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Silence is the death of ideas

  • Published at 12:03 am October 10th, 2019
Fahad Vigil
Raise a voice too loud to ignore. MEHEDI HASAN

The candle-light vigils for Abrar Fahad are a bold repudiation of silence

The law will take its own course. No one involved in the crime will be spared. Those who have killed him will face the full force of justice.

These are the assurances which have come from the functionaries of the government in light of the murder of Abrar Fahad by what can with good reason, be described as a murder squad of the Chhatra League. There used to be a time when the Chhatra League was the repository of people’s respect. 

When Monem Khan’s NSF engaged in violence on university campuses in the 1960s, public opprobrium was swift in characterizing them as goons. When the BNP’s Chhatra Dal went around committing wrong, we happily pointed to the purity of political idealism the Chhatra League epitomized as a principle. When the Islami Chhatra Shibir began to cut off the tendons in their rivals’ legs, we waited for that moment when student politics would be restored to its ideal form by BCL. 

After all, had BCL not been part of history in 1962, 1969, and 1971? Did we not derive inspiration from Tofail Ahmed, Sheikh Fazlul Haque Moni, ASM Abdur Rab, Abdul Kuddus Makhan, Shahjahan Siraj, and Nur-e-Alam Siddiqui as they battled dictatorship and led us all into a massive student movement for democracy and the rule of law?

But the past is another country. The BCL of today has mutated into what the BCL of yesterday was never to be. Its adherents, indeed its members, have just had the gruesome satisfaction of putting the life out of Abrar Fahad. And Abrar’s sin was, for these goons pretending to have faith in democracy, in demonstrating the courage of dissent. 

In his final post on social media, he did not condemn anyone; he did not do anything that could be construed as libelous; disrespect for individuals was a thought which did not occur to him. He was simply expressing his opinion. He was dissenting. And he paid for it with his life. In a country where democracy is supposed to be society’s underpinning, is dissent not permitted? 

Go back to the past. In the early 1970s, Mujahidul Islam Selim, today a respected figure in the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), publicly criticized an all-powerful Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the aftermath of the police shootings of January 1973. 

No one in BCL thought of punishing him for that act of dissent, of protest. Thousands of young people linked up with the newly formed Jatiyo Samajtantrik Dal in 1972 and later. We do not remember seeing or reading about squads of BCL activists rushing out to net them and subject them to the ignominy of physical assault. Back then, BCL was our own. Its leaders and followers spoke for all of us. They were national leaders of the future.

Today, we have an entire government embarrassed at the doings of people professing to be its own. There is no record in the past of any BCL leader travelling to his village by helicopter, for those who identified with it were humble people. They could barely afford fares for buses and for trains and for launches. So where does the affluence of today’s BCL people spring from? A hint of that can be had from the recent scandal of a few BCL leaders engaging in negotiations for a huge chunk of money from funds allocated for development activities at Jahangirnagar University. Those men have been shown the door by people wielding higher authority than they. 

But has the law taken its course? Are these young men being prosecuted?

There is a malaise abroad in the land. It will not be washed away by a mouthing of platitudes.

The sudden discovery of casinos in the country was surely not such a sudden affair. How stupid do those in political authority think we are? Samrat and GK Shamim not only enjoyed the perks and pelf which come through association with affiliates of the ruling party, but also turned themselves into elements beyond the pale of the law through their closeness with the influential and the powerful in the party and the government. 

We are informed that these men, in possession of illicit wealth and therefore being symbols of the sort of mafia culture we experience in the movies, have been revealing names in police custody. The rule of law will lead us to an unmasking of the men they have been naming under interrogation. But will the law rule? Will the investigations into casinos, money laundering, extortion, and bribery translate into a process where the law goes all the way up, to bring down those who have for years enjoyed the sycophancy and tolerated the excesses of these criminals and yet today do all they can to distance themselves from them?

BCL has had a steep fall from past glory. The Jubo League, led by men in their mid-60s or more, is now home to men whose youth passed into middle age decades ago. That is part of the malaise.

The malaise we speak of comes in another form, personified in such ugly manner by the vice chancellor of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. In the many hours, in the more than a day that went by since Abrar Fahad was murdered, he chose not to take action. He was not to be seen. 

There was not the slightest urge in him to see the corpse of his student or to be part of his funeral rites. It did not occur to him that as the chief of the institution, he had a moral duty to get in touch with Abrar’s parents, to commiserate with them in their tragedy. Who appoints such people to such high offices? On what considerations do they appoint them? On blind party loyalty? On abject forms of sycophancy?

No one committing wrong will be spared. That is the refrain which comes our way every time a criminal act is committed. Crime cannot be dealt with by clichés and expulsions from organizations. Public anger cannot be assuaged through the anodyne statement of punishment to be meted out after an inquiry has been gone through and after proof of guilt has been established. Of course, proof is necessary, but what are not necessary are reassurances issuing forth from the corridors of power. There is the law. There are the courts. Let them take over. Let them act in all the swiftness they can call forth.

In this country today, we need an open, unfettered, sober conversation on the maladies afflicting the nation. We are in grave need of public intellectuals and scholars who will reflect on conditions and point to the road, or roads, to be taken. We are in serious requirement of journalists who will have the courage to tell those wielding political power where and why things have been going wrong. We need politics to regain the high pedestal it has traditionally and historically occupied in this land.

What we do not need is silence. Silence kills. Those candle vigils by the young for Abrar Fahad, those human chains by students across the country, are a bold repudiation of silence.

Silence mars dreams. Above all, it is an assault on the 3 million of our compatriots who died so that the rest of us could live in the dignity of freedom, of democracy, and in the protective shade of the rule of law. 

Our silence will emasculate the young men and women of this country. Our silence will impair the growth of institutions that will sustain us and our children and grand-children. Silence is the death of ideas, of the right to ask questions. It leads to a shrinking of liberal space and narrows the parameters of dialogue. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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