When citizens aren’t allowed to have an opinion, the country doesn’t have a leg to stand on
How do you measure the greatness of a society, a people, a nation?
That’s not a trick question, and in all earnestness there could be different answers to it.
Is it by the amount of wealth in possession of the richest of its citizens?
Is it by the amount of wealth in possession of the poorest of its citizens?
Is it by the average income across the nation, maybe adjusted for things like purchasing power?
Is it by the total number of millionaires, billionaires, or people who make over X amount of income every year?
Is it by its history, and how much blood was shed in the past?
Is it by the greatness of the literary luminary that lights up its national canon -- by its Shakespeare, its Rabindranath, its Goethe?
Is it by its export volume, or the success of certain key industries?
Is it by the dense agglomeration of skyscrapers seen in panoramic shots of its largest city?
Is it by the strength and numbers of its military, and how much of the rest of the world lives in its fear?
Is it by its natural endowments -- its mountains, its sandy beaches, its wide open vistas, its national parks?
Is it through the global acknowledgement of its arts and entertainment, things superficially called “culture,” ie its cinema, television, popular music?
Is it through having, by label at least, one type of governmental system over another -- democratically elected, or communist, or absolute monarchy?
Is it by the smooth flow of its traffic, by its safe, reliable, efficient public bus system, by the thoroughness of its subway networks?
Is it through the existence of more and more laws?
Is it through having fewer and fewer laws?
Is it through the sheer number of its institutions of higher education, ones that get to call themselves “universities,” thereby revealing the presence of a vital intellectual life?
Is it through Amartya Sen’s fabled Human Development Index, which combines life expectancy, per capita income, and education levels?
Is it by the number of women in parliament, which shows gender balance in its political discussion?
Is it through the presence of numerous UNESCO world heritage sites?
Is it by the number of detergent brands, or cereal options, or frozen dinners combinations available at the local supermarket?
Is it through the opportunities for a poor person to dig himself out of poverty and one day turn into a “somebody” of the business world?
Is it through how much the rest of the world wishes to imitate the shallower aspects of its lifestyle -- its language, its accents, its table manners?
Is it through the existence of universal health care?
Is it by having laws that prize and protect the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press?
Or is it by having a government -- and laws -- so worried about what views may be voiced by academics, intellectuals, journalists, bloggers, or just plain ordinary citizens, that it arrests and detains them simply for expressing a point of view?
Of course, the answer is: It depends on who you ask. For you, it might be the freedom to race a gold-plated car on the highways; for me it might be freedom of the press. We get to have different opinions -- that’s the beauty of it.
And it is the sharing of those opinions that allows for political engagement to happen, and silencing speech is akin to choking thought itself.
Nothing is so suicidal for a nation as nipping ideas in the bud. Society can never move forward without respecting new and sometimes unpleasant viewpoints, however much it may be a kneejerk reaction to penalize those who say things that displease us.
What was the Language Movement if not the fight for a certain kind of speech, back in 1952? Are we not dishonouring the legacy of Ekushey now in 2018?
What event -- one that took place on March 7, 1971 -- is seen as the defining moment in the history of our nation?
That’s right -- a speech.
Economic and other types of progress are meaningless if basic human rights fly out the window. If ordinary citizens can be locked up for simply having an opinion, no one is safe.
Don’t give me GDP stats if our mouths have to be taped shut.
Don’t toss Tagore and Nazrul at me if words can get a person arrested.
Don’t give me a long explanation of what makes us so great, and then tell me to choose my words wisely.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.