My First Hartal- Watching the Scene in Gulshan 2, Dhaka

The scene at 6:45 pm today, the night before the BNP-declared hartal in Bangladesh: When our rickshaw turned into road 80 in Gulshan 2, there were more rickshaws coming towards us then going into the road. As we went deeper, we saw each side of the road with crowds of men, standing, watching, staring in different directions, and waiting for something.

We were nearing one of BNP’s offices. I knew that their party’s office existed in Gulshan 2, but I had forgotten exactly where. I looked over to my left and saw policemen in green sitting on steps or leaning on the walls. And then I saw the policemen up front in their bullet proof vests and battalions, head covered and masked, and several police cars through the dust illuminated by headlights of local news vans.

The rickshaw wallah (rickshaw driver) insisted on going further and I look at Tarfia, a fellow Fulbright fellow, and after some hesitation decide to turn around. It was not right. And the sea of men scared us even more as we increasingly became a minority in what was a politically charged male-dominated scene ready to do something, if anything. Even my feminist instinct told me to turn around.

Let me state that we are not the paranoid type. I have knowingly put myself in potentially unsafe situations (such as tonight) in order to get something (and I admit, to feed my curiosity). In fact, seeing the crowds of men did not even deter us at first. It was when we saw the policemen in their protective gear that told me that it might not be worth the risk. I have never witnessed a hartal before, though technically it is not until tomorrow evening.

We tried to get to road 80 another way, in order to get to the Amazon Club. So we rode into road 83 which was less crowded until we reached a small intersection where we saw a very large police SUV with its lights and lit battalions, shouting at us to turn around or stop, or something. I was not sure. But I am pretty sure we were told to leave the premises. They were escorting another van of someone important I suppose, followed by another dominating police van. Our rickshaw wallah agreed that it was better to just head back home to Baridhara at this point. The atmosphere of dust didn’t help since everything became harder to see and there was this air if hesitation- something could happen, would happen…

Classes have been cancelled for tomorrow because hartal or no hartal, there will be chaos. Khaleda Zia, chairwoman of BNP is temporarily moving to Baridhara, road 12, just around the corner from my apartment building. I hope that this is temporary since Baridhara has become a home to me, a safe zone from everywhere else in Dhaka. I don’t know what this entails. I am also bothered that such information about her whereabouts is so publicly known.

As we sadly rode back to Baridhara, still contemplating this decision that is so unlike me, the rickshaw wallah told us to be assertive, since we were women and it will be a complete chaos tonight and tomorrow. Apne mohilara khel kore cholben ekhane, onek jhamela hoibe aske rate. I asked him what he was going to do tonight and he said that he just started work and he will stay around Baridhara, and start working again tomorrow evening after the hartal ends at 6 pm. He said that it would have been precarious for us to keep going as anything could happen. Kichu to hoite parto. He acted nonchalant, just like many other Dhaka-ites who are used to hartals and them taking place with last minute announcements.

I didn’t find out about it today until I got a call from a friend while working at a café and then a few more calls, telling me that I should return home to Baridhara because genjam (chaos) was already taking place over at Jahangir gate, near Banani where I was. I tried to watch the news and everything after returning to Baridhara earlier in the day but I did not get much out of it.That is why leaving at 6:30 pm again didn’t feel too bad; I was told that around Gulshan it should not be too much of a problem. I just know that Zia was supposed to have left her house in the cantonment today and she did not, and I guess she wanted to leave with some noise and attention. Politics here continue to baffle me.

I returned home not too long ago and I keep thinking about my first experience of being somewhat part of a political riot common to Bangladesh. I think I will be severely criticized by my family when they hear that I took such a chance. I understand that as a young, single woman, you just have to be a bit more alert in this country. Tomorrow is a day of staying in, and while complete annoyance that it is, the risks I have read about are quite severe, even for me, one who turns a slight blind eye to warnings about personal safety. I guess now I just wait and see what happens.

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