When civility goes missing

In the early 1970s, soon after the liberation of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia quite often met each other, usually at Bangabandhu’s residence at Dhanmondi 32. They were both young. One was the daughter of the Father of the Nation. The other was the spouse of the Liberation War hero Ziaur Rahman, then deputy chief of army staff.

The times were pregnant with idealism. And both women were, in a very important sense, part of history. Sheikh Hasina, along with most of her family, was interned in Dhaka by the Pakistan occupation army in 1971.

In similar fashion, Khaleda Zia, with her sons, was in the custody of the enemy for the entire duration of the war. Hasina’s father came home a free man once Pakistan had been beaten on the battlefield. Khaleda’s husband returned home along with thousands of freedom fighters in the glow of liberty.

Forty years on, neither woman has the inclination or intention of speaking to each other, or being seen in public together. At the Armed Forces Day celebrations on Wednesday, they studiously stayed clear of each other, each in her corner at the reception in Dhaka cantonment, and so avoided saying a polite hello to each other. That was not the way it was back in 2009 when the present and former prime ministers smiled, went up to each other and exchanged polite social pleasantries.

That they did nothing of the sort on Wednesday speaks of the rising level of enmity, for that is what it truly is, which defines relations between the two pre-eminent political figures of the country. On Wednesday, they could have shaken hands or hugged and inquired after each other’s welfare in the way civility demands. They could have given the nation to understand that for all their political disagreement in public, they remain acutely conscious of the need to be polite to each other in public.

The fact that Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia do not talk to each other, the reality that in the few times they have been in parliament together they have refused to look at each other, is a sad departure from the times when both women together waged a long, determined battle against the Ershad regime in the 1980s.

It is true that the 1986 elections, which the Awami League participated in and which the BNP boycotted, drove a wedge between them. On balance, though, both women went to great lengths and undertook gigantic risks in whipping up popular sentiment in favour of democratic change in the country. In December 1990, both Hasina and Khaleda emerged triumphant when they sent a dictatorship packing. In 1991, together they took the country back to parliamentary government.

In the times of the Fakhruddin Ahmed-led caretaker government, Khaleda and Hasina suffered equally at the hands of the brutal representatives of the government. Both went to prison. And both came under pressure to quit politics. Earlier, while the authorities tried preventing Hasina from returning home from abroad, Khaleda came under pressure to leave the country. It was minus two applied in its crude form. Both women emerged clear of it, to fight for another day.

In these past many years, however, Hasina and Khaleda have let what should have been a decent relationship slide into an outrageous display of less than sophisticated behaviour. They have both observed how politicians in government and in opposition abroad deal with each other.

Manmohan Singh has no problems sharing dinner and conversation with Sushma Swaraj in India. In Pakistan, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif do not agree on politics, but they do meet to talk things over. In Britain, David Cameron and Ed Miliband trade barbs in parliament and yet do not forget behavioral civility. Democrats and Republicans in the United States dislike one another passionately, but that does not prevent President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner from talking to each other or cooperating in legislation.

In the old days, Bangabandhu talked to and exchanged quips with his rivals. Gandhi and Jinnah, despite the chasm in their politics, did not stop talking to each other.

When the premier and the opposition leader do not talk to each other, what message are they sending out to the nation? That it is all right for citizens to accept such behaviour as normal? That political rivalry has wormed its way into downright hate and intolerance and must stay that way?

When Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia become the talk of the town because of their dogged refusal to talk to each other, it is slow, creeping tribalism which takes hold of citizens’ lives. You remember the Hutus. You remember the Tutsis.

The future then becomes a bleak landscape of political vacuity.

Source: The Daily Star

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