On July 28, 2016, The Daily Star reported the release of the International Telecommunication Union's ICT Development Index that showed that Bangladesh had the lowest Internet penetration in South Asia, with just 14.40 percent of the population having connectivity to Internet. On July 6, 2017, Human Rights Watch released an 82-page report on secret detentions and enforced disappearances in Bangladesh. It revealed, among other things, that at least 90 people were victims of enforced disappearance in 2016 alone. On June 20, 2018, Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity, a local passenger welfare platform, combined media reports to conclude that at least 339 people were killed and 1,265 injured in 277 road accidents during this year's extended Eid holiday…
These are but summaries of three randomly picked study reports from three different years released by different organisations—linked, as it were, by a common denominator: each report suffered outright rejection by the relevant authorities, who felt that their findings were either exaggerated or based on inaccurate information. Whether their arguments hold any water, however, merits re-examination, especially after the occurrence of similar events in recent weeks.
Just hours after the release of the Human Rights Watch report on enforced disappearances, for example, the home minister faced the media to give his reaction. Instead of coming up with an authoritative statement, as was expected of an important figure in the administration, he trashed the report as a “smear campaign” against the government and sought to discredit it through unfounded claims. “Whom will you say [sic] disappeared? Many businessmen went into hiding failing to repay their loans in this country. Some people went missing after developing extramarital relationship,” he said. It was a bizarre comment, not to mention an insensitive one considering how hurtful such gross generalisations can be for the families waiting for answers about their missing relatives. It also betrayed a misguided belief that the public could be swayed by the rejection of a report without any credible evidence to support the rejection.
The history of modern-day Bangladesh is rife with such scandalous claims and uncorroborated assertions made by people in positions of authority, who seem to use them to deflect attention away from the truth, as well as outright rejection of any and all unwanted statistical interference from independent platforms. Truth for them, to borrow from American singer Bobby Brown, is “too hot to handle, too cold to hold”—better left buried, never to be touched. The hostility towards unflattering reflections on the performance of a sitting administration has reached a point where the only diversity not welcome is the diversity of opinion. Partisan interests are protected by a culture of denial and groupthink, with layers of deniability—plausible and implausible—created to protect those in power from the consequences of their failures and transgressions.
In recent days, the best example of implausible deniability has been set by a proctor of Dhaka University. When asked about the university administration's failure to take action even after three days and multiple incidents of assaults on the students demanding quota reforms in public service recruitment, he said nobody had “informed” him of the attacks. Feigning ignorance has clearly its benefits. But you could be forgiven even if you didn't appreciate the virtue of ignorance/silence as much and actually said something in the way of a reply, however glib.
When the Road Transport and Bridges Ministry rejected the Jatri Kalyan Samity's report on road casualties because the latter was not a “registered” organisation, or when the Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment Minister defended his ministry's honour by claiming that female Bangladeshi workers were coming back from Saudi Arabia not because of torture in Saudi households, but because of their lack of language skills and inability to adapt to the Saudi food habit, the issue was not so much the “merit” of their response as the act of the response itself—because, as our past experiences show, response can be rare sometimes. However, the same cannot be said about the response so readily and frequently given by the security forces after each act of “crossfire” resulting in the death of a “criminal”.
It's pretty much a given by now that after the release of any critical study or news report on the performance of any public institution or agency, in a bid to pre-empt backlash, those in charge will find a way to let their bias creep into their feedback handling mechanism. No critical study by any local or international organisation, however well-known the institution or well-researched their report, is exempt from this operatic perversion of an otherwise normal administrative exercise in public engagement.
Bangladesh has long been suffering from this denial/rejection syndrome. There are endless symptoms and variations of this syndrome but the objective is always to reject, suppress or discredit truths in one way or another. Stanley Cohen, in his seminal book on the sociology of denial, States Of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering, argues that democratic states follow a three-stage “spiral of denial” to deny or justify their crimes such as human rights abuses. Stage 1: “it didn't happen”—for example, the state claims there was no massacre. But then human rights organisations, victims and the media provide evidence to show that it did happen. Stage 2: if it did happen, “it” was something else. The state says it's not what it looks like, “it was self-defence.” Stage 3: the state justifies its crimes, for example, by saying the goal was to “protect national security.”
According to one commentator, Cohen has also shown how, when trying to justify their crimes such as torture, state officials and individuals in positions of authority use the same techniques as delinquents do to justify their deviant behaviour. Denial of victim: “they are terrorists.” Denial of injury: “they started it.” Denial of responsibility: “I was only obeying orders.” Condemning the condemners: “it's worse elsewhere.” Appeal to a higher loyalty: “defending the free world.”
Through these stages and techniques of denial, the state seeks to reconstruct a different narrative of what had really happened. Now imagine a situation in which truth is not defiled like this. Imagine how immensely Bangladesh would have benefitted if it didn't follow this spiral of denial every time there was a potentially inflammatory situation. Despite the negative backlash they initially spark, critical reports and damning revelations with respect to issues such as press freedom, crimes, maternal mortality, corruption or the state of democracy—to name just a few—are actually essential for a healthy democracy. They open a window of opportunity for the authorities to ensure accountability and transparency which can be hugely beneficial in the long run. Denial, on the other hand, helps spread lies, undermines confidence and perverts the course of justice.
Bringing the truth to life is not about “bringing down the country,” to quote a senior minister who rejected a CPD report precisely on this ground, but about serving the greater good beyond the petty and the personal. As Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, has said while discussing Bangladesh's rejection of the HRW report on enforced disappearances, “The truth is not a smear campaign.”
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.