For roughly a year-and-a-half, starting from July 2022, Bangladeshi politicos had kept a keen eye on its resurgent opposition party, the BNP, as it attempted to get its house in order in time for the country's next parliamentary election, due in January 2024. The only party in the country that could come anywhere close to bringing some parity to a political equation anchored on one side by the ruling Awami League, those whose votes are not committed in advance - swing voters, first-timers - watched this development with particular interest, as it immediately enhanced the value of their votes. Increased choice, of the kind that also increases competition, automatically increases the value of your vote.

In 2018, they were in no state to take part in the election, and after enduring a torrid campaign, were overrun on the day of the vote. Their leader, and still their most iconic figure, Begum Khaleda Zia, was languishing in jail. Candidates had been directly attacked while canvassing, some of them even getting shot, for which there was no precedent. The election itself lost all credibility over time. As far as the BNP was concerned, it was the second successive general election that the AL had manipulated to their advantage (they sat out 2014). This time, as they sought to claw their way back, the one thing that was always going to be the sticking point as the vote neared was the matter of how the election would be organised. It is difficult to say 'No' when the BNP insists there cannot be another election under an AL government, as the 2014 and 2018 polls had been.

Whether the country was ready to dial the clock back to the caretaker model that AL used its brute majority in parliament to scrap in 2011, was less clear. The BNP obviously wanted it. Eventually, as they carried out a programme of divisional rallies that culminated in the capital in December 2022, that is what the movement did boil down to: a demand for the government to resign and hand over power to a non-party administration for the duration of the election. But what could possibly oblige the AL to consent to this demand?

Especially given that most observers operate on the assumption that handing over power to such an administration committed to conducting a 'fair' election would be, for the AL government, tantamount to signing its own death warrant. It isn't just that they would be likely to lose the election. Given the rabidly tribal political culture that has thrived in Bangladesh, an acute form of majoritarianism that takes no prisoners, losing an election can cost you much more, including everything from your livelihood to social standing to sometimes, even your life.

This sense of insecurity pervades the AL, and it draws on their experience under a BNP-led government from 2001-6. On August 21, 2004, party president Sheikh Hasina escaped a grenade attack at a rally in the capital, but 24 party activists, including some very senior leaders such as the late Ivy Rahman, were not so lucky. Ever since, they have held to the belief that the government had hatched a plan in cahoots with hardline Islamists (enjoying proximity to coalition partner Jamaat e Islami) to assassinate their entire leadership. It informed its own formula for repressive tactics against the opposition, once it was returned to power by voters in the last election held under a caretaker government in Bangladesh, in December 2008.

Last Saturday, October 28, was seen as the culmination of the BNP's movement to gain a favourable outcome ahead of the election that would allow it to participate in what could be perceived to be a fair fight. The renewed interest in ensuring a free and fair election in Bangladesh on the part of a slew of Western powers, led by the United States, certainly served to feed the hopes for a breakthrough. The word on the street is that the US ambassador, Peter Haas, has emerged as the most important man in determining the future direction of Bangladesh politics during this period. He has lived up to that billing too. Has anyone been keeping themselves busier running from this side to that, liaising with the Election Commission and other agencies, briefing the press, and constantly highlighting the importance of a good, acceptable election?

The head of his department, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, announced a much-vaunted 'visa policy' in May, exclusively tailored to close the doors of the United States to anyone who impedes the electoral process in the lead up to the 12th parliamentary election. Yet there are limits to what even the United States can achieve in the world these days. Under increasing pressure, the government of Sheikh Hasina, led by the prime minister herself, has chosen to try Washington's resolve, rather than buckle or seek any compromise of any sort. It knows fully well that on the most important point of allowing the caretaker provision to return, it is on firm ground. Visa policies, targeted individual sanctions, are one thing. But if it is to maintain its position as an honest broker, and not partisan to the BNP (or anti-AL at least), it would be very difficult for Washington to impose the opposition's demand for a caretaker administration on Sheikh Hasina's government. That was left to the BNP to try and force upon the government, through its own movement.

