The attack on Hero Alom: A lost opportunity
Popularly known as Hero Alom, Ashraful Hossain Alom made his name as a YouTuber with chronically viral but unashamedly vulgar content. It is not just that his videos are repulsive and distasteful, but they are also blatantly sexist and chauvinistic. What is perhaps most revolting about this viral content creator is his conscious and deliberate attempt to embrace vulgarity to become popular. He tickles the basest desires of an unsophisticated demographic with his titillating videos and secures hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of views. But Hero Alom is fully within his rights to do so, just as this writer is in calling him vulgar. Freedom of speech, thoughts, and expression is a fundamental inalienable right. And, fortunately, one's right to free speech is not subject to the approval of any individual or group. It is guaranteed by law.
This same Hero Alom was running as an MP candidate in last week's by-election to Dhaka-17 constituency. He had gone to a number of polling centres and complained that his polling agents had not been allowed in. This article will continue to refer to him as Hero Alom, for it was not the candidate Ashraful Hossain who was hounded down the streets of Banani like a common criminal when he had been to inspect a polling centre. The YouTuber has been trying to make his mark in politics since 2018 and came quite close to winning a by-election in Bogura in February of this year.
On July 17, Alom had himself gone to inspect one polling centre, at Banani Bidyaniketan, where he was assaulted and made to leave quickly before the situation got out of hand. Then, outside on the streets, a crazed mob of ruling party activists chased him down, sometimes landing flying kicks on his back, sometimes hitting him with sticks, and sometimes simply felling him on the street and pummelling him.
Not that the ruling party activists would be expected to behave kindly with their opponents. Imbibed in a culture of intolerance for dissent, the ruling party cadres appear to view one's desire to contest elections against Awami League very much as an audacious affront – more so from a subaltern YouTuber, if one might call Hero Alom that. But their behaviour towards Hero Alom, their viciousness towards him suggested there was more to it than merely his role of a political opponent. To them, Hero Alom was trying to sneak into the high table at dinner, whereas they would rather he stand in queue on the pavement for table scraps and leftovers. He was little more than a street urchin who was the main challenger of a constituency that was previously held by one of the most popular actors in Bangladesh's film industry.
It may very well be that Hero Alom is among the cringiest manifestations of free speech, but he still deserves it as much as the finest artists and writers in Bangladesh. It may very well be that Hero Alom provides the best excuse to impose some form of moderation, which will invariably lead to regulation and then to censorship, which is why his right is as sacred as anyone else's. Hero Alom is also a test for the intellectual elite. Their dedication towards and belief in the sanctity of individual freedoms are best tested when the worst practitioners are censured. A test that we roundly failed when he was picked up for allegedly distorting Rabindra Sangeet. And when he was set upon by a mob last week, we failed to rally around him. Hero Alom may well present a case where one must defend distasteful content for the sake of defending free speech. But our failure to do so points only to our intellectual bankruptcy.
Had it been any other artiste, actor, director, writer, or playwright rooted within Dhaka's urban community, there would be droves of people protesting against this behaviour of the ruling party cadres. Associations and unions would be foaming at the mouth in protest. Civil society platforms would be up in arms in furious uproar. But Hero Alom rubs them the wrong way. He scoffs at sophistication and shuns artistry, and thus does not meet the approval of the intellectual elite. But that is exactly why his rights deserve to be championed more than others'. Otherwise, it will make for that one instance that is needed as precedence, after which detractors will continue making excuses against free speech, which is already in peril.
Hero Alom's case provides for another interesting test that surely many will be looking at keenly. There were scores of cameras following him that day, and there must be thousands of photographs from different angles every time he was struck. His assailants did not make any attempt to hide their faces either. So, each one should be easily identifiable. This is probably one case that leaves no doubt about at least half a dozen individuals who, by dint of their actions, make for excellent candidates for the recently declared US visa restrictions. The ruling party as well as the opposition camp will be quite keen to find out whether the US actually follows through with what it has threatened to do. For now, there has not been much noise beyond a joint statement.
As for the Awami League's last chance to demonstrate that they could oversee and the Election Commission's chance to show that it could execute free, fair and inclusive elections and act when necessary, this by-election leaves little doubt that they can't. For argument's sake, if Hero Alom had indeed ended up winning the seat, he would have been an MP for no more than five months anyway, but the ruling party would have come away with a political victory evincing what it has been claiming for long – that it can hold free, fair, and inclusive elections. This needless violence smacks of political short-sightedness that is atypical of the ruling party. Instead, Dhaka-17 will have an MP with just nine percent of votes of the electorate. While it may be sufficient to win a seat, it is certainly not enough to earn the moral right to govern. A right that the ruling regime appears to be clinging on to, rather like clutching at straws.
Tanim Ahmed is a dropout journalist who thinks freely, comments a lot, and writes a little.