Politics of hartal is not new in Bangladesh, but it has now acquired a new dimension which is perhaps both brutal and dangerous.
During the last 204 hours of hartal in the last three weeks, aggressive pickets hurling crude bombs or torching buses, auto rickshaws, paddle rickshaws or trucks were common images in newspapers and TV channels. But the most terrifying scenes were perhaps the burn injuries of innocent people, including minors, whose bodies were scorched when public transport was set ablaze or targeted by petrol bombs by pro-hartal pickets.
Bangladesh’s economy, the economists say, suffered heavily in the last 152 hartals enforced by opposition parties from January to November, when an estimated 120 people died in clashes with police and rival political parties. The readymade garment sector which earns $20 billion a year for the country was hit hard. Hundreds of motorized vehicles were either burnt to ashes or damaged. Low income groups, who live on daily earnings, were naturally the worst victims.
Media reports suggest, over 400 people, including minor boys and girls, were injured by indiscriminate bomb blasts or arson attacks in the recent hartals. Among the critically burned, six died and many others fought for their lives with grievous burn injuries.
In the latest 84-hour hartal that ended on November 14, 2013, nine passengers sustained burn injuries when pro-hartal pickets torched a running bus in Dhaka. Picketing incidents were so violent that they even set fire to school buses and dozens of police vans. The attackers, eyewitness said, used even gun powder to torch buses carrying passengers.
The “soldiers of democracy”, as they are known, the aggressive pickets did not even spare women workers of the readymade garment factories, office goers, teachers, rickshaw pullers or day labourers. They want to enforce a total shut down, so that the government accepts the polls-time caretaker government to oversee the next election. However, the government has no mood to accept the “illogical demand” and said it must honour the constitutional mandate.
Nasima, a garment worker, was admitted to hospital with 43 per cent burns on October 26, on the eve of the first spell of 60-hour hartal. She had writhed about in excruciating pain for 19 days, before she finally gave up.
“Why we are being killed, are we in politics, anyway?” sister of the victim, who came to Dhaka from a remote village for livelihood questioned, embracing her lifeless sister. Bangladesh has an estimated 4.8 lakh garment worker, of which 80 per cent are village women.
Abul Kashem, a farmer, was on a rickshaw when attacked by political activists with petrol bombs. He died later with grievous burn injuries. “They kill our sons but their (politicians) sons remain safe”, mother of a burn victim, Al-Amin, who was a helper of a human hauler (an indigenous mechanized transport) torched in Dhaka on November 6, laments.
Montu Pal, a goldsmith, treated at a Dhaka hospital for multiple burns, died on Friday. Pickets had set alight the transport he was travelling. Several victims also had their legs peppered when they jumped out through windows to save lives.
“Poor people like us become the victims of politics,” laments the father of a young arson victim Rabeya, who was to join the job of a teacher in a primary school.
Since October 27, when the latest spells of hartal began to press home the opposition’s demand of caretaker government, 30 victims of arson attacks have been admitted alone to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.
On November 3, Musafizur Rahman Mukul, a mid aged man, was burnt alive when the auto rickshaw he was travelling, was torched. He died the following day. On November 4, strikers had torched a covered van in Gazipur in which 14-year old Monir Hossain was badly burnt. The boy died later.
Sumi, an eight year-old girl, was admitted to a hospital on November 3, when the bus she was travelling by was set on fire by pro-hartal pickets on the Dhaka-Gazipur highway.
The tragedy may lead to further violence if the political parties don’t go for a negotiated settlement of the crisis.