Too good to last

The most impressive feature of the BNP's movement up until last Saturday had been the way it had eschewed violence and other negative features throughout. The people were attending the programmes - seemingly anywhere in the country, weekend or weekday - in their droves. Under the genial Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, who was leading the movement in the absence of Khaleda Zia (no longer incarcerated, on the condition that she wouldn't participate in active politics) and her son Tarique Rahman (vice-chairman, exiled in London since 2008), the BNP had returned from the wilderness, and was certainly a force to be reckoned with still.

Except for that one demand it had placed on the AL government: resign and pave the way for a neutral administration. AL has been resolute on this point: they will not yield to the demand of handing power to a neutral administration. If the BNP wanted to gain power, it had to do so by beating AL in its own turf.

Meanwhile the AL has also been busy to devise ways to weaken the BNP's standing and credibility. The most obvious choice, in keeping with the nation's political history, would be to stage some false flag operation and then blame it on the BNP, while the police bring charges related to terrorism against the party and its personnel. One of the most intriguing tactics it had developed, starting in September 2022, was to practically 'tail' the BNP in wherever it went or whatever it did. And so it became customary that whenever the BNP announced a programme or rally on any given day, AL would immediately follow suit and declare a counter-rally or programme on the same date, location and time - under the banner of 'Peace and Development'.

Underneath that benign message, it was anything but of course. It became clear soon enough that the purpose of the programmes was nothing, if not provocation. By provoking the BNP to shed its peaceful avatar, it hoped to shatter the veneer of respectability the opposition party was working hard to build. By and large though, it turned out to be a dud - because the BNP activists simply weren't buying it. Or taking the bait, if you like.

For months, especially in the home stretch to the election that started in July, BNP was able to resist any and all temptation to step out of line, to let old habits rise to the fore. To its credit, AL kept faith in this as their bankable strategy, even after months of failure during which they failed to lure their opponents in. Yet the AL rank-and-file kept at it, knowing the pressure cooker atmosphere was bound to make someone snap if not today, tomorrow.

It finally got its reward during the October 28 rally called by the BNP ten days earlier, from where some leaders had already promised the downfall of the incumbents would be announced. The government was anyway looking to have the election schedule for the 12th JS election declared in the first week of November - after which it just perceives a race to the finish, with the campaign period passing before you even noticed it. Most of the electronic or broadcast media meanwhile, zeroed in on the October 28 rally, to be held at its famed Nayapaltan venue, in front of the old party office that was chosen by Zia himself. The iconic venue, that fills up one of the most important arteries of the capital for miles on either side with BNP activists from near and far on such occasions, had been denied to them when they brought their programme of divisional rallies home. The standoff then ended up with Fakhrul and other important leaders getting picked up by the police, and eventually failing to attend the rally held in Golapbagh.

No such problems this time. Sure, hundreds of BNP lower level activists still got arrested in the days preceding the event,but the bigwigs were all ready for the big day. The build up to the rally had something of a 'Now or Never' moment built into it, even as it remained unclear what the BNP could possibly hope to gain on the day. Another show of force with a large turnout? That was almost a given. Meanwhile their political opponents, i.e. AL figures like Obaidul Quader, seemed to be ascribing various possibilities to what the BNP might attempt from the rally - even floating the possibility of an impromptu sit-in that would be aimed at capturing the capital, if these sources were to be believed, Clearly though, this was more about building up the pressure cooker atmosphere around the rally, in the hope that something would crack on the day.

Stoking tensions

Interestingly the AL rhetoric was, if anything, more geared towards building up the occasion than BNP's. They would be out on force too of course, for their 'peace and development' rally, at the South Gate of Baitul Mukarram. The AL held a preparatory meeting for the rally at its Dhaka district unit office in Tejgaon, on October 26.

Speaking at the meeting, AL General Secretary Obaidul Quader said, "Gayeshwar [BNP leader] has said they will occupy the streets and alleyways if the permission [for the rally] is not granted. He spoke as if all the doors would be opened to welcome him if the streets and alleys were captured. We are absolutely prepared. You will not find a way to escape even in alleys."

