With their senior leaders among hundreds arrested over deadly clashes with police, BNP activists have descended in their thousands on an open ground in Golapbagh, a crowded neighbourhood in Dhaka, the venue of their Saturday rally that created a mix of political drama.
The field has only galleries for visitors, but no lighting system or toilets, but the activists were prepared to spend Friday night on the ground, fearing they would not get transport or face obstruction to join the rally.
Police and the government assured people of allowing the BNP to hold the rally peacefully, but simultaneous arrests of senior leaders following violence increased fear of more action by the authorities among the opposition activists.
Harunor Rashid, chief of Dhaka Metropolitan Police’s Detective Branch, said a sufficient number of police personnel, including in plainclothes, would work in Golapbagh. “Our teams are working, monitoring the surrounding areas.”
He said the BNP leaders assured police of holding a peaceful programme. “I think there’s no more problem. They will hold a nice rally and there’ll be no disorder.”
As fears of a full-blown confrontation between the two major political camps grew ahead of the BNP’s rally, Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader tried to reassure people of steps to maintain peace.
Speaking at an event, Quader said: “There’s is no reason to panic. We’re going to Savar tomorrow [Saturday]. We won’t be in Dhaka.”
Quader and other leaders and activists will travel to Savar on Saturday to join a rally to protest against the BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami’s “conspiracy and disinformation campaign against the government”.
But his words could not allay the fears of people, who avoided travel without an emergency. Transport owners, who had said there would be no strike ahead of the rally, allowed fewer buses to ply the streets.
The law enforcers strengthened security in and around the city ahead of the rally. They were conducting searches on vehicles entering the capital as traffic started to thin out amid fears of more violence.
Members of the Awami League and its affiliates took out small processions in their areas to make their presence known, threatening to thwart any plan to topple the government through violence.
NEW PROTEST PLANS
The Dhaka rally will cap off BNP’s series of protests in major cities against price rises and deaths of activists during demonstrations. They also demand unconditional release of their Chairperson Khaleda Zia, who is out on suspended sentences in corruption cases.
Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, a member of the party’s Standing Committee, said at a press conference they would announce a charter of demands for the resignation of the government at the rally in Golapbagh.
“I urge the residents of Dhaka to join the rally and protest against the evil efforts of the autocratic government to cling to power by using force.”
About half of the field was filled by 5:15pm. The activists were shouting slogans as they arrived in small processions. Some stood in small groups to say their prayers.
Many of them brought necessary things to spend the night on the ground. May chose the concrete gallery for visitors to lie down. Some were streaming the scenes live on social media.
Saiful Islam Firoz, senior joint secretary of Sewchchhasebak Dal, a unit of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said those from outside Dhaka had started gathering in the capital days ago.
They started for Golapbagh immediately after the venue was announced in the afternoon, he said.
Mazeda Akter, president of Mohila Dal’s Matiranga Upazila Unit in Khagrachhari, said she had come to Dhaka on Thursday to attend the rally.
bdnews24.com’s Correspondent Sheikh Abu Taleb at the scene said 7,000 to 8,000 activists arrived by 6 pm. Later in the night, photos showed the field was almost filled up.
“The field was almost filled up within an hour after the venue was announced. So, you may easily guess what will happen tomorrow,” said Nobiullah Nobi, joint convenor of the party’s Dhaka Metropolitan South Unit.
Mehedi Ali Khan, a vice-president of Sramik Dal, said he and his compatriots came to the venue just after hearing about it on TV.
“But the many things that have happened over the venue have somewhat affected our enthusiasm,” he added, referring to the days of a standoff between the party and the authorities over the venue.
Saiful Islam Saif, former assistant general secretary of Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal’s Chattogram Metropolitan Unit, said he had arrived in Dhaka three days ago, fearing obstructions by the government to join the rally.
“We’re fighting for democracy. We won’t stop protesting until our last breath. We’ll return home only after toppling the government.”
SETTLEMENT OF VENUE DISPUTE
The BNP wanted to hold the rally on the street outside its headquarters in Naya Paltan, but police designated Suhrawardy Udyan, saying political gatherings must be held in fields, not on streets.
Amid the standoff over the venue, BNP activists and police clashed in Naya Paltan on Wednesday. A BNP supporter died in the clashes and police arrested hundreds of leaders and activists, Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, following the violence.
As the standoff continued on Thursday, BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir vowed to press ahead with their plan to hold the rally in Naya Paltan.
Then a delegation of the party met senior police officers and said they agreed to an alternative venue. The BNP chose Kamalapur stadium while police proposed Mirpur Bangla College ground.
Hours later, in the wee hours of Friday, the BNP said plainclothesmen picked up Mirza Fakhrul and Standing Committee member Mirza Abbas from their homes.
As they were sent to jail with others on charges of inciting violence, Naya Paltan fell almost silent with no horns blaring and only a handful traversing the streets amid heightened security.
Police barred all BNP leaders and supporters from entering the party headquarters with barricades placed at either end of the key road and in front of alleys in this usually busy area.
Police questioned and searched anybody loitering in the area. Many complained that their phones were searched. Suspicious individuals were taken to the Paltan Police Station.
Finally, police and the BNP said in the afternoon Golapbagh was chosen for the rally and the opposition activists started to stream into the area.