Struggle for liberty in a season of fear
By Nurul Kabir, NewAge
None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
– Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe
While political liberty remains the driving force for a people organized as a state, the government of the state in a democratic dispensation is expected to ensure ‘rule of law’ so that the citizens can exercise that liberty, without any fear, to achieve their economic and cultural emancipation.
However, Bangladesh, some 150 million Bangladeshis in other words, is in the grip of a pervasive fear these days, thanks to the Damocles’ sword called Emergency Powers Rule hovering over its heads — the powers that brutally deny the citizens their inalienable right to the freedom of speech, bans the right to dissent and takes away the right to assemble to register protests against injustice even when their livelihood is destroyed systematically, their houses demolished within no time, their jobs taken away without paying for the labour already used by the state while their fresh employment opportunities remaining absolutely uncertain. The Rule also stands in the way of the citizens when accused of a crime by the state and when trying to seek bail from the court — a proposition absolutely inconsistent with the concept of the ‘rule of law’ that presupposes an accused ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
There is, however, no ‘official ban’ on media freedom yet; but the culture of fear unleashed by the quasi-military government of Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed has generated a considerable amount of self-censorship among media practitioners. Moreover, the intimidating phone calls from, and forced-upon chilling meetings with, certain intelligence agencies make it quite difficult for the media, both the print and the electronic, to varying degrees though, to discharge their prime professional responsibility to provide readers/viewers with public information influencing the national life of the people. Even if not intimidated, the media cannot exercise all its freedom, say the freedom to disseminate the dissenting views of the citizens, when a citizen cannot express dissenting views or protest against the views of the establishment without risking punishment in a state of emergency that the nation is now suffering under. Thereby, media freedom cannot be seen or judged in isolation from the democratic freedom of expression of the people in general. It would, therefore, be an act of naivety on the part of members of the media to bask in the complacence that they are free when others are not.
However, we are told that all these legal and extra-legal restrictions have been put into force for the sake of enhancing the democratic rights of the citizens in a sound political order to be created on democratic principles! Enhancing citizens’ rights by keeping their basic democratic rights in abeyance, and that too for an uncertain period? We humbly differ with the proposition, and assert with conviction that no liberty — social, economic or cultural — can be achieved, let alone enhanced or expanded, without fully realising the political liberties of the people.
Political liberty of the citizens in a democratic republic includes the unrestrained freedom to choose, from among democratic political forces, their representatives to govern the affairs of the state on a regular interval; effective participation in the policy making process of the state through their elected representatives; adequate legal space for exercising their right to dissent in case the governors/representatives fail to live up to the democratic aspirations of the people, etc. As ‘rule of law’ promises ‘equality of citizens’ irrespective of their gender, faith or racial identity, a democratic state is expected to ensure genuinely equal opportunities for all its citizens, particularly in terms of their equal access to national resources, so that they can work with ease towards achieving economic freedom to keep away from hunger, malnutrition, illiteracy, underdevelopment etc on the one hand, and cultural emancipation on the other to realise the immense creative potential of human beings by way of liberally celebrating the diversity of human thoughts and ideas.
The citizens of Bangladesh have never been allowed unrestrained political liberty that would substantially enable the vast majority of the people to put in peaceful collective efforts to achieve the level of economic and cultural emancipation in question — thanks to an inherently undemocratic elite, organised as an oligarchy, that has been ruling the country for three decades now, either by elections plagued with the influence of money and muscle or by using the military/quasi-military might of the state. Between one military/quasi-military rule and the other, the democratically oriented sections of the people have resorted to demanding, sometimes politically, sometimes intellectually, democratisation of the political parties, organisational and financial accountability of the political leadership to the people in general and party workers in particular, freeing elections from the influence of money and muscle, devolution of power by introducing elected bodies at different tiers of the administration and ensuring people’s participation in the policy planning process of the local governments, democratic accountability of the bureaucracy to the elected representatives of the people, independence of judiciary, separation of religion from politics, an end to patriarchal repression of female citizens, etc, without materialisation of which the slogan for creating a democratic political order is bound to remain an empty rhetoric. But the oligarchic elite in question have always deliberately blocked, either for their partisan gains or crude vested interests of their own, the ways and means of democratisation of the social, political, electoral, judicial, financial and other institutions that make possible democratic governance with the citizens enjoying the unbridled political rights required to achieve economic and cultural liberty. The absence of democratic freedoms in the society, therefore, generates dissatisfactions, grievances and anger among the people at large that, in turn, make it difficult for the elite to govern peacefully, while in the absence of the generally accepted rules of the game the feuding sections of the oligarchic elite periodically fail to peacefully manage the affairs of the state.