An atrocity of this scale had never happened before, and it must not repeat ever. Today is the day when militants, with the support of key high ups of the ruling party then in power, unleashed a grisly grenade attack on August 21, 2004 at an ongoing public meeting of the Awami League. It was a premeditated barbaric act designed to wipe out the whole leadership of Awami League, including its leader Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. That she survived the multiple grenade attack is nothing short of a miracle. It was the combined effort of the people of Bangladesh and the party’s leadership that helped the country overcome a slip into the abysmal depth of chaos. Today is the day that the nation will reaffirm its determination to resist any further atrocities of that kind and abolish those that boil with the hatred that led to this potentially disastrous event, that would have weakened us as a nation and a growing economy.
If we consider what would be the darkest day in Bangladesh's political history since the killing of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family members, this would be it.
August 21, 2004.
Only those who were present there that day would know the day's event's true nature. They will hesitate to call it gruesome, because it was something worse than that.
It was not only the worst form of devilry Bangladesh politics has ever witnessed. It was not only a genocide unleashed on a hugely popular political party, carried out by actors sponsored by the state. It was not only an outcome of pure and present hatred.
It was the culmination of a well-planned and hateful act of violence that was constructed around the ideology of hate, fascism, and the crudest method of elimination by violence as had been practiced by the likes of the Nazi forces.
The devastation created by the lobbying of grenades on an Awami League rally on that day not only killed at least 24 persons and left numerous others maimed instantly, it had also moulded the statesmanship and political landscape in a way never before experienced in this country.
It was the culmination of a hate-filled campaign of intrigue carved out by the BNP-led government over a long time.
That day, August 21, was not an isolated blip in the inevitable flow of history. It was but a link in the chain to deviate Bangladesh forever on the path to militancy.
When it came to power in 1991 after the restoration of democracy, the BNP, in its first term, seemed an unlikely party that would be capable of sponsoring such a grotesque crime. To an uncritical eye, it looked like a centre right party busy with not doing much but a little wooing of donors into funding the budget.
It dealt out the usual treatment of ordering the police to wield their batons on occasional Awami League protests as is wont of a vital opposition party, and on one incident even beat up the League's veteran leader Motia Chowdhury. Nothing too deviant to suggest the ogre the party would turn into a few years down the line.
But under the shadow of the party in power, a monster in the form of HarkatUl Jihad Al-Islami Bangladesh (Huji), an extreme militant outfit – was growing. Its public appearance through a formal press conference in Dhaka in 1992 strangely evoked no reaction from the BNP government. And one does not have to be a political science genius to conclude that without state sponsorship such an outfit cannot appear in public domain without hindrance.
The outcome of such pandering to extremists manifested into a string of bomb blasts when the Awami League came to power in the next election in 1996.
Bombs were thrown on a function of Udichi – a left-leaning cultural forum – in Jashore, killing 10. A bomb was planted at the venue of then prime minister Sheikh Hasina's meeting in Gopalganj. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had investigated the incident and pointed fingers at Harkatul Jihad.
The dreaded name of Huji chief Mufti Hannan came to the limelight when US president Bill Clinton's trip to Manikganj in 2000 was cancelled because of threats from Islamist militants.
At the fag end of the Awami League rule, another bomb attack at a traditional programme to welcome the Bangla New Year at Ramna Park was a declaration by the militants to wipe out anything they considered "non-Islamic".
When the BNP ascended to power again in 2001, the multi-headed monster that BNP had been raising revealed a new face when things suddenly changed with Tarique Rahman, the BNP chairperson's son, becoming the de facto supremo of the party.
His actions were clear indications that Tarique wanted his party to grow into a fascist apparatus, increasingly relying on Islamist militants to root out BNP's arch rival Awami League.
With direct state apparatus supervision, clandestine shipments of small and medium arms made inroads into the country, not in ones or twos, but in bulk, in fact, trucks-full and in dangerous numbers. Other than the media, nobody seemed to care, while the gunrunners remained happily shielded.
Different Islamist groups popped up sporadically across the country – al Baiyenat, Harkatul Jihad, JamiatulMujahideen, Shahadat-e-al-Hikma, HijbutTawhid and so on. But their existence, except for that of Shahadat-e-al-Hikma, which was later banned, was routinely denied by the government apparatus.
Meantime, the militants grew greater in strength. And the country devolved into an anarchical state through a string of militant events all with state sponsorship.
Only four months before the August 21 grenade attack, ten truckloads of sophisticated arms were accidentally seized at the Chittagong Port. Later investigations unearthed how the very high-ups in the BNP-led government, including the home minister himself, were involved in that clandestine arms shipment.
Only three months before the grenade attack, Huji broke its silence again by a bomb attack on the British high commissioner in Sylhet.
And then came the fateful August 21.
Twenty-four people died, many of them on the spot – death did not come easy for them. Ivy Rahman, president of Bangladesh Mohila League, was one of the victims who was blown apart from down below the waist and had the most gruesome death days later.
Then opposition leader and now Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who was the main target of the attack, survived by sheer luck, but suffered damage to her hearings.
Hundreds are still bearing the festering wounds on their bodies even to this day.
Today we know who were involved in the attack. It was nobody less than Tarique Rahman, then home minister Lutfozzaman Babar and many of the high-ups in the government and intelligence agencies.
But the way the BNP-led government tried to divert the investigation of the grisly attack speaks volumes about what its political goals were in Bangladesh.
In a Kafkaesque act, it had put the blame on the Awami League itself for the attack. It destroyed the evidence. It framed a petty criminal named Joj Mia, claiming that he had thrown the grenades. It had initiated an eyewash one-man commission headed by a justice who 'investigated' the attack and said a foreign country was responsible.
In the end, all the play acting fell apart as BNP was ousted from power in the next election and a new investigation revealed how the whole plot was orchestrated from HawaBhaban by Tarique Rahman and his cohorts.
The whole affair has left a deep division in our national politics, which will probably last forever. It has shown politics is not about democracy, or elections, or the people's mandate; but to go after one another's throat, bloody each other's nose in the most dangerous way. It has drawn new lines and definitions of enemies.
We can reel off a list of such inglorious attempts to embolden the militants.
For example, the creation of another sinister outfit Jama'atulMujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). Headed by the dreaded and infamous Bangla Bhai. This group openly preached Islamic revolution and started lynching people they thought were enemies of Islam. It brought out motorcades in show of power and top BNP leaders and the administration lent support to the JMB.
Media reports on JMB atrocities were summarily dismissed as figments of the imagination of the media. The existence of Bangla Bhai was denied, although his interview - given from a public office with then prime minister Khaleda Zia's portrait hanging on the background wall - was published in the media.
Fortunately, the party that the BNP-led government had wanted to annihilate with blasts of grenades, had clawed back to strength and unity after the initial shock.
Today, if one takes a retrospective, one can hold the BNP, including its current leadership, solely responsible for failure to check and condemn the genocidal attack and the events before and after the macabre crime.
The BNP should have come clean about its inglorious past. It did not.
As a result, we bear the burden of what happened on that fateful day, even today.
While the BNP and the Awami League were political rivals fighting for the seat of power in a democratic system before August 21, in the years since, the relationship between them has transformed into a zero-sum battle for survival.
Many of the turbulent political events that followed August 21 – the cancelled elections of January 2007, military-backed caretaker government rule for two years, the political violence in 2013 in the backdrop of the war crimes trial, BNP's boycott of the 2014 elections and the subsequent arson attacks during a four-month road blockade – can all be traced back to their roots to the devilry that was midwifed into existence on that fateful day.