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A state of danger

This teargas was different. In 1990, people would bring buckets of water from their homes, we would wash our faces, and face the police again. This was some new formula. The only thing that worked was fire, and we held our faces close to a burning rag. We had been warned that the gas caused lung damage. We waited for the stinging to stop and got back to work.

There were other fears. This time we saw the police had submachine guns. We wondered who provided these guns and gases, and the smart armoured vehicles that sprayed hot water. We wondered how much they cost. I remembered an army officer proudly relating that they were UK-trained. Was that where they learned to apply electric shocks to the head, to dangle you from the ceiling by the ankles, and fracture your bones with mallets? Was that where they had been trained to scald faces with hot water and chilli?

It was a strange feeling to see the military patrols in the empty streets on election day, 15 February 1996. There were bunkers on the corners of all major roads. The machine guns followed you as you walked the streets. It was like 1971 again, when Pakistani soldiers roamed the streets, except that this time it was our army, propping up an autocratic regime by ensuring that this farcical election could go ahead.

It had now been over a year since the opposition parties had resigned from parliament en masse in protest. We had been naive in thinking that a civilian government, elected by a genuinely fair vote in 1991, would be any different. I remembered the people dancing in the streets when the dictator Ershad was deposed in 1990. The general had held on to power for nine years, and it had been a long drawn-out battle. But the characteristics of the 'democratic' government led by Begum Khaleda Zia which succeeded him proved to be all too familiar. The draconian Special Powers Act was never repealed despite the election promises. Then there was the entente with the Jamaat-e-Islami fundamentalists, who had sided with the Pakistani Army in 1971.

Enraged by the Government's rigging of by-elections, we realized that a caretaker government would be the only way to ensure a fair election. The resistance began anew. Farmers who protested the hoarding of fertilizers by government-sponsored dealers were shot. When police raped and strangled 14-year-old Yasmin there was a spontaneous siege of Dinajpur police station. It was time to take to the streets again.

On 31 January, a meeting called at the Teachers Students Centre to protest against military violence never took place. Police had raided nearby Jagannath Hall in Dhaka University and people were fleeing the campus. As we made our way through the teargas, we came across hundreds of police who had taken over the hall of residence. Students, most dressed in lungis, were cowering in a corner, tied together and crouching on the ground. Teachers' protests were disregarded as 96 were herded into the small prison van. One student screamed out to friends for his identity card, in the faint hope that the official piece of paper might spare him. Those who had escaped arrest hurriedly took us to the students' rooms. We saw the blood on the floor, the broken doors, the ravaged rooms. A student who had been beaten but had escaped arrest, huddled on his broken bed and would not speak. Another cried over his broken guitar. Those arrested, without warrant and without evidence, have yet to be released.

For the 1991 elections, the polling station in Lalmatia Girls High School had been in a festive mood. Huge queues had built up outside. Women had turned up in large numbers, unwilling to miss out on their first chance to cast their vote without coercion. This time round there was a deathly silence. Army and police trucks were stationed outside the empty school. When they spotted my camera, polling officers hurriedly occupied their seats, but there were no voters to be found. The evening news reported a massive turnout and a landslide win for the BNP (Khaleda Zia's ruling party). Who was the news for? We all knew what was happening - surely Western diplomats could not be blind to what was going on?

Then the violence began to escalate. BNP hoods, supported by the police, took on both political activists and the general public. The total disregard for law and order made it difficult to identify which attacks were political and which were not. We kept in close contact and re-tested our escape plans.

The Government became desperate. Until then only minions had been arrested, but now they turned their attention to the big fish. They miscalculated. When Mohiuddin, the popular Mayor of Chittagong, was arrested, people could no longer be contained, and the port city was set alight. The unrest began to spread, and when the entire country became paralysed due to the opposition's call for non-cooperation, even high-ranking government officials began to defect. By the time they realized their mistake and released Mohiuddin, it was too late.

We gathered in Shahid Minar, the martyrs' memorial, which became a seat of resistance - just as it had been way back in 1952, when Bengalees fought for the right to speak our own language.

We knew that a fair election would not in itself solve the country's problems. The major political parties differ little in terms of class or gender. We wondered if the official opposition, the Awami League, cared that over half-a-million garment workers had lost their jobs due to factory closures. We wondered why opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, who was so keen to protect the property of ministers from protesters, had never intervened when workers went hungry.

But now was the time for solidarity: this movement was about removing an autocrat, rejecting a rigged election, challenging an illegal government. So we all worked together. And last night, 30 March, news reached the Janatar Moncho (People's Stage) that the Prime Minister had finally stepped down. We did it! But the euphoria was short-lived. Soon they brought in bodies of yet more resistance workers killed that day, and the crowd silently wept.

So many have died so that we would not be denied our right to vote. It is our basic right, but this democratic movement's definition of democracy is all too narrow. The Government's resignation is a victory, a ray of hope to take into the dark days ahead. But the resistance is far from over.

An old friend of the NI, Shahidul Alam is guiding light of Drik, a remarkable photographic agency in Dhaka.

Gallery - a selection of photographs by Shahidul Alam


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New Internationalist issue 279 magazine cover This article is from the May 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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