Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hartal or No Hartal, That Is the Question

If you spend any length of time in Bangladesh, you're likely to experience a 'hartal'. A 'hartal' is a general strike, typically called by an opposition political party and often enforced (at times brutally) by its youth organizations.

During national hartals, the entire country comes to a halt. Though it is rooted in the historic non-violence that toppled the British occupation, today's hartals are more-likely cynical ploys by one political party to hijack the country in order to break down the political process and call for new elections with the hope that they will come out on top in the next round.

At the end of last month, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia (BNP) called a nationwide hartal for 27 June.

Urging the rallier to make the general strike successful, Khaleda said, "You wanted a programme for a movement, so here it is. I know movements bring sufferings for the people. But to get rid of the horrible pain this government is inflicting, you must make some sacrifices. We don't have any other option than a hartal, to protest in a peaceful legal way."

She alleged that the opposition is not being allowed to speak in the parliament, and their notices are not being heeded, adding, "The people will get an effective parliament if a new election is held after dissolving the present parliament."

According to the Asia News report, this will be the first nationwide hartal in three years.

By announcing the shutdown, the main opposition leader re-introduced the highly criticised "hartal culture" in the country's political arena after a three-year gap.

The last time a hartal was observed on October 28, 2006 by the then opposition party AL, 12 persons were killed across the country. The last time BNP observed a hartal was before June 2001, during AL's last stint in power.

As noted in by the Asia News, the ruling Awami League is no stranger to hartal, and used the tactic regularly while the BNP was in power.

Earlier this month, Ferdous Rahman wrote for Bangladeshi English-language newspaper, The Financial Express that criticized the practice of hartal for its negative impact on both the national economy and the rights of the people.

Hartals are often called in the name of the people, but it is the ordinary people whose movements are restricted, property endangered, and progress curbed. Hartal is apt to curtail the rights of people who are not willing to participate in it. In that sense, hartal is viewed by many as a coercive political right.

Hartal is no longer an effective form of protest. In a globalised economy with fierce competition for investment capital and jobs, no country can afford to have confrontational politics. Hartals associated with intimidation, coercion and infringement on other people's freedom of movement are not convincing or credible.

Hartal is not the solution of any problem and is economically damaging. Properties are damaged during hartals, work hour is lost and communication disrupted. The cumulative effect of any such losses cannot but be very alarming for the national economy and social order. Today nearly half of the 150 million people of the country live below poverty line though the economy has an impressive potential for pulling millions out of poverty. Political instability remains the key impediment to economic development in Bangladesh. With passage of time, the hope for political stability is becoming more illusory and people from all walks of life are losing confidence on the culture of hartal. It was widely expected that the new regime would bring political stability and end authoritarianism in all affairs of the state. But the reality has been quite different.

The editorial board of English-language daily, The Daily Star, agrees:

THIS newspaper since its very inception has opposed hartal during the tenure of both AL and BNP. We observed with dismay how the AL and the BNP loudly professed the evils of hartal while in power but called for it when in the opposition. We would like to make it clear, however, that an imposed ban on hartal will be, if anything, self-defeating and counter-productive.

That hartal as a medium of political protest stands discredited for being overused, imposed, thoroughly repugnant to public sensibilities because of negation of free choice and, above all, destructive to the national economy is now a universally acknowledged fact. Historically, whatever rationale hartal has had as a political weapon against autocracy and misrule got lost through its abuse that starkly contrasted with the availability of the outlets for expression of dissent following the restoration of elective parliaments since 1991 and free play of pluralistic press.

The big misfortune for the national polity has been that while in the opposition a political party favours hartal, but the party in power abhors it, and tries to resist it leading to confrontation and spiraling violence. The opposition resorts to hartal deluding itself into thinking that even if people stayed put at home to avert trouble it would go down as a mark of success. And, the ruling party taking to street in consequence, a cycle of violence grips the nation. In the process, both the political parties stand to lose public support.

Not that they don't realise it, they very much do so; for, the Awami League at one time before election took a firm stand against hartal, and publicly committed that even if in the opposition it wouldn't go for hartal provided the BNP reciprocated in kind.

But recently proposed legislation to ban the practice of Hartal is nevertheless controversial.

While The Daily Star sees its contemporary use as a self-defeating move, they also believe that in order to move beyond the impasse of hartal, there must be a consensus among the major political parties.

That being the shared legacies of hartals and counter hartals by the major political parties alternating between power and opposition, it devolves on them to first come into a bi-partisan agreement on the hartal issue.

We find it thoroughly unacceptable however that the ruling party in a one-sided bid has placed a bill in parliament to enact an anti-hartal law. This sounds as coercive as imposition of hartal itself, if not more. This furthermore betrays a sense of using brute majority in parliament which seems simply outrageous. The proposed bill incredibly seeks to punish individuals who force people to observe hartal meaning the pickets. What is even worse, top leaders of political parties who call hartal will be proceeded against along with the pickets.

This is certainly not the way to go about it. We are of the strong view that a national dialogue be held with all political parties including civil society leaders by way of eliciting public opinion to reinforce the already-felt need for doing away with hartal. The key element in the whole exercise would have to be provided by the major political parties to come together to forge a common stance against hartal.

The question is, can the political parties come together in good faith to eradicate what has been an effective, if only in the very short-term, political weapon?

The fact of the matter is that in its current practice, hartal does more harm then good. The economy suffers, the people suffer, the political process suffers. Opposition parties at best obtain a Pyyrhic victory as they weaken they further weaken the political system, increase cynicism and doubt among the people.

Bangladesh deserves better.

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