Saturday, October 23, 2004

Bangladesh: Deafening silence


When the government states that the attack in Rangpur was not carried out by its cadres -- although the identity of the attackers has been comprehensively established by credible witness accounts -- it is tantamount to insulting the intelligence of the public.This is the government's stock in trade. The unacceptable -- be it mass arrests or attacks on political opponents -- followed by bare-faced denial. The government has been so mendacious in its public pronouncements during the last three years that it simply does not have any credibility left. The worst thing is that the government no longer seems to even care. It no longer seems to see fit to even pretend to have faith in democracy and in the opinion of the public.What conclusion are we to draw from this?

Deafening silence
Zafar Sobhan

The recent attack by ruling party activists on a public meeting held jointly by the Jatiya Oikya Mancha and Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh at Rangpur Town Hall heralds a new low for the government.

Where have we come to as a country when an ex-president and an ex-foreign minister, both of whom have devoted decades of their life to the country, can be pelted with refuse by hooligans allied to the government, and have to be protected from physical harm by their own supporters?

The recent initiative jointly announced by the two doctors to tour the country and solicit the opinion of the general public with a view to preparing a "people's manifesto" is one of the more positive developments in Bangladeshi politics of late.

The initiative was a welcome change from politics as usual on a number of levels. In the first place, the concept of actually soliciting the views of the public and listening to their concerns is a novel idea that the ruling alliance, and indeed, the main opposition, would do well to consider.

Politics in Bangladesh has long been a top-down process, dominated by the leadership of the main political parties, with the less influential members of the parties, to say nothing of the actual electorate, rarely consulted as to their opinions or aspirations.

The importance of the initiative to make politics a more participatory and inclusive process and to listen to the voices of the long-suffering people of the country cannot be stressed enough.

In addition, the fact that the two doctors are erstwhile political rivals, and have entered into no electoral alliance, but are willing and able to join together for a programme that both believe in, is also a welcome change from the partisan division that mars the politics in this country.

This willingness to reach across the aisle to create alliances and unity where possible is the kind of forward thinking that the country needs at this time of extreme polarisation, and stands in stark contrast to the bitter enmity and no-holds-barred rhetoric of the main political parties.

The listening tour kicked off in Dinajpur and proved to be an immediate success. People responded enthusiastically to the novel spectacle of two such eminent political personalities actually asking them what they thought and what their ideas were, and the feedback from the first meeting showed that not only are ordinary people fully cognisant of the troubles that the nation faces, but that they also have an eloquent grasp of possible solutions.

The second such meeting was scheduled to take place at Rangpur Town Hall, and this is where trouble erupted.

That the attack on the meeting was pre-meditated and accomplished with the collusion of the local authorities can be inferred from the fact that the police deployed in and outside the hall didn't raise a finger to thwart the assault or to help protect the safety of those being attacked. It was left to the supporters of the leaders on-stage to usher them to safety.

Coincidentally, perhaps, the local superintendent of police claimed to be sick and the deputy commissioner was also unavailable on the day, so that blame for the failure of security could be deflected.

Nearly as bad as the actual violence, which left thirty people injured, some severely, was the pelting of the dais with shoes, sandals, and rotten eggs. This kind of disgraceful conduct goes beyond any bounds of decency and shames us all.

However, even worse is the fact that the assailants also indiscriminately beat up the audience members who were there merely to express their opinions and to attempt to participate in the political process. The message from Tuesday's attack was that the general public should open their mouth and speak about their dissatisfactions and frustrations, only at their own risk.

It is one thing (not to say that it is acceptable) to target your political opponents. It is quite another thing when the government unleashes its fury on ordinary citizens -- like it did with the two rounds of mass arrests this year that put thousands behind bars -- and it seems to have made the same mistake in Rangpur.

It seems as though the government no longer cares about its standing with the public. This is a worrisome development from a government that has hitherto drawn its power from its popular mandate.

The government's increasing contempt for the public manifests itself in other troubling ways. The main evidence for this contempt is the abandon with which the government apparently feels free to deny things that everyone knows to be true.

When the government states that the attack in Rangpur was not carried out by its cadres -- although the identity of the attackers has been comprehensively established by credible witness accounts -- it is tantamount to insulting the intelligence of the public.

This is the government's stock in trade. The unacceptable -- be it mass arrests or attacks on political opponents -- followed by bare-faced denial. The government has been so mendacious in its public pronouncements during the last three years that it simply does not have any credibility left.

The worst thing is that the government no longer seems to even care. It no longer seems to see fit to even pretend to have faith in democracy and in the opinion of the public.

What conclusion are we to draw from this?

But despite its discouraging record thus far, I will continue to expect and demand the highest standards from the government that Bangladeshis democratically elected in 2001. I will continue to expect that it uphold law and order and the ideals of democracy.

I will continue to expect that the government not act in an unlawful manner and that it respect the rule of law. I will continue to expect that the government acknowledge its missteps and take responsibility for its actions.

Even though it seems that the government is either unwilling or unable to provide us with even a modicum of good governance, that even the smallest sign of democratic dissent will not be tolerated, and that government spokesmen will come out and say that black is white and night is day without the slightest semblance of shame or thought that they might be held accountable for their falsehoods -- I will continue to expect and demand better.

But I also expect more from my fellow countrymen and women.

How is it that we are not more shocked by this latest evidence of lawlessness on the part of ruling alliance cadres? How is it that we do not cringe inside when we hear senior members of the government deny responsibility for actions that we -- and they -- know full well were committed by their cadres? How is it that we can sit silent and turn a blind eye when the government that we democratically elected goes about dismantling democracy?

Surely most people who support the government do so because they thought that it would provide good governance and would protect democratic institutions.

Surely most people who support the government do so because of their belief in the four-party alliance's ability to manage the economy and not because of their approval for stomach-churning attacks on its opponents.

Surely most people who support the government feel that these kinds of heavy-handed and repressive measures only diminish the government's credibility and do disservice to those many government officials who are working conscientiously and selflessly for the betterment of the nation.

So where then is the outcry when the government oversteps the bounds of decency and acts in a manner that demeans its own ideals and shames us as a nation?

Is this where we have come to -- that we are no longer even shocked or shamed by the kind of incivility that was on display in Rangpur?

Has it come to this? At long last have we -- as a nation -- no sense of decency left?

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star

Daily Star 22/10/2004