Dueling Dhaka political rallies could turn violent, analysts warn

Ahammad Foyez
Dueling Dhaka political rallies could turn violent, analysts warn Bangladesh police escort a handcuffed BNP member to the Dhaka Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s Court, Oct. 26, 2023.

Analysts are warning of violence at a massive opposition rally planned for Dhaka this weekend, with a senior city official ordering ruling party activists to bring clubs to “protect democracy” during the demonstration.

The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has been planning the Saturday protest in central Dhaka for months to demand yet again that the government step aside for an election expected in January. 

The demonstration is expected to draw hundreds of thousands from across the country, in what could be the final one staged by the BNP this year as part of a campaign of street protests to demand that Prime Minister Shiekh Hasina resign to make way for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the polls.

Hasina’s government, which has been in power for the past 14 years, fears the rally could turn into a sit-in aimed at overthrowing it, and police have not yet granted a permit for it. Up until now, her Awami League party has refused to give in to BNP’s demands.

Awami has announced a counter rally about a mile away and has threatened to take a hardline stance if necessary. 

“I will be with you on the street on Oct. 28,” Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, an Awami League leader and Dhaka South City Corp. mayor, told party members during a planning meeting in Dhaka on Wednesday.

“As we defended democracy on Oct. 28 [2006] with sticks and oars, we will defend democracy on this Oct. 28.”

Lately, the U.S. and other Western countries have been pressing Hasina’s government to ensure that free and fair elections without voter intimidation take place in the South Asian nation.  

Awami League supporters chant slogans at a rally organized to counter a BNP gathering on the same day in Dhaka, July 28, 2023. [BenarNews]

On Oct. 28, 2006, ahead of the country’s eighth general election, the Awami League – the main opposition party at the time – carried out an attack using sticks and oars against the faith-based political party Jamaat-e-Islami that killed at least five people, including four Jamaat activists.

Oars are part of the Awami party’s emblem, which is symbolized by a boat.

“On the 28th, we need to bring thick sticks ... along with signs. All our activists know where BNP’s people are staying,” Sheikh Bazlur Rahman, who heads the Awami League unit in Dhaka, ordered activists during the same meeting.

‘Inciting violence’

Political analysts who BenarNews spoke to said they feared potential violence on Saturday based on statements made by political leaders.

Professor Abul Kashem Fazlul Haq said concerns had arisen because politicians have not found a solution through dialogue.

“Parties should avoid violence,” he told BenarNews.

A leader of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik, a civil society group, urged the parties to find a peaceful solution.

“Those in power are inciting violence – the language they speak is making violence imperative. It’s a terrible situation,” Badiul Alam Majumdar told BenarNews.

BNP rejected a call from police to find an alternative venue for its rally on Oct. 28. 

The Awami League rejected a similar call by police to move what it is calling a peace and development rally on the same day. 

The ruling party’s rally is scheduled for the south plaza of Baitul Mukarram National Mosque in the Gulistan area while BNP members plan to gather in front of the party’s Naya Paltan headquarters, about two km (1.2 miles) away.

Jamaat, meanwhile, has been denied its request by the government to hold its own rally in the Bangladeshi capital.

Arrests accelerate

Ahead of Saturday, police have been arresting BNP leaders and activists, party officials complain.

“Police are conducting raids at homes of our leaders across the country to create fear,” Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, BNP senior joint secretary general, told reporters on Thursday.

The BNP central office said at least 830 people had been arrested during the last week. Khairul Kabir Khokon, BNP’s joint secretary general, was taken into custody by detectives on Thursday morning.

Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) said the number was lower, noting that at least 311 BNP leaders and activists had been arrested between Oct. 21 and 25.

Rizvi alleged that police had stepped up their arrests ahead of the planned rally.

Bangladesh police search vehicles along the Dhaka-Aricha highway near Jahangirnagar University in Savar, Dhaka, ahead of planned Saturday rallies by the nation’s biggest political parties, Oct. 26, 2023. [BenarNews]

One man, Mosharraf Hossain, was arrested in Dhaka’s Darussalam area Wednesday night.

His wife, Asma Akhtar, appeared in Dhaka’s court area on Thursday to search for him.

“There is no case against my husband. His crime is that he does BNP politics,” she told BenarNews.

Other relatives of arrested BNP activists gathered in front of the Dhaka district and metropolitan courts as they sought information on their loved ones.

Tension increases

During a press conference in Dhaka, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader threatened retaliation, if necessary, on Saturday.

“If the BNP comes to attack us, then we will not sit quietly. If the peace rally is attacked, our activists will not sit idle. A counterattack must happen,” Quader said.

The statement drew a rebuke from the opposition party.

“The Awami League is spreading unnecessary tension over the peaceful rally of the BNP. They want a violent situation in the country,” said Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, a member of BNP’s standing committee.

“It is clear from the behavior of the government that they are afraid of the people’s movement,” he told BenarNews.


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