For what would eventually become billed as a showdown between the ruling party and the main opposition, the twin programmes observed by the Awami League and the BNP on Wednesday, July 12, had a surprisingly limited build up behind it - perhaps owing to the fact that the BNP held off its announcement of a rally to declare its much-anticipated "one-point movement" till just three days before the event.

This phase of its ongoing movement to force the government to resign and force elections under an in interim or caretaker arrangement, signifying a sort of final stretch ahead of the elections falling due (by January 2024) has been talked about by the party's leaders for quite some time, since before the last Eid ul Azha at least. The expectation was that an announcement to this effect would come soon after Eid. Choosing the right moment was a tricky one for Mirza Fakhrul Alamgir and the senior BNP leadership, including acting chairperson Tarique Rahman from London. They had to give it enough time to do what it needed to achieve its objectives. On the other hand, too long a period could allow the AL to play the waiting game and induce fatigue in the BNP ranks.

Although the AL's reaction wasn't always a certainty, going by recent form, it perhaps should have been apparent to observers that the immediate response would be to declare their own rally on the same day at the same time, ostensibly in the guise of a 'peace' programme. One isn't quite sure how this practice of counter-programmes became de jure in the country's politics, but there you are. This is how the ruling party has played it for the duration of the BNP's current movement, the start of which can be dated to August of 2022.

On July 9, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said their party was set to commence the next phase of this movement. Speaking at a 'Youth Rally', he also said the next national election must be arranged under a non-party neutral caretaker government as the last two editions (in 2014, 2018) had proved that no credible election could be held under the Awami League regime.

"There'll be a rally in Dhaka on the 12th of July next from where a new declaration will come. Through that declaration, a new journey to restore democracy will begin," Fakhrul said. He said the youth must play a significant role in the fresh journey to get back democracy by waking up the people from all walks of life.

"We all have to jump into this new movement to save democracy and free Khaleda Zia and establish a government, parliament and state for the people by defeating this demon regime," Fakhrul said. He insisted that people expect the young generation to come forward to free them from the misrule of the current government and bring a change in the country. "The youth have to encourage the country's people to take to the streets to get back their rights and force the government to quit by handing over power to a caretaker government."

The stage was thus set, and over the next couple of days, the party held meetings with a raft of 'like-minded' political parties, i.e. those who are of the view that the government must concede to the demand of an election held under a caretaker, or neutral, or whatever you may call it, some form of interim arrangement. The meetings were held to coordinate all these parties' own public commitments to the cause from their own rally on the same day.

These like-minded parties had observed various programmes, including human chains, sits-in, road marches and rallies across the country over the last seven months, following the BNP's earlier announcement last December of a 10-point movement, which came at the end of a programme of divisional rallies that started in August, and drew a huge response.

This time, the BNP was scheduled to hold a public rally in front of its Nayapaltan central office at 2pm on the day, from where party Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir would announce the programmes to kick off their one-point movement.

Ganatantra Mancha, a platform of six parties that shares the BNP's view that the government must resign ahead of elections, or otherwise be toppled through a movement, would announce their participation in the one-point movement at 4pm by holding a meeting at the Jatiya Press Club.

A separate 12-party alliance that similarly believes no fair election can be held under the Awami League-led government would come up with a similar announcement from a rally in front of Dhaka Reporters Unity (DRU) at 12pm. The same was expected of the Jatiyatabadi Samomona Jote at Bijoynagar, the Liberal Democratic Party at Tejgaon and Gonoforum and People's Party at Motijheel and Labour Party at Nayapaltan at different times on the day.

Besides, two splinter groups of the disintegrating Gono Odhikar Parishad (one led by Reza Kibria and the other by Nurul Haque Nur), the Ganatantrik Bam Oikya, Samomona Gonotantrik Peshajibi Jote and Sadaran Chhatra Odhikar Sanrakshan Parishad would also hold rallies in front of the Jatiya Press Club and announce their participation in the one-point movement.

That the AL would also be out in force on the day, was only confirmed the day before, when following up on the oral 'permission' it gave the BNP to hold the rally at their chosen venue two days ahead of time, the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) issued separate notices not only confirming the go-ahead to the BNP's rally at Nayapaltan, and but also for the Awami League to hold a 'peace rally' not very far away at the Baitul Mokarram South Gate.

On the day

Thousands of BNP leaders and activists began to gather before the party's Nayapaltan central office with processions from different parts of Dhaka from the morning to hold their much-hyped rally. The leaders and activists carried banners, festoons, placards and portraits of party's top leaders and shouted anti-government slogans as they converged at the venue.

BNP's Dhaka south and north city units had set up a stage in front of the BNP office for the rally. A large number of members of law enforcement agencies were also deployed in the Nayapaltan area to maintain law and order.

By the time the rally got underway with the recitation from the holy Quran, Nayapaltan was transformed into a sea of BNP supporters, stretching either way from the party office.

Claiming victory as certain, Mirza Fakhrul formally announced the 'one-point' movement with a goal to remove Awami League from power and hold the upcoming national elections under a neutral government. As part of the first programme to realise the one-point demand, a two-day countrywide march programme was also announced for July 18 and 19.

"I am announcing the programme, on behalf of BNP Acting Chairman Tarique Rahman, to free the nation from (misrule). It's a historic moment as other parties who are with us in the movement are also making similar announcements," he said

The BNP leader said the road march on July 18 would be held in all metropolitan cities and districts across the country to realise one-point demand while the same programme will be observed in Dhaka stretching from Gabtoli to Jatrabari from 10am to 4pm on the same day.

