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A hartal by any other name

  • Published at 06:20 pm November 26th, 2013
A hartal by any other name

I woke up this morning confused about what it all means. In Bangla it is oborodh. In English, some call it a blockade, others call it a siege. I understand that all roads and waterways and air travel will be blockaded for 48 hours. The point is to paralyse city life for 48 hours and hopefully force the government to its knees.

Trucks, buses, cars, steamers, launches, and airplanes, will not be allowed to leave or enter Dhaka city. I’m not quite sure how the opposition picketers can stop planes from taking off or landing on runways. But I’m not flying anywhere so I’m not agonising about it either.

But it’s not a hartal, so can I take my car out? That’s what I’m agonising about. Will my university be open and can I take classes? Around nine in the morning, I heard that not a single student in a Dhaka University class turned up, and the teacher who was there with her car also noticed that hers was the only car in the street.

Around the same time, all the students in a private university turned up for their 9am class. There is surely a definitional confusion here regarding the term oborodh. What exactly does it mean for ordinary people who just want to go about their ordinary lives doing ordinary things, like shopping and working and teaching and whatever else ordinary people do.

So, finally I took a rickshaw to the private university where I teach, wondering if my students would turn up, whether the scheduled weekly meeting would be held. The students stayed home (some teachers too) but the meeting would be held, and I have this bit of time to write this.

As I look out of my window and see the street below, it feels very much like a hartal, something that we are all used to and know about very well. So what’s really the difference when everything around you in the city feels like a hartal, but is really an oborodh or siege or blockade?

Some definitional clarity is required about this term and it is up to the opposition to let us know exactly what it expects from ordinary people who will either defy it or observe it. Oborodh is a relatively new term I think, and has been around for only about a decade, and never quite explained by our leaders.

Perhaps it is time to come up with new ways to categorise our resistance to the government, to clearly articulate the degree and intensity of opposition, to specify the level of violence to be unleashed on the day that a strike or hartal or blockade is called. Something along the lines of the categorisation of cyclones in Bangladesh could be useful.

When a cyclone brews in the Bay of Bengal, the met department hoists a danger signal 1 or 2 or 8 or 9 or any of the numbers in-between and we know exactly (or almost) where we stand. We can decide to go sailing, or fishing, in shallow waters or the deep sea, we can decide to stay put in our flimsy shanties, barricade our homes, evacuate, or move to higher ground. At least we have these options because the met department tells us what to expect.

So let’s call all protests against the government “hartals,” and assign specific danger signals to them, depending on the level of seriousness and violence that is planned. Let’s start with hartal 1 (just a few rickshaws burnt) and gradually move up to hartal 9 (doomsday mayhem), should the political situation warrant it. The Hefazat rally on May 5 should give a fairly good idea of category 9 hartal.

I expect this courtesy from the opposition if it wants my vote and I expect the same courtesy from the government when it becomes the opposition. As I write these words I feel that it is a category 6 hartal today.

I do not know how the rest of the day will unfold. Depending on my trip to Gulshan later in the afternoon, and then my return home to the DU campus in a CNG, I will decide whether to upgrade or downgrade the danger signal.