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A tear for a procession

  • Published at 12:00 am August 3rd, 2016
A tear for a procession

At last, we have seen a procession on Dhaka streets.

With assassins lurking in many disguises, with oppositions crushed, with heavy-handed treatments meted out to protesters, there have not been processions and slogans in Dhaka for a while.

Instead, opportunism and intellectual subservience have possessed us, in our civil living.

Yet, merely a few decades ago, a kid growing up in my generation would have seen so many processions and agitations, often lively and spontaneous, and against an army dictator.

Those protests received hard resistance from the authorities, and it was almost a given that opposition to a government decision would be expressed in processions and marches, and later in hartals, in those days -- the 80s -- the golden era of agitations in post-independent Bangladesh.

But this medium of appealing to the general public has lost its way amid the advent of “democracy,” development, technology, social media, and above all, disempowerment and apathy.

Tales of political parties hiring picketers to enforce their activities have become common in the post-democracy decades. As the general public, the “naive, idealist” youth, students, recedes in numbers, as the country forges towards development to become a middle-income nation, its opportunistic middle class, as usual, knows which side its bread is buttered.

If the educated, the enlightened, the wise had been the lighthouses for energetic youth in the past, at present, they themselves are entangled in mires of a shadowy maze. A trance of frantic skullduggery has gripped them.

It would just not be possible for them to get out of the immediate comforts of recognition, awards, and acknowledgement, let alone taking “a path less travelled” to challenge the authorities, to challenge the status quo, to lead us with their well-endowed intellect towards the brightness, to be the beacon of our hope -- to stimulate us, to shake us out of our current inertia.

No, that is not possible. We have ushered in a demon upon us. While as recently as 2012, many could take to the streets, systematic obstructions -- betrayal, detention, harassment, torture, disappearance, and persecution -- have yielded finally the result the authorities were looking for: A complete acquiescence and obedience.

Subjugation has seized us. Free expression, even amongst friends, let alone in print, on TV, radio, or on social media, has disappeared. We see very few, if any, insightful commentary.

And physical protests have become relics from a distant past. Protests are occasionally tolerated when it suits the administration, or, for example, when desperate labourers take to the streets spontaneously to demand their wages.

Against this backdrop, when a few unselfish, dedicated men and women gathered for an apolitical campaign, called on by the National Committee to Protect Oil Gas Mineral Resources Port and Power, to save the environment and a national heritage, they meet an iron fist that is only seen in dictatorships; not in democracies -- nominal or real. What would have happened if the few gathered to raise their objections to the development of a coal-based power plant close to a UNESCO declared heritage mangrove forest were allowed to proceed to the PM’s Office?

The protesters were peaceful, orderly, and were merely expressing their democratic right to raise their concerns to their leader.

In fact, in democratic nations, PMs have the responsibility to engage with dissenting voices -- to counter opposing views, to explain situations, to elaborate on pros and cons, and to sell economic cases for the projects that they have envisaged for their nations.

Yet, as with many others across the world, our rulers often prefer to resort to suppressing voices than engaging in dialogue, debate, and discussion.

They do not cede any ground to dissenting groups, as though it conveys weakness and their inability to govern, displays their ineptitudes for quashing uprisings. They fear for their uncertain future, as if they are on borrowed time.

While as recent as 2012 many could take to the streets, systematic obstructions -- betrayal, detention, harassment, torture, disappearance, and persecution -- have yielded finally the result the authorities were looking for: A complete acquiescence and obedience

Few days earlier, a play scripted to exhibit the grave dangers facing the Sundarbans was not allowed to be staged, on an absurd premise that a play should not be preceded by a speech, calling for a cause.

Anu Muhammad, a professor of economics from Jahangirnagar University, who is leading this almost impossible, unwinnable, solo campaign -- to generate public awareness and support against building the coal-based power plant in the Sundarbans --  was going to say a few words before the play.

This, again, shows the fear of the administration. That, even if they allow minor, apparently dormant, and meagre gestures against their destructive decisions, a sea of resistance will be reborn; unearth uncontrollable upheavals that would lead to their demise.

The situation is dire and highly discouraging for our long-term economic development. If history is any indication, powerful neighbours, regional, or global forces seldom leave lasting and positive effects on a poor country’s’ prosperity.

In addition, outsiders’ influence and interest in us has always been covertly strategic, primarily to benefit them at our expense or our resources.

We have either lacked the administrative sophistication and maturity to bargain and negotiate improved deals for us, or we have been purposefully self-deceiving as a vested part and found ways to make moolah out of national projects.    

The authority’s intentions are also not too difficult to fathom. They want to keep a tight reign on these protests, especially any protest activities in Dhaka.

If we are allowed to protest and influence public opinion, they fear, the events would snowball into something bigger and more problematic. They would rather nip it in the bud.

They are further aided by a total silence from most of the community leaders, commentators, and energy and environment specialists.

This intellectual reticence has not only helped the administration but also demoralised the spirit of the general population. However, I hope, this is not too overwhelming to our present, young generation.

Our ancestors had survived oppressors. Kings and kingdoms that toiled them, extracted the last bit of sweat from them to prosper personally at the expense of their subjects. Those rulers, too, had their acolytes.

To the youth of my generation, our present PM herself and her counterpart were the epitomes of feisty, courageous leaders who had led so many protests and processions to achieve, in their words: Freedom, democracy, and the wish of the people.

Today, people are bewildered, and scared to express their wishes.

As the Dhaka demonstration to protect the Sundarbans was dispersed using tear gas, a tear rolls off my eye to realise how far our democratic rights have fallen.

We are being held hostage by an administration fearful of political competition. An administration that is unwilling to see democratic practice take root.

Qamrul Huda is a freelance contributor.

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