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Can we speak?

  • Published at 06:00 pm March 9th, 2019
Photo: Bigstock

What does the Arundhati Roy imbroglio say about our democratic freedoms?

I’m sure, you all are familiar with the Bengali proverb: “A donkey always makes the water dirty before drinking.”

If you have ever wondered what that actually means, look no further than the Arundhati Roy affair.

Arundhati Roy, who became, much to her chagrin, a human weathervane for the right to academic freedom and freedom to debate, travelled to Bangladesh to attend an art festival. At the last minute, the organizers said they were informed that the Dhaka Metropolitan Police had revoked the permission necessary for the event to continue.

The Dhaka Metropolitan Police justified the decision on the basis of “unavoidable circumstances,” but gave no further details or reasons for its censorship. Then, later, in a nice touch, a police officer told the Daily New Age that the permission was revoked due to security reasons.

The event went on, but, according to the organizers, it required a massive gamble and a lot of help from friends to be able to obtain a new venue. The Pen International, on its website, was prompted to mock this as “comical and yet outrageous.”

Isn’t this exactly the kind of drama Bangladesh needed to retain her already tarnished human rights reputation?

Even the idea that, in a democracy, law enforcers would try to silence an acclaimed academic -- or arrest, let alone imprison, an eminent artist who does speak out -- is preposterous.

But, ironically, this is Bangladesh in 2019, where thinkers like Arundhati Roy or Shahidul Alam, instead of being celebrated, are treated as pariahs.

A pariah, because Arundhati, at her best, rubs against the grain of conventional thinking, and with it, she upholds the values of freedom -- to debate, and to protest.

As Franz Kafka imagined, she is the axe that smashes the frozen sea within.

But the Dhaka Metropolitan Police appears to endorse Bangladesh as an arctic iceberg where the sea can stay perennially frozen, prejudice perfectly preserved forever, unchallenged, unquestioned, uninformed, and unformed.

How is it acceptable that they are trying to bar us from pursuing knowledge?

The constitution of Bangladesh qualifies free expression highly, but, in the meantime, we also have laws under which ideas can certainly be punished in the name of decency, morality, and public order.

Unfortunately, the highest court in the country cannot do much about such laws even when there is undeniable evidence of human rights abuses, seemingly because of the “reasonable restriction” clause within our constitution.

Democracy, as Slavoj Zizek puts it, is not just about a few pages of written laws. It is about thousands of pages of unwritten principles and practices. The founders of our constitution included “reasonable” to the clause for “a reason” -- that is to make sure the rights of the citizens are not countermanded.

It was given to the government in good faith and cannot be used for abusive purposes.

Now, let’s briefly examine a few other examples of those “reasonable restrictions.”

Currently, despite being a parliamentary democracy, Bangladesh is ranked a miserable 146th out of 179 countries in the Reporters Sans Frontières’s Press Freedom Index -- falling twenty-eight places behind a country like Afghanistan.

In just a few weeks, we have seen police harassing young Bangladeshi YouTuber Salman Muktadir for his music video, then actress Sanai for posting a photo of herself on Facebook wearing an outfit which was deemed “obscene” by the authorities.

Not to mention, the warnings issued to writers and publishers that controversial ideas in written words are punishable crimes.

If you are a reasonable citizen, you would agree with me that policing knowledge and free expression is unacceptable in a country that claims to be a democracy. 

You would agree that Bangladesh is in the throes of an emergency cultural revolution as harassment and imprisonment of writers, academics, artists, and journalists of all kinds have become a regular phenomenon -- just for the ideas they forge or the art they create.

Moreover, you would agree that this is high time for us to ask for reasons when the government uses the “reasonable restriction” clause to decide what views can be expressed, and, more importantly, what views that Bangladeshis are allowed to hear.

Because freedom to think, to exchange, and to obtain ideas is at the heart of the democratic system that we fought for.

If the former is weak, the latter ceases to exist.

Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy is a blogger.

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