Understanding Bangladesh’s political violence

Strikes and blockades have shut down the economy after the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah.

A group of furious Bangladeshis are demanding the government cut off diplomatic ties with Pakistan. What’s angered them is a resolution by Pakistan’s national assembly expressing concern over the execution of a convicted war criminal.

Dozens have died in the week since the Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Mollah was hanged for committing war crimes during Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The victims have been from across Bangladesh’s trenchant political divide, and those who are completely outside the political sphere – bus drivers, schoolchildren, bystanders.

It often takes some time for people who aren’t from South Asia to grasp the concept of the general strikes, or hartals. They began as a form of non-violent resistance against British rule, led by Mahatma Gandhi – the public would stop going to work as part of the non-cooperation movement. Bangladesh has bastardised hartals beyond recognition. No one pretends the public are invested in whether a hartal is enforced – and the way that they are enforced is by intimidating the public through violence.

The atmosphere in the capital, Dhaka, is oppressive – in the rest of the country it’s worse. The strikes and blockades have shut down the economy. Dhaka’s chaotic bustle is gone. People here are chafing at being confined at home for days, even whole weeks. While outside fortress Dhaka – with 15,000 officers deployed almost daily – the real bloodshed is taking place, and people are seeing neighbours, friends, relatives die. Political activists are allegedly cutting up rivals from opposition parties, and there are rumours of security forces raiding the homes of activists and shooting them down.

When we cover Bangladesh’s political violence in the news, the standard way to refer to the people who die in clashes with security forces is to call them “political activists”. I’m not sure it’s the best way to describe them. They’re a far cry from the Nelson Mandelas of the world. But it’s not clear what else to call the political street fighters of Bangladesh.

The trouble is that “political activist” has become a dehumanising term in the Bangladeshi context. Hundreds have died this year in clashes, but because they’re “political activists” many people don’t feel outraged. But of course they were real people, with real connections, and their deaths are being felt and will have an impact. These deaths will have an impact on the way a village votes, on the way a community dealing with the loss of a loved one start regarding the police, on the way victims of violence perpetrated by opposition activists become more willing to support heavy-handed measures and corruption of the judiciary.

As the stakes get raised, the space for critical thinking has shrunk in Bangladesh this year. It’s close to impossible to criticise the war crimes tribunal that handed down Mollah’s death sentence without being labelled an apologist for war criminals. This is blinding many to the obvious consequences of the Mollah hanging.

The opposition activists who have been involved in instigating the violence are of course at fault here. But by executing one man, the stage was set for the deaths of many. The government must have known this would be the case.