An idea whose time has come

Every monarch, political dynasty or order faces dissent. Dissent is an expression of dissatisfaction or opposition to a ruling individual's or group's policies. If creationism is to be believed, then the entire universe was a result of dissent. Given time to stew, dissent is inevitable. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. To this end, I quote the venerable Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

In fact, if there is no dissent in a given society, then either of the two conditions must be true: a) the ruler is intolerant of dissent i.e. (s) he is autocratic, if not fascist; or b) the people have been adequately sedated with one proverbial opium or the other: religion, warfare, competitive sports, virulent nationalism, fear of Others, xenophobia, etc.

A great example of citizens failing to arrest political devolution is how a mediocre businessman – with a bad toupée, vocabulary of a fifth grader and freakishly small hands – danced his way to the American presidency. Trump's presidential bid lasted nearly 1.5 years, and there were no significant protests during that period. The nascent, liberal reawakening in the USA is too little too late. On a sidenote, that the ban has been lifted is no reason to celebrate. This is not a win. Already, the new POTUS has fired the (acting) attorney general for refusing to defend his inflammatory, discriminatory ban. Gradually, other acts of dissent too will be strong-armed into meek submission.

And thus, the first condition for suppression of dissent comes into fruition.

"Bangladesh has seen its share of crackdown on protests too. While the 1991 anti-Ershad protests posed existential threats, protests against VAT on higher education, Gobindaganj Santal Protests and anti-Rampal protests have been about national issues and not about toppling governments.

This cycle is vicious and pervasive. In this era of strongman leaders, having one's opinion dominate and prevail is clearly of paramount importance. And perhaps that's why dissent is treated as though it were aberrant, traitorous and criminal. From Gezi Park (Turkey) and anti-Sisi protests (Egypt) to the Occupy Movement (USA), anti-Maduro protests (Venezuela) and anti-austerity protests (Spain) – governments have routinely cracked down on public acts of dissent.

Just two weeks ago, police lathi-charged protesters who wanted repealed the Jallikattu (Indian bovine spectacle) ban. European measures are more civilised, though no less taxing. In the name of 'public safety', anti-austerity protesters in Spain were threatened with individual fines as high as USD 670,000 (nearly Tk. 5.5 crores)!

These days, acts of dissent targeted by (legitimate) rulers are seldom existential-threats. Around 2010, Russian activists were harassed on the streets. Why? Well, because they were protesting how government officials drove around: in convoys with "sirens, flashing blue lights, and government license plates, allowing them to flout traffic laws." During the recent protests against the North Dakota Access Pipeline, a bill was raised to effectively legalise vehicles ploughing into protesters on the road!

Bangladesh has seen its share of crackdown on protests too. While the 1991 anti-Ershad protests posed existential threats, protests against VAT on higher education, Gobindaganj Santal Protests and anti-Rampal protests have been about national issues and not about toppling governments. Yet none of these have been allowed political space; not in the way the Shahbag Movement was allowed space for example.

The treatment of environmental activists – attacked with rubber bullets and water cannons, beaten on camera and rounded up – was reprehensible. That day, dissenters were treated as plain criminals. Photos of protesters standing tall in front of water cannons, braving tear-gas shells and getting kicked in the groin flooded social media. Whether they were penalised for contrary opinions or for expressing them, will never be known. But what is clear is that law enforcement officers acted as though the very act of dissent were unlawful. Thus an intellectual challenge was answered with blunt force. The disproportionate response could easily lead one to think that the authorities just do not have a better (read: intellectual) response.

Compare the Rampal protests to another movement in the same neighbourhood, the Shahbag protests of 2013. Shahbag protesters were provided protection, and allegedly, food and sanitation facilities. For days, major crossroads remained closed without any notable objections from law enforcement. Then why the double standard? Why this harsh treatment? It would seem that the mode of dissent has remained unchanged. That leaves us with one inexorable hypothesis: law enforcers were violating citizens' right to question the controversial mega-project.

Is it the case then that we are allowed to disagree on certain topics but not on others? If that is so, then there is cause for concern. Dissent must not be regulated; it must not be told when to surface and when to go into hiding. Spontaneous dissent is at the same time a destructive and a creative force. Besides, history has shown us again and again that simmering dissent needs to vent. It needs to let steam off. When political space shrinks, other means of expression are sought out. And usually, these others means are never very savoury. 

In 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli argued that a leader who cannot force his will upon the people can never be successful. A ruler wielding only charismatic leadership or non-violent leadership can never have enduring power, he wrote. Though Machiavelli is long dead, his ideas have persevered through the annals of history.

Machiavelli's treatise elevated security and maintenance of a kingdom beyond citizens' opinions and mandated the highest good for the ruler. This shift from focus on a moral king to a prince who clings to power by any means – signified a frightening possibility. In the Machiavellian world, there is no integrity or civility or honour – but only victories and losses. On the face of it, such a prince should not enjoy the love of the people for long. Yet the changing world order around us is certainly reminiscent of Machiavelli's writings.

My cautious parallel is not complete without one more detail about Machiavelli. He wrote The Prince – a veritable collection of amoral war and governance tactics – for the benefit of Florence's (in)famous Medici Family. This family accumulated and wielded unfathomable wealth to go from bankers to political dynasty to royalty. Less known is the Medici's close connections to the Vatican, through which it commanded the hearts of common Christians. It seems both the Medici and Machiavelli were aware that to ruthlessly rule a people, one opium or the other was needed. Ever since, countless other rulers have followed in their footsteps, invoking divine guidance to justify worldly crimes. As you can see, dear reader, the two conditions for stifling dissent and activism are not only interrelated, but also often move hand in hand. 

When viewed as an antithesis to political suppression, dissent is an indispensible social tool. There are times when we celebrate dissent that favour our political views and criminalise that which contradicts it. This view of what political dissent represents and how it is treated is heavily influenced by our sense of allegiance and loyalty to our nation state. Thus, we try to justify the treatment of dissent based on our regard for the person or group meting it out.

Yet it is important to recognise that dissent is an important social institution. It shapes the way nation-states act and how citizens interact with their state to shape such behaviour. We may disagree with the demands raised, but dissent and activism as citizens' democratic obligation must be beyond question.

While the Machiavellian tactic is to suppress dissent at all costs, there is growing evidence that rulers may actually fortify their standing by allowing public acts of dissent and protest. Correspondingly, there needs to be cognizance in the Halls of Power of the fact that most dissent and activism aim to improve the way things are done. They are not necessarily existential threats to any government. When the populace is allowed a window to interact with their state machinery, civil disobedience, violence and subversion become redundant. At the end of the day, it may be futile for a ruler to try and penalise or suppress political dissent; because, as Victor Hugo who once wrote, "Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come."

The writer is a strategy and communications consultant. 


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