In politics, especially in Bangladesh, some excuses never seem to be out of fashion. They remain in circulation regardless of how ludicrous they sound, and how consequential their effects may be. One such excuse is "public safety", an otherwise legitimate concern, but one which is often used by the authorities to curtail the opposition's freedom of assembly. This week, we saw protesters allied with BNP being dispersed by police even before they could congregate for a planned rally in front of the Jatiya Press Club. After sporadic clashes—during which 75 bullets, 26 pellets and four teargas shells were fired by police—nearly 300 leaders and activists of the party were sued, and 13 placed on remand.
One wonders what endangered public safety more—a protest rally that was never held, or clashes leading to injuries and lawsuits triggered by police intervention? Police officials, some of whom also reportedly faced assaults from BNP men, may have pre-empted the rally on safety grounds but their action amounted to depriving them of their constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly. This is totally unacceptable in a democratic country. The opposition parties have the right to congregate to express their grievances, and police can only ensure they do so in a peaceful manner, not pre-empt their gathering altogether.
We have seen similar pre-emptive tactics used in Rajshahi where all transport services were abruptly suspended in a bid to foil BNP's plan to stage a rally on Tuesday. The "transport strike" was apparently orchestrated to pre-empt their mobilisation. But, according to our reports, it was the ordinary citizens who suffered the most because of the transport crisis. The Tuesday rally was part of a BNP plan, announced on February 5, to hold protests in six city corporations across the country demanding fair parliamentary elections, and unsurprisingly, all planned rallies since then were foiled using similar excuses. All this adds up to the suspicion, as one political commentator told The Daily Star, that the government is unwilling to "give any political mileage to its opponents."
We believe ensuring public safety should be the top priority for law enforcement agencies whenever a rally is held or planned, but it doesn't give them carte blanche to do whatever they want. "Public safety" cannot be used as a pretext for stifling dissent or criminalising peaceful expression. The government must respect and protect people's right to register their protests, both online and offline, and must try harder to address their concerns. Using undemocratic means to counter its opponents may give it a short-term victory, but it harms all of us in the long run.