Besides, he said the party will also march on July 19 from Uttara's Abdullahpur to Bahadur Shah Park in the old part of Dhaka from 10am to 4pm. "The similar programme will also be held in other metropolitan cities and districts the same day."

Apart from the BNP, 36 other like-minded political parties also announced the one-point movement and similar programmes to press home their demand to hold the next parliament elections under a non-party government.

"We who are carrying out the movement against the government have unanimously decided to come up with a joint announcement from our respective positions about a one-point greater movement in a simultaneous manner," Fakhrul said. "There's now only one point."

The one-point demand, as articulated, includes "the resignation of the current fascist, authoritarian, vote-stealing and illegal" Awami League government, dissolution of the existing parliament, formation of a polls-time non-partisan government and reconstitution of the Election Commission for arranging a free, fair and inclusive election.

The release of all political prisoners, including BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia, withdrawal of all false and ghost (gayebi) cases, including those against Tarique Rahman, and annulment of all false convictions against BNP activists and leaders also figured in the BNP's demands. Part of the demands was a joint declaration that was read out at all the parties' programmes on the day.

"The opposition political alliances and parties active on the streets are announcing to build a greater united movement in a simultaneous manner based on the one point and make it a success for ensuring people's economic emancipation and restoring voting rights and democracy through the democratic reform of the constitutional state system," the joint declaration said.

Although police at the venue were by-and-large cooperative, all day long stories kept emerging of various other more subtle forms of obstruction posed to the BNP's programme. Fakhrul alleged that the government tried to obstruct the rally by putting obstacles in different areas so that the opposition activists couldn't join the programme from the districts adjacent to Dhaka.

For example it was alleged that a district-level BNP leader was kept confined at his father-in-law's place for three hours in Savar, in an effort to prevent him from joining the rally in the heart of the capital. The leader - Khorshed Alam, joint secretary of Dhaka district BNP and former senior joint secretary of district Jubo Dal - was eventually freed when the police withdrew from the house around 1:00pm, according to Prothom Alo.

Khorshed had a schedule to attend the rally in the capital's Naya Paltan area, along with other leaders and activists of his unit. They were supposed to start from his father-in-law's residence in Chayabithi area in the morning on dozens of microbuses. But a police team from Savar model police station took position in front of the residence around 10am, obstructing the BNP leader along with others inside. The BNP men also alleged that the cops seized the keys from some microbuses that were rented for going to the rally and parked on the premises. At around 1:30 pm, they left the place and returned the keys to the drivers.

There were also reports of police setting up checkposts at different spots in the Narayanganj section of the Dhaka-Chattogram highway and carrying out searches in cars and other vehicles. Disturbingly, at some entry points to the capital police were checking people's mobile phones, presumably for connections to the BNP, and arrested some people using these methods. This too was another new low in policing of political programmes that first came to the fore ahead of the BNP's big divisional rally in Dhaka last December. Unfortunately, the precedent had been set, and having not been penalised then, looks to have been normalised. No doubt, this is a new blow to the civil liberties citizens are entitled to in Bangladesh.

Not backing down

Needless to say, the AL rally at its venue of choice faced no such obstructions to speak of. It was generally reported to be well-attended, but clearly not nearly as large as the BNP's in terms of footfall. What became clear from it through, was that the ongoing standoff in the country's political arena is nowhere near a resolution, and that doesn't augur well for the months ahead.

The Awami League general secretary, Roads and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader, in stark contrast to the BNP's demands, said no election will be held without Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

"We have a one-point demand too, that is election in line with the constitution under Sheikh Hasina. While the one-point demand of BNP is the resignation of Sheikh Hasina, our demand is the opposite," Quader said.

He said, "BNP knows that they will lose the election. They will be swept away in the face of Sheikh Hasina's popularity. They envy Sheikh Hasina."

He also said their one-point is election according to the constitution and they are working to achieve this goal. Quader said it's as if the country's development is "the crime of Hasina".

Saying that BNP's one dream has died, he said now they are dreaming again. "What are they dreaming about? Sheikh Hasina's resignation."

With an eye on the foreign delegations from the USA and the EU who were in town (see next stories), Quader said: "You (foreign delegations) want free and fair elections. We want that too. Anyone trying to obstruct free and fair elections will be resisted."

Asking the party leaders to be ready to carry out activities unitedly, Quader said "The game will be on till the election. When the Awami League comes into play, no evil force will be able to stand against them. "

He asked the party leaders to hold programmes continuously till the election and instructed leaders of all the sub-organisations to hold rallies in their respective areas.

Possible daylight?

The possible way around the standoff may still like in the proposal placed by SIr Ninian Stephen before his departure in 1994 - pretty much the first instance of foreigners trying to mediate the decades-old rivalry between the BNP and AL.

Before departing, Sir Ninian did draft 'a peace plan' that he shared with the parties during his stay. This would have established a 45-day caretaker government headed by the Prime Minister with a Cabinet of four appointed by her and five appointed by the Opposition.

"No portfolios would have been allocated and the country would have been run by department heads until the new elections were held," he said. Khaleda Zia, prime minister at the time, had agreed to the plan, but the opposition had refused.

But this framework he had provided may still hold the seeds of a plan around which the two parties can coalesce this time around, even if the caretaker issue remains off the table. It would still require the BNP to accept Sheikh Hasina staying on as prime minister though, and that may prove to be a huge sticking point. Yet all the noises coming from the government, and even the tough uncompromising note struck by Obaidul Quader at their so-called 'peace rally', does leave room for this possibility. It may be the only way forward.

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