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Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: How not to dampen a celebration

A democracy thrives on differing opinions

Update : 29 Mar 2021, 02:09 AM

In July of 2018, Donald Trump made his first official visit as US president to his country’s strongest ally, the UK. He, of course, received a warm welcome from UK premier Theresa May and the entire state machinery.  

His official dinner menu consisted of smoked salmon as a starter followed by Hereford beef fillet and potatoes, finished off with strawberries and cream.

But many Britons had pent-up anger against Trump for his controversial perceptions and policies -- ranging from the “Muslim ban” to the wall on the border with Mexico to his rejection of the Paris climate deal. His visit as such resulted in London witnessing a massive anti-Trump protest.

A quarter of a million people flooded the centre of London, and an estimated 400,000 people protested across the UK, requiring large-scale police and security operations involving the deployment of more than 10,000 police officers.

Thanks to a long tradition of practicing a functional democracy -- at the core of which rests the value of dissenting voices -- Westminster even allowed a baby-faced larger-than-life balloon effigy of Trump to stand tall and flutter high, much to the displeasure of Buckingham Palace’s revered foreign guest.

As much as it might have bothered the British state apparatus, there was never a dearth of fun, merriment, jubilation, ecstasy, and celebration during the few days it played host to Trump. On the contrary, one could see the beauty of democracy in the state facilitating peaceful demonstrations and protests by thousands of its citizens, citizens who thought Trump should not have been welcomed into their country in the first place.

The London police did not drive away the thousands of protestors from Trafalgar Square; rather, they facilitated the peaceful anti-Trump protests. During that first visit to the UK, Trump and his wife Melania disembarked from Air Force One at London Stansted -- an airport more used to welcoming budget flights. 

And then the couple were immediately whisked away from the airport to central London by helicopter instead of a ceremonial motorcade in order to avoid the protest-lined streets.

Democracy demands dissent, not hooliganism

In Bangladesh, we have just had a fantastic 10-day celebration, a well-deserved one, marking our country’s 50 years of independence. There was much fanfare – as much as could be allowed considering the uptick in Covid-19 cases -- with events depicting the rich cultural heritage of this land, its rebellious people, their struggle for freedom and emancipation, and the enviable economic advancements Bangladesh has achieved over the past five decades. 

Visits and participation from a galaxy of foreign dignitaries, which included a number of heads of government and heads of state of Bangladesh’s South Asian neighbours, made the occasion all the more colourful and ceremonial.

The Indian Prime Minister was last in a long line-up of dignitaries visiting Bangladesh during this 10-day golden jubilee celebration, concluding on March 26. As far as Bangladesh and India’s historic bond is concerned, 1971 was a momentous high point that no one could ever deny. 

Playing host to over a million Rohingya refugees has been far from easy for Bangladesh, with an entire persecuted community in our backyard who have fled from Rakhine State in Myanmar. India did the same for at least 10-fold more people, people who had to flee the war theatres of East Pakistan after the Pakistani army’s barbaric attacks on unarmed Bangalis in 1971.

The visiting premier himself claimed how, as a young man in his early 20s, he partook in protests in India against the persecution of people in East Bengal in 1971. Of course, this will be further validated as a historic fact once results come from an RTI filed by a fellow Indian on Modi’s claim. 

On a different note, in a democracy, there will always be people who are for and against every decision. It is in allowing this dissent that the beauty of democracy shines through. 

For some people in Bangladesh, Modi-led BJP’s India is not what Indira Gandhi’s India in 1971 stood for -- and you can’t simply blame someone for holding such a view, especially when they hear India’s ruling class describe “migrant Bangladeshis” in India as “termites.” And there are a host of other issues and concerns too.

But in the name of protesting the visit of a foreign government head, none should be allowed to break the norms of peaceful protests. Similarly, it is the state’s law apparatus that should be in charge of containing any violence, not party cadres. 

If the police in the UK can contain 250,000 protesters in central London, the police in Bangladesh should be able to contain much smaller groups of protestors -- no matter, what political clout they enjoy. 

Employing party activists (with sticks and bombs in their arsenal as reported by the media) to contain anti-Modi protestors was not the most brilliant idea. Why should the government and the party in power take the blame for dampening its own celebrations? 

We could well avoid losing 10 lives in the ensuing violence simply by giving our law enforcers the mandate, which would be the professional way of dealing with such protests. Turning these protests into a three-way battle between protestors, party cadres, and the police was never a good ploy.

Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor at the Dhaka Tribune.

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