In the absence of democracy

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Haider Akbar Khan Rono : Khadija lies in hospital struggling for life. Local Chhatra League leader Badrul Alam attacked her with a sharp weapon on the premises of Sylhet Government Women’s College where she studies. Someone managed to capture the incident from a distance on a cell phone camera, but no one came forward to save her. The video of her being assaulted with a cleaver is gruesome. It makes us ponder about our society, to what level it has descended.

We are pained. The prime minister is pained too. She said, “No one came forward to save the girl. Have human values been lost?” We echo these sentiments. The incident was filmed on cell phone from a distance, but no one to come forward to protect her.

The prime minister’s reproachful words were published on the front page of Prothom Alo on 7 October. On the same day the newspaper published an op-ed by writer Anisul Hoque. He too raised the question as to whether we should take pictures or come forward to the rescue. He had a reply too, “Humanity above all.” If the endangered one can be saved, that must come first, not the pictures.

We perhaps are not completely bereft of humanity. Anisul Hoque wrote, “The people of Bangladesh still come forward in aid of each other.” He even gave a recent example that illustrated this. Then why did no one come to the aid of Khadija?

Firstly, the assailant was extremely powerful. He was a Chhatra League leader. Secondly, he was armed. There are very few people who would risk their own lives to save the girl.

I think we haven’t lost our humanity completely. During the Rana Plaza tragedy, we saw how the people helped one another. Human values are a part and parcel of Bengali heritage. There is a sense of bonding. At the same time, it is also true that from time to time we are afflicted with communal frenzy. This is not our normal character. In every such incident, it is certain vested quarters that mislead the public, albeit temporarily.

Whether the normal and natural characteristics of the Bengali society will flourish further or degenerate, depends to a large extent on certain external factors. When political consciousness is at a height as it was during the liberation war of 1971, then the sense of humanity is heightened too. But when the political environment is polluted, this spreads like a malodorous germ that eats away at society from within.

Take for example certain incidents of child abuse that occurred last year. The sheer brutality and perversion of the incidents in no way reflects our normal mindset. But why did these acts take place? The reason is political, though politics was not involved in any of these instances of child torture. It is the contaminated political culture and lack of democracy that prompts such perverted people to undertake such despicable deeds. In August last year the human rights commission chairman at the time Mizanur Rahman rightly pointed out that violence against children was a result of weakness in the rule of law.

If the circumstances are such that one can get away with crime, and proximity to power lends impunity, then this perception will spread. Even those away from power will be infected. After all, there has been no justice in the Tonu murder case, or the Tawki murder. And the rising muscle men of Chhatra and Jubo League can easily presume that no one will touch them.

There have been killings and injuries during Chhatra League’s internal clashes. Just as the Khadija incident was condemned by the prime minister, surely the violence of Chhatra League and Jubo League are unwarranted too. But things have spun out of control.

The lack of democracy in politics has an impact on other sectors too. This instigates young muscle men of the ruling party to grab property, contracts and even women. Such propensities are evident in all countries of the world.

Though Khadija’s assailant was a local Chhatra League leader, it was not a political incident. However, the assailant may well feel that he is above the law because of his position in the party. Anyone else may have feared retribution for his misdeed.

The prime minister expressed her anger as well as her surprise that no one came forward to help the girl. How could they? They knew this man wielding the cleaver was one of the ruling class. No one came forward immediately, but later the people chased him. Now in Sylhet and all over the rest of the country, people are loud and vocal in their demand for justice.

People tolerate much injustice from members of parliament or local leaders of the ruling party due to the lack of a democratic environment. That is why a lawmaker of Gaibandha can continue to flex his muscles in the area despite having shot a 12-year-old boy in the leg. These incidents are no secret. These have caused a sense of alarm. At the slightest chance, the people unite in protest. The people who are fearful, can also courageously rise in anger. It all depends on the surrounding socio-political circumstances.

There is no effective opposition in the country at the moment leading to an authoritarian rule. The main political rival BNP is fragile and clueless. The people cannot place their confidence in the party. It’s affiliation with Jamaat has sidelined it further.

It is undeniable that BNP leaders have been repressed and oppressed. At the same time, the BNP has lost its clout to stand up against such injustice. They call for democracy but neither the people on the streets, nor any political party has responded.

The general public too cannot view BNP as a democratic party. They perceive it more as a club. It calls for democracy and decries extrajudicial killings, but never had any self criticism or regret for its Operation Cleanheart which was used to annihilate suspected criminals. The ruling parties of our country have no culture of self-recrimination.

Unfortunately, there is no other tangible party in the country outside of the Awami League and the BNP. It is essential that there be a democratic party in the opposition for the sake of social balance and a healthy social environment. The moral degradation we see before us today would not have been possible in the presence of a party committed to democracy and public interests. There is pressing need for the presence of left democratic forces.

Haider Akbar Khan Rono: Political analyst and presidium member of Communist Party of Bangladesh 

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