With road communication between Rajshahi city and several northern districts virtually cut off, a large number of people joined the Jatiya Oikyafront rally in the city yesterday, defying police obstructions and a transport strike.
In their speeches, the Oikyafront leaders asked all their activists to stay united and ready for a movement to get BNP chief Khaleda Zia released and secure the right to vote if the government “sticks to its plan to hold the national election without participation of all parties”.
They, however, did not announce any new programmes.
A number of the rally-goers alleged that police intercepted them on the way and delayed their journey to the venue in the name of checking documents of vehicles.
Opposition combine leader Mahmudur Rahman Manna said police intercepted him twice on his way to the venue from Rajshahi airport, while another leader, Kader Siddique, said he was stopped five times on the way to the rally from Tangail.
Earlier on Thursday, Natore Transport Workers' Union began a 48-hour strike from 6:00am over its “conflict” with Rajshahi Transport Workers' Union over harassment of its workers.
But Rajshahi workers' union refuted the claim and said it had no conflict or issues with Natore transport workers in recent months.
Top leaders of both the organisations have ties with the ruling Awami League.
Seeking anonymity, a bus owner in Rajshahi told this correspondent that they were asked not to rent their buses to rally-goers.
"If anyone wants to hire a bus for a wedding ceremony, I can rent him the vehicle. But I cannot do so if he wishes to hire it for carrying people to the rally,” said the bus owner.
Several transport owners in Rajshahi said they persuaded transport workers to withdraw the strike around noon yesterday, but many others kept their vehicles off the road.
"A number of bus owners refrained from operating their vehicles fearing violence, but some vehicles plied," said Manjur Rahman, general secretary of Rajshahi Transport Owners' Association.
Failing to get any bus, many BNP men hired trucks, microbuses and cars, while some hired three-wheelers to join the rally.
Their vehicles, however, were stopped at many points outside the city.
Many of them alleged that police forced them to return home from the entry points to the city at Belpukur, Katakhali, Mohonpur, Kasiadanga, Jhalmalia, Kesharhat and Kamarpara.
Police had set up checkpoints at various points on the highways in Rajshahi, Natore, Naogaon and Chapainawabganj.
Scores of BNP men said police checked documents of their vehicles and interrogated them. When the law enforcers found out that they were heading for the rally, they asked the activists to return home.
However, Masudur Rahman Bhuiyan, additional deputy inspector general of police in Rajshahi, refuted the claims that police obstructed the rally-goers.
“They held the rally peacefully. Police were deployed to ensure security,” he told this newspaper last night.
He further said that if police had conducted searches, they did it for safety reasons, not to harass anyone.
Visiting Kasiadanga, Nawdapara and Binodpur points, this correspondent found many people stranded at the bus stops there as they could not find any bus to go to other districts.
Yesterday's rally began at Hoseniganj Madrasa Maidan at 3:00pm with Oikyafront's Rajshahi Coordinator Mizanur Rahman Minu in the chair.
When central leaders of the Oikyafront reached there around 3:30pm, local leaders and activists of the combine had already filled a large portion of the venue with a capacity of over one lakh people.
Dr Kamal Hossain, one of the top leaders of the alliance, could not attend the rally for illness, but he gave a speech at the rally over the phone from the capital.
The eminent jurist apologised for his inability to join the rally.
"The election schedule was announced hurriedly. This is nothing but an attempt to deprive people of their right to vote. We think it goes against the constitution and democracy," Dr Kamal said.
If the government wants to hold the election without participation of all parties, it will be a step to deprive the people of their right to vote, and it will be an anti-people and anti-liberation activity, he noted.
“We wanted an election that would be acceptable to all. But ignoring our demands, the Election Commission announced the schedule to deceive people,” said Dr Kamal, also president of the Gono Forum.
BNP Secretary General Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said they would not participate in any election unless their seven-point demand is met.
“Talks will not yield any results without Khaleda Zia's release, the resignation of the present government and dissolution of parliament.”
The government is ruling the country by force and is trying to suppress people's voice by filing false cases against them, he alleged.
“But all the attempts to suppress people have failed, and the huge presence of people at this rally is the proof of that.”
Defying police obstructions on the road, people joined the rally for the sake of democracy and for freeing Khaleda, mentioned Fakhrul.
Accusing the government of "plotting to slowly kill Khaleda in prison", he said the BNP chief was taken to jail from the hospital though she was still sick.
No election schedule will work unless Khaleda is released and a level playing field is created for all parties, he added.
Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) President ASM Abdur Rob said they would not allow the government to hold the election unless their demands are met.
"I am ready to go to jail and even to die ... but we will materialise our demands. Otherwise, there will be no election."
Manna said that if the EC had fixed January 23 as the election day, there would have been no problem.
Kader Siddique said, “Bangladesh means Khaleda Zia and there will be no election without her.”
Liberal Democratic Party leader Col (retd) Oli Ahmed said people pay for the salaries of the government servants, but those servants are oppressing people under the misrule of the present government.
Gono Forum leader Mostafa Mohsin Montu said the prime minister had promised that they would not face any obstruction in holding programmes, but police intercepted the rally-goers on the way to the venue.