Should hartal be ‘banned’ or not?

Maswood Alam Khan from Maryland, USA
Like many I was a bit happy hearing that Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) had appealed to the government to ban hartal through enacting a law. But one day after, we have been surprised hearing the statements two influential ministers of the government made last Thursday criticising the FBCCI for their standpoint on enacting law to ban hartal. One of the ministers, Textile and Jute Minister Abdul Latif Siddiqui expressed his indignation asking the FBCCI authority: “”Why are you giving such provocative statements? You (FBCCI members) have not come from the sky… you can show non-cooperation to hartal.” Mr. Siddiqui further said: “There is nothing called hard or soft action of law against anarchy or troublemakers during hartal. Action should be taken in keeping with the law, that’s all.”

From the statement of Mr. Siddiqui it is indicative that the government may take stern actions against troublemakers and in this case the troublemakers could be perhaps those who would be involved in calling the hartal on the 30th November. The government machinery may take stern actions in the same manner they adopted during the last hartal called by The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). We only hope the government machinery or any political hoodlums do not harass family members of any opposition leader the way family members of a former minister who is an influential member of BNP presidium were harassed during the last hartal called by BNP.

It is an open secret that many undue incidents are happening in Bangladesh in keeping with the law. Extrajudicial killing in the name of “crossfire”, manhandling and harassing innocent family members of a political rival, torturing people remanded in police custody, incarcerating political leaders by digging lacunas in their income tax returns etc., are few of many new tricks that are being used against rivals in business and politics—opening up an alarming culture of using law as a tool of revenge-taking and teaching a bad lesson for the political parties to follow in toto when by turn they would be in power in future.

By saying “law will take its own course” the government machinery can easily harass anybody to any extent as not a single Bangladesh citizen can be found who impeccably abides by rules and regulations in terms of paying revenue to the government or fulfilling other legal obligations.

During the next hartal on the 30th November a car or a bus may be burnt to ashes or an innocent pedestrian may be killed by a splinter and it would not be illegal on the part of the government to arrest high-ranking political leaders of BNP or any of its allied political parties on the ground that they called for a hartal with an ulterior motive to taking resort to anarchy. The question is: “Will the government ignite the anger of the opposition by such arrests or allow the opposition to ventilate their frustrations through their hartal?” It may be politically suicidal, if the government machinery is directed to overdo their duty and responsibility during the hartal on November 03.

In a democracy, everyone has the right to protest against any matter that goes against public interest. But such a protest should not contribute to public nuisance or damage to public property that may cause inconvenience to public life amounting to an infringement of the basic tenets of democracy.

People should have freedom to choose their way if a political party calls for a hartal: either to respond to the call or shun the call. Nobody has any right to enforce hartal by motivating their organizers to damage vehicles on the roads and vandalize public property. Calling such a coercive hartal is robbing people of their right and liberty guaranteed by our constitution. Nobody has any right to hijack peace, harmony and normal daily life by imposing hartal that harms all except a few dishonest and disgruntled politicians and their handful stooges. Every conscious citizen knows a hartal by compelling people to stop their movements and activities does not resolve people’s frustrations. It brings only miseries.

But what else a political party like BNP with their only 30 members in the parliament can do when the party-in-power with an awesome majority in the parliament frustrates people’s aspirations?

Hartal with an honest political intention, we should realize, also serves a great deal of political purpose and strengthens democratic system. Political parties and groups have every right to give vent to their feelings of anger, disappointment and displeasure through hartal. Hartal, rallies, processions, protests, agitations, demonstrations etc., are the only means to win the favour of the electorate, to oppose the repressive and unconstitutional measures of the party in power. These are very effective tools to keep the government on its toes and moving in the right direction.

Political parties in opposition are the watchdogs of democracy and demonstrations like hartals are their teeth. Right to differ is the essence of democracy and demonstrations are the legitimate means of expression of dissents. It is a fundamental right of political parties to oppose and expose wrong decisions, schemes and planning of the government through protests like hartals.

The question is whether there should be a limit to individual freedom. Our constitution guarantees certain fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, freedom to organize associations etc. In a democracy, each individual has equal share in governing the country. In a country of 150 million people, each of our citizens has one 150-millionth share in governing. With a view to increasing their share of governing, people are free to form political parties to take collective decisions to form government and also to oppose bad government. Hartals, strikes etc., are part of collective exercises to protest the wrongdoings of the party in power.

Banning hartal would go totally against the spirit of our constitution which guarantees us freedom of speech and expression. Freedom is the hallmark of democracy and our most precious possession. Any attempt to curb it should be fought tooth and nail. In a democracy, there should not be a blanket ban of hartal, unless hartals are used only to destroy our economy. A seditious hartal, however, geared only to destroy the nation may be banned by enacting a law.

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