They paid the price of electricity with their blood
Published on April 14, 2006
Someone once said, “Hell hath no fury like a government scorned.” This is so true for the repressive government of Khaleda Zia. While her police force is killing demonstrators in Kansat, a sleepy little village marketplace about 250 kilometers northwest of Dhaka, she has the audacity to go abroad or worse to connive a wily western reporter to portray her like a queen while telling the world that everything is hunky-dory in Golden Bengal under her stewardship. This is far from being true. The PM may have to pay a very costly price for her lassitude in the upcoming election.
Unless you’ve been away to a wonderland in the second week of April 2006, you may have missed some terrible news coming from Chapai Nawabganj area of Bangladesh. There, in the villages near Kansat the rural folks had been protesting to establish their rights to receive electricity. As the citizens of a democracy they have every right to protest against the electricity department to receive their fair share of electricity. However, their peaceful protestation in January 2006 was met with gunfire from police. Since then, violence had escalated in villages near Kansat as more protest demonstrations were organized by the aggrieved villagers who have formed a body calling it ‘Palli Bidyut Unnayan Sangram Committee’ (PBUSC) or ‘Action Committee for Rural Power Development’ to press their demand for more electricity. People who are familiar with the comings and goings of Bangladesh know it darn well that urban areas receive a favorable treatment over rural areas when it comes to distribution of electricity. The villagers from Kansat area have legitimate claim over electricity for which they pay a flat fee every month. They say that they have to pay the full amount every month even though they get electricity for hardly 1-2 hour each day. On top of it, they have to pay Taka 10 each month for renting the meter. Some in the village say that this sum of money goes to questionable fund since there is no provision for meter rental fees. All these have made the villagers’ life miserable; consequently, they protested against the electric supply department.
The government of Khaleda Zia did not send any MPs from the area to Chapai Nawabganj to hear the villagers’ grievance. Instead, the protestors were dealt heavy-handedly. Here is the timeline of Kansat people becoming vocal about their plights and how they were mistreated by the government. First, On January 4, 2006, this was followed by killing of seven more villagers 16days later on January 23, 2006. Then two months went by without any violence. The month of April became a bloody one. Four villagers were killed on April 6, 2006 and another injured died later on April 12, 2006. Then, all hell broke loose a day later (April 13) when six protesters were killed. In short three months 20 innocent people were gunned down by police. These villagers have legitimate right to receive electricity for which they were paying a full price. The question before us is why the police showed no restraint fully knowing that the protesting villagers were not carrying any firearms.
Realizing what did happen in Kansat on April 13, 2006 many people were comparing the police brutality executed in Kansat with that of the killing of students at DU campus on February 21, 1952 by equally brutal police under the direction of Muslim League government of Nurul Amin. Two years later in 1954 Muslim League was booted out of office through adult franchise. The same may happen in 2007 when Bangladeshi voters will elect their MPs for the nation’s parliament.
The tenacity showed by the heroic people of Kansat may inspire others all over Bangladesh to protest against the escalating food prices that had been going on for the last few months. The newspapers in Bangladesh including the vernacular ones are reporting that there is a nationwide solidarity for protesting Kansat villagers. The government was too busy to prop up the image of the nation to outside world, which was costing millions of dollar. The Kansat rebellion escaped totally the radar screen of the four-party coalition government. The fall out from Kansat carnage is too great and the government won’t be able to do a damage control at this time no matter how hard they try. The Home Minister said a day after the latest carnage that the grievance of the villagers will be heard and settled peacefully; however, in my judgment it is too late.
By browsing any newspapers published in the nation one would find a plethora of reports of public dissatisfaction over escalating food prices. The middle class in the urban areas and poor people from allover the nation are fretting over the price of essential items. These people may take cue from the villagers of Kansat and take to the street and if this happens, the government of Khaleda Zia will be in big trouble. What the 14 united opposition parties could not do with all their activists seems to be achieved by few thousand angry villagers from Kansat area. Of course, there was a price tag for this – 20 dead people.
It was widely reported in the newspaper that Chapai Nawabganj area where Kansat Bazar is located is a heavily BNP-dominated area. It is only natural that after what happened in Kansat in the last three months the support of the villagers for BNP will wane fast. The opposition party has already started to establish a dialogue with affected villagers. This may have serious consequences for the ruling party.
Many observers think that Mrs. Khaleda Zia is too preoccupied these days with the thought of upcoming election; therefore, to prop up the sagging image of her party she has gone to western reporter to build a pristine image of her leadership. Her preoccupation with this thought may have isolated her from the ground reality in her own country. The inflationary trend in food prices are not abating anywhere in Bangladesh. If the trend continues, then she could kiss good bye to her dream of being reelected the second time, consecutively. Never mind the internal dissension in the party that had been brewing in the last few months. The PM let the young faction take control of the party, which made the old generation upset. It remains to be seen if the disgruntled old-timers split from the main party to form their own party or shake hands with Dr. Badruddoza’s Bikalpadhara. I am bringing all this up for a good reason. Since there are many crosscurrents running in the Bangladesh polity at this time, the bloody incidence of police brutality against protesting villagers at Kansat may not have come at the right if one looks from the PM’s perspective. She may have to do a damage control right away. The fall out from Kansat carnage will continue. Therefore, stay tuned for more development. It is a vultures’ world out there. The opposition may capitalize the tragedy to strengthen their position for the upcoming election. Is Khaleda Zia on the way out? Only time can tell.
Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from Ithaca, NY