Dissent … and arrogance of power | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 02, 2011 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 02, 2011

Ground Realities

Dissent … and arrogance of power

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Hasan Mahmud is in little mood to give any space to critics of all the wrongs happening in the ship-breaking industry. And that is troubling. The minister of state for the environment ought to have given all the criticism lately leveled at his ministry on environmental matters some serious thought.
We are not very sure whether the state minister, who earlier was briefly in the same position at the Foreign Office, did spend time on mulling over the public concerns that have been raised over the hazards posed by ship-breaking in Bangladesh. The environment question is there; and then again there is the matter of the health of those who are employed in the industry. These worries have in recent times been articulated by social, legal and human rights groups, and for all the right reasons.
The minister of state does not, of course, see matters that way. He takes one look at these people raising all this commotion over the ship-breaking issue and decides that an evil genie with foreign links today stalks the corridors of the judiciary. These people who demand an end to ship-breaking are, in effect, agents of foreign nations. And there you have it, this quick propensity on the part of the powers that be to tar anyone and anything they do not approve of with the pitch black taint of treason.
It takes you back to the days of Pakistan, when illegitimate military regimes as well as self-professed politicians would not permit you the liberty of dissent. A struggle for democracy was a conspiracy to destabilise the country; a call for regional autonomy was a deep-rooted plan, in cahoots with foreign powers, to undermine the integrity and solidarity of Pakistan.
It is that old genie of suspicion and arrogance of power that has stayed on in Bangladesh despite our much celebrated and much remembered break with Pakistan in 1971. Those who have felt offended by the politics of the Awami League have swiftly gone into the odious job of spotting a collusion between it and India. These days you will bump into pseudo-politicians forever coming up against the spectre of Baksal every time they have to explain why they are staying away from parliament. What should have been an academic debate on the state of politics in Bangladesh rapidly and almost always descends into the ugly and the bizarre.
The tragic part of the story is that even the Awami League, now that it is in power again, has decided that the other point of view is undeserving of consideration and so must not be heard. Think of the uproar over the plans for a new airport. The people of Munshiganj, for that is where the government plans to build the airport, have demonstrated unambiguous dissent: they do not want that airport. Why should their point of view be ignored? More pertinently, what cosmic reason has suddenly manifested itself to inform us that life without a new airport will lead to hell on earth for us?
The Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) has been doing a creditable job in raising public concern over matters that the government would like to ride roughshod over. Are we now being told that BELA is an agent of foreign powers? Must we always let individuals, no matter how omnipotent they think they are, get away with all the aspersions they cast on citizens' patriotism?
In the civilised countries of the world, you could get into serious trouble if you seek to quash dissent. You would be sued if you made insinuations over the loyalties of citizens to the state. Which leads us to the question: what happens if a citizen or a clutch of citizens decides to haul some powerful people to court on charges of questioning the patriotism of a man or woman?
No, sir! There must always come a degree of decency into our perceptions of dissent. When Transparency International Bangladesh emerges with some harsh truths, with findings relating to corruption in the various public sectors, an entire government machinery goes into action to clobber TIB into submission.
TIB tells you of corruption among the police. For the government and especially for the police, the job then ought to have been to undertake a serious review of the way the police department works. That did not happen. What did happen, when it happened, disappointed the country: the home minister questioned the credibility of the TIB report and senior police officials suggested darkly that the survey had been based on interviews with drug addicts. It was politics below the belt. It did not remain politics any longer.
This culture of treating dissent as an irritation at best and treachery at worst keeps democracy in a state of the wobbly. For years governments have been particularly harsh on some non-government organisations. Why are the NGOs there? Because government does not and will not do what it has been elected to do. Why do Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Ain-O-Salish Kendra keep up the refrain of extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh? Because these killings happen and are happening. Why must the minister for home go into denial mode and tell us these organisations are not giving us the truth?
When you treat the other person's point of view with disdain, your exercise of power turns erratic and irresponsible. When you try to stamp out dissent, you are really coming between the light of the sun and the fledgling plant that is democracy.

The author is Editor, Current Affairs, The Daily Star. E-mail: bahsantareq@yahoo.co.uk

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