I could never have dreamt such an incredible dream that school students of Bangladesh would one day change their country. Neither did I ever entertain the fantastic notion that because of their requests, or orders if you may, no unlicensed driver will henceforth be able to get behind a wheel in Bangladesh, motorcyclists will have to wear helmets and everyone will have to obey traffic laws. What they have managed to do on the streets of Dhaka within only a couple of days has impressed not just me but numerous other people. But just as is the case with any successful movement, here too, opportunists have managed to insert themselves within the call of Nirapad Sadak (Safe Roads) for their own personal political gains. Perhaps the students should have gone back home much earlier. But just because they had not heeded the request of clearing the roads, did that justify brutalising unarmed students using the police and armed units of party cadres? Times have changed. Things can now easily be recorded, identifying who has done what and when. There are usually lesser chances now of criminals feigning innocence than before. All the information about how photojournalist Rahat Karim was attacked with sticks and machetes and who the perpetrators were is on the internet, only a click away.
The Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has banned my books and prohibited my entry into my own country. In fact she did not even allow me the courtesy of being able to visit my father on his deathbed. As per her instructions the embassies do not renew my passport or attest any of my important documents. And yet she has my undying support. I support her because even though she has been nothing but bad when it comes to me, she has been good for the country. This assessment is not based on her strengths as a leader, her humanity or her experience though; it’s based solely in comparison to the leaders of her Opposition. Even today, given a choice between Hasina’s Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party – Jamaat-e-Islami coalition, I will give more points in favour of the former. It is unfortunate for Bangladesh that they do not have a better political option than the League; nor have they managed to foster leaders better than Sheikh Hasina, given how both can be labelled lesser evil at the end of the day. She is not an ideal leader and neither is her party the ideal political party. But the Opposition is so corrupt, so treacherous and so invested in ideas of jihad that one is left with no choice but supporting Hasina. I support her despite acknowledging the many mistakes she has been making and the injustices she has been committing one after another. I wish for her to stop making mistakes, because I support her and because there is no one else at present who can lead the nation other than her. I cannot help but notice how quite frequently her behaviour appears to mirror that of a dictator, how she no longer wishes to adhere to tenets of democracy, human rights and the freedom of speech and expression. I feel pained, I scream out in anger; not that there is anyone to witness my outbursts. I am not a politician, a philosopher or anyone influential. I am in the shadows, at the end of the queue, an orphaned writer among the many other disenfranchised of the land.
It is an undeniable truth that the faith and respect many progressive individuals across the globe had for Sheikh Hasina has taken a considerable beating, as has her reputation. This is precisely why she must prove herself and rectify her mistakes. She must prove that she is not only a leader of her party but also a leader of the people, that she still believes in the ideals of democracy, that she does not condone extra-judicial murders, that she does not want to suppress the free press, that she is not a vengeful and cruel person but a sensitive human being and a worthy head of state. She must prove she does not maintain an army of thugs and that she does not use her armed cadres to crush rational modes of protests and the rightful demands of citizens. She must repeal article 57 of the Information and Technology Act and prove that she recognises the freedom of speech and expression, one of the foundational tenets of democracy. Otherwise, sooner or later, progressive people will be forced to withdraw their support of her. If they do not believe in progress, modernity, women’s rights and secularism, if their party is what matters to them the most, then how are they any different from their opponents anymore?
Her well-wishers surely do not want her behaviour to resemble the very opponents she defeated to come to power. Already Reporters Sans Frontières, the non-profit that advocates on behalf of the freedom of the press across the globe, has issued a statement detailing how nearly twenty-three journalists have thus far been attacked while reporting on the Nirapad Sadak movement. Human Rights Watch too has sternly criticised article 57, clearly elucidating how the law was formulated to aid in persecuting anyone who would dare speak out against the actions of the Prime Minister or the ruling party. The entire world knows by now that the case filed against photo-journalist Shahidul Alam was based on article 57, resulting in his arrest and ten day remand during which time he has been severely tortured. His only offence was that he gave an interview to Al-Jazeera regarding his experience of photographing the Nirapad Sadak student protests where he spoke in favour of the students and made a number of critical observations against the government. He did not murder anyone, did not hack anyone with a machete or broke bones with sticks and hammers. The only thing he did was to sit in his own home and express his personal views in an interview to the media. How can viewpoints that are perceivably critical of the government be sufficient grounds for harassment? Let me assume Shahidul Alam did not speak the truth. Why has his untruths driven the government to such desperate measures to shut him up? Let the government prove that it is telling the truth. If Shahidul Alam is indeed a liar then that should not be too difficult for the government to prove. Let them prove they are the ones who are telling the truth and in the process disprove Alam’s claims! One can only imagine how much confidence the government must have lost in itself to have fallen on such hard times that they fear everything, right from school students and the demands of the common people, to the press, the photographer’s camera and dissent in general! It is a thing of terrible irony that the Bangabandhu’s daughter Sheikh Hasina is afraid of the same things that her idiotic and unsuitable opponents would have been afraid of had they been in power in her stead. People scare you only when they know you will be afraid.
A great person must necessarily possess the strength to accept criticism. You cannot expect to be a great statesman otherwise. In many civilised countries leaders resign even in the case of the most minor mistakes or errors of judgement. It is only in the third world that people employ any and every means necessary to hold on to power and as per the tenets of democracy even the most vile, bigoted, self-serving and stupid barbarian gets a shot at ruling the country. The belief that since one is good for the country no one else can ever take one’s place is deeply detrimental to the well-being of the nation. And there are enough sycophants in this part of the world to help nourish that belief and aid in its growth. But one must never forget that totalitarianism cannot be the solution to any problem. The way we oppose those who wish to use the tools of democracy to ultimately subvert its very ideals and establish a communal and fundamentalist regime, the same way we must also contradict those who wish to run a totalitarian regime in the guise of a democracy.
It’ll be catastrophic, the day the people go silent. All injustices and discriminations must be opposed. In order to heal, one must first identify the wound. Opposition to an injustice being done is the sign of a healthy society while the use of state power to quash dissent and abuse protesters is the sign of a diseased and barbaric state machinery. BNP coming to power would mean giving up the country to stupid and corrupt people like Tareq and Khaleda Zia. The Jamaat will invariably turn the country into another Afghanistan. And I am not sure if one can place too much faith on those who are plotting to come to power by ‘offing’ both Hasina and Zia. The best outcome would be if Hasina were to admit her mistakes and continue to serve the country. She will certainly win in the next election, but if religious bigotry manages to spread its roots further into the heart of the country, if stupidity is encouraged simply because it is more popular, if those who believe in free thought are assumed automatically to be enemies, if there are attempts made to silence dissent, then that victory will surely be a hollow one. Perhaps it might benefit Hasina and her party, but it will most definitely not be beneficial for the country.
One would rather have the democracy of someone unsuitable than the tyranny of someone suitable. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had made a grave error when he had decreed that there was going to be no other party than BakSAL (the Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League or the Bangladesh Worker-Peasant’s People’s League); I hope Sheikh Hasina will not repeat the same mistake. I also hope that she will not repeat the error Sheikh Mujib had made by forming the Jatiya Rakkhi Bahini (National Security Force), by allowing the supporters of the Awami League or the boys of the Chattra League (Bangladesh Student League) to continue to commit acts of terror with impunity.