There might be some very good reason for calling hartals, but as yet, the general public has not been let into the secret. Not that it particularly cares, knowing only too well that politics is not about their wishes and wills, but a crass and continuous strategy to usurp power. The prescription followed by Bangladesh's opposition, whichever, reads: a hartal a day will blow the government away.

That is the way it has been for some time now. The onus of calling hartals presently rests on the shoulders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and three others—Jamaat-e-Islami, Islamic Oikya Jote (United Islamic alliance) and everyone's old foe, the Jatiyo Party (JP) of former president Hussain Mohammed Ershad. The foursome has been boycotting Parliament and raising havoc on the streets, in an all-too-obvious bid to bring down the constitutionally sanctioned government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed's Awami League (AL).

This is not say that the AL has been more sinned against than sinning. For what the BNP-led opposition is now demanding is exactly what the AL was demanding when it was in the opposition before 1996, i.e. fresh parliamentary elections. And back then Sheikh Hasina had as her allies the selfsame Jamaat-e-Islami and JP. The AL used the hartal tactic back then against the BNP, bringing the country to a halt through interminable stoppages.

The tactic worked so well that, in the three years the AL has been in power, Bangladesh has been witnessing a repeat performance by the present opposition demanding the same thing: call off the government, and call in the elections. Why? Because the government doesn't enjoy public support anymore! Not that the public is being asked its opinion. The government's reply is a tape recording or carbon copy of what the BNP government was saying till 1994, that there will be no stepping down, if at all, till the end of the stipulated 5-year term, which ends July 2001.

As time goes on, however, it is not so much the omnipresence of hartals that is cause for worry, but that the hartals themselves (and the state's reaction) have been mutating into new and dangerous forms. For its part, even while it claims to be for negotiation with the opposition, the government is ail-too willing to come down hard on the hartal cadres, and to use seriously offensive language against the BNP and its leader Begum Khaleda Zia.

It did seem for a while that the hartals had become benign, but in November they came back to strike with new levels of fury. Here are some of the gory details: a truck driver fried to death by a petrol bomb and his assistant burned from head to toe; a housewife dead from a pellet fired by a police gun as she leant on the balcony to see the sights; a taxi driver killed as his vehicle turns turtle trying to escape a militant procession; general bash-ups proffered by the police and protestors alike; and injuries to BNP lawmakers, including the Dhaka BNP chief, Sadek Hossain Khoka. Hartals were never meant to be this violent.

The AL authorities have made sure that, barring certain parts of the city, the BNP activists cannot boast of cent percent success anywhere. Apart from having a hartal-fatigued public on their side, they have been resorting to furious counter-action by both the police and their own activists. On a hartal day, one can see armed plainclothesmen with cell phones walking the streets, or travelling in trucks to get quickly to the scene of action. That can easily dampen the zeal of an opposition worker hoping to torch a rickshaw or two, whose only option then is to throw a molotov or two at innocent passers-by and run.

As for the strength of the four-party opposition alliance, it doesn't look a mighty lot. Except for the BNP, others cannot even make the numbers. The JP, party of the former president, is nicely split into two and although the general owns the larger chunk, it still does not still add up to much. However, Ershad can stake claim to a victory of sorts now that his party rubs shoulders with the BNP — the very party that pushed it out of power in 1990 —and is now no longer considered a pariah. The lady who once accused the general of masterminding the assassination of her president-husband, Zia-ur Rahman, today poses with him for photographs.

Even as the holy month of Ramadan approaches, the battle of Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina shows no sign of abating. They have between them 40 years of agitational politics and are seasoned veterans of the street heat. Begum Zia has said that she will call hartals even during Ramadan because Prophet Mohammed too had fought the Battle of Badr, a turning point in his military campaign in the earliest days of establishing Islam. The prime minister has said that she couldn't care less. Neither does the public.

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Himal Southasian