As of now, many cities and townships are witnessing unprecedented violent incidents caused by a particular political party and its student wing activists, many of whom are suspected to be maintaining link with banned extremist outfits. Planned and deliberate attacks on police testify to diabolic designs and definitely do not augur well for a democratic polity. It is thus no wonder that the home minister has brushed aside suggestions for holding discussions with the protesters and is determined to confront and subdue them before talks can start.
While there could justifiably be different strategy and tactics to tackle public order situations, the moot question may perhaps relate to aspects of priority and approach. Coming to specifics, one may ask if coercive actions supported by political directions should be the policy or the reverse, that is, political moves supported by the might of the establishment.
Thoughts on the above would perhaps convince us that there cannot be an across the board guarantee of human rights to all, irrespective of the means they in turn use to achieve their ends or whether the extremists respect the human rights of others. The issue is whether we will countenance a situation where all the human rights are reserved for the so-called democratic protesters, while governments dealing with disorderly situations are arraigned day and right on grounds of violation of human rights -- real or imaginary.
Does the establishment lack a tough instrument to combat disruptive activities legally and is there a belief that there is a problem because the trouble makers have votaries in human rights groups?
While dealing with disorder a considered view is that there should be emphasis on the removal of the aspect of motive from any act of disorderly activity. In other words, the possibility of describing some acts as political disorder rather than simple disorder has to be snatched. We may have to dispel the notion that some perpetrators of violence are well-meaning political activists. The question to be answered is simply this: can any motive justify an act of violence?
It needs to be noted that whether in fighting or controlling or even containing the so-called religious extremism, the first step is to understand and appreciate the very prevalence of such elements in a given society and its pernicious effects on the way of life of the citizens. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, we have been perilously late in awakening to the realities on ground. This is not to discredit anybody or apportion blame to any particular political party because the growth and muscle flexing of the obscurantist elements has not been limited to the tenure of one regime. Cumulative inaction of the regulatory authority resulting from a lack of appreciation by policy-makers about the mindset and modus-operandi of the extremists has brought us to the present state of affairs.
We need to be clear and definite about the threat perception. This is crucial because one cannot possibly treat a disease by denying its very existence. So from vague generalities if one has to venture into meaningful specifics, one cannot but make a pointed reference to our constitution. This is obvious because our constitution is still the way of life the citizens of Bangladesh have chosen for them and the constitution remains the solemn expression of the will of the people and the supreme law of the Republic. Article 11 of the said constitution says: "The Republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of the human person shall be guaranteed."
However, as against the above position, one of the extremist outfit's bulletin of August 22, 2005 says that "in a Muslim land there can be no other law except the law of Allah ... The constitution is composed by some willful sinner ... The ruler of our country is an opponent of Allah because the procedure of selection of all organs of the government is made by a completely non-Islamic system ..." The bulletin was spread throughout Bangladesh during the countrywide bombing of August 17 last.
Under the circumstances, the constitutional position as against the programme of the extremists leaves no room for any ambiguity. While at the macro-level it may be a matter of political direction to sort out disagreements through dialogue and persuasion, the field-level operatives, both in uniform and plainclothes must have clear directives and plan of action for preventing violent subversive actions.
As part of strategy, the enforcement apparatus should succeed in separating an act of violence from its so-called politico-social context and thus criminalise a certain mode of political expression. In Bangladesh's context this line of action would be very appropriate because there is a greater need to reject the religious extremists' right to legitimise violence as part of a larger social movement.
The so-called jihadists must not be bracketed with political dissenters, although such differentiation becomes difficult from an enforcement point of view. Laws to be made for dealing with religious extremists should be such as to distinguish them from constitutionally oriented political elements.
Under the circumstances as of training now, there must not be any hesitation in the actions against the frontal attack on our constitution. There must not be any ambivalence in relentlessly pursuing the bigoted mischief-makers. Religious institutions or places of prayer should not be allowed to be used as sanctuaries. In order to do that quite a number of such entities should be subjected to well-planned surveillance.
Voluntary or charitable work or even religious teachings which are suspected to be used as cover by some organisations should be shadowed so that bonafide welfare work can be separated from malafide subversive ventures.
Foreign donations, whether by individuals or organizations, must pass through government scrutiny. This must be made mandatory. Along with this there must be a complete account of all educational institutions and the areas covered in the instruction should be known to competent authority.
Democracy has to allow the interaction of different shades of opinion or divergent views to ensure the vibrancy of a pluralist society. However, that does not mean that there will be freedom to convert the entire country into a theocratic dispensation. There is a challenge to our way of life. This must be realised by the mainstream political parties who are pledge-bound to uphold, protect and preserve our constitution. Therefore, the visible enemy must be caught by the forelock and be dealt with under the law. A sovereign Republic born out of a historic struggle entailing epic human sacrifices demand that. We must not fail.
The writer is a columnist for The Daily Star.