My right to differ
March 26, 2006
by Maneeza Hossain
Bangladesh is a country born out of dissent. Against the tyranny of an outside power that reduced us to second-class citizens, we Bangladeshis asserted our right to difference, prosperity, and progress. We rose from the ashes as a nation deliberately burned by a vindictive coloniser to create a commonwealth that brought together the wretched of our region restoring to them dignity and decency in their means of survival. Ours has not been a full-fledged success story, yet. However, Bangladesh has come a long way, eliminating hunger, leading the world in conceiving of native ways to deal with the threat of floods, and providing a unique example of an extremely high population density peaceful environment.
These values, for generations the soul of our nation, seems to have been forgotten of late. The previous governments, while paying lip service to democratic values, ignored the central duty of recognizing dissent. Voices of dissent were either silenced by the state, or when attacked and abused by non-state actors, were faced with a resounding state silence. Women activists who challenged the status quo have been murdered. Artists and writers who expressed their rejection of facets of the political and /or social order have had to flee. Political demonstrations, a healthy expression of our vibrant democracy, were banned and forcibly repressed.
Dissent is the barometer of a healthy democracy, if ignored it can degenerate into rebellion, and if addressed properly it can often be gained back as loyal opposition. If we failed as a nation to accommodate dissent in the past, we are surely paying the price for our failure today. In some respects, our current situation is even more dramatic than in the past. While under our elected governments of yesterday our right to dissent was not respected de facto, today this right is being denied de jure. Previously, everyone understood that the powers that were, were beyond their right in denying us our rights. Unfortunately today, the powers that be, on the basis of the Special Powers Act, can constitutionally proclaim that this denial is indeed their prerogative.
The inviolability of dissent is not only at the core of our values as a society, but is also the textbook definition of a democracy. By this standard we have not fared well. However, correcting the mistakes committed by the previous governments, in their mismanagement of our administration and their waste of our resources and their neglect of our human potential, all actions clearly at the top of the agenda of the current government, cannot be accomplished if their primordial rule democracy is not attended to. Having lived so long with our right to dissent trampled upon, it may seem almost acceptable to some to succumb to the suspension of this right by Emergency Laws. However, we have to be realistic and recognize that the current endeavor that our interim government has elected to undertake will not be completed in a matter of days or weeks. Bangladesh will suffocate if her right to express dissent is suspended for so long.
It is incumbent on us to assert the twin principles of everyone's right to dissent and everyone's responsibility to solemnly abstain from any violent action. In totalitarian and authoritarian societies, dissent is treated as a disease to be cured, whether by gentle methods or harsh measures. In Bangladesh, a society that has won its independence while proclaiming the right of difference, dissent has to be viewed as a healthy expression of the maturity and social responsibility that our freedom fighters died defending. If a generation of politicians seems to have forgotten these precious lessons, the young Bangladeshis of today have to demand that no government, elected or unelected, under any circumstance, is to curtail the right to dissent.
This publication originally appeared in the Daily Star on March 26, 2007.
Maneeza Hossain is a Senior Fellow with Hudson Institute.