Vol. 5 Num 607 Sun. February 12, 2006  

From Kansat to Paltan

These days, it seems, one must think twice before labelling the society we live in as a "democracy."

It is true, that we have an elected government very much in place, and by God's grace, we are yet to suffer under any police regime in its totality, however, recent developments in different corners of the country are setting off unwelcome alarms.

To our misfortune, we are witnessing brutal suppression of public protest and intolerant handling of opposition agitation becoming the practice.

To start with, let me count the dead bodies in Kansat.

What exactly made the Kansat police open fire on a group of villagers (with no certain partisan affiliation), killing nine people and injuring scores, remains the burning question.

How "unruly" can a "mob" of farmers -- registering their genuine grievances against an unjust and corrupt system of electricity distribution -- get, that the police (100 percent sponsored by public tax-money) have no option but to resort to bullets? May I ask, do our police protect citizens, or do the citizens need protection from the police?

When more than a thousand irrigation pumps become useless metal-scraps, thanks to wildcat load-shedding, when lush paddy fields go barren acre after acre, and when those very farmers in charge of feeding a nation of 140 million (all the police officers taking part in the shooting frenzy included) start agitating for an uninterrupted supply of electricity, laying siege to Palli Bidyut sub-stations, then this kind of callous repression is unwarranted, at the very minimum, if not the utmost betrayal of the promise of "right to peaceful protest" enshrined in our constitution.

And this story does not end here. Irony builds up while the state machinery chooses to tackle the farmers (without ever even giving them a fair hearing) by unleashing its forces of terror and our mainstream opposition political parties (even those with red kurtas) take happy naps before gearing up for their "long march" to Dhaka.

I have been searching through the newspapers for one serious reference from any of the top opposition leaders regarding the Kansat drama for the past few days. Need I mention that I have failed?

Now the question targeted for the opposition remains, whether the Kansat killing is any less important than what is going wrong with the voter list? If I may note, our politics is now so very alienated from the grass-roots, that according to a Prothom Alo report, BNP and AL leaders in Kansat have confessed that they knew about the electricity problem from the beginning but never felt the urgency to treat the issue with any sort of attention. Maybe, ruling party activists were too busy plotting obstruction to opposition party long march while the opposition was busy planning its route to Dhaka and forming an "electoral alliance."

And then the opposition party marched (in four-wheelers) towards Dhaka, leaving behind the farmers of Chapainawabganj, without electricity and without any platform of protest.

Now, the opposition long march towards Dhaka that ended in a rally at Paltan Maidan was never expected to unseat the government. In my humble opinion, it was more of a political soap than any sort of revolution. However, our omnipresent and omnipotent sarkar apparently thought otherwise and decided to come down heavily on the public once more.

This time more than 8,000 people came under blanket arrests in Dhaka city on the eve of the opposition rally. Police and JCD activists (note the camaraderie) obstructed the long march at different entry-points of Dhaka in all possible manner, from barbed-wire fences to armed assault. From the government's side, it was a mindless (but usual by now) show of intolerance towards opposing views and agitations. Such a smart decision it was -- to impede the opposition's "planned as peaceful" program -- that now as its aftermath, we are all set to suffer yet another (a political campaign more violent than a "long march") hartal on February 15.

As far as my analysis of the current trend goes, Dhaka is now sending out a very disturbing signal to the periphery by blocking peaceful avenues of public protests. If mainstream political parties are not allowed the minimum platform for registering their (however alienated they may be) grievances, if public right to peaceful protest is ruthlessly suppressed, if all of us are handed over duct-tape to seal our lips, we should think about what undemocratic and unconstitutional forces would ultimately come to benefit from this unhealthy state of affairs.

In a democracy (I hope we still are one), by definition, opposing views and public protests must be treated with the highest level of tolerance and patience. Unfortunately, as we can see from our recent experiences, that is not the case. And if that is not the case, we are now witnessing yet another "long march" undertaken by the government -- from democracy towards despotism.

And on this, I would like to recall the words of Henry David Thoreau. If the king is uncivil than the subjects will one day rise up in "civil disobedience."

Tasneem Khalil is editorial assistant of The Daily Star.