The aggressive tenor was conspicuous by the exercise of restraint, the sheer effort it took at times, to not say the quiet part out loud. At one point, Quader said, "We were not in the attack before...but we are on guard this time."

Again: "If any attack happens, we will launch a counterattack." Of course.

Sometimes it was really difficult to hold back: "We will not spare them," Quader said, adding:"We must stop the evil forces by remaining united."

According to AL sources, the leaders were instructed to gather on the streets with sticks under the cover of placards, flags, and banners. If any situation arose, the party supporters would use the sticks. But they would not launch an attack first.

The AL leaders were also asked to enquire about any unknown person roaming around. If necessary, the party supporters would take help from the police.

AL Joint General Secretary Bahauddin Nasim said that they have made preparations to mount a counterattack. "We are mentally prepared to prevent their attacks," he told The Daily Star.

The entire AL blueprint behind the counter-rallies strategy, that they had rigorously followed for over a year, was about to bear fruit.

Things fall apart

On the day of the rally, as reported by our sister newsagency UNB, just half an hour after the start of BNP's grand rally at Nayapaltan, the party's leaders and workers locked into a clash with the police at Kakrail, after a convoy of AL supporters had sought safe passage from the BNP supporters on their way to Baitul Mukarram. With the passage of time, violent clashes spread around Nayapaltan, forcing BNP to abruptly call off the rally.

According to Dhaka Metropolitan Police, constable Aminul Islam, 30, was killed and 102 others were injured during the clashes with the opposition protesters.

DMP Deputy Commissioner (Media) Faruk Hossain said that the injured policemen were undergoing treatment at different hospitals, including Rajarbagh Police Hospital and Dhaka Medical College Hospital. He said they were injured during clashes in Motijheel, Kakrail and Naya Paltan areas while on duty.

Besides, Jubo Dal claimed its Mugda thana unit leader Shamim Molla died at Rajarbagh Police Hospital after receiving bullets at Nayapaltan during the clashes. Jubo Dal acting general secretary Shafiqul Islam Milton said Shamim was shot by law enforcers at Nayapaltan and he was declared dead while being taken to the police hospital.

Terming the attack on its rally unprecedented, a stunned Fakhrul condemned the police and AL activists for hatching a conspiracy.

"This armed attack is a reflection of the statements made by Awami League leaders and police since the announcement for the BNP's rally," he said.

According to Fakhrul, police and "Awami League criminals" came up to the BNP central office firing rubber bullets and teargas shells. Senior BNP leaders who were on the stage were injured in the police firing of bullets and teargas canisters, he said.

He also alleged that a number of cases were filed against BNP leaders and activists to restrain them from joining the grand rally.

"But such efforts went in vein. When they saw that people poured into the rally venue, police and criminals from Awami League launched the attack with sticks and arms," he added.

The next day was declared a nationwide hartal. In the meantime though, the police had booked various BNP leaders under a multitude of cases relating to incidents occurring on the day of its rally. The residence of the chief justice had been vandalised, and although there was no clarity as to who carried out the attacks, Fakhrul was booked under a case relating to it, and duly picked up by police. A three-day blockade it announced was successful in cutting off inter-district travel in the country, but by the end of the week, almost the entire BNP leadership - barring Ruhul Kabir Rizvi - was behind bars in different cases.

This kind of crackdown would surely not augur well for politics in the country, but also not for the AL's reputation as a tolerant, democratic force in Bangladesh politics. The problem for the government is that no one quite believes October 28 was as bad for the BNP, as AL would like them to. The counter-rally tactic, for its sheer oddness if nothing else, was embedded in most people's minds as designed to cause precisely the kind of chaos it did on October 28. Masked operatives who attacked journalists remind people more of the AL and its student front's 'helmet brigades' than anyone else. They have also been asserted, by an important office of the UN (OHCHR, see next story), to be supporters of the government. Nor is there any evidence to suggest the attack on the judges' homes, including that of the chief justice, was categorically the work of the BNP activists. The police may say so. But the public don't expect the police to say otherwise. None of the investigations are complete. Without some clear, undeniable evidence to back up their claims, the people have no reason really, to put any store by them at all.

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