Since the day of the 11th parliamentary election, the people of Bangladesh have seen the rise of two diametrically opposite discourses: one created by the incumbent government and the Election Commission, saying that the election was free and fair, and the other created by the defeated parties, saying that it was an egregious example of election engineering. Under these circumstances, the sacred duty of the intelligentsia was to create a third narrative exposing the truth and dispelling all the falsehoods. Unfortunately, while the two opposing alliances are waging an endless battle of words, the intelligentsia are either silent or divided among themselves to the point of assisting the politicians to turn our living history into a concocted story of fiction.
The parties defeated in the 11th parliamentary election have claimed that the ruling party, with the help of law enforcing agencies and the administration, engineered the election by stamping ballot papers and stuffing ballot boxes the night before the election and barring opposition activists and polling agents from going to the polling stations. Thus, legally and logically, the burden of proof lies on the incumbent government: they must produce evidence to disprove all these allegations, which they sought to do—quite convincingly, one may argue—over the past few weeks. In response to the claim of the opposition that 80 percent vote casting is not normal in a general election, they have cited the examples of the elections of 1996, 2001, and 2008 when the turnout was 74.96 percent, 75.59 percent, and 87.13 percent respectively; they also claimed that they have won a landslide victory in the election not only because they have led the country to achieve commendable economic progress but also because they started their election campaign years ago while the opposition parties were busy complaining about their problems.
Moreover, the election observers who came from Sri Lanka, Nepal, India and Canada jointly stated in a press conference that the 11th parliamentary election was “much better” than previous elections in Bangladesh, calling it a “glowing example for other democratic countries.” (The Daily Star, January 1, 2019). The Election Commission has also claimed that the election was a free and fair one, as neither any country nor any international organisation has made any negative comment about the electoral process (The Daily Star, January 4). If these explanations have any merit, the discourse created by the opposition would amount to a case of political libel that should have been challenged both legally and politically.
However, neither the ruling party nor the Election Commission has legally challenged the allegations brought against them. Instead, they claimed that they have been successful in proving that a free and fair election can be held under a political government. Thus, legally and logically, the burden of proof lies on the defeated parties: they must produce evidence in support of the alleged election engineering and disprove the claims made by the Grand Alliance and the Election Commission. Interestingly, only a few electronic and print media outlets at home and abroad have reported instances of irregularities in the electoral process.
Recently, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has termed the election “partially participatory, non-competitive, questionable and faulty,' claiming in the initial report of a survey that vote rigging took place in 47 out of the 50 constituencies that it surveyed. Surprisingly, the defeated opposition alliance, despite being a larger force than the TIB, has yet to produce concrete evidence to support their claims. They could, for example, easily collect at least 30 percent signatures from their supporters in each constituency to prove that the total turnout could not be 80 percent as more than 30 percent of people did not (or could not) go to polling stations. They also know that every voter has to put his/her fingerprint on the counterfoil of the ballot paper before he/she stamps and casts their vote in the ballot box, as per subsection 2(f) under article 31 of the Representation of the People Order (RPO) 1972; therefore, it is not difficult to find out whether each vote was cast by a different voter or if the same person stamped and cast multiple votes.
Unfortunately, the opposition has simply chosen to reject the election as “farcical”, claiming that most of the votes were stamped and cast by the activists of the ruling party; they have yet to file any petition with the High Court, as per article 33 of the Conduct of Election Rules 2008, directing the Election Commission to scrutinise the fingerprints on the counterfoils of ballot papers to identify the fake votes. However, if the allegations of the opposition are true, the discourse created by the government will be known in future history books as a Machiavellian propaganda because the truth is in the minds of the people—and it will remain intact there whether we read it now or in the future.
Historically, the politicians and the political parties do not write history; they just create it in the name of the people often by intentionally injecting their own ideals and propaganda into it; therefore, the burden of history lies solely on the members of the intelligentsia. It is their sacred duty to produce data and evidence and create a narrative based on them. Surprisingly, the intelligentsia—the academics, researchers, artists, writers, journalists, etc.—are still blatantly divided in their version of what really happened and mostly blindly aligned with either of the two political discourses.
But it is also clear that the general people who traditionally trust the politicians and political parties only through the intelligentsia are no longer confused—they know the truth, and they also know that everything has a political interpretation and that nothing is now truly reported and honestly interpreted in the media. Thus, the members of the contemporary intelligentsia, who seem to have taken history as a form of art to the extent of thinking that they are absolutely free to manipulate it, must keep in mind that history and journalism are arts that must be wedded to science in the form of research and objective reporting. But those who deviate from the path of truth will live in the dust of history forever.
To sum it up, the intelligentsia have failed not only to unearth the truth—which is in the minds of the people—but also to differentiate it from libels and propaganda—which are at the heart of the politics as we know it. History may forgive the politicians and forget what they have propagandised over the last few weeks, but it will never forgive the so-called educated and enlightened people who have truly failed Bangladesh.
AZMM Moksedul Milon is a lecturer at the Department of English, Presidency University, Dhaka. He is also an independent researcher and freelance columnist.