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OP-ED: Dissent and dream

  • Published at 12:55 am December 15th, 2020
padma bridge
The complete view of the Padma Bridge Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

The success of the Padma Bridge epitomizes the importance of dissent

We are remarkably close to materializing a dream -- the Padma Bridge is now “almost” a reality; both sides of the mighty Padma are now connected. 

The success of this mega-project epitomizes the importance of dissent -- an attempt to undermine unjust power structures to uphold a more just social relation -- be it in our family, country, or globally. 

Dissent against imperial power

Our prime minister has led the country to defy an imperializing inclination of the World Bank and started the construction of the bridge in 2014 without seeking financial support from it. Standing firm against the alleged claim of corruption even before any funds were disbursed by the World Bank (which was later proven to be baseless), Bangladesh has overcome the pressures of the US and its allies -- as such marks a historic dissent against imperialist tendencies of such global financial institutions. 

The World Bank’s dubious position was not surprising, in many instances it acted arbitrarily, discriminatorily, and followed double standards in regulating loans that it sanctioned. The US -- being the largest shareholder of the World Bank -- uses it as a tool to forward its own interests, exemplified by the continued financial support to the Philippines despite defaulting loan conditionality under the Marcos regime, and multiple loans to the apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and to the USSR under President Boris Yeltsin. 

Bangladesh did not crumble under the unjustified demands of the World Bank about a speculated “graft conspiracy” and thus, we could imagine a somewhat “free” country out of imperialist controls. 

Even though one can make critical comments about the delay in construction of the Padma Bridge, the inflated cost of the project, and estimates of significant amounts of money laundered from the country during the past few years that overtakes the cost of the bridge, the ability to defy the World Bank and the near-completion of the project shows the importance of dissent that we have seemingly forgotten in today’s world. 

We should not stop our “dream” here and thus, must dissent within our country and in our everyday life. This will help us towards sustained prosperity and greater equity.

Dissent for a just society

It is no exaggeration to claim that we must dissent if we want a just society. Dissent enables us to dream of a society free from existing misery and inequality. If we do not ask questions and do not raise doubts about prevailing systems, we will not dream for a new society. 

Historically, dissent has changed the world for the better. In fact, the history of progress is a history of dissent. Dissent ended slavery, colonialism, and racism to some extent. It is through dissent that Copernicus and Galileo could prove that the earth revolves around the sun. Yet we do not think of dissent as a positive phenomenon; rather it is treated as treasonous and unruly. 

Acts of dissent are not always welcomed. In an authoritarian, dictatorial, or colonial regime, dissent led to the severest of punishments -- loss of life -- as happened in the British colonies, Nazi Germany under the leadership of Hitler, or the Soviet Union under Stalin.

We must be aware that dissent does not at once make a perfect world; rather, it gives us hope, pointing out injustices and encouraging protests in the future. In August 2006, a people’s protest against the open-pit coal mining project in Phulbari led to a clash with law enforcers and six people were killed. The protest however stopped the mining operation and it is still stalled. Thus, the possibilities of environmental and social damage were avoided. 

Similarly, many of us are against the Rampal Power Station -- till date the largest coal-fired power station in the country -- being built at the vicinity of the Sundarbans, or the Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant in Pabna. 

However, the protesters are belittled and labelled to be against the progress of the country. Protests by the garment workers over labour conditions and unjust or unpaid salary are termed as conspiracies at once. Moreover, dissidents are thought of as desiring sabotage -- working for western powers or business competitors -- and hence, become traitors to their own community.

More recently, the protests against development projects that would move entire Mro villages in Bandarban have irked many of us awkwardly, but we seem to hesitate to speak up openly against the possible eviction. Many of the civic bodies and public intellectuals have stopped being the watchdogs of the administration or have become parts of it. This is worrisome because it reduces the possibilities of dialogue and alternative perspectives.

Today’s political culture has divided us to the extremes; we are not comfortable in labelling ourselves against authority. As such, we are creating a one-eyed vision looking for only economic growth, ignoring people’s expectations and desire of a fair and just world.

Dissent in everyday life

Acceptance of hierarchical authority is one of the most important social values in Bangladesh. The hierarchical culture implies unquestioning obedience of people towards authorities, such as the government or state officials, political leaders, teachers, elders -- that is, anyone with a higher social rank in Bengali culture. 

Everyone is likely to accept their judgement and not question their actions. The result of this phenomenon is less dissent and less pressure for accountability on the ruling elites.

In recent years, we saw many mass protests in demand of restructuring the quotas in government jobs, eliminating imposed VAT on tuition fees, enacting new traffic laws, and banning student politics in the BUET campus. 

In hindsight, these demands that supposedly aimed for an enhanced “humane condition” contrarily curved our “human potentials” of cooperation and agency, imposing more regulatory procedures that might lead to authoritarianism and corruption, and eventually poor governance. 

What we need to change the socio-political authoritarianism is to become anarchists, guided by the principles of “common good” that all will follow without being told by any authority, as concentrated power will always be corrupt. 

Being an anarchist or dissenter does not require us to engage in spectacular protest; rather, positioning ourselves against any injustice and coming forward in enabling human cooperation would make the future world better. For instance, we must overcome and resist prejudices that support gender inequality. Only because of our bigotry, recently a woman was humiliated in Rajshahi for smoking in public while men always do the same without attracting any undue attention.    

We must foster a society where nobody is afraid to voice their dissent and imagine a new world. If we want to grow in a holistic manner where social, economic, political, and religious rights are upheld, we must dissent and allow dissent in all our institutions, starting from the family to the government. In fact, only if we can encourage discussion, disagreement, and dialogue will we start guiding our society and country towards the better.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the university of Dhaka.

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