If you know me, or have been reading this column, you know that I spent a year living in Bangladesh. It was wonderful and fantastic and a hundred other adjectives. Bangladesh is close to my heart not just because of my time spent there, but it’s also the place where my husband grew up and where his family lives today. Bangladesh has not had a peaceful spring. In early February, masses of people gathered in central Dhaka to protest what they felt were light sentences given to war criminals. The protest grew and became a hub of music and thought and peaceful demonstration. Parent’s brought their children and it seemed the country was really banding together.
But then things took a turn. Political parties started shouting about favoritism and unfair practices, and the strikes began. Countrywide strikes, or Hartels, have been used for decades in Bangladesh as political bargaining tools. In their early days, they were a way of making those in power take notice and negotiate with other parties. By virtually shutting down the capital city, the organizers gained a chip to bargain with: Meet with us, hear our demands, or nothing gets done. It’s not pretty or particularly practical, but it worked.
As time moved on, the hartels became more and more symbolic; a way to be seen as doing something and being present, flexing political muscles. When we were in Dhaka, strikes were called about once a month, sometimes more often if there was a particular issue at debate. But they were relatively tame and never reached our corner of the city, home to all the embassies. In recent months hartels have been called on an almost weekly basis and with increasing violence.
What was originally a political debate about justice has been taken by some and made to be a fight over religion. A ‘with us or against us’ mentality has spread as more and more people feel slighted. As the original protest is drowned by shouting, fear, and a mob mentality, the future is unclear. Many of us who hold Bangladesh in our hearts are anxiously watching and hoping for level heads and peace to prevail.