Syed Badrul Ahsan
The death of her younger son was without question a moment of anguish for BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia and the members of the Zia clan. Their grief was all the more pronounced given that Arafat Rahman Koko died away from his country, in exile in Malaysia. And when his remains were brought home, it remained for thousands of followers of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party to converge at his funeral and give the young man an emotional send-off. The tears which streamed down Begum Zia's cheeks were those of a mother, of every mother who realizes with suddenness the enormity of grief descending on her family. In those moments, people across the spectrum shared in the BNP leader's grief. All of us understood once again the meaning of loss engendered by tenuous mortality.
And yet Koko's death, in circumstances for which the young man cannot be held responsible, revealed to the country certain aspects of social behavior which were as unusual as they were bizarre. They were unusual because much of the media, print as also electronic, made it a point to provide citizens with minute by minute accounts of conditions in the capital once the news came through that the younger child of General Ziaur Rahman and Khaleda Zia had passed away. That coverage was unusual, for it ignored the fundamental truth of why Koko had to leave his homeland and die abroad. That he had been sentenced to six years' imprisonment on charges of corruption, that he had spirited away abroad money that was not his were facts the media did not touch upon. To be sure, religion informs us that we ought not to speak ill of the dead. But beyond that, there are the many truths a society cannot simply paper over. And the truth about Koko is no allegation, no witch hunt, but an established fact: the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States probed the matter of all that money he had stashed away in an American bank. The FBI emerged with the finding that it was all ill-gotten gain. That fact led to another: a hefty chunk of the corrupt money Koko had shifted to Singapore was, as a result of the FBI inquiry and the Bangladesh government's efforts, returned to the authorities in Dhaka.
The media did not delve into all these details. It appeared that the investigations into Koko's corruption initiated by the caretaker government of 2007-2009 had been forgotten. It was certainly not a moment when the nation could take pride in its journalism. Rare was the journalist who did not get carried away and who chose to recall the young man's past. And in all this profusion of emotion, no one noticed that Koko's body was taken, not to his mother's residence as is the social custom in this society but to her political office. Again, it escaped notice that the chairperson of the BNP failed to visit the Saudi Arabian embassy to offer her condolences on the death of King Abdullah.
And then there was the bizarre. The beeline made by political leaders and foreign diplomats for the Gulshan office of the BNP chairperson once Koko died would have raised no eyebrows had these individuals turned up there to commiserate with Begum Zia or convey their sense of grief to her and to her party colleagues verbally. But that is something they did not do. All of them made it a point, in full view of the cameras, to pen their condolences in a formal register maintained by the BNP. Political culture and diplomatic norms dictate that condolence books are opened for individuals who in the years prior to death have played significant roles in politics and in other fields of life. In this particular instance, though, one was given the impression that Koko, convicted of corruption and evading justice through staying abroad, was a figure of national importance. None of the politicians and diplomats who affixed their comments in the condolence book will be able to explain this matter of treating a man of disrepute with respect that certainly was not his. And we will have foreign diplomats based in Bangladesh know that nowhere in the world has there ever been any example of the child of a political leader --- be the child a model of decency or a symbol of patent wrongdoing --- being mourned in such a manner after his demise.
We are certainly and to our grave sorrow living through increasingly mediocre and difficult times. Education has ground to a standstill because of the agitation by the BNP-led opposition. The degree of insensitivity the votaries of the on-going blockade and hartals have called up within themselves came to the fore the other day when a BNP politician accused the government of sympathizing with the candidates of the forthcoming SSC examinations and not with the 160 million people of the country! And in all this expression of grief at the death of Begum Zia's son, not one BNP leader has felt it necessary to offer condolences to the families of the individuals who have died or been badly scarred in the gory festival of petrol bomb explosions across the country. You get the very disturbing feeling that in this hapless country the death of the child of a politician matters; the pitiless, sudden murder of innocent, hard-working citizens does not.
There is then the other, larger image of where politics can or might go from here. The BNP and its friends think that their agitation is a movement when clearly it is not. When people do not march on the streets, when bombs are hurled into buses, when vehicles are torched, it is no political movement. It is anarchy and terrorism. Our history is replete with instances of political movements, in that substantive sense of the term. Political movement was in the sustained demand for a proper place for Bangla in the Pakistani national narrative in 1952. It manifested itself in the students' protest at the Education Commission report of 1962. In larger measure, political movement defined the enthusiasm generated by the Six Point programme in 1966, the mass upsurge against the Ayub Khan regime in 1968-69, the non-cooperation movement led by Bangabandhu in March 1971 and the struggle against the Ershad regime in the 1980s.
A movement on the streets takes shape when society is undermined through an absence of constitutional politics. It arises when a government conducts itself in an illegitimate manner. In the circumstances prevailing in the country at this point of time, the people of Bangladesh are not convinced that the government conducts business on an absence of legalities, that it operates outside the parameters of the constitution. Many have been, and still are, the questions raised about the elections of 5 January 2014. And yet none of those questions has disputed the constitutionalism on which the elections were held and based on which the continuity of the pluralistic process has been upheld.
Of course the BNP and its allies, having done wrong arithmetic one year ago, would like to have fresh elections in the country. The right of a politician or a political party to call for change, to ask for elections is and will always be there. But that right must be preceded by a careful analysis of objective realities. The first reality is that the Awami League holds power under the terms of the constitution and therefore possesses the authority to exercise power till such time as the constitution stipulates or till it decides to go for fresh elections on its own between now and 2019. The second reality is clearly a need on the part of the BNP and its allies to comprehend the havoc their violent agitation has been wreaking on education, on the economy, on the democratic system, on the free movement of people and indeed on Bangladesh's standing in the world.
The BNP has consistently called for a dialogue with the ruling party. That is a fine sentiment. But dialogue, any dialogue, can only be conducted when the streets of the nation are safe, when children can go to school, when industries can work to their maximum capacity, when citizens engaged in earning their daily bread do not end up in the grave or on the hospital bed because the purveyors of violence have decreed that they must die or live a pointless life.
Dialogue for the right to vote cannot be more important than dialogue for the right to live. In the wake of the violence inflicted on the common people of the country through a hurling of petrol bombs on them in the course of the hartals and blockades, it now becomes an absolute necessity for the political parties to arrive at a consensus which guarantees that there will be no political movement which kills people, disrupts public life and destroys the national economy.
Finally, every legitimate political movement is waged to ensure the security and prosperity of the masses. No movement leaves people burning to death or maimed for life. In the BNP's desperate quest for power, where is politics and where is the movement it speaks of repeatedly?