Any resident or non-resident Bangladeshi who has not been living under a rock for the last couple of days surely is aware of the attacks carried out by the police on a largely peaceful protest for reforming the quota system.
I am not going to argue on the righteousness or wrongfulness of the protest, as it has been widely discussed by others who are more competent than me in this matter.
I am not going to make any comments regarding how ridiculous it is to give 56% seats to quotas and only 44% to general people, and how it greatly discourages many meritorious applicants.
The matter which I shall address in this piece is more of a concern for me as a law student that is the grave violation of our fundamental right of freedom of assembly.
The disregard of the government for our constitutional right is a matter of great distress and what worries me more is the scant regard to people’s constitutional rights in this issue.
It is an affair of shame that such use of excess force by the police is a frequent scenario now. Most peaceful assemblies are now often being quashed by using excessive force by the police.
Even teachers and students, the torchbearers of knowledge, were not excluded from this torment. The protest in the discussion here started, without any shred of doubt as a peaceful one. The interference of police force has changed the situation.
There was the absence of presumption that widespread violence may rise from this protest so the excess force used by the police is hardly credible.
In my view, the reason for using such measures to stop the protest was not in any way due to self-defense. Rather, the reason is heavy-handedness of the police and a disregard for citizens’ fundamental rights.
Although the right to assembly is subject to some restrictions, Article 37 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh provides: “[E]very citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meetings and processions peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of public order or public health.”
Right to assembly is, therefore, one of our fundamental rights. It is the duty of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh to protect such fundamental rights. The court has the power to do it either on the application of victims or suo moto (on its own motion).
Even after the protest ends, the honourable Supreme Court may take necessary actions for preventing such a blatant violation from occurring again by making an example of this protest. The Supreme Court has, in previous decisions, awarded compensation to the victims of such police abuse.
Right to assembly is, therefore, one of our fundamental rights. It is the duty of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh to protect such fundamental rights
In the case of Bilkis Akhter Hossain vs Bangladesh and others the honourable High Court Division held that: “[T]hough there is no specific provision for awarding cost and compensation under Article 102 of the Constitution yet following a long drawn tradition custom or discretion the High Court Division in every writ case passes judgment either with cost or without cost since this court exercises its special original jurisdiction and since this court has got extraordinary and inherent jurisdiction to pass any order as it deems fit and proper this court has the power to award cost of the case as well as monetary compensation considering the facts and circumstances of each case.”
This case serves as a precedent, which is a valid source of law. So the court has the jurisdiction to compensate the victim protesters, and it will also serve as an example against such violence in the future.
Silencing the youth from conveying their opinions will corrode the values of democracy. That is why maximum effort should be given by the government and the court in order to provide justice to the victims. It is to be emphasized that whatever unlawful act was conducted by the protesters, most of them took place after the attack by the police. So when the order of the attack was communicated, the protest was still a peaceful one.
To my limited knowledge, there was no prior declaration which forbids such assembly. The Supreme Court does even have the power to order a rule nisi directing the government to answer why the actions taken by the government should not be declared unconstitutional.
When the government is overlooking the public interest and excess force is being used against the intellectually sound citizens of the state, the conscious citizens, human rights activists, and the court are the only institutions of hope for the public in securing their fundamental rights.
If these institutions now fail to keep the government in check and defend our constitutional rights, democratic values will be severely undermined.
Nafiz Ahmed is a student of law.