Freedom of Assembly: A right under siege
On October 7, a memorial meeting at the Dhaka University campus to mark the third anniversary of the brutal murder of BUET student Abrar Fahad came under attack. Video footage and eyewitness statements clearly establish that the attacks were led by members of the DU unit of Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). Denying the involvement of his organisation, the general secretary of DU BCL lost no time in claiming "it was a move by the general students to resist the Chhatra Odhikar Parishad (the event's organisers), which has essentially become a rehabilitation centre of Chhatra Shibir."
This was a clear endorsement of the violence. Needless to say, university campuses across the country have been periodically experiencing such suppression of the right to assembly by students who hold views other than those officially sanctioned.
On that very day in Chattogram, a large number of BNP supporters were assaulted by organisations affiliated with the ruling Awami League. Party leaders and activists were injured and several microbuses were vandalised; reports suggest plainclothesmen allegedly raided their homes in the previous evening as well. Thousands coming from adjoining areas endured immense hardship as a number of mobile check posts were erected by the police ostensibly to verify vehicle documents. Analysts believe this was done to prevent them from joining the rally. In many instances during such checks, passengers were forced to get out of their vehicles and walk to the venue. We witnessed similar obstacles being put in place again today in the run-up to the public rally held in Khulna.
On October 14, ruling party activists and law enforcement agencies took recourse to similar methods when BNP organised a follow-up rally in Mymensingh. This time, a new dimension was added. To prevent people from attending the rally from other locations, without any prior announcement, transport owners' and workers' associations terminated all bus, minibus and truck movements to the city. Like Chattogram, a number of those presumed to be attending the rally were attacked at different points of the city, and in one instance in Gaffargaon, a worker hailing from Kishoreganj (who was attending a wedding party) was savagely attacked with sharp objects after being mistakenly identified as a BNP supporter.
The right to hold peaceful assembly, as guaranteed by the Constitution and reaffirmed by the state's adherence to several international instruments, is under severe constraints in Bangladesh. The administrative stipulation of securing police permission to hold rallies and demonstrations is a major hurdle for political parties, especially those in opposition, and civic groups. In many instances, permission is denied without any reason. There have also been cases when the decisions are kept pending for long, making it difficult for organisers.
Securing permission to hold a public event does not necessarily guarantee that the event in question can indeed be organised successfully. There have been many instances where the ruling party or one of its affiliate organisations announced its own event at the same time and venue, forcing local administration to either rescind the original permission granted or declare Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which forbids congregation of persons at the stipulated site for maintenance of public order.
Disrupting the event by tearing down posters, seizing microphones and harassing campaigners is not uncommon, nor are police raids of local hotels and homes of opposition party loyalists. Party supporters and sympathisers often suffer major hurdles in reaching the event, facing harassment at police checkpoints and even at the hands of ruling party activists.
In recent times, the propensity of swooping down on rally attendees, either before or during the event, has become a regular phenomenon. Media has reported on police resorting to baton charge and firing teargas shells and rubber bullets, and on occasion live munitions, causing grievous bodily harm instead of ensuring their physical protection and right to assemble.
There is widespread dissatisfaction among the masses, informed by credible media reports, about how instead of booking the perpetrators, members of law enforcement agencies opted to file cases against the victims of the attacks in many instances. While names of some are stated in the FIR, a number of unnamed persons are also listed, creating scope for the harassment of ordinary people, and leaders and activists of opposition parties. Rights groups inform that the police lists have included names of elderly sick persons, the physically challenged and even persons living abroad.
Article 37 of the Bangladesh Constitution stipulates that, "Every citizen shall have the right to assemble and to participate in public meetings and processions peacefully and without arms, subject to any reasonable restrictions." Setting up administrative hurdles and creating impediments on movement do not meet this criteria of "reasonable restrictions." The failure to take action against non-state actors in obstructing others to assemble by declaring parallel programmes and launching attacks also constitute a gross failure by the state in upholding citizens' constitutional rights.
Freedom of assembly is an inalienable right of all Bangladeshis. Individuals have the right to gather and meet in groups, both publicly and privately, in person and online. Such gatherings are critical for the sustenance of a democratic polity in which citizens can express opinions, share views and ideas, and collectively chart out courses of action for change. It is unfortunate that even after 50 years of independence, the right to freedom of assembly is under siege in Bangladesh. Surely, such a state of affairs is an anathema to the much-celebrated spirit of the War of Liberation.
Dr CR Abrar is an academic and human rights expert.