Jagannathpur that had sustained his family for generations. Now, he said, he was too scared to even sleep there. About 60 or 70 Islamist thugs had attacked Ghosh’s house on the morning of 13 December. Outside what used to be his front door, I saw a pile of blackened metal that was all that remained of Ghosh’s prized motorbike. “It is a very, very good programme,” I remembered Zia saying of the hartals. “Very effective programme.”