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Bangladesh: Does Khaleda Zia know the cost of a hartal

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Used as we are to the never ending cycle of hartals in Bangladesh, I was, nevertheless, dumb-struck by an article in a leading English daily.

According to this, over 4.9 lakh (0.49 million) liters of milk are either wasted or sold for throwaway prices on a hartal/strike day, since leading dairy producers stop buying and transporting milk fearing shutdown violence.

I am not sure about the accuracy of the figure, but suffice to say, the wastage is not only colossal, but criminal.

In a country where child malnutrition is rampant, 4.9 lakh litres of milk going sour or, being sold for throwaway prices due to a single day's strike day, is nothing short of a serious crime.

The last hartal called by the BNP was of 84 hours. Hence, approximately 20 lakh litres of milk would have gone down the drain.

Between October 27 and November 13, the BNP-led opposition has called for and enforced a violent hartal/strike on nine days, several of them continuous.

Milk production and those dependent on it are but one category that suffer from the strikes. Daily wage-earners like construction workers, the cart puller, the porter and the roadside small shopkeeper etc., who eke out approximately Taka 200 a day through manual labour, are the worst hit, as there is no work, and nobody to hire their services. The plight of their families, who are entirely dependent on this meager amount for subsistence, can well be imagined.

And what of the violence?

The media is full of horrific and tragic tales of people, including children being burnt alive when hartal supporters set a bus alight or, removed tracks to derail a train. Estimates of those killed vary.

More than the figures, the sheer brutality of the Jamaat killing is shocking. Most of those killed or seriously injured were invariably hacked and their tendons sliced off, a trademark sign of the Jamaat and its student wing, the Islami Chhatra Shibir.

What does the BNP supremo Begum Khaleda Zia hope to gain from these continuous strikes?

One objective clearly is to create so much violence and unrest in the country so that the world takes notice. This is happening.

A second objective is to force the acceptance of her demand that elections have to be held under a non-party government, instead of an all-party government that Sheikh Hasina has proposed.

And pray why?

Apart from the fact that the two ladies can't stand each other, Khaleda doesn't want to go into elections with Hasina in-charge, for the ostensible fear, that the elections would be rigged. This argument may have been acceptable given the polarisation in the polity except for the fact, that it was the Supreme Court that had struck down the caretaker system for conducting elections.

Hasina, therefore, is on strong legal grounds in having dispensed with it. Moreover, when alternatives to the caretaker system were being discussed in parliament, Khaleda's party boycotted the committee and made no recommendations.

Now that elections are round the corner, is it fair for Khaleda to cry foul and plunge the country into a dangerous cycle of violence? Obviously not, but obsessed as she is with forcing a regime change, she has chosen to ignore the disastrous consequence of never-ending strikes?

The tragedy is that while Khaleda thinks the strikes will force Hasina to accept a non-party government, in reality, she is being led down the garden path by the Jamaat.

As this author had written in an earlier article (The Jamaat hijacks the BNP), it is the Jamaat that is calling the shots for the BNP. Uppermost in the Jamaat's mind is to delay the war crimes trials by hartals.

And, this strategy is working. The proceedings of war crimes cases against Jamaat leaders Motiur Rahman Nizami and A K M Yusuf in Tribunal 1 and Tribunal 2 did not take place earlier this week as their senior counsels remained absent citing an "unavoidable situation." And this, even though judges, prosecutors, witnesses and accused were present at the court.

This is not the first time this has happened. Senior lawyers of accused Jamaat leaders have been staying off the proceedings of the tribunals on hartal days, citing "security concerns".

This is a strategy to delay the trials in the hope that a government change would stop the trials completely.

The Daily Star quoted senior Jamaat defence counsel Tajul Islam, as saying, "We will not appear [before the court] during hartal." Asked about the tribunal's offer to arrange transportation with police security, he said the defence did not have "faith in police protection."

With further opposition strikes on anvil, the war crimes trials are likely to be further delayed once again, denying a closure to the people of the horrific genocide of 1971.

This is the Jamaat's gambit. They have cleverly assessed that Khaleda and the BNP are so desperate for power that they have grabbed the Jamaat's strategy of continuous strikes as a lifeline to force the caretaker government issue.

In the end, it is the country and the ordinary people who will bear the brunt of the violence and economic hardships unleashed by the BNP-Jamaat sponsored hartals.

The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Salim Haq.

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