The mood in Bangladesh is sombre, with violence ripping the country following Quader Mollah’s execution, ahead of the crucial general election which the BNP-Jamaat is out to boycott and disrupt  
Sadiq Naqvi Dhaka 

Now, we will have to respond to the violence,” says Asaduzzaman Noor, an Awami League MP and an acclaimed Bangladeshi actor. He is one of the 154 candidates of the Awami League who will possibly be elected unopposed after the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the main opposition party, announced that it is boycotting the January 5 elections. The crisis has brought the country to a standstill after the BNP and its main ally, the Jamaat-e-Islami, organized blockades and strikes against the decision of the Awami League government to go ahead with elections. Earlier, the BNP wanted the elections under a caretaker government, but now it just wants Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed to resign – a concession from its earlier demand. As the government has refused to wilt under the politics of terror and violence, arson and targeted attacks have become commonplace, deepening divisions in a highly polarized Bangladeshi society that is engaged in a serious existential struggle.

The timing of the elections coincides with the violent face-off over the interpretation of the 1971 liberation war between those who want Bangladesh to be a secular and plural society and others – who were also perpetrators of some of the most beastly crimes committed in South Asia – who were against the partition of Pakistan and would want Bangladesh to turn into an Islamic State. The elections would offer some clue about the direction Bangladesh will take in the coming months.

Noor has reasons to be angry with the BNP-Jamaat agitators. On December 14, he had a narrow escape. “I had gone to meet the members of the minority community in Nilphamari, my constituency. They were living in fear after their houses were torched by members of the Jamaat’s student organization, Islami Chattra Shibir. On the way back, two of the cars, which were slower, were waylaid by a large group of people. Two of my supporters were hacked to death by machetes and Chinese axes. That’s how brutal they are,” Noor says. Nilphamari is said to be a stronghold of the Jamaat and its student wing, Shibir, the now de-recognized political outfit said to be behind the ghastly attack that happened a day after Quader Mollah’s execution.

Mollah, the Butcher of Mirpur, an epithet he earned for his brutalities against the pro-liberation people of Bangladesh, was earlier convicted on charges of complicity in killings during the 1971 war. A former member of the Al Badr militia, he was one of the 10 Jamaat and BNP political activists who have been convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal. He was also the first to be hanged while four others await execution. More than 100 people have succumbed to the fresh spell of violence after the Supreme Court verdict on the government’s appeal against the tribunal awarding him a life sentence. 

“Dhaka has become a city of Molotov cocktails,” says Tanweer Haider, a student of business administration at Dhaka University. “My parents in Chittagong are worried all the time. They keep telling me to stay indoors. The Chhatra Shibiris or the Chhatra Dal members emerge from nowhere, attack and run away. They act like guerrillas.” There have been dozens of such attacks in the last few months after the BNP and Jamaat announced strikes and blockades. Many have succumbed to injuries. In November, several people died after a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a moving bus close to Shahbagh square.  

“They are smart. One of them walks in with gunpowder in a cellophane pouch, sprays it and walks away. The next one comes in, ignites and runs,” says Mohammad Zameer, a member of the Awami League Advisory Council. Zameer recalls how he escaped an attempt on his life after a young woman armed with grenades was caught by the police. “She came to my house, possibly angered over one of my poems, which they construed as blasphemous,” he says.  

“Stay put in Gulshan (the diplomatic avenue). Don’t venture to the other parts of the town,” the cabbie warns, pointing to a crowd that has been prevented from entering the premises of Dhaka’s Hazrat Shahjalal airport the morning after Mollah’s execution. “The security forces are not taking any chances. They are expecting a wave of violence and revenge attacks,” he continues, as the car zips through largely empty roads with only the sirens of the ambulances and the police cars disrupting the eerie quiet that engulfs the city. “Now some people even use ambulances to commute. The fear of violence is palpable,” he says. The fears are well-founded. By evening, there were reports that the Jamaat cadre was out on the streets, throwing bombs and torching vehicles. Almost 150 vehicles were burnt and a few people killed across the country the same day. Days before Mollah’s execution, the Jamaat and its allied outfits had threatened to launch a wave of attacks if the government went ahead with the hanging.

“Barring a few deadly attacks and skirmishes, Dhaka has been relatively quiet. It is the other areas in the hinterland that are bearing the brunt,” says Humayun Kabir, a former diplomat. “The mood in the country is sombre. The crisis has thrown life out of gear. Today they have given a breather, for tomorrow is Victory Day. That is probably why everyone is out shopping. Day after tomorrow, the rolling strikes begin again.” The BNP is using Jamaat for all the dirty work, points out Zameer.   

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014