I spent weeks planning. Looking at maps, considering which route would be most efficient to take, which sites were most important to visit, which contacts were in the selected areas. It was to be my longest-running out-of-Dhaka research excursion yet, and I wanted to make sure that I tried to spend the time wisely.
And then BNP called for a two-day long hartal, and my carefully planned route flew out the window.
Hartal is the term used to describe a general strike in Bangladesh, in which most everything closes down for a day (or in this case, two). Think politically-charged snow day. Most Bangladeshis tell you to keep off the streets, and certainly out of cars (they have a thing for torching larger vehicles here), but walking and taking cycle rickshaws are generally an okay way to get around, depending on the area you’re in and the strength of the protests. The strikes are always called by one of the opposition parties, or a combination of them, to make a point about some grievance they’re most recently upset about. For example, a few weeks ago, a coalition of opposition parties called for a strike against women’s rights. That is, to protest the renewal of the 1997 Women Development Policy that would legalize women’s rights, including women’s rights to own property. Thankfully, that one wasn’t widely “observed,” as it is said, at least not in Dhaka city. There was one about a week ago to protest the abolition of the caretaker government system, in which an interim government takes control of the country for what is to be a three months period to administer elections. This time, the protests were called to protest the last protest (right?), or the arrests that were made prior to and during them.
There is no doubt that each party has its own grievances, especially when it comes to their relations with the other, but the tradition ofhartals (or agitational politics, as it’s known in Poli Sci speak) is not only pretty frustrating to anyone trying to get anything done, but also deeply costly. Between 1995 and 2002, there were 611 hartals, an average of one every four days. And in the year prior to when the caretaker government had to assume power in 2006, they were a near every other day occurrence. In 2001, UNDP calculated that for each ‘successful’ hartal, the country loses close to $18 million dollars – and that’s a long obsolete number, calculated using economic figures from the 1990s.[i] To consider the cost to Bangladesh at its current (significantly increased) rate of productivity would be far more significant.
The hartals are also, oddly enough, fairly predictable. The political terms here are five years long; for the first 2 to 2.5 years, things are relatively calm, but as you approach that 2.5 year mark, the opposition party starts to make waves in the hope that they can a) create enough chaos that the general populace will naturally want the ruling party out by election time, b) create enough chaos that they will be able to (more) legitimately call for early elections, or c) unseat the government.
In a country fond of national traditions, the hartal is one that is as old as Bangladesh is. But in terms of efficient and productive political dissent, hartals do little more than disrupt the workweek and give whoever is the current ruling party the mandate to use them when it becomes their turn to be the scrappy opposition. It’s zero-sum politics through and through. As Akhtar Hossain writes in his “Anatomy of Hartal Politics in Bangladesh,” “These parties fail to cooperate not only because they underestimate each other’s political strength but also because each has an urge to establish a monopolistic rule by knocking out the other, believing that the losing party would simply fade away.”[ii]
So while the political parties at be duke it out, I’m using the forced vacation to catch up on some writing and file away what we’ve done thus far on the trip (ironically, much of which has to do with why exactly these big kids continue to vie for these positions of power in the way that they do). And to eat mangoes. So many mangoes. We’re currently in Bogra, which is in Rajshahi division, the mango capital of Bangladesh. So, while it may be guesthouse arrest, at least the rations are quite tasty.
[i] The Daily Star Staff Correspondent. “Hartal eats up 3-4pc of GDP.” The Daily Star, 11 March 2005. http://www.thedailystar.net/2005/03/11/d5031101011.htm (accessed 12 June 2011).
[ii] Hossain, Akhtar. “Anatomy of Hartal Politics in Bangladesh.” Asian Survery 40:3 (May – June 2000): 521.