Monday, 25 September, 2023

21 AUGUST 2004

They Are on the Prowl Again

Syed Badrul Ahsan

They Are on the Prowl Again
Syed Badrul Ahsan

Popular News

There is a national sense of tragedy that has come to be associated with August in Bangladesh. There is the lingering, painful memory of the assassinations of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family on 15 August 1975. There is, too, the remembrance of 17 August 2005 when Islamist militants created terror all across the land through setting off explosions in 63 of the 64 districts of the country.

These are matters that have been dwelt on at length, obviously for very good reasons, over the years. In this past week, the observance of National Mourning Day in remembrance of Bangabandhu as also the many concerns expressed on the creeping growth of Islamist militancy along with the sudden threat by the Jamaat-e-Islami to political order and the opposition campaign to remove the Awami League government through anti-democratic means have underscored the range of issues the nation yet needs to tackle to give itself a good, stable and working democratic order.

That brings us to the matter of what has happened, or not happened, around the macabre incidents of 21 August 2004 at the rally of the Awami League. With the law being in a state of the comatose, with political authority swiftly dwindling into arrogance of power and with the state being behind the crime, as was so clearly manifested in August 2004, it was not wise to expect that justice would be done every time a crime was committed anywhere in the land. And yet the conventions of civilised behaviour suggest that societies that ensure a smooth, uninterrupted working of the law are in the end themselves guarantors of security for those who constitute them.

Now, where 21 August is the issue, these are the facts. Twenty-four men and women were killed in the explosions that rocked the Awami League, more than two hundred were wounded and all of them have been carrying the marks of their injuries with little to suggest that they will ever get back to normal living. Among those killed were the senior Awami League leader Ivy Rahman. Party chief and current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina escaped death narrowly (the bombs were set off as she addressed the crowd before her) but subsequently was observed to suffer from hearing problems. She needed to go abroad quite a few times to seek treatment for her ailment.

These are the bare facts. But there are other, more embarrassing ones that called into question the very institutions of the state responsible for a provision of security to citizens. Take, as an instance, the absolute indifference of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government to the tragedy. It simply sat on its haunches, basically speaking. The sort of resolve that should have come into an investigation of the tragedy, of the planning behind it, was not there. To be sure, it asked agencies such as Scotland Yard to come in with help. But that was not followed up by any concrete measures to convince the country that it meant business. Teams from Scotland Yard and the FBI came in for a while, sifted through whatever remained of the evidence on the stretch of road before the Awami League office and then went away.

The palpable lack of cooperation from the government served as a disincentive to any further inquiry into the tragedy. Indeed, the truth that there was never going to be any serious approach to a resolution of the issue first emerged when all evidence and all clues to the conspiracy behind the explosions were systematically done away with. The spot where the explosions occurred were wiped clean, no image or other proof remained of the bombs or their shells at the scene of the crime. Khaleda Zia, heading the government at the time, added to the scandal through her insensitive comment that Sheikh Hasina herself might have carried a grenade in her handbag that caused the tragedy!

And there was more, to lend credence to the belief that there was to be no purposeful inquiry into the killings of 21 August. The police, as usual, proved singularly unable to provide any lead to the commission of the crime. By the time the government eventually constituted a one-man inquiry commission to look into the tragedy, it was too late to have anything done. The judge, in other words the commission, went around speaking to some victims of the explosions. In an overall sense, however, he did not come by the kind of cooperation he thought he needed from those affected, especially the Awami League.

For their part, the Awami League leadership saw in the constitution of the inquiry commission a move that was at best half-hearted and at worst grudging from the government. There was good logic in the position the party adopted. The reason, one that the country shared, was that such a commission, because of the severe limitations in terms of manpower and overall terms of reference it suffered from, was not equipped to handle the job. But the judge did work, despite the straitjacket he found himself in, and did indeed end up producing a report on his findings. And then, predictably and in line with bad tradition, the report went into cold storage, per courtesy of the powers that were.

All these nineteen years on, it becomes necessary to reflect on that crude move to wipe out the entire senior leadership of the Awami League. If in August-November 1975 an earlier generation of the Awami League leadership fell victim to assassination, in August 2004 it was a well-organised, sinister move to deprive the party of the successors of Bangabandhu’s generation. The government of the day then went, unabashed, into comedy and then farce. It produced Joj Mia, expecting the nation to believe that he was behind such a vast conspiracy. The elements and organisation or organisations behind the deadly blasts have been identified and hauled before the law. The entire intrigue needs   to be revisited, to drive home the lesson that when evil elements are in government, it is the republic which is drained of energy.

With twenty-four people dead and scores upon scores wounded, it is hard to forget that afternoon of blood and gore. The attacks, we will not fail to note, were well organized and extremely detailed, all of which point to the thought that a rather broad association of individuals and organisations was involved in the planning and execution of the crime. On 21 August 2004, government was criminalized in a macabre plan to impoverish Bangladesh of progressive, liberal and pro-liberation leadership.

The nation is not yet out of the woods, for the agents of darkness and of anti-history, egged on by their local friends and instigated by their foreign allies, are on the prowl again. They have led the nation down the road to disaster before. And lest they repeat that sin, that crime, it is for the people of Bangladesh, for the government, to man the ramparts, to see to it that the enemy, in its many guises, does not once again dare approach the gates of our nationalist citadel.

The wounds have not healed. We do not forget 21 August 2004. We do not forget the criminals, wielding power, who put the nation through the tragedy. And because we don’t, we say, loudly, ‘Never again!’


The writer is a journalist

Syed Badrul Ahsan