Between And Betwixt Freedom And Fear In Bangladesh



Since women and men don’t live by bread alone it obviously follows that they can’t live only by economics either. And even that is coming under pressure for any number of causes in recent times. Humans, by nature and as has been repeatedly proven over historical time, seek after a point certain intangibles and perhaps even the metaphysical, verging on the sublime, to feel content (provided they ever do; but that’s one whole other story).

In Bangladesh, as has also been previously attempted in many other countries, the notion that is being promoted with some zeal is that development and economic progress should suffice for the nation. And on the other hand, restricting in extreme proportions dissent and criticism, and strangulating opposition politics are prices that ought to be worth paying since the administration is offering muscular statistics that should please.

That, it must be underlined, is a proposal that has lived past its sell-by date and, to some extent, even in a place like China where people have existed through numerous emperors and invaders; and even Russia has experienced stirrings of opposition to the iron hand of Kremlin residents in spite of inexplicable deaths and detentions on murky pretexts. But of course one can say little about some so-called “newly-independent” states mostly in Central Asia and Eastern Europe where a number of rulers with the assiduous support of henchmen have continued to lord it over while avariciously enriching themselves.

But to cut to the chase in this instance, despite the numbers and figures proudly proclaimed by government spokespersons, it is indubitable that a disquiet of one degree or another does vex the nation. And this in spite of or perhaps because of flagrant flackery in circles normally extant in stratospheric regions. The stifling of voices other than those preferred by the powers that be, definitely, also doesn’t help improve the situation; rather it takes on the power to aggravate several degrees more. Consequently, at some point the wonderful taste of success morphs into distasteful excesses.

One reality at present that cannot be emphasized enough is the fact relating to deaths happening every single day in unexplained circumstances and corpses being discovered all across the country, as if society has gone berserk, and this deadly fact doesn’t include what has come to be described as extrajudicial annihilation in so-called shootouts a la Wild Wild West, as it were. Or not, maybe. What, however, makes all of this more unpalatable is the inability of the law enforcement machinery to stanch the persistent slide in this murderous direction.

It has to be noted by administration leaders—though not all of them will have the ability to do so—that you can squelch thoughts critical of government policies and/or decisions, you can muzzle dissent that isn’t meant to harm anyone specifically, and you can curb the activities of the political adversaries only up to some, perhaps, unspecified point; but after that it becomes a futile exercise (as has been demonstrated repeatedly over the centuries) and this may even come back to gnash into your gluteus maximus. Not an actuality that hasn’t been known to occur often over the eons.

In this context it is valid to note an observation made recently by Human Rights Watch: “The rise of populist leaders in the United States and Europe poses a dangerous threat to basic rights protections while encouraging abuse by autocrats around the world. Donald Trump’s election as US president after a campaign fomenting hatred and intolerance, and the rising influence of political parties in Europe that reject universal rights, have put the postwar human rights system at risk.” It added that “demagogues threaten human rights” in these present times.

The perennial fear is that governments appealing to the most basic instincts and base nature of the electorate, as underscored in the above paragraph, can and mostly likely will act on their crudest tenets when push comes to shove, as the phrase goes. To one extent or perhaps to another, Bangladesh over the decades has already tasted this type of abomination. But the greater worry is that as the world has continued to evolve, so has the poisonous stuff in statecraft. In fact, a perusal of missives of felicitations sent to D. Trump after his triumph by state leaders from around the world makes for a wonderfully revealing read!

Apart from facing economic challenges, now and in the near future particularly due to the dearth of opportunities available to those who have received a fair amount of education or training as also due to the exigencies in the world’s economies, in Bangladesh there is a persistent anxiety engendered by insecurity of life, limb and property. In such cases lately it has been observed there are increasing instances involving the so-called minority communities; a deeply despicable fact by and in itself with one organization stating that in the past year alone there has been a five-fold rise in attacks on these people many of whom feel vulnerable even in other times.

While reviewing this scenario it can’t be helped but peer into the role enacted by law enforcement entities. Whether because of outside pressure (mainly from politically influential honchos) or whether because of apprehensions arising out of not toeing the party line or whether because of the actions of rogue elements, law enforcement plays an outsize and conspicuous role which, obviously and naturally, often appear to go against the interests of the populace. Ditto with persons mandated to collect internal revenue—though evidently their actions at times can rise to the level of Keystone Cops! But that of course in no way assuages the feelings of the affected people.

And we haven’t even touched upon such matters as sticky fingers, greased palms, extortion under threat of being kneecapped, largess being spread around like it’s going out of style tomorrow (while on this point, it maybe noted that tomorrow in fact never comes for some), purported masters of the media succumbing to pressure and intimidation, mostly unemployed youths but most times claiming to be students taking comprehensive advantage of links to the ruling party and in general functioning as loose cannons all over the country, and so on and so forth. Yes, the laundry list can be as long as an arm and a leg.

The ultimate reality is that mysterious disappearances, unexplained murders, incarceration on absurdly tenuous grounds, constant hounding of political adversaries and similar other actions have not ever—as in never ever—assured the tranquil continuation of any order without the willing acquiescence of other essential actors and more importantly and primarily that of the people. Legitimacy in governance can be attained only from the free participation of the electorate.

Given the circumstances it will be most pertinent to conclude by quoting Thomas Jefferson: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide, whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” At another time he declared, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Anyone listening? Yet?

The writer has been a media professional, in print and online newspapers as editor and commentator, and in public affairs, for over forty-five years.

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