"Dhaka Hartal!" Riots in Bangladesh

Dhaka, Bangladesh. I was riding by rickshaw back to my house with two friends when we heard two big bangs about 50 yards ahead. My friends grabbed me, their guest, tightly and the rickshaw driver halted abruptly. People were running and yelling, but it seemed no one was hurt from the explosions. Just mini-bombs, meant to frighten, not to injure. A few moments later, we were bouncing along again as if nothing had happened. But that was just the beginning.

On Tuesday, November 30, 2010, the real show began. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which is currently the political opposition party in Bangladesh, took to the streets to protest the regime of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League party. “Dhaka Hartal! Dinajpur Hartal! Chittigong Hartal!” yelled the mobs [click to see video] – a rallying cry of unification to all the major cities of Bangladesh. A hartal, or “strike,” is a form of political protest in Bangladesh organized by the political party not in power. Businesses are warned against opening their doors; those who do might be beaten or vandalized. Buses (which are mostly privately owned) are warned against running their lines; those who do might be beaten and their buses set on afire. Small, mostly harmless, bombs are detonated around the city to instill fear and respect for the power of the party. A hartal is essentially an effort to shut down the country for a day. It’s an effective, albeit chaotic way of measuring the political power of one’s own party, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate that power publicly.

People are warned to stay in their homes. But like a little kid told not to open his eyes on Christmas morning, I had to get out and see. My loyal bondhu, or “friend,” Robi agreed to accompany me. On our way out of our neighborhood, Robi consulted a group of men, asking them where the opposition party would be most active. They looked at me and shook their heads seriously. “Don’t take him there,” they said.

Nevertheless, a half an hour later we found ourselves at the heart of the hartal, namely, the headquarters of the BNP opposition party. The street was blocked off by a preventative police force numbering in the hundreds, armed with riot gear and standing guard outside the BNP headquarters. The police were constantly on the move, blaring their sirens, blowing their whistles, and breaking up any suspicious looking pockets of people – all of this was to keep any opposition party supporters scattered and disorganized. In this, they were quite effective. Every 10 minutes or so, a police captain would march down the street with his entourage and point accusingly at some man, who would then be dragged back to a armored truck full of prisoners. Reporters and camera men would yell “Apnar nam ki?!” or “What is your name?!” to these men, who generally looked either confused or pleased by their arrest. It was impossible to tell whether these men were really dangerous members of the opposition party or just some poor schmucks who the police wanted to make examples of. My guess is that there were a little of both.

Four shops down from the BNP Headquarters, an enthusiastic group of opposition party members suddenly began making quite a raucous [see video]. Police moved to silence them, but upon the hasty arrival of a flock of journalists, they yielded. Protected by a wall of journalists and an easily closeable cage at the shops entrance, this group of protestors had found a stronghold from which they could raise their voice. I must admit, I understood very little, but I could tell by Robi’s expression that he was not thrilled about our current location. Now, Robi is no coward, so when he becomes cautious, so do I. Robi’s concerns, which he later expressed to me, were two-fold: 1) that in such situations, “Anything can happen. Anything.” 2) that I, the only white person there, was attracting significant attention from the media and that he, a Catholic priest, should not be seen on TV at a political protest. Conscious of my friend’s concerns, I agreed to leave. The police seemed to have won the street, and the day, which is probably a good thing for Bangladesh. Though still imperfect and sometimes inept, the Awami League led by Hasina seems to represent a more progressive ideology than that of the more fundamentalist BNP led by Khaleda Zia.

StoriesMark WeberBangladesh