The state in its fearsome symmetry
THE sight of Professor Anu Muhammad lying prostrate on the street, his young camp followers trying to protect him from the blows of policemen gone berserk, was something we had come across before. Remember the moment when a police officer, fury pushing his facial features into contortion, landed his fist in the face of an elderly photojournalist and sent the poor man tumbling? And do you recall how a whole phalanx of policemen swooped on Sohel Taj (and he was a lawmaker), back in the days when the country seethed in fury at the misrule of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-Jamaat government, and left him with a fractured arm?
Go back in time. In the early days of the Ershad military regime, trucks were simply let loose on university students who dared to question the legitimacy of the coup makers of 1982. Come back to times closer. Every time the opposition called a general strike or sought to enforce a siege of the capital in the days when Khaleda Zia ran things, it was not uncommon for the police to seize anybody and everybody they could lay their hands on, dump them on to trucks and simply whisk them off to prison. It did not matter at all that all these hapless men were innocent citizens trying to go about their quotidian business of earning a living. The state ignored their innocence.
It all says something about the state we have given ourselves, particularly in the post-1975 period. Before the murder of Bangabandhu and then the assassination of his colleagues in prison, the Bangladesh state cared for those who constituted it. Between August and November 1975, light gave way to sinister darkness.
The welfare-oriented state of Bangladesh with alacrity mutated into an insensitive one. Two military administrations, one cabal of killer army officers and two periods of putative rule by the BNP (it was anything but) were all that was needed to inject fear into the minds of citizens. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men in the armed forces perished in the five years of the Ziaur Rahman regime.
In a political dispensation where transparency and accountability were expected to be the underpinning of governance, it was fear of the state that began grinding citizens' rights into pieces. No wrong, no act of immorality could be questioned. None was. Colonel Taher was hanged in the dark loneliness of prison. Not even the uncertain interregnum that was the Sattar presidency demonstrated any inclination to be a little more sophisticated than its predecessor. Military officers charged with planning and carrying out the Zia murder were put to death in dubious circumstances.
Military rule was brought to an end through popular struggle long ago. The elements of fear consequent upon such rule have remained, though. That much was made obvious in the times of the Fakhruddin caretaker administration. The frontal assault made on Dhaka and Rajshahi universities in August 2007, through the arrest and remand of some of our respected and reputed academics, remains our undying shame. It was, in many ways, a throwback to the Pakistani occupation in 1971, when academics were shot and bayoneted and then flung into mass graves. Of course, no graves were dug in 2007. But is that any consolation, knowing how a group of men in the service of the state and its people blindfolded these teachers and subjected them to indignities of the sort we have a hard time trying to imagine? That humiliation (and it was also meted out to leading politicians and students) was a reminder that the state had come to acquire a fearsome symmetry.
Today, now that an elected government is in place, it becomes the nation's collective moral responsibility to identify the men, be they in the armed forces or in the intelligence structure of the government, who so happily demeaned and diminished all these respected citizens. If you believe in the rule of law, if you think crime must be handled with a firm hand, you need to hunt down these men and haul them up before the law.
It is not just Anu Muhammad's state-backed assailants who need to answer for their criminal conduct. It is not enough that a minister or two will visit the injured academic and say sorry. More crucial is the job of liberating the state from those who, ruffian-like, have come to identify themselves with the state in all the crudity that Louis XIV once gave voice to. If you can go so purposefully into bringing to justice the barbarians who put all those brilliant army officers to death at the BDR headquarters in February, you can very well do a similar act through having these truncheon-wielding policemen face the music.
Democracy goes beyond the exercise of choosing a government. It is, in the broadest sense, the instilling of the idea in the minds of citizens that they matter, that the state is theirs to nurture, modify and make substantive in their interest as well as in the interest of the generations to be. Fear that the state has symbolised in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and among the various indigenous denominations in the country militates against the principles of the twilight struggle we waged in 1971. And as long as you do not go back home to secular politics, you will be an alien in your own land.
An Anu Muhammad under siege by the state is reason enough for us to reclaim the state as our own. And for a government, which professes faith in democracy, it is time for less volubility and much hard thinking.