Perhaps people don’t want real change
Prominent American broadcast journalist Edward R Murrow once noted: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves,” in light of George W Bush’s rise to the White House and the California energy crisis.
However, the observation is more suited to a country like ours, where we have handed our custodians of law an unaccountable source of power, a power that in essence truly belongs to the people. Willingly or unwillingly, we have sold our integrity as a nation to a government that is increasingly totalitarian.
Murrow’s statement has had a number of interpretations over the years. But all truly with one core idea, that a nation’s attitude towards its government is what shapes the nature of that government. We are responsible for what becomes of our keepers.
And who indeed are our keepers? Tracing our history of bowed attitude back to colonial times brings forth some harsh truths that might not sound too pleasant to unaccustomed ears. When Job Charnok first saw the potential of an English settlement on the banks of Hooghly in 1686, he made no mistake in realizing the potential of an English domination over the natives.
Sixty-one years later, the British East India Company, and later the British monarchy would prove his visionary legacy right by successfully, often controversially, ruling the sub-continent for 200 long years. For 200 years, our shepherds were the gora sahibs and the unnerving mentality of being subordinate to iron-clad brutal authority were so deeply instilled in our culture that it was very well reflected in post-independence India, where white people were still being called sahibs, not literally, but figuratively.
The gesture was a respectful one, needless to say. But the word has had deep unsettling origins where it quite literally translates to “master” in English.
The legacy of subordination that the British left us with still lingers on in our British modelled democratic system. Today, we truly have become a nation of sheep. And our government, a government of wolves. And that is because we have let them.
For too long, we have let them get away with everything without ever questioning their accountability. We swapped our British sahibs with native sahibs. We never truly understood the concept or the power of democracy. The idea of practically worshipping individuals is still persistent among us.
We have grown so used to the indiscipline and lack of system in our society that somewhere along the line, we forgot that we held the true power. That the people should not be afraid of their government, but it is the government that should be afraid of the people.
How does a government become totalitarian? It always starts small. Little thieveries, small corruptions, a hole in the system that goes unnoticed, a basic need that remains unattended to that no one complains about. They start to see that people do not really care. People are content as long as they have a bed to sleep in and meals to eat.
And that is how it starts. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton once said. And this lack of accountability to the people is what makes a government grow fierce over its people. We forget to keep them in check and they take the advantage. And an Orwellian state is born out of the ashes of the people who have sold their spines for bread.
Then again, people really don’t want change. It has not been long since the students took to the streets in demand of safer roads and strict traffic laws. They stood in the middle of Dhaka’s hellish roads, day and night, in rain and sun, and created lanes, checked licenses, papers, taught us how to properly commute in a civilized city.
It has hardly been a week, and we have made no mistake in forgetting every sacrifice these school-going children made just to teach us proper civic sense. There are no lanes in Dhaka streets anymore, vehicles ply as they wish, worn-out buses still compete with each other. Dhaka is back to its infamous glory, and everyone seems to have forgotten what this city went through for nine fiery days.
When university students were being beaten up in the streets mercilessly by both police and thugs, when they pleaded for people to come to their support, not a single common office-going proud citizen of Dhaka came to the streets or voiced their words in their support.
People went about their day. Nothing touched them. Still, nothing touches them, as long as they’re alive and well. The irony is that the general people of this country have a very vague idea what being well truly means.
And so, we sit tight as they curb our right of free speech, we live in fear of backlash, we are told to be grateful to the government for merely doing what a government is supposed to do. We forget that development is not a gift to us from the government, but it has always been the government’s duty to pursue development for the nation.
The problem is that people are too content. Too content to care. Earning our daily bread has made us cowards.
Zarif Faiaz is a freelance contributor.