Thursday, June 20, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

The only option

Update : 12 Apr 2016, 01:38 AM
Only a year ago, around April last year, we protested against sexual assaults on women and girls on Bengali New Year’s day, when a group of men was caught on CCTV molesting girls in the crowd. Social media, blogs, editorials, talk shows, and street protests demanded justice and rapid trials. Authorities made a few arrests and a number of public statements, some of which were not helpful or respectful of the victims. Things gradually fizzled out as new issues grabbed our attention. This year, already, in the months of February and March alone, we have had many controversies. It would be almost impossible for ordinary citizens to maintain their enthusiasm and energy to cope with these issues, let alone to join each demonstration. We just finished a blockbuster season of cricket. Investigations and details are still appearing from the sensational money laundering of our central bank’s foreign reserve account. The High Court has issued a verdict in the matter of our state religion. Sedition cases around the country are being pursued against an eminent newspaper editor. With cast-iron certainty, laws have been drafted to protect the nation’s Liberation War history, to uphold the sanctity of the International War Crimes Tribunal, and to supervise and monitor our behaviour in social, print, and electronic media. And then there is ongoing agitation against the proposed Rampal coal power plant in the Sundarbans and the abominable assault and killing of a girl in Comilla that has unfolded episodes of administrative and judicial fracas. This week, another blogger has been killed on a Dhaka street, and four innocent protesters in a village in Chittagong were killed while protesting against the proposed construction of coal-based electricity power plants in a densely populated area. While the severity of the events shakes us and should create massive public outcry, in the current environment, protests are more special for a number of reasons: First, a general disinterest has crept in against uprisings and political activism in recent years. What or who would inspire such activism, anyway? Since the mood is that, after 20 years in a parliamentary system (albeit a quasi and nominal one in practice), and earlier dictatorships, alternatives -- whether they are centre-right, nationalist, religious, or idealist left -- would hardly be any better for us. As with politicians and political organisations around the world, they would deliver a lot of oratory, but very few real outcomes. In reality, they may not even have such aims. At any rate, the bad blood running between the poles of our politics is not going to go away soon; even if it does (the present often looks indomitable), there will be a battle between the next generations or between other future political powers, and the common citizens and issues affecting them will be left unattended. Strong historical lessons support such pessimism. If the youth of the 60s and 70s had to watch their dreams perish in post-war disorganisation and anarchy, if those of the 80s and 90s have grown accustomed to their disappointment for a democratic future, the youth of the 2000s are left delusional with a plethora of pledges and platitudes about their problems. And the youth of this decade, who only recently gathered en masse in 2013 in Shahbagh, have harrowing tales to tell. So, with the background of repeated betrayal, the fact that the young and old still come out demanding justice means that people hope for the better. They choose not to take it lying down. Second, in our region, the benefits of improving economic growth are not only noticeable, they are inspirational, a driving force for our population. In fact, it is a testament to our tenacity, our ability to survive in the face of suffering. We have received glowing commendations for our achievements -- for eradicating endemic diseases, providing immunisation, improving general health and well-being of the poor, and reducing poverty. Our education system may be in shambles, but individual talent still shines through in numbers. Employment conditions, while not ideal or great, are somehow ticking along and are “better than before” -- and this is a vital point, one needs to earn to live with dignity. In fact, a strong consensus amongst all strata of society suggests that a positive economic outlook is the key. We do not want to remain a poor developing nation, we want to be a developed one with good amenities as rapidly as possible. Understanding this mantra early and implementing it apparently prolonged the current administration’s tenure. Rightly or wrongly, it seems to have convinced businesses and investors that they are most able to govern the country. And there is no shortage of intellectual progressives to continue to feed and back this “positive line.” In that context, it takes a lot of courage to stand up against wrong-doing by the authorities or to criticise the government’s actions and plans. Third, and perhaps most important, in recent years, opposing voices have not been heard. Space for free expression has significantly shrunk. There are real risks. Activists, journalists, commentators, civil society members, and bloggers have been reprimanded by the authorities, by the courts, and, of course, by assailants who have killed and are still killing and injuring writers and publishers. Then there have been decrees, laws, legislation, and guidelines from the Ministry of Information about what can and what cannot be expressed without risking arrest. In other words, freedom of expression is being sternly controlled. The government has even challenged and threatened legal action against reputed international outlets. As a number of high-profile disappearances, murders, and atrocities find no credible explanation, hearsay takes over. People use their only fall-back options -- imagination and past experience -- to connect the dots. However, in most cases, this just creates paranoia. That is why, at present -- when the press, intellectuals, and administration are muzzled, when the general public is flummoxed -- protests are the sole light. Though inevitably they abate, and perhaps they are not as strong as they used to be, they register our objection to cover-ups.
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