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Is anyone policing the thought police?

  • Published at 06:56 pm November 11th, 2018
A looking in view
A looking in view BIGSTOCK

The answers to that question could shake the bedrock of our country

If you ever, for some reason, decided to search for me on Facebook, you would find, instead of a profile picture, a black background. I had changed it a few months ago, at the onset of the student protests that gripped the nation, and did so with the vain hope that it would be my small contribution of the resistance -- a few people shared my view at the time.

Far braver men and women, boys and girls, have done so much more, especially Dr Shahidul Alam, who is still interred in a nameless gaol. Human rights activists throughout the world, noted luminaries and other esteemed individuals, have demanded his release, but to no avail.

Barring myself and one other person on my 800-person strong “friend list” -- I put the term in quotation marks because I find myself waking on many mornings, staring at someone from the list, having no clue who they were -- the black flags have gone down.

We are the only ones who continue with this pointless excuse of an exercise. We both know it is pointless, that the machine of tragedy that is the news cycle and the public consciousness of Bangladesh will and has already moved on, regardless of what any of us are doing.

More recently though, as I sat down to reflect and think about it, these events seemed to signify, to me at least, the death of a lot more intangible concepts -- the death of pluralistic thought, the rise of the oft-repeated but not discussed philosophy of “conform or die” that is the root of populist propaganda, and the growing divide, in terms of property and culture, between the haves and the have-nots of Bangladeshi society.

As a member of the privileged elite (ie someone capable of writing or reading this), we are vastly unaware of the internal pressures that are set to shake the bedrock of our country.

Let’s talk about something which got passed into law recently, and which, despite it being a monumental piece of legislation, I have seen very little mention of on my social media newsfeed. I am talking about the Digital Security Act of 2018, which has already come under scrutiny, and is also being opposed by the United Nations’ human rights body and other relevant organizations.

This law gives unprecedented power to the government to punish and arrest people who hurt the “spirit of the Liberation War,” national anthem, the Bangladeshi flag, disrupt law/order, hurt religious sentiment, and provoke communal disharmony.

With the vagueness of the wording, the absolutely terrifying thing is that anyone can be arrested for anything, and it seems that there isn’t much that human rights organizations could do about it. 

Let’s stretch this to the point of absurdity, shall we? Is a person eligible for arrest because he or she voices displeasure within certain sects of the country, either on social media, or through opinion pieces, much as this one? What if I designed innerwear and, perhaps inadvertently, the pattern resembled the design of the national flag?

What if I made the damning accusation that homosexuals in Bangladesh deserve to be recognized and not criminalized, that atheists are people too and shouldn’t be hacked to death, that the disenfranchised hijra population of Bangladesh be incorporated as members of our society properly and not essentially be discarded and reduced to be looked at as pariahs or a social nuisance.

What about people who dislike cricket, or don’t support the national team? I am definitely inciting communal disharmony there. How about if I have managed to offend, say 17 people, who make up a community, who vastly dislike the blank, black profile pictures on Facebook that I mentioned earlier? 

If the avenues of expression are suppressed, we, as a nation, will both lose our ability to think, and be reduced to having a barren soul. When that happens, I am afraid the words that could fall from our lips would be the following -- “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” 

Please, let us not let that happen. 

Zubier Abdullah is an engineer and a short story writer.