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OP-ED: Do not ask for whom the bell tolls

  • Published at 10:44 pm March 11th, 2021
GAVEL and hammer
Representational Photo Bigstock

Has Bangladesh deviated from the path of justice?

I am reminded of John Donne’s poem with an eponymous title in scripting this article that I found disturbingly appropriate in our current political situation, the last four lines of which I quote below.   

ach man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

These are disturbing times for us where we find a strange convergence of great economic success and dire political distress in the country. On the one hand we are at the threshold of graduation from least developed country to a developing country, and being praised by the international community. On the other hand, we are being deplored by the same community for abuse of human rights, and draconian laws that impinge upon free speech and political opposition. 

On the economic front, we have shown miraculous achievement in just two decades, surpassing our giant neighbour India, not to speak of our former second half, Pakistan. Our national income has trebled in these decades, our exports have quadrupled, and our foreign exchange reserves have kept on growing even in these dire pandemic days, surprising experts. These are indeed subjects of national pride, and our political leadership deservedly tried to showcase this before the world with pride. The Wall Street Journal has called Bangladesh South Asia’s economic bull comparing Bangladesh’s economic growth with that of South Korea, China, and Vietnam in past years. 

All of the above is good. Good for our economic future, and for potential investors. But does it condone the other abject features of our state of affairs? Does it gloss over the other negative images that the country has built over the last one decade of gross abuse of human rights, burgeoning corruption, and suppression of freedom of expression and civil rights? Does it sidestep the fraudulent conduct of our electoral process? No, they don’t. 

Side by side with plaudits from the international community for our economic miracle (which we still have ways to go), we have the same international community chastising us for our failure to ensure a transparent electoral process. It has held us to account for the minimum assurance of protection of people from unlawful detention, access to legal redress for violation of rights, and right to freedom of expression.  

The Human Rights Watch Report of 2020 leveled a litany of allegations against Bangladesh that included unlawful detention of government critics, forced disappearances of individuals, extra-judicial killings, and torture by law enforcement agencies of incarcerated individuals. 

A special highlight of the above annual report, and a subject of criticism was the Digital Security Act that was enacted in 2018 replacing the earlier Information and Communication Technology Security Act despite protests from Bangladesh Editors’ Council that the new act would effectively prevent investigative journalism. 

This act has enabled the government to increase internet censorship, shut down websites at its discretion, and allow law enforcement agencies to prosecute any individual who is suspected to foment criticism of the government, a political party, or political leader. 

The irony is that this act is in operation in a country that has freedom of speech and respect for human rights and rule of law ingrained in its constitution. The founding fathers of the country had fought their entire lives and even laid down their lives in defense of this freedom. And now the country which is wedded to upholding human and civil rights in international fora, has paradoxically put in place and is ardently following a draconian law that cuts through its constitution and founding principles.  

The law flies in the face of everything that the country’s leaders had believed in when they fought for the liberation of the country and emancipated it from the stranglehold of the powers of that time that stifled free speech and civil rights.

Today, when we are on the brink of celebrating our 50th anniversary of liberation and when we are witnessing an upsurge of economic growth, we are also grappling with preserving fundamentals of democracy which are freedom of speech, justice for all, and democratic rights of criticism. Today, when we are praised by all for our “miraculous” economic growth in the international community, we are also being chastised by the same community for our failure to uphold human rights and democratic rights. 

It is a matter of shame that we need to be reminded by ambassadors of countries that are our development partners of our egregious conduct in suppressing freedom of expression, failure to stop extra-judicial killings, absence of due legal process for detainees, and wanton use of an anti-democratic law to subdue criticism of the government. This kind of behaviour does not behoove a country that has a rich history of struggle for freedom of expression, human rights, and rule of law. 

Our judiciary is supposed to uphold the constitution and its principles that serve the interest of people, not individuals or any political groups. Our institutions, including the law enforcement agencies and bureaucracy, are sworn to serve the constitution and the people, not individuals. Yet apparently, we find a great dichotomy between what is laid down in the constitution and what we see in practice. 

If everyone, including our political leaders had really believed in the fundamental principles of our constitution we would not have seen wanton incarceration of people, whether journalists or critics of the government, for expressing their views. We would have seen greater respect for the rule of law, human rights, and accommodation of criticism. 

John Donne’s poem is not inappropriate to cite in this occasion, albeit he never intended his poem to address political situations. But I could paraphrase these lines in a different manner to say: Do not ask for whom justice cries, it cries for us all. 

Today, we are all in search of justice -- justice that does not serve an individual or a group, but justice that serves the entire country and its people. This justice is not for the books, this justice has to be seen. 

From the events in the country of the past decade and more importantly in last few years, we are afraid that we have deviated a long way from achieving justice for the country. We are in a self-serving mode, a survival mode, which can save people for a short period of time. Again, paraphrasing John Donne, I can say, each case of injustice diminishes the country as each injustice is a slur on its image and future. We may do very well economically, but morally we cannot do well if we cannot stop the rot of injustice now.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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