The beauty of democracy is that it provides space to anyone; irrespective of the social or economic status of a person they can assume power and with it can do an enormous number of good things that can benefit the society as a whole. But it has a dark side as well: it allows anyone, despite their flaws, to rise to positions of influence and power. This has been evident in the recent turmoil within the student and youth wings of the ruling party. Starting from reining in on the top bosses of the student wing and dismantling the gambling network led by the leaders of its youth wing, the ruling party is trying to get rid of the disease it has allowed to fester all these years. But it had other wounds and nobody had anticipated they would manifest in such a dreadful way—the killing of Abrar, a student of the Electrical and Electronic Engineering department of Buet. It is widely believed that his critical Facebook post on the Feni River deal cost him his life.
Nothing can console the bereaved parents who raised their son only to be killed in such a brutal way. He always stood first in the class and his mother never had a problem in raising him this far. But the democracy we live in was at odds with Abrar! It had no space for criticism of the system and took his life. The incident is not an isolated one and there are ample shreds of evidence that democracy has no space at all for freedom of expression and criticism.
The tragic death of Abrar took me 18 years back when I was waiting to appear for the last exam of my master’s degree at Jahangirnagar University (JU). It was a near miss incident where I narrowly escaped death! It was early September in 2001; a usual night, nothing uncommon about it. Everything was in order except for the heat of the upcoming National Election which was about to take place on October 1. Just a few days back the council of JU unit of Bangladesh Students’ Union was held and I stepped down from the position of the General Secretary.
Around 11pm, when I was studying with my classmates in my room, we heard a commotion outside—a group was chanting my name and shouting “kill him”. They stormed into my room and began the beatings. All I can say is, I somehow survived the ordeal to share my experience; my parents were lucky that they did not lose their son that night. I had no memory for two days and I owe my life to my friends and comrades who rescued me from that attack. So far as I can recall, I never had any direct confrontation with any of the attackers who were academically junior to me and belonged to the JU unit of Bangladesh Chhatra League. One might ask, what prompted the attack? After all, we were being ruled by a democratically elected government. There were no problems apart from the fact that we as a left-leaning student organisation had different political views and stance on many issues.
If one takes a careful look at the recent recorded history of Bangladesh, they will find quite a few instances where democracy and its institutions have more or less failed to deliver on its promises. The biggest problem is that some people who rose to power were not quite the kind of people who should have been entrusted with power. They not only came to power but also corrupted the institutions and its people. Their lust for power correlates with negative personality traits like brutality, ruthlessness, corrupt practices and lack of empathy. In a democracy, people who perhaps have the strongest desire for power are likely to acquire these negative traits to strengthen their power and position with scant regard for the welfare of others.
After the death of Abrar, people from different walks of the society, the media and the students, in particular, have voiced their concerns and demanded justice. This daily ran several stories with titles like, “Buet student beaten to death: Critical FB post costs him his life?”, “2011: a room of horror and dread”, ”Abrar laid to rest in Kushtia”, “Organisational, administrative actions taken against killers of Abrar”, “Buet student murdered after ‘BCL men grilled’ him”, “Killing of Abrar: BUET students demand justice”. Nobody needs to venture into the reports as the headlines clearly narrate a miserable picture of a failed governance system.
Perhaps, justice will be delivered in one way or another but nothing can bring Abrar back among us. But his death could have been averted if the Buet administration had taken appropriate measures to make sure that Room 2011 stayed as a mere dorm room. The government high ups as well as the law enforcement agencies should have had advance knowledge about the unscrupulous BCL leaders and curtailed their wings. But sadly, nothing happened. This is not the first time that a promising youth became a victim of political lust. The brutal killings of Biswajit Das, a tailor, on December 9, 2012, Zubair Ahmed, a student of Jahangirnagar University, on January 9, 2012, Nusrat Jahan on April 10, 2019, Rifat Sharif, an internet service provider, on June 26, 2019, are only a few names in a very long list.
It is high time that our policymakers understand that power should be taken away from psychopaths and narcissists, and be bestowed upon accountable and more humane individuals. Only a true democracy can do so by automatically barring the individuals or groups from power who have a strong desire for it. But this would entail massive changes within the institutions of democracy and its people; it would also result in massive decrease in abuse of power and coercion, and make the country a much safer place for freedom of expression.
Meer Ahsan Habib is a communication for development professional. He can be reached at email@example.com.