Bangladesh Railway and the political dynamite
Remember the biblical story of David versus Goliath, in which a young boy used a slingshot to defeat a giant of an opponent? Call it willpower, faith, creativity or cleverness, David's unlikely victory still thrills us. Deep down, we all want the underdogs to win. But what happens when underdogs use the playbook of a giant as their ploy?
Mohiuddin Roni, a fourth-year student of theatre and performance studies at Dhaka University, has been staging a remarkable protest ever since he fell victim to a non-transparent e-ticketing system of Bangladesh Railway. He launched a one-man peaceful demonstration at Kamalapur Railway Station from July 7 to July 19. At the height of media coverage, he had two breakthroughs. First, based on Roni's complaint, the consumer rights protection agency imposed the e-ticketing agency Shohoz with a fine of Tk 2 lakh. Second, the High Court summoned the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to ask what steps they had taken to address Roni's allegations of the railway's irregularities and mismanagement.
Roni's actions are political dynamite. One can only marvel at the ingenuity with which this young man has performed his creative resistance and practised his freedom in the context of disciplinary and regulatory power. He is treading a thin line, swinging from one location to another like a trapeze artist. From our central railway station to the railway headquarters, from the DU "campus shadow" to cyberspace, Roni is displaying his bravado, restoring our faith in student activism. He is alone, yet not alone, in his endeavour. He voices out the frustrations and articulates a protest against the humiliations we face on a daily basis. His solo voice has the potential to become a chorus as thousands of others join him in their thoughts, if not actions.
Like an installation artist, he uses chains (around his wrists) and a placard as his props. He sings Kazi Nazrul Islam's patriotic song Shikol Porar Gaan, which the rebel poet wrote when he was in Hooghly Jail in 1923. Roni uses the anti-colonial song, which says, "This chain-wearing is our trick; this is our chain-wearing trick. In these chains, we will render your shackles inoperative" (Translation by Haroonuzzaman). The loaded image of the chain as a trick/ploy explains Roni's artistic commitment. He throws the chain like a wrench in the wheel of the administrative system to make it stop, and makes us think of the other mental chains that bind us. It reminds us of our own apathy, ambivalence, and inaction.
Like a political activist, he lists his demands to echo the historic Six-Point Demand of Bangabandhu. He identifies himself as a member of the student wing of the ruling party. And after his initial victory at the negotiation meeting with the e-ticketing agency, he even mentioned that he would now meet the prime minister with all the documents ("missiles," in his coinage) of irregularities. He thus presents his activism as kosher, and conjures a lifeline for his next round of battle.
It will be interesting to see how long he can sustain. His demands are not illogical or irrational. He wants to secure his right to travel in a safe, hygienic, and timely manner. He wants the pre- and on-board service to be functional, and wants to ensure the government's long-term commitment to the improvement of the locomotive sector. He wants democratisation of the system as there have been instances of VIP quota tickets or abuse of power. Those who don't have short memories recall the role of the railway minister's wife in terminating the job of a ticket checker after he confronted her relative for travelling in an upscaled compartment with an economy class ticket. Roni's scratching of the surface of a deep-rooted systemic crisis has reopened the wound.
The onus is on the government. It will have to decide whether it wants to embalm it or allow it to bleed further. We live at a time, as Stephenie Meyer puts it in her novel New Moon, when we are "forbidden to remember, terrified to forget." People are often too afraid to speak out and say what they think about social or political issues. Such fear is not healthy for democracy. And it seems even a lonely protest ends up being a supplication to the prime minister. Not so long ago, we saw the solitary protest of a woman who was later joined by her son to protect a playground in the capital's Kalabagan. The prime minister had to intervene to allocate the abandoned plot, which had been taken over by the police for their office, to the local community.
Let's now look at the inefficiency of the system that allowed Roni to be an unlikely hero. Roni booked a train ticket through the server of Shohoz. He could not complete the transaction within the allocated time as he did not have money in his account. He topped up his bKash account for the transaction to go through, but by then his booking was cancelled. The bKash agents told him to contact the Shohoz booth at Kamalapur. He walked into the server room, where he overheard the ticket tellers giving away blocked tickets, such as his, to cash-paying customers. The transaction should have never gone through as the booking had expired. In any civilised country, this technical glitch would have been handled differently.
Instead, we allowed the seed of grievance to grow in a soil filled with fertile filth. Who will clean the dirt? Instead of asking the top to clean the bottom, can't we bring about a bottom-up change? Roni is a peripheral hero who has taken the centre stage and caught the audience by surprise. I hail him for his courage, perseverance, and passion. At the same time, I think a serious lack of professionalism has caused the fugue to have such dangerous sparks. This can soon spread to other sectors.
Roni's disruptive action can be used to dismantle the dysfunctional system plaguing the Bangladesh Railway and, by extension, other sectors. For that, the government needs to use creative destruction to ensure progress. I will not be surprised to see a controlled explosion of "political dynamite" soon.
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).