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A democratic right

  • Published at 12:01 am October 9th, 2016
A democratic right

What would it take for the Awami League to regain the trust of the secularist corner of the country?

That was the talking point of a weekend social gathering of our regular friendly circle, coincidentally, all of whom happen to be former BCL members turned accomplished academics and career professionals.

It is no secret that the secularist front of the country has always been considered as the core defender of the AL since its formation. Thus, from a long-term perspective, the success and existence of Mujib ideals hugely rely on the success and confidence of secularism.

This, in a nutshell, is a debate of fundamental principles that the AL power centre is failing to identify, or is too arrogant to admit, but is being wrestled with by academics, party sympathisers, and members of the civil rights groups who have rallied behind the party in tough times.

Is this the party that once presented a classic left-wing political purity? Or in the era of Seikh Hasina, whose increasingly tightening iron fist over the party and the government is a tell-tale sign of a bitter reality, is the AL just interested in hanging onto power or still stands by its commitment towards secular democratic principles?

If you want to get a sense of what’s wrong with fundamental democratic rights in Bangladesh, look no further than Friday, September 30.

This was the date when the capital’s transport network almost entirely collapsed due to an AL showdown that apparently had no political agenda, but narcissistic populism.

Meanwhile, in the morning, a small group of socialist political activists assembled peacefully in the DU campus for an environmentally friendly bicycle rally organised in opposition of the Rampal Power Plant project.

The rally was impeded by the BCL members and the police. The organisers and several media outlets accused the police of using excessive force and causing grievous physical damage.

Considering the enormous economic importance, it has already been agreed by many experts that, despite environmental concerns, projects like Rampal and environmental conservation can go hand in hand -- if managed carefully through effective protection mechanism.

However, neither economic development nor environmental conservation are focuses of this particular article.

In a democracy, there can be very few issues as significant as political rights. Ethically, it is worth realising that preventing citizens from peaceful protest can only happen in a state that does not respect the rights of the citizens

The focus of this article is a fundamental political right which is considered given and constitutionally guaranteed in a secular democratic system, namely the freedom of peaceful assembly.

Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the article 21 of the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights ICCPR (1966), of which Bangladesh is a signatory, recognised citizens’ rights to demonstrate, protest, and take part in politics through peaceful assembly.

Section 37 of the Constitution of Bangladesh was created in line with this universally accepted democratic virtue which proclaims: “Every 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 health.”

Many might argue that the constitution was being violated on September 30.

In principle, yes of course, but technically the aggressive presence of BCL members grants the police a legitimate intervention ground, but how legitimate was it from a democratic perspective?

In Disk/Kesk vs Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights pointed out that states must not only safeguard the right to peaceful assembly, but that it also must refrain from applying unreasonable indirect restrictions upon this right.

In a democracy, there can be very few issues as significant as political rights -- and the current AL government is under an obligatory duty to safeguard this. Ethically, it is worth realising that preventing citizens from peaceful protest can only happen in a state that does not respect the rights of the citizens.

Not only does the AL have to refrain from this awful tactic of throwing in BCL men to create a ground for police intervention, but BCL members must also have to ask themselves, is it appropriate for BCL to deprive others from the same rights that were achieved through the sacrifices of the BCL members by the hundred?

We all have different views on how to run the country, but there are few fundamental ideals we all have agreed upon, including freedom of assembly, on the very day when democracy has become our chosen path.

Apparently, the government is falling short of expectations, and it must immediately re-examine its position on the fundamental aspects of the democratic politics, where it is losing the argument.

Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy is a blogger and an online activist.