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They’ll be watching you

  • Published at 06:37 pm April 5th, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:32 pm April 5th, 2017
They’ll be watching you

Iain Mcleod was not the most memorable of British conservatives being credited with the rapid collapse of Britain’s African empire while serving as secretary of state for the colonies (a now-defunct ministry).

This didn’t really matter to Iain. He understood that imperialism was over, and any attempt to hold on to it would only damage Great Britain.

History proved him right.

But my point is neither about the politician-journalist nor about decolonisation. It’s about something he wrote in late 1965 while serving as the editor of The Spectator (a British conservative magazine) about a government that intrudes into the privacy of ordinary citizens through invasive means and enacts draconian solutions to run-of-the-mill problems.

More specifically, Iain was talking about the plans to restrict the speed limit to 112km/h.

While we Bangladeshis have seen enough deaths on roads to desire such measures, Iain, being the citizen of a more systematic country, found them “illogical, patronising, and paternalistic.” To him, it seemed a path only the “nanny state” (a state which views its citizens “inherently incapable” of driving at 130km/h) would take.

What other things would the nanny state do?

Flood the cell phones of its citizens with messages one after another about how all boilers should be run by expert and legal (read: “licensed”) boiler operators, or that sustainable development is only possible if we are always prepared for (natural) disasters, undertake various awareness campaigns over issues that the public ought to understand quite well by now (if the masses still don’t realise why killing infant hilsha fish is a bad thing, I fear they never will).

On a side note, the police helpline initiative sounds quite good actually; and so do the messages about how child marriage must be prevented at any cost.

The rest of it is still irremediable. It’s been about time -- if the public hasn’t learned yet, let it go. Wait, don’t let it go, just enact the existing laws. Is that too much to ask?

Banning Facebook and policing book fairs are the most luminous examples. Once you get to the Digital Security Act 2016, it stops getting even remotely funny

Seems like, in Bangladesh, it is. Someone somewhere up the ladder thinks it’s a brilliant idea to send messages.

That a privileged Dhaka city teenager has nothing whatsoever to do with infant hilsha fish and that a pharmacy store-owner in a distant Rangpur haat bazaar doesn’t really care about jute seems to be lost in transition.

Some of the people who do catch infant hilsha fish and drive recklessly don’t even know how to read cell phone messages. A few of them don’t even own mobile phones.

But who cares about results. People are indeed becoming aware, not all of them but some, over and over again, and again, and again, and again.

Then there’s the question of nationalised culture and religion. State-regulated khutbas and mongol shovajatras (good thing the former was cancelled).

It seems as though past failures of command economy and command politics have been forgotten and now we have its replacements with command culture and command religion. This point requires deep analysis on its own right.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. You dig a bit deeper and a newer set of draconian measures come into our view. Banning Facebook and policing book fairs are the most luminous examples, and then there was the rumour going on that list of visitors of porn sites will be publicly disclosed. Once you get to the Digital Security Act 2016, it stops getting even remotely funny. Phrases like “subject to any reasonable restrictions” raise many questions, namely as to whose reason it would be and what would be the extent of such restrictions.

The government has intentionally left it all very ambiguous. Except the clause which allows the Directorate General of the Digital Security Agency (agencies that China and North Korea have too) to bypass court orders. That part is crystal clear.

Now, this sort of legislation is derived both out of a morbid and often violent desire to control and direct the population, and an innate but equally destructive belief that the public does not possess the necessary wisdom to survive out in the tough world.

And it also needs controlled democracy, which allows them freedom over a certain spectrum. Anyone and everyone who disagrees is an enemy of the state, and must be crushed at any cost.

A wide variety of leaders across the spectrum ascribed to this ideology. Some of them were revolutionaries (Fidel Castro), others were nationalists (Mahathir Mohammad or Lee Kuan Yew), and a considerable bunch represented the military junta (General Ziaul Haq or Augusto Pinochet). A few countries did achieve considerable development this way.

At the cost of a suppressed democracy, that is.

Yes, Malaysia has developed at an amazing rate, but we should keep in mind that Anwar Ibrahim, the Malaysian politician and leader of the opposition party, is still in jail.

The case of Singapore is even better, except for the people who opposed Lee Kuan Yew and were sued into oblivion using taxpayer money.

The two countries are still examples of progress. But they are also examples of suppressed democracy. There are states in the world which have taken a lot more time to achieve the same things, but have done so without sending the opposition to jail on absurd charges.

Bottom line: Economic development shouldn’t come at the expense of civil rights. There’s a reason they call it sustainable development. Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia seemed to have it all going well, but it all collapsed within a few years of his death.

But the case of Bangladesh is even more complex, it’s not just economic development that the government is promising, but also security against the real threat of terrorism. While we keep hearing about how bad the threat is, we are seldom told the cost of this protection. We are not told because we wouldn’t understand, because somebody somewhere prioritises our safety over our choices, without understanding either.

One only needs to remember the Rampal issue and subtle comments from government officials implying that the public was misunderstanding the environmental question -- to understand that the public will forever be considered as naïve, ignorant, and uninformed, and the government will forever be the parent, the leader, the decider.

Struck between its inability to be politically aroused and an inability of the political opposition to provide the least amount of stimulus, the Bangladeshi masses will, for the unforeseeable future, play obedient children to unreasonably stern parents. That is to say, they will suffer.

Fardin Hasin is a freelance contributor.