The streets and squares of different towns and cities including those of Rajshahi, Sylhet, Chattogram and Brahmanbaria have witnessed outbreak of wanton violence and mayhem over the last week or so. At least a dozen people were killed and hundreds more injured some with gunshot wounds. Vehicles and electric poles were torched; roads were blocked for long periods, trains were attacked and a number of facilities such as the offices of the local administration and that of land record, press club, Municipal Corporation and the famed Alauddin Khan Music Academy were vandalised in Brahmanbaria. While a section of the intelligentsia appalled by the high handedness of the state authorities and the supporters of the ruling party in dealing with peaceful protests in Baitul Mukarram and Dhaka University areas in initial days called upon the authorities to respect the right to hold peaceful assembly and protest in a statement issued on March 27, another group demanded stern and decisive action to quell what was termed to be dastardly acts of the communal forces engaged in a conspiracy reminiscent of the dark Pakistani days. This statement was issued on March 30, after more than a dozen deaths.
The two statements clearly reflect the fault line of socio-political reality of today's Bangladesh. While there is no excuse for engaging in reckless violence that was resorted to by certain quarters causing immeasurable harm to life and property, perhaps time has come to engage in a reality check about the sequence of events that led to the outbreak of the chaos.
In doing so, one is reminded of the unknown person donning a white punjabi and a pajama while being taken away by the cops in the initial days of the protest. His looks betrayed the fact that he didn't understand what was going on. He asked the police, "What wrong have I done? Do you know they are expelling Muslims from that country?" Quite naively but genuinely he implored his captors to join the protest. After all, the cause was worth it. Viewers of the footage that had gone viral did not get to know what fate waited him. They were convinced that the detained man was simply exercising his right to protest (that many do not dare under the prevailing dispensation), a right that has been guaranteed by the Constitution of the republic, and further reinforced by the country's ratification of a host of international human rights instruments, notably the International Covenant of the Civil and Political Rights that clearly affirms, "The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognised" (Article 21).
Discontent has been brewing ever since the government decided to invite the Indian Prime Minister to the golden jubilee celebration of the country's independence and that of the birth centenary of the father of the nation. With the approaching of the date of the prime ministerial visit, public protests by a section of people and students became more pronounced in different parts of the country. Instead of taking the protests in proper stride, as expression of dissent by a group of active citizenry, they were met with violent response by the intolerant state authorities. In making the final call limiting the citizens' rights to peaceful assembly and protest on many instances the latter were beefed up by the activists of the ruling party and its plethora of front organisations, and not guided by the Constitution and the laws.
On a number of occasions, the protestors were confronted with tear gas shells and rubber bullets. On March 23 activists of the student wing of the ruling party attacked the protestors of the left leaning Progressive Students Union, injuring 20 of them. On March 25 protestors in Sylhet and Rajshahi were baton charged and dispersed. Some in Rajshahi were subjected to severe beating. Ten persons were arrested, including the Vice President of the Rajshahi University Central Students Union. By March 26, at least four people were killed and 60 others were injured, many with gunshot wounds. Amnesty International expressed its concern on the "worrisome patterns of behaviour of Bangladeshi authorities". Gradually, disproportionate state response to what were initially forms of legitimate expression of public discontent spiralled out of control, triggering even stiffer state response. Thus, the failure to respect the people's right to express their grievances through public meetings had sown the seeds of the mayhem that gradually unfolded.
Restricting peaceful assembly of people, particularly those holding dissenting views, have become somewhat of a routine matter for law enforcement over the years. In 2020, on least 17 occasions the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) blocked 17 meetings. In some instances, force was used. From December 2, 2021 the DMP authorities imposed restrictions on rallies without permission and in the first two months of 2021, two major rallies were foiled as the authorities declared Section 144 under the 1860 Code of Criminal Procedure (Amnesty International, March 26, 2021).
Rights of freedom of expression, assembly and protest have been under severe strain since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The escalating crackdown on meetings and rallies were viewed by the rights observers as "repression of the civic space". These actions of the state are taking place despite the explicit constitutional provision that affirms: "Every citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meetings and processions peacefully and without arms…." However, this is not an absolute right as it is "subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by the law in the interest of the public order and or public health". Citing such boundary of the law, state authorities often claim that they are acting within their remit. However, critical terms to be noted are "reasonable restrictions" and "in the interest of public order". The state authorities can in no way justify their carte-blanche restriction on the public gatherings for a prolonged period and their policy of denying permission to hold meetings and rallies on the flimsy grounds of "public order". If the developments of the past couple of weeks prove anything, it is the fact that suppression of the right to assembly only leads to public disorder instead of maintaining order.
Through holding peaceful public marches, protests, pickets and demonstrations, groups of people can communicate their views to those administering the state and their fellow citizens. It is a means to raise awareness about the issues that matter to them, which could be political, social, economic, environmental and the like. Through peaceful assembly citizens bring fresh perspectives to effect change in public policies and administrative practices. In a democratic polity, free assemblies are instruments to bring social change.
The right to peaceful assembly comprises of the right to freely choose the location and the timing of the assembly including public streets, roads and squares. All groups must enjoy the right equally, without discrimination on any ground. The state does not have any legitimate authority to ban or interfere in any peaceful demonstration. In fact, it has the obligation to facilitate free assemblies, even if the messages they convey and promote may run counter to their own policies and priorities. Such facilitation can be made "by coordinating traffic, keeping public order and providing protection to the protestors from those wishing to disturb the demonstration". Facilitation of views that challenges those of the state is a hallmark of a thriving democracy.
Analysts have noted that "even lack of notice in and of itself does not give the state free pass to use force against peaceful demonstration". In other words, if demonstrations are peaceful then the police do not have any right to interfere. The authorities can exercise the right to intervene only if the protests get violent. Even in such cases, "force the state employs should never exceed minimal force to restore normalcy". Blocking of social media and communication tools that hinders organising social protest are essentially anti-democratic measures befitting of an authoritarian state.
The International Commission of Jurists has grouped the rights of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly as they are often intertwined. All three components are protected under international law and are considered integral "to the furthering of a pluralistic and democratic society". Violation of the right to peaceful assembly has major ramifications for any society. It suppresses pluralism and diversity in expressing views and also hinders individuals to organise as a group to challenge the dominant paradigm. In that sense, a polity that undermines peaceful assembly of people essentially thwarts the participation of its own people in the political process.
One of the cherished goals of Bangladesh's Liberation War was to ensure people's collective voices are heard. It appears that over the decades, through a number of laws, regulations and administrative practices, including those of sedition, defamation and special power acts and the much-contested Digital Security Act, this right has been curtailed. Denial of freedom of assembly is an affront to the spirit of our Liberation War. The experience of the last couple of weeks should impel us to reflect whether as a nation we are to make a conscious effort to rectify such aberration by establishing a legal framework containing effective, clear and reasonable provisions on the right to protest, with limitations being the last resort.
CR Abrar is an academic with interest in human rights and migration issues.