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December 19, 2003

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On the Question of Civility

Aly Zaker

Recently I was in Kolkata for a couple of days. One morning when we were having our breakfast in the restaurant of the hotel, a young man approached our table and introduced himself. He was, like us, from Bangladesh. As it usually happens when two Bangladeshis meet on a foreign land, there was no dearth of subjects for discussion. It varied from our economy, culture, literature to the all pervasive topic of law and order.

He was very sharp and focussed and, as is usual with intelligent young people, full of questions. None of his questions, was irrelevant to the issues that affect our lives directly or indirectly these days. At one point the young man asked why was there such dearth of civility in our society even over thirty years of our becoming independent? While posing this question he brought forth the state of Kolkata as an example. He thought that Kolkata was far more civil than our own Dhaka. I thought that his question, which sounded like dejection, evidently had to do with some specific experience of his. Because there could be a plethora of parameters on which two cities could be compared. One has to flag a number of issues to be able to compare. Things like history, values, culture, politics, education and enlightenment, all these could individually or collectively be valid for evaluation.

I told the young man not to despair. We have been free only for three decades. Therefore we would, with the passage of time, go places. I also drew his attention to the fact that Kolkata, despite its share of being educated and enlightened for ages, culturally vibrant or practising democracy since the departure of the British Raj had its down side as well. We know about the unruly period of the Naxal uprising in the early seventies, the aggressive trade unionism, the general apathy to work and tardiness of the Kolkatans which had driven the established and the prospective investors to withdraw or shift focus from this city to elsewhere in India. The people of the remaining Indian cities believed that Kolkatans could only talk and not deliver. The young man said, “I agree with all these but what about our being a little more civil in our approach to various facets of life? That is not a tall order?” I asked him to specify. And he sighted an example. He talked about the observance of the New Year's Eve. I thought he could have flagged so many other more basic issues like the security of women, the empowerment of the not so affluent middle class and so on. But since he was specific I had to respond. I asked him what his complaint was. As I had expected he mentioned the insecurity of the people attending parties on New Year's eve. How a section of our youth lets loose a reign of terror on the streets leading up to the affluent residential areas of Dhaka. I could not agree more with him that this was despicable and was really not civil. But I could not readily give him an adequate prescription for the remedy of this transgression.

We know that this has been happening over the past few years in Dhaka. Though on the eve of 2003 the government had taken strict measures to see that nothing untoward happens. But this cannot be a permanent solution. The people partying feel intimidated by the presence of the law enforcing agents in such huge numbers. So the ideal situation should have been to let people be. They should neither feel unsafe nor intimidated in being involved in a pure and simple celebration of an event that happens globally. So, what could be an ideal solution?

Here I would turn to the question of “civility” that was the concern of the young man. There are various facets of civility as there are various contexts against which the extent of it could be judged. If we focus on the context of celebration of the New Year's Eve in Bangladesh and the reactions it generated amongst a certain section of the youth, we have to take a careful look at what might have instigated it. Has it to do with the youth of Dhaka only? Is it that these young men are wayward and in any case are out there to create disturbances? The answer on both these counts, I dare say, would be in the negative. In 1995, on the famous Park Street of the civilised city of Kolkata, young people went on a rampage. I know about this because I was in that city then. I do not know about the subsequent years, but I do not think the situation could have improved phenomenally unless the authorities would really come down with heavy hands. But as I said earlier application of force could not be an answer to the problem unless we try to analyse it objectively and with a degree of sensitivity.

Ideally, in any society, if opportunities to entertainment are provided they should be equal to all. If it is more equal for “some” than the others then it'd better be done very privately. It is truer now than before, as the societies we live in have open skies and a vast majority of our youth are exposed to them. They know how things are in the developed world and how everybody has an opportunity to have a share of it. That we will allow them to be allured, organise nights to entertain ourselves and refuse them an entry to these because they can't afford it is too ambitious a call. It would really be civil if we were not ostentatious in our celebrations, whatever the occasion--the daughter's wedding, son's birthday or New Year's Eve. We could do with a little modesty, a little more discretion. In a poverty stricken country like ours, the call is for those who can afford to celebrate